Is Golf a Competition Between Player and Teacher vs. Course Designer?

By Bob Duncan

Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open on a very long layout, over 7500 yards at 16 under par.

The USGA is telling golfers to play shorter tees to enjoy golf more.

Equipment manufacturers and teaching professionals are claiming the game is easier with better clubs, longer golf balls and a better swing.

And, course designers are coming up with ever more challenging – some even say diabolical – layouts.

So is the competition in golf only between the player and the course, or do the designer and teaching pro enter in as well? And who’s winning?

“Is there a battle between the designer and the player and teacher? I don’t think so,” said course designer and Scotsman David McLay Kidd. “What is frustrating is that the average player is using little if any course management – while his abilities are quite good enough to get a ball competently around a golf course.”

Kidd’s authentic Scottish brogue and background provide an endearing and credible flavor to his philosophy.

“My biggest bug bear is that the USGA is giving public announcements asking players to move up to shorter tee boxes, but then they turn back to watch Rory hit one 360 yards,” Kidd said.“They really need to deal with the golf ball in the professional game.”

There’s no question Kidd’s course layouts are popular and can be difficult, yet he prides himself on their playability.

“The 18 handicap player in the U.K. knows he’s an 18 and knows what he can do, while the 18 in the U.S. learns to ‘bomb and gouge’ with a driver and a wedge,” Kidd said. “At Tetherow and Bandon Dunes you need to put the driver and wedge away in many cases. Sometimes the play from 90 yards might be a half-swing 7-iron.”

Getting creative and thoughtful is what it’s all about for Kidd, and Tetherow in Bend, OR, and Bandon Dunes in Bandon, OR are prime examples of his work. Each layout offers openings in the front of many greens for lower trajectories to hit and run up, which means that 18 handicap player doesn’t need to change his game all that much to play.

“Coaches often teach the ‘bomb and gouge’ because that’s most often what they see on the PGA Tour,” Kidd said. “Of course my perspective could be unfair because I’m a designer. But what many courses have become is a driving range with 18 more driving ranges attached.”

“Course design is somewhat reverting. We’re revisiting designs like Carnoustie in Scotland, which is really hard for the low handicapper but still isn’t that difficult for that 18 handicapper,” said Nick Schaan, one of Kidd’s design associates. “The low handicap will generally take far more risk and pay the price. For the low handicapper to make birdies, it just isn’t easy at all.”

Kidd’s and Schaan’s perspectives are admittedly from a designer’s point of view.

“I’m hoping the non-thinking player’s mindset is rare. Being creative doesn’t mean hitting a high-drawing 3-iron or making it harder. The execution of many more creative shots really is simpler than executing a full swing,” Kidd said. “I want players to think.”

As a teacher and coach at a Kidd-designed course, his philosophy is evident to me every day. The performance players receive on the range and in swing-modeling lessons is just the beginning of their performance. Because of the slopes and grass conditions they face on the course, they cannot possibly maintain that model range performance all the way around.

The teaching professional’s job is to help them evaluate the shots they face and learn what they can and can’t do. Sometimes the answer is not to try to get the ball as close as they possibly can, but to get it in position to have an angle for the next shot.

As another associate of Kidd’s, Tom Larkin, put it, “I’m a 15 handicap. As I played Tetherow I’ve learned to take the wedge out of my hands because of the tight lies, and it’s made me a better player,” said Tom Larkin, another associate of Kidd’s.

Golf has not become harder for the average player. It’s just that expectations have well exceeded abilities, thanks to the bomb and gouge mentality. Sure, the flop shot has a huge razzle dazzle appeal. But the bump and run has the predictability and safety. If you’ve left yourself in a position in which you need to hit a flop shot, you’re in the wrong position.

At Tetherow, the 10th hole is a very short par four – 316 yards from the back tee – that’s some of the longest players can reach. But, if the pin is on the left side and you’re 40 – 60 yards out it’s a very difficult shot, though relatively easy to get on the right side of the green. That 40 – 60 yard shot is definitely something that the designer consciously thought about and designed into the hole.

Kidd-designed layouts are not the parkland-style, tree-lined courses that dominated design in the U.S. for years. Playing his courses often comes down to recognizing when you are in position to ‘go for it,’ and more importantly, when you’re not. If you have the wrong angle into a pin and go for it anyway, your risk is magnified when the ball bounces and rolls into perhaps an even more difficult position. As is traditional in Scottish golf, at Tetherow and Bandon Dunes, the player must worry about his ball just as much after it hits the ground as while it is in the air.

“Tetherow has fescue grass everywhere, including tees and greens,” Kidd said. “Fescue goes somewhat dormant under hot conditions, so the course gets much firmer and faster in July. We have a Pacific Northwest Golf Association event coming up at Tetherow. Because of that, I predict that the main pack of golfers will generally have higher scores, and the winners will be able to go pretty low.”

And as for the golf ball, Kidd’s perspective is equally unique.

“In Squash, beginners don’t start with the same ball that tournament players use. It’s much softer. Let’s make it easier – beginner golfers should start with a ball that goes a lot straighter.”

So, does learning on a Kidd course make a player a ‘links-only’ player that can’t play on parkland-style courses in the states? Not according to Kidd: “Learning on links didn’t screw up Rory’s game…”

Who’s winning? Apparently it’s the players who can competently play their ball around the golf course.

Bob Duncan is the PGA Teaching Professional at the David McLay Kidd designed Tetherow Golf Club in Bend, Oregon. He has developed a new on-course playing method called the Golfer Positioning System, or GPS, and you can learn more on his website at www.golfecoach.com. Bob has custom fit over $1.6M in golf equipment and has given over 9,000 hours of instruction and coaching. Contact Bob at golfsavvy@msn.com.