Who put that $%&#@* hole there?

…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the game.

Last week’s topic of general setup guidelines begs a few questions, especially on definitions for difficulty. Golfers constantly encounter hole locations or course setup nuances that are quickly labeled as “unfair” or “difficult.” Seeking a fair examination of one’s game is in the nature of many who play the game, therefore analyzing the concept of difficulty in course setup is fertile ground for both learning about the game, and the particular strengths and weaknesses of an individual’s game.

The rote methods discussed last week carried a common theme of balance of course setup. In fact, it is almost inarguable that the chief measure of a successful course setup is this notion of balance. However, balance carries much weight and many facets of a golf course setup can be balanced, often at the expense of balance in other areas.

Balancing Difficulty: The Fundamental Approach

The largest portion of balance in a golf course setup is actually outside the scope of daily setup. Golf simply defines playing a series of strokes from a tee to a hole. Therefore, a natural inference defines the major hazard and difficulty of the game to be the distance overcome by the playing of successive strokes. Balance in this aspect comes to us from the golf architect, for whom it is the responsibility to lay-out the starting and ending points of the hole. Designing a golf course that is biased toward longer shots hole-by-hole will rarely feel balanced as the challenges are repeated again and again. With design as in daily setup, various methods exist to maintain balance, generally tied to the concept of par, but even these methods require skill to effectively implement on sites where terrain, legal restriction or even the client are limiting factors.

Daily course setup can seek to preserve this design balance through the method of ensuring the card yardage remains maintained from hole to hole. However, this often comes at the cost of designed flexibility which was explored in the example of the fourth hole at Huntingdon Valley and brings the begged question of what is difficult back into the picture. The nuances of the shot values explained by the example exposed the idea that hole locations that may appear difficult can actually be attacked through thoughtful play and benign looking hole locations are more likely to expose the faults of careless play.

Measuring Difficulty: Is score the ultimate metric?

The USGA Handicap System answers the question of difficulty by assigning two values to each golf course meant to represent the difficulty for a scratch golfer and bogey golfer, both of which are defined under the USGA Course Rating here. These values are known as the Course Rating and Slope Rating, respective to their target golfer and are measures of both the relative difficulty of the golf course to other golf courses AND the relative difficulty of the golf course for golfers of varying abilities. The USGA method accepts score as the ultimate measure of course difficulty since the posted score is the chief component for using course rating and slope to calculate handicap.

However, certain skills are marginalized by this method; and the intelligence or breadth of shots required to score are, at best, abstracted by the two ratings. Course rating and slope also abstract the variances in difficulty offered by daily setup. For example, how does a hole like the fourth at Huntingdon Valley rate on a day when the putting green is tantalizing within reach for the longer hitter as opposed to the day where all players would be wise to exercise caution. The defined scratch and bogey golfers “play” the hole the same way regardless of the setup, so these subtle nuances get lost in the measure.

What makes for difficulty?

Evaluating difficulty in golf requires a more thoughtful approach than simply looking at a “tucked” hole location or the card numbers. Furthermore, simply balancing any one aspect of difficulty at the cost of another will ultimately detract from the multi-dimensional aspects of the sport. The actual difficulty of a golf hole combines the elements described above; including a balanced set of distances, how various “stock” golfers could play the hole, and how the features of the golf hole seek to confound, tempt and highlight shots selected and executed.

The following list contains a few guidelines that should help frame the concept of difficulty. No list can be definitive and exceptions to the rules should always be sought – and even encouraged. However, an established epistemology assists the critic in evaluation of difficulty and other aspects of golf design and setup.

1. How much of the putting green is available for an uphill putt to the day’s hole location? Putting uphill is widely, and correctly, accepted as the most effective way of simplifying the short game. However, most golfers accept a hole located behind a hazard such as a bunker or pond as challenging despite the fact that a substantial portion of the putting surface lies downhill from the day’s location. A wise golfer simplifies the hole by playing away from the hazards to the large portion of the green below the hole and then attacking the hole through easier putting.

2. How much room exists on the opposite side of the putting green from the day’s hole location? Golf architects and superintendents often create bailout areas to aid the wise golfer in the strategy in the above described situation. However, in concert with the above question, these bailout areas often compound the difficulty with locations above the hole.

3. How much of the ideal angle to the putting green is contained by the fairway cut? Often times, the putting green is sloped to favor one side of the fairway over the other. Often times, well-meaning golf course managers have narrowed the fairway to the point where the ideal angle is contained wholly within longer turf. While a discussion for another post, the idea of width in golf course setup is a major factor in difficulty.

4. What percentage of short grass areas are “usable” and “ideal” for play? The fallacy that wider is easier applies here.  A fairway measuring ninety yards in width often falls under the “easy” category, but if examination of the terrain shows that only a small portion of that fairway offers the golfer a clear advantage on the next shot the difficulty may not be as apparent.

This list obviously does not identify some of the more apparent difficulties in golf like depth or amount of bunkers/water hazards, etc. Difficulty can often represent much more subtle challenges in the game that are easily lost in the quest to quantify and compare. Interesting setup often requires scratching the surface of apparent challenges to inject more subtle difficulties that identify skillful golfers.

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