"Is this a golf course renovation or a golf course reprieve?" I asked that question one night in June, while dining with the Weed Golf Course Design team at the Ballyhoo Grill, a Gainesville, Fla., eatery with a South Seas island motif. "It's a reprieve," said design associate Chris Monti, who had spent the past few months watching as his boss, Bobby Weed, executed his plan to stretch the University of Florida Golf Course from baseboard to baseboard. "This course can't get any longer. There's no place to go."
Ten weeks later, as workers finish grassing the redone course, Monti's assessment rings true. The new 5th green is a chip shot from the 34th Street boundary wall, on which graffiti artists responded last week to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The 9th green is 50 feet from the golf course parking lot. The 10th tee is nestled up against the cart shed on Second Avenue, and the 8th tee is so close to the wooded southeast corner that you can hear Hansel searching for Gretel. "This course could be obsolete in 15 years," says senior associate designer Scot Sherman. "People will realize it's a crisis when we put a tee on 34th Street, a tee on top of the clubhouse and a tee across Second Avenue in the Publix parking lot." Sherman smiles at the thought. "Right by the traffic light. You'll push the button for the crosswalk signal before you tee off."
The crosswalk suggestion is fitting, because many golf architects want to install a red light at the intersection of ball design and club technology. "Great courses now defenseless" warns a recent position paper issued by The American Society of Golf Course Architects. "Today, with 300-yard drives commonplace.... The strategic principles that guided the design of all the great layouts in the 1920s and '30s can no longer keep up with the state of today's game," the report says. To save courses from obsolescence, the society endorses a remedy championed for years by Tour legend and course designer Jack Nicklaus: a rollback in the distance a ball can travel under the Rules of Golf. "Inaction today is complicity in the deterioration of the game tomorrow," the position paper concludes. "We urge the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to take the necessary steps to preserve the great courses of the world."
The author of the architects' manifesto is Bobby Weed, whose sensitivity to the equipment issue has no doubt been heightened by a summer spent working on this 105-acre Florida site. "Spalding just announced a new ball that's seven yards longer than its existing ball," Weed said recently. "Last week the long-drive championship was held in Canada, and the winning drive was 417 yards! Where are we going with this?"
Understandably, equipment makers bristle at the idea of a rollback. Their mission, since the days when Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris were making featherie balls in Robertson's kitchen in St. Andrews, can be summed up in three words: longer and straighter. That presents problems for course designers, who can't introduce a Pebble Beach Golf Links every year to keep up with improvements in technology. It also troubles course operators, who must spend money on land, permits, water, trees, grass, cart paths and labor to lengthen their courses. "The manufacturers aren't held accountable for any of that," says Weed.
Strategic design is another area in which interests collide. When Weed installed a bunker on the left side of the 1st fairway at the Florida course, men's coach Buddy Alexander worried it would take the driver out of his players' hands. Weed defended his design by pointing out that it requires a downhill carry of only 270 yards to clear the bunker—a routine blow for a strapping young Gators golfer. That's today. In 2011, if the distance trend goes unchecked, long hitters may be bouncing their drives into the greenside bunkers on the 370-yard hole. "We've lengthened the course by almost 500 yards," says Scott Hampton, the Florida course's director of golf, "but 6,700 yards still isn't that long, even for a par-70."
Hampton's take on the issue is instructive because he has a foot in both camps. As a teaching pro he's proud of the nifty layout taking shape outside the window of his clubhouse office. As a golf shop operator he has to order the best clubs and balls for his customers. If you granted him a third foot, Hampton would admit that he has gained 10 to 15 yards off the tee in the past year simply by switching to one of the new urethane-coated, solid-core balls. "They'll probably have to do something about the ball," he says with a sigh. "There are a lot of fun and interesting courses, and it would be a shame if they all became obsolete."
Many of those fun and interesting courses are opening their checkbooks to keep that from happening. Architect Tom Fazio recently put cherished Augusta National on the rack, stretching that Alister Mackenzie landmark to a serpentine 7,270 yards. Rees Jones, known as the Open Doctor for his remodeling of tournament courses, toughened the I lighlands course at the Atlanta Athletic Club, site of this year's PGA Championship—only to see David Toms win with a 15-under 265, the lowest aggregate score in major championship history. From sea to shining sea the bulldozers roar as architects grudgingly add to the golf equivalent of suburban sprawl.
"Where does it end?" asks Sherman, standing at the edge of a little cypress head that workers are planting as a buffer between the 15th green and the new maintenance barn. "What if the IJSGA allowed a ball with a global positioning system chip in it that could weave around obstacles and land where you wanted?"
Before I can ask where one might buy such a ball, Sherman answers his own question: "If that happens, the game is over."