Architecture is akin to the political scale: the pendulum swings back and forth, ebbing and flowing from side to side as the trends sway. For example, during the Golden Age of golf architecture (1912-1942, or so), width and angles were a key piece to being considered a good golf course. As time evolved, the emphasis on hosting a US Open meant that skinny fairways and deep rough were the markings of a great golf course. These days, width has made a comeback.
In this instance, width is the topic of conversation, particularly after a trip to Georgian Bay Club, a Jason Straka design north of Toronto.
Georgian Bay Club is a big ballpark, and generally speaking, that makes sense given its setting. Located near the actual Georgian Bay, a large-scale body of water inlet coming from Lake Heron, a small size golf course would feel out of place against the Great Lake backdrop. Secondly, in the resort town of Collingwood, Georgian Bay serves as a secondary club for most members. They already get beat up at their clubs in the city… why do the same in cottage country? The result is an obvious choice of style and strategy: massive fairways, wrapped by large-scale bunkers and large greens define the golf course.
“Scale” is certainly the flavour of modern golf architecture, thanks to architects like Tom Doak and Bill Coore. A resurrection of strategy and playing angles has come back into style, with golf courses like Sand Hills in Nebraska and Pacific Dunes in Oregon ushering in this
old new concept on how golf should be played. Perhaps Georgian Bay falls into that category? After all, the width at Georgian Bay is not much different than Cabot Links, Sagebrush, Friar’s Head, or any other modern golf course celebrated.
Well, Georgian Bay is not quite Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes, but most golf courses (if any in Canada) are not. Perhaps it is sac-religious to compare a Jason Straka to the pinnacle of modern architecture, but alas. Even so, Georgian Bay’s width does not feel like a Pacific Dunes. Let me elaborate.
At Pacific Dunes, angles matter to the point that where you approach the hole is not the obvious route. On the par 4, 4th, golfers must dangerously flirt with the ocean on the right to be able to approach the green. From the left side (or the safe tee shot), the green is wickedly contoured to repel balls. As the No Laying Up guys call it, Tom Doak builds credit card holes: pay now, or pay later, but everyone pays eventually.
Georgian Bay does not quite have that strategic element to it, although it does have the width. The green complexes, while interesting to be fun to putt on, do not feature enough penalty for approaching from the incorrect side of the hole. In fact, the strategies occasionally present themselves in correctly, like that at the par 4, 8th. The preferred angle is actually from the outside corner, where the fairway is the widest. On this dogleg left, bunkers wrap the inside corner, as well as the inside left edge of the green complex. Granted, great architects like William Flynn use this strategy in their golf course repeatedly. However, at a Flynn (like Shinnecock Hills), those who do not accept and play to the strategy asked get punished with such a poor angle that it becomes difficult to make par, even from the fairway. At Georgian Bay, this is not the case. Instead, it feels as if the tee shot does not matter and allows the golfer to go “all out,” rather than potentially having to think about their tee ball.
This is not the first (or the last time) someone will feel this on a golf course. In fact, an hour south, TPC Toronto’s North course features the same issues. While the Heathlands and Hoot feature a variety of interest off the tee, North is void of any feeling of strategic interest until the par 5, 13th, where the golfer who plays down the right has a better angle. Why? Well, the green complex, bunkered beautifully into the hillside short left, is perfectly suited for a hole of such size. There is interest coming into the green, dictated by not only the green’s location, but the actual contours. The ideal angle from the right opens up the hole for those going for it in two, and for those who will attack the hole on their third shot.
If it feels like an attack on width, have no fear. I prefer golf courses with width, such as the Cabot courses, Sagebrush, TPC’s Hoot course, Predator Ridge, and more. In fact, the resurgence on width is a welcomed trend to the golf course. The main point is with Cabot, Sagebrush, and various other examples of wide golf courses, the green complexes are severe enough to make golfers think about shots coming into the green. The green contours have to match the width presented. Above any other architecture principal, these two have a relationship together, and they affect the total perception of the golf course’s merits.
Also, this is not a slant to TPC Toronto, Georgian Bay, or any other golf course that suffers from the “bigger is better” philosophy. On the contrary, Georgian Bay at its best is an engaging layout in a beautiful setting. TPC Toronto is also excellent, and with some of the best holes on one of Canada’s most fruitful golf properties, it holds up against the best when it hits its stride.
The point being, if we truly want to get the most of our layouts, the width has to match the aggression around the greens. It’s a causation effect to getting the most out of the land. If one thing moves, the other has to match on the opposite end.
Perhaps width is not the issue. Rather, green complexes that do not match tee-to-green throw the equilibrium off on what makes a golf course great. If places like Georgian Bay and TPC Toronto’s North course matched the scale of their greens to the scale of the fairways, perhaps Georgian Bay would jump from 74th in Canada, or TPC Toronto’s North course from 78th. Who knows how high their ceiling is? After all, the Cabot’s and Sagebrush make up 30% of Canada’s Top 10.