GUEST COMMENTARY
17th at Sawgrass 
Signature Holes
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
By Alan Shipnuck

By Jeff Silverman

By Jeff Silverman

 

               Interesting that the one snippet of architectural argot that virtually every golfer can toss about with assurance – "the signature hole" – has nothing to do with golf course architecture at all. But there it is – like Waldo, everywhere -- argued about with conviction over beverages in the grill room, pronounced reverently from the broadcast booth, and embraced with rapture at every station of the gamut from the lowly goat track to venues hosting major championships. The notion’s so ubiquitous it seems a golf course can’t be a real golf course without one.

               But just what is a signature hole?

Like the Supreme Court’s take on pornography, the definition’s not specific, but we all know one when we see one. "They wow you," says Tom Fazio, "even without playing them." We are drawn to their mountains, their deserts, their oceans, their lakes, their fountains, their waterfalls, their elevated tees, their azaleas in bloom, their lighthouses, their windmills, the grass monkeys planted in their bunkers, even the Statue of Liberty – or rollercoaster – in the distance on the aiming line from the tee.

Click.

Get the picture?

These are the holes that lure us, the holes that excite us, the holes on which we pull out our cameras to record our presence on them, the holes we know are something special, the hole’s we’ve decided are the best. And some are. Yet, there’s an odd golfing disconnect at the core of any conversation about them for stunning as these holes we single out may be  for their aesthetic and photogenic qualities, sometimes the beauty’s only skin deep. Sometimes, as a strategic test of golf, there’s no there there.

Just ask the architects. When they end up with a hole so anointed, it’s not because they themselves set out to create one.

               "As a design concept," dismisses Tom Doak, "it’s irrelevant."

               It’s also limiting.

               "What’s the signature hole at Pine Valley?" asks Steve Smyers. He’ll gladly prosecute the case for each.

Or, wonders Fazio, Pinehurst No. 2? "You can’t find one. Its greatness rests in its entirety," and, he adds, the specific challenges of each hole, not the drama of the course’s setting.

Nor can you find just one on Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, or Augusta, says Mike Keiser, proprietor of Bandon Dunes. "It’s like saying I have four children and this one’s my signature child," he sighs. "The idea is sort of sad."

Even self-defeating, like identifying the signature chapter of "Moby Dick," the signature track on "Abbey Road," the signature scene of "Casablanca," or the signature phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

"The implication," suggests Gil Hanse, "is that the rest isn’t meeting it."

And every architect worth his backhoe wants each of the 18 to be a keeper.

Still, acknowledges Rees Jones, "People are always asking, ‘What’s the signature hole?’ Not the most meaningful; the signature. It’s entrenched. It’s part of the golfing lingo."

With its source residing in his own genetic line. "My father had nice handwriting," he says. "He really liked his signature." So much so that he turned it first into a tool and then into a concept.

His father, of course, was Robert Trent Jones, the best-known designer of the mid-20th century. A savvy self-promoter, Jones pere  engineered a seismic shift in the perception of his profession. While predecessors like A.W. Tillinghast, George Thomas, and Alister Mackenzie aspired toward art on enormous canvases, Jones -- who aspired no less nobly – tacked another layer to the job description: business-savvy CEO.

Actively trading on his most recognized assets – his name and reputation – Jones, in the ‘60s, began punctuating his advertisements with the phrase "Give Your Course a Signature," signing off with his autograph underneath. A Jones "signature course" had negotiable cachet. It also had a unified story conveyed in 18 connecting chapters – some certainly better and more memorable than others – that came together to reflect the heroic style of its creator. Like the signature below a painting, the phrase implied pride of authorship, endorsing the work as a whole.

As the game developed through the ‘80s, courses – particularly daily-fee and resort tracks – sought new ways to attract customers. The handwriting, so to speak, was on the wall, and, from it, an altogether different script was forged. "My guess," says Jack Nicklaus, "is that the term was created by some marketing or public-relations firm in an effort to find a creative way to promote their golf course, because I seriously doubt that it was a term coined by a golf course designer." Like Jones, Nicklaus has adopted the use of "signature" to describe the courses, like the recently opened Dismal River in the Nebraska sandhills, that get his best attention from start to finish. But he would never label any individual hole a "signature." "You want every one," he says, "to be as strong and as enjoyable as the next."

Yet, from an owner or developer’s perspective, the label makes exquisite sense. "You’ve got only one shot to inspire people to come visit," says Steve Adelson, partner in the Discovery Land Company, developer of up-scale golf communities like The Estancia Club in Scottsdale. "A collection of holes is too complicated for people." But the right one is just enough. "You can photograph it. You can put it in your ad. You can put it in your brochure. You can put it on your website." (And hope that publications like this one slap it in their pages.)

If you build it, they will come.

By identifying and advertising the one that instantly revs saliva glands into overproduction, the hope is that the pull of its presence will tempt golfers to come try the rest. Forget the e pluribus unum of Jones’s "signature course" concept. How much simpler to avance the unum – like a sound bite, a movie trailer, or a few sample bars from iTunes – to shill for the whole.

As a marketing tool, it has stuck. In fact, believes Adelson, "It’s become one of the most overused terms in golf." As an expression of architecture or design theory? "The superficial nature of the discussion gives me a special pain in the chest," sighs Brian Silva, "but it’s better, certainly, than no discussion at all."

 

While a signature holes can come in any shape and size, they’re "absolutely site driven," says Jim Bellingham, senior vice president of development services at Troon Golf, which creates and manages upscale facilities like the Westin La Cantera in San Antonio and Troon North and Talking Stick in Scottsdale. "It really gives the course a story to promote."

In that promotion, par 3s tend to predominate. The daunting 17th at Sawgrass. The rowdy 16th at the TPC of Scottsdale, home of the FBR Open. The majestic 16th at Cypress Point. The dropshot 7th at Pebble Beach. Different as they are, all one-shotters share a feature that makes the story-telling easier. "They unfold completely from the tee," says Rees Jones. "They strike you the minute you see them."

So do man-made structures. At Dismal River, Nicklaus opted to incorporate an existing prairie windmill into the strategy of the his par 5 4th hole by nestling the green beside it. "No one’s saying it’s the best hole or the strongest hole," he says, "but I imagine it is the one that will be photographed quite a bit because of that one element." Ta-dah! The signature. Sometimes, you can’t avoid it. Click!            

Anymore than Tom Weiskopf and Jay Moorish could avoid the Six Flags/Fiesta Texas’s rollercoaster just beyond what would turn into the green of the temptingly short par 4 7th hole at La Cantera’s Resort Course. Click!

Donald Trump, on the other hand, manufactured his own set of ponds and waterfalls around the 13th green at Trump National north of New York City. Click! So pleased was he with his rock-walled Niagaras, he made sure the hole was designated with signature status in the course yardage book.

Where the signature hole idea gets dicey is in the discussion of classic courses built before the idea was ever born. Honestly, how could Pebble Beach not have a spectacularly snazzy series of holes given its site, but, of course, they’re not just pretty faces. As for memorability – consider the 12th, 13th, and 16th at Augusta; the beached par 3 3rd at Kittansett; the Road Hole at St. Andrews; Hell’s Half Acre at Pine Valley; the Redan and the Cape at the National Golf Links; the par 3 6th with the bunker mid-green at Riviera. "Certainly," observes Doak, "there are iconic" – note the avoidance of "signature" – "holes populating golf courses."

What elevates them so? The combination of how they look and how they play. "Design," says Silva, "is always a balancing act." It’s the architect’s job to coax the most from the land, and when the keenest strategy and the most humbling beauty intersect – as they do, to universal agreement, on the 16th at Cypress Point, the 8th at Pebble, the 16th over the quarry at Merion, the heroic 4th at Bethpage – the result is unforgettable. Signature holes? Of course. Who can argue? But that they can be ascribed the same sobriquet as the cover art on the brochure put together to help sell real estate at the latest golfing community seems to cheapen the concept entirely. As Adelson concedes, "a signature hole may not be the best playing hole. It just has to be the most visually inspiring."

Certainly, every architect wants his holes – each of them – to inspire. "A hole should be beautiful to look at," stresses Hanse, "but not at the expense of how it plays." Indeed, architects present a unified front in insisting they would never sacrifice playability just to provide a client with a postcard.

But they do get asked.

And they do accede.

And the results aren’t always pretty.

One architect who’d rather keep the specifics buried in a bunker admits, despite objection, to forcing the routing of one hole at a particularly prestigious club toward an especially scenic landing area. The hole he came up with was beautiful, but, the domino effect of his accommodation was back-to-back blind shots on the next hole, which he had to squeeze in to fit. The membership roared, and both holes were soon redesigned. By another architect.

As much as architects pooh-pooh the concept of signature holes, they do, however, get a kick out of the debates. "I’m often surprised at the holes they ask me about," says Doak -- but at least they’re asking. At 92, Geoffrey Cornish, the dean of the profession, thinks that’s a good thing – that golfers are asking.

"We’re hungry for golfers to appreciate our art form," he says. "Signature holes stimulate interest. That might get them thinking what else these holes might have besides beauty. That’s a step toward getting them into golf architecture."

Our aim, in this space, precisely. Which, of itself, makes this neither a good column nor a bad one necessarily, but perhaps a signature one all the same.

 

Jeff Silverman edited the award-winning book "Bernard Darwin on Golf."  He writes regularly on the game for such publications as Sports Illustrated and Travel & Leisure Golf.   He lives in Chadds Ford, Pa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Ladies tees 
Why itís manly to play from the ladies tees
Thursday, July 2, 2009

By Jeff Silverman

 

           Let me step forward – quite literally -- and admit this from the get-go: I like to play from the ladies’ tees.

I offer this confession freely and proudly. I’m neither traitor to my sex nor denier of my gender, just another golfer looking for an edge, and to what lengths – for isn’t length always the issue? – won’t we golfers go to discover one?  I found mine by learning to give an inch and enter the foreign country I’d always considered no man’s land.

Believe me, it wasn’t easy. At first, my tactical advance felt like shameful retreat, not gaining ground. But reducing the length of the golf course has so changed my enjoyment of the game that I come before you with the passionate conviction of a true believer anxious to pass on nothing, well, short of revelation.

So, please, join me. It gets lonely for a guy up there.

OK, before I get too far ahead of myself, let me step back and state the obvious: For male golfers other than the most skilled, the markers we pick to play from tend to have less to do with the reality of our games than with the ideal games we imagine we possess. Sure, the tips are beyond most of us, but we opt to play from them anyway. Co-conspirators in so many acts of flagrant golficide, they massage our egos nonetheless, abetting the fragility of our golfing hopes, even as they reveal how misguided our measurement of our golfing selves may be. In our minds, then, moving up becomes a sad concession to core-rattling masculine truths: advancing age, decreasing skill, diminishing power. And who wants to be conceding that?

Jane Blalock, 27 times a winner on the LPGA Tour, once told me how, at Pro-Ams, she’d marvel when her male partners instinctively trekked to distant outposts while she teed off more sensibly from the middle whites. "If we switched, I’d still be 20 yards beyond most of them," she shrugged. "It’s a shame men make a difficult game more difficult for themselves."

But what if we reframe that observation? What if it’s not about hard or easy? What if it’s about shaking things up every now and then to make the golf course a little different and the good walks we take on them more interesting?

That said, I’d better admit this, too: My revelation didn’t come pain free. Indeed, pain – gnawing, nagging, and crippling – forced my great leap forward in the first place. When my hips began dissolving to talc 10 years ago, my game disintegrated so quickly I was ready to consign my clubs to eternal storage.

A sports psychologist I met at a dinner party reversed my dive. His prescription, in retrospect, seems simple. Until I could seriously play again, I’d have to change my expectations. Check your ego at the bag drop, he counseled, play a shorter golf course, forget about score and just enjoy the experience.

"But what about my handicap?" I countered.

"Either you accept the one you hadn’t bargained for..."

He didn’t need to finish. Protected by a medical excuse, I figured I could accept this apostasy to my Y chromosome. I’d still be playing golf – albeit an abridged edition – right? So what if my friends teased me; they wouldn’t begrudge me, and anyone else I might tee it up with would, doubtless, applaud my grit to soldier on. At least that’s what I tried to convince myself as I entered into this interregnum in my golfing life, consigned – until a pair of titanium mulligans arrived two years later -- to surveying the landscape from (pick one) the ladies, the women’s, the forwards, the reds. Red. How appropriate. To match the color of my face the morning I first left my golfing buds behind me.

Funny, but they didn’t care what tees I played from. Why, then, should I? It took me a few rounds, but I lost my self-consciousness. Then something amazing happened: My game actually improved. My chopped-down swing didn’t land me in the wild levels of hell I knew all too intimately; it just put the ball in play. Shorter distances in meant greens were approachable without howitzers. And I practiced my chipping and putting. A lot.

But there was something else: a new viewpoint, as if I’d stepped through the looking glass. Scanning the horizon from the forward tees, I seemed to be gazing at an entirely other golf course.

And I was.

Everything had shifted. Bunkers, ponds, and hillocks, certainly, but nothing as dramatic as the perspective from within. I no longer felt defeated before I’d even started. For the time being, that would be enough.

 

But that was then. Thanks to the miracles of replacement surgery, I’ve returned to my rightful place with the guys astern, but I haven’t turned my back to the fronts and the alternative they offer to the grind. I still don’t like to feel defeated. So, three, maybe four times a season, I happily seek haven ahead. What began as an act of desperation originally designed to keep me in the game has actually evolved into a nifty drill designed to sharpen it.

It turns out, some pretty good instructors see the occasional round from the reds as just that. "It’s a different challenge," says master teacher Jim Flick, "and any time you can bring in a different challenge you’re giving yourself a chance to improve." Flick believes that playing from unfamiliar yardages hones distance judgment, while approaching from shorter yardages asks golfers to think more precisely about the shot they want to play and the quality of the result. Then there’s the course itself. "It will feel and look different," he says. "That can only help awareness of course management." All of which we can take with us when we drop back to longer precincts.

Pia Nilsson, Annika Sorenstam’s longtime coach, now teaching at Legacy Golf Resort in Phoenix, agrees with each of Flick’s points, and adds one: The forward tees provide a reality check. "Do you score better or not from them? If you don’t, what does that tell you?"

Interestingly, most average golfers don’t, since most of us put far more emphasis on our full swings than in the stroke-saving potential of our short games. Brad Faxon – no average golfer -- remembers his college coach sending the team off from the forward tees precisely to test their short games and, if the experiment went well, foster a sense of going low. "It’s good for your mindset to make a few birdies," he says. Conversely, he cautions, "it would backfire if we didn’t."

Which is why I never keep score when I play up. I don’t need numbers to tell me how I’m hitting the ball, and for me, this isn’t about scoring; it’s about insight and awareness. I want to feel what it’s like to play shots that aren’t normally in my arsenal from spots on the layout I’m not used to visiting to help me understand my game a little better and appreciate the golf course a little more.

Hence, I never take my show on the road. When I truncate my home track I have to turn off my autopilot and consider every hole from a new angle. (A course I didn’t know as well would just be another 18, not a familiar 18 reconsidered.) With an average reduction of more than 80 yards from the middle tees I generally play from, each hole presents new options and opportunities beyond the reach of my usual game. Hazards normally safely in the distance suddenly taunt me to tempt them. Like Tiger – and this may be the only circumstance in which we’re not legally stopped from appearing in the same thought – I sometimes find it prudent to lay low and leave my driver in the bag. I know I can still get home in two.

And even without my driver, I’m still beyond customary landing areas. Of course, I have played shots from these positions before – third shots after flubbing one of the first two; so, my attitude is different. Instead of feeling hang-dog for my ineptness, I’m positively focused on how best to attack. With a wedge or short iron. Like – dare I whisper it? – Tiger. It can, as Faxon says, do wonders for the mindset, though there’s a flip side, too; when I reach the green and discover I’m a far-flung 30 feet from the pin – a result that would elate with my 3-hybrid from 190 – the disappointment is my reminder – thank you, Pia, you’re absolutely on target – of what I need to practice.

It’s such a kick now and then to be reminded that golf isn’t just a game of power that I’m surprised more men don’t try this. Actually, I’m not. Nor does it surprise my friend Eric Stake, who sometimes accompanies me on my abbreviated journeys. A superb golfer, he’s a psychiatrist by trade, so he understands both the intricacies of the psyche and the dark night of the golfer’s soul. "When we leave a putt short," he asks, "what do we say? ‘Hit it, Alice.’ It’s a way of berating ourselves for being unmanly. Project that to asking a man to give up, even for a day, what he thinks is his rightful place to play from the forward tees. Before he’s swung a club, he’s Alice in his mind already."

I’ll gladly support anything – renaming tees, recoloring tees, adding additional tees -- that alleviates that stigma for others. Call me Alice, if you want to, but I’m one golfing Alice who looks forward to his visits to wonderland.

 

Jeff Silverman edited the award-winning book "Bernard Darwin on Golf."  He writes regularly on the game for such publications as Sports Illustrated and Travel & Leisure Golf.   He lives in Chadds Ford, Pa,


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