I am currently in a discussion on Golf Club Atlas about the strategic nature of a bunker on the fourth hole at Galloway National. Elements of the discussion highlight some of the differences in perception of strategy in golf, as well as what features introduce strategic thinking. No single authority exists which define the nuances of strategy completely and this post will make no attempt to provide an all-encompassing definition. Within the discussion, I presented a scheme for evaluating strategic hazards and their place on the golf course. This post will cover the topic in greater detail. Even further detail can be found in Bob Crosby’s wonderful essay, “Joshua Crane in the Golden Age”, on Golf Club Atlas. Mr. Crosby’s essay explores some vital rhetorical foundations for much of the discussion on strategy in golf.
What is Strategy in Golf?
The manner in which shots are employed on the golf course is the broadest definition of strategy. Since golf inherently requires the golfer to act by playing shots, strategy is inherent to every golf hole in existence. This compulsion to play a shot is an axiomatic part of golf strategy as the shot is the currency in the game. In essence, one spends a shot in order to position the golf ball in a manner which increases the odds of holing out subsequent shots and success is measured by the efficiency of these successive shots to that end. Strategy is the evaluation of those possibilities.
Golf architecture, therefore, can be defined as the manner in which golf features are positioned which emphasize, punish, and negate certain strategies. For example, playing directly toward the hole is the most efficient manner to employ shots as it minimizes the fundamental hazard of the game; namely that the hole is located a distance away from the tee. However, a hole which places some hazard along that path (long turf, water, trees, sand, etc.) may impede or heighten the difficulty of employing this strategy forcing the golfer to weigh the potential risks of the direct route with the cost in distance of avoiding those risks.
With the above two paragraphs fertile ground for discussion all their own let us work with the assumption that, all things being equal, the best initial strategy for any given hole is the one that reduces the distance required in playing from tee to green in the most efficient manner. Max Behr’s concept of the line of instinct/charm derives itself from this basic assumption. The golfer will always seek to shorten the route to the hole. The line of charm concept suggests that hazards are placed strategically if they are placed along the direct route to the hole (the line of instinct) in such manner that the golfer must develop a method of overcoming or avoiding the hazard.
The Lack of Sophistication
Behr’s conceptualization drew common threads on several of the best holes in golf at the time while also laying the groundwork for design work to come. As with any attempt to draw common threads, a scheme develops that overuses the basic concept without building upon the idea. What golfers today consider to be strategic architecture lacks real sophistication on the concept of strategy as the effects of strategic hazard in question are only felt “at the shot.” Furthermore, the common occurrence of one bunker on the side off the tee, one bunker on the other side into the green as “strategy” does not particularly challenge a golfer’s strategic vision for the hole.
Much of this lost complexity traces itself to an era when tee-to-green maintenance varied widely and very few standards or expectations for this area existed. A simple look at any older golf course aerial (Pre-World War II especially) will show mowing patterns suggesting that fairways extended well beyond the corridors bounded by “through the green” bunkering. Indeed, the very name “fairway bunker” indicates a bunker in the fairway. With the advent of automatic irrigation and more precise mowing technology came the actual true differentiation between rough and fairway – and the fairway’s subsequent use as a “corridor.” (To this day, rightly so, the rules of golf make no distinction between fairway and rough).
This evolution clouded two major aspects of hazard placement. Foremost is the idea of a hazard as something that could be confronted if the golfer so chooses to employ that route. The concept of risk/reward implies that in confronting a hazard the golfer should reap some form of reward. In the case of Behr’s line of charm, this reward could be as simple as being able to manuever the hole along the straight line from tee to green which we assume above is the best strategy for a given hole.
The second aspect clouded by this maintenance evolution is more cerebral. One thing that trips up many is that golf strategy is not a set of discrete paths around hazards to the hole. The question posed is not one of A OR B, but rather one of A THROUGH B (How many numbers exist between 1 and 2? How far from A can a golfer stray before he gets to B?) Therefore, the nature of a strategic hazard lies in how the hazard influences play between the A and B options, not how the hazard influences the risk of employing that option. Risk viewed in the sense of the singular shot is a tactical issue and the fact is, failure to execute a shot or to employ a route with little risk can always be made up with good tactical execution later. A golfer with a keen short game can almost categorically employ a different strategy on any hole than a skilled driver of the ball regardless of hazard placement.
In general, width is likely the sole determiner of a hole’s strategic complexity. In general, the more hazards which exist for the hole, the wider the hole must play in order to allow for complex strategies. Hazards which differentiate between the different routes are more rightly called strategic than those which emphasize risk of the various routes. This is especially apparent on narrow dogleg holes with bunkers inside the turn. While it is fact that cutting the corner/carrying the hazard/playing as near the hazard as possible will yield the reward of a shorter next shot to the green, the hazard’s placement only changes the risk of executing this shot and not the actual strategic complexity of the hole. Take away the hazard and the golfer is still attempting to cut the corner, just with less risk. The strategy remains unchanged, just the possible tactical outcomes change.