Geoff Ogilvy & Mike Clayton
The Lost Art of Golf Course Design
Schooled on the Sandbelt classics of their homeland but in tune with the game’s modern challenges, Geoff Ogilvy and Mike Clayton have become two of golf’s most forward-thinking architects. John Huggan brought them together to get their take on the state of design today and the challenges ahead.
So, Mike, when did you first come across the young Geoff Ogilvy?
MC: It must have been 1995. Geoff led the Vic Open after three days. That was the first time I saw him, or knew about him. I remember writing in the paper that I’d never seen him play but he must be good if he is beating some the players who were there that week. Then he shot 78 in the last round, the same day I three-putted the last green to miss the play-off by one.
And when did you, Geoff, first become aware of this eccentric figure who was out there wandering in the mist, ranting and raving about courses?
GO: I knew who he was because I had been at every tournament in Melbourne since around 1980. Mike played in them all and he was pretty high-profile at the time. I know I got his autograph at least once. But never at the end of a bad round.
MC: (Laughs) I was the worst. If I had a bad finish, I was throwing clubs and balls around.
GO: Anyway, I started to see Mike when I was hanging around at the Victoria Golf Club, where Mike’s design company was doing some work. And it went from there.
When did it become clear you were on the same wavelength, at least in course design?
GO: I don’t know if I actually was. When I was a kid it was all about playing golf. It wasn’t until I started going to other places that I realised Mike was right in what he was saying: The courses in Melbourne are really good, everywhere else is kind of sh*t. Having said that, most of the time I had no idea what he was talking about when he started ranting and raving about bad golf holes. But gradually I started to get it. He helped me look at holes and courses in a different way. And from a different perspective. Not many look at golf the way Mike does.
GO: He would say something like, “That bunker shouldn’t be there. It should be over there instead”. And I’d be, “Well, what’s the difference?” Like most people do, I thought the bunker looked fine where it was. So he would explain to me how, if I challenged the bunker on the other side I would get a better angle into the green. He would point that out on basically every hole we ever played back then (laughs).
That was the period when Mike was playing less and getting more and more into course design. So he was looking for that sort of thing when he was out there rather than just playing holes as they were. Anyway, he obviously knew what he was talking about. And I was happy to listen. It was interesting stuff. And I got more and more into it.
Do thoughts like that help or hinder you as a player?
MC: I was losing my game around then anyway. And in my last year in Europe we played a run of terrible courses after The Open. I was just so fed-up playing horrible courses. Which was stupid because I was playing for money. But I never had that mentality. I was out there to enjoy myself, hit good shots and play great courses.
So it doesn’t help?
MC: No. If you just treat golf as a job and as a way to make money, then the courses are just places to do that. All you do is hit a ball around a field and score as low as you can. But if you care about playing good courses, it is so annoying when you play bad ones. So I wasn’t doing myself any good. Plus, everyone gets fed up eventually on tour. I’d been out there for 20 years.
The top amateurs have always played better courses than the pros.
MC: That’s true. If you want to play competitive golf on great courses, you’re much better off being an amateur. In fact, if you want to really enjoy golf and play competitively, stay amateur, get a good job and have a nice life. That would be my advice unless you’re really exceptional. But all young kids want to be pros.
So you have to hold your nose a bit in pro golf?
GO: Sort of. Over time I just developed a boredom with crap courses. But even if you don’t have a deep feeling for the architecture, once you ‘get it’, the game can still be exciting when you play well on courses like St Andrews or Royal Melbourne. It’s only at a boring course that you realise there isn’t a direct relationship between how you play and where you finish.
So if you are a good player playing crap you can still do okay at St Andrews because it rewards knowledge and awareness of how to play the course. But when you take that away, I start to lose interest. The area of the game where I like to find advantage wasn’t there. Playing the course ‘properly’ and having all the shots didn’t matter. The adaptability you need and see on great courses just wasn’t there. That is my biggest problem in competitive golf.
MC: Just recently, Marc Leishman said Metropolitan was the best course in Melbourne. Now, it is a really good course. But it is clearly not the best. I can see why Marc said what he did though. Metro is in such great condition. But that is completely irrelevant.
GO: It isn’t though. See people like to see…
MC: That’s what some people want to get out of the game. But Royal Melbourne in its worst shape is better and more interesting. As a golf course.
GO: For you it is. But some people want a good lie.
MC: Marc thinks that Metro is Melbourne’s best course because it’s in the best condition. That reflects how many pros think. If a course has to be in good condition to appreciate it, something is wrong with it.
So how did your philosophy evolve?
MC: I loved Royal Melbourne from the start. Then I started to read a bit about it and think about why it is such a good course. It was almost by osmosis. I gradually realised that it is how a proper course should be. I watched Seve play there in the late 1970s. That was amazing. He showed what Alister Mackenzie was trying to do with the design. He was trying to reward someone who played like Seve. And he did it perfectly. It is the most interesting form of golf to watch.
I also watched Hale Irwin play an amazing run of holes when he shot 64 there. He hit a stream of perfect shots. But it wasn’t quite Seve. Hale could have done that at Winged Foot. But Seve couldn’t have done at Winged Foot what he did at Royal Melbourne. When he hit it out of play, he hit the extraordinary shot to get back into position.
GO: Which is what a great course allows you to do.
MC: But where another course gets you is when you are out of position and you can’t hit a good enough shot to get back into position. That’s when you get slaughtered. So I grew up around great courses, did some reading and grew to understand why they were great.
Not every great golf course has to have big wide fairways though.
GO: For me, the measure of greatness has always been how quick the round seems to go. If all of a sudden you’re on the 17th and haven’t quite realised how much fun you are having, the likelihood is that you are playing a great course. On a tedious course you are looking at your watch on the 4th tee.
That started happening to me and I didn’t know why. I was fine playing the Old Course, but too often elsewhere I felt like I was playing the same hole every hole. And missing without any chance of recovery, which is PGA Tour golf. There is no skill in recovering from long rough. It’s just boring. Missing a fairway and grabbing the 60-degree wedge is boring. I understand the challenge. And maybe it is okay now and then. But asking you to hit it straight and punishing you for not hitting it straight is boring after a while.
MC: If Alister Mackenzie came back now he’d be asking what the hell happened. “Which part of it did you not understand?”
When it comes to designing courses, what are the modern challenges? Especially at the pro level. How hard is it to make them think?
GO: It is difficult because of the distance discrepancy between the average guy and the pro. It used to be that the members’ tees and the Masters tees at Augusta were no more than 20 yards apart. Now it’s 100 yards. So now you have to build a course with tees way up front for the average guy. Or you have to be really creative with corner hazards and stuff to carry.
It’s a joke how far the leading pros hit the ball. You can’t set a number and place your hazards there. Which is what they try to do in America. That’s what makes it boring, but you can’t give the guy who hits it 320-yards a 50-yard wide fairway on every hole. You can’t give him any trouble to think about at the time when the shorter-hitter has lots to think about. So it’s not difficult to build a course most amateurs would like and want to play. But it is difficult to do that and challenge the pros too.
MC: The Lakes course in Sydney has a bunch of holes where there is something there to stop the really long-hitter. They have hazards across the fairway. In one way that is bad because you are forcing everyone into the same place. But the 17th hole [where a lake crosses the fairway] there is 500-yards long and even if it was 600 you would still have the same second shot. You can’t overdo that. But it can be done. And another problem is that the weaker players can’t get over the water. The front tee on that hole is 250-yards from the back tee. And of course you can defend the scoring by tricking up the dimensions of a course. You can grow long rough. You can have crazy pin positions.
GO: The challenge is to come up with a course that is challenging for the scratch player who wants to make pars and birdies, but relatively easy for the 18-handicapper happy to make bogeys.
MC: That’s Royal Melbourne.
GO: It’s nearly every great course. But not all. Courses like Pine Valley and Oakmont are just too difficult for anyone except the really good player.
Not every course you build can be a strategic test from start to finish though. There has to be some point in a round when you just have to stand up there and execute.
MC: True. But we haven’t designed that many new courses yet. Most of our work has been on old courses.
GO: You just have to build to the land you have.
What I’m really asking is, can you guys build any kind of course? You’re not just stuck with this one model of what every course should be.
MC: You can argue that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw build the same course everywhere they go. They are on different pieces of land, but they have a formula.
GO: Once you understand the strategic framework and what makes a hole interesting you can do anything inside that framework. That’s what Mackenzie did. That’s what Harry Colt did. They’re all different, but they are all within a framework. You can build a nice little narrow parkland course and a big wide links applying the same philosophy.
MC: We are working on a course at Port Lonsdale in Australia that is 5,800 metres. It is really narrow. And it gets windy there. But it is a fun course.
Has the evolution of the equipment at pro level made it harder for guys to appreciate what you have just described? Does hitting basically the same shot all the time diminish the need for strategic thought?
GO: Pro golf is more about the swing now than the shot. But great courses are about the shots you hit, not the swing you put on it. If you live on a Trackman you want your thinking to be rewarded – and your thinking is making a great swing and making great contact. The Old Course is nothing to do with all that. It’s all about ball-flight and playing from the right areas. Precision in ball-striking is completely irrelevant. Pros’ practice nowadays is all about precision, and precision is not rewarded at St Andrews. It’s more about sensible flights and creating angles. So 90 per cent of a pro’s typical practice brings little advantage at St Andrews. The 320-yard drive that draws five yards will work on some holes at St Andrews. But only if you hit it in the right place.
MC: The Old Course is all about landing your ball in one place so that it can finish in another place. And where it lands can be miles from where it ends up. So you have to judge what the ball is going to do on the ground. It’s not just about having it fly through the air and stop reasonably close to where it landed.
GO: For some people that is golf though. And that is fine. If you grow up on a soft inland track, that is what you know. But it would be nice to hear people say they get it, even if it is not their cup of tea. The Old Course illustrates everything that is good about golf – at least when it comes to playing the game (see right).
MC: I had a guy tell me once that he was a “traditionalist” but that he hated St Andrews, Prestwick and North Berwick. I told him he couldn’t be both. That is golf’s tradition – quirky, blind, unfair. It has morphed into something else, of course, largely because the Americans have tried to make it “fair”. But the greatness of the game is that it is unfair.
Is the view that pro golf has been ‘dumbed down’ excessively too harsh?
MC: It is in some ways. But look at the recent World Cup at Metropolitan. Because of PGA Tour rules, the public couldn’t get in the front gate early in the week to watch the players practice. That’s how they do things. But that morphs across the game into how they set-up courses. That mentality pervades professional golf. There is no flexibility. The rules are the same every week.
GO: It’s hard to please the guy who thinks the Old Course is great, as well as the guy who thinks the PGA Tour is ‘it’. You can’t please them both on the same day.
MC: Look at the 1969 US Open at the Champions Club in Houston. Arnold Palmer averaged 4-iron to the greens. Deane Beman was hitting woods to nearly every hole. Palmer hit only one wedge shot into a par 4. Today, it is very different. It is a cliché to say every hole is a drive and a wedge – but it is clearly not far from that. It is a completely different test. But it has to be more interesting watching Arnold hit 4-irons into greens than someone hitting wedge every time.
GO: This only happened because the equipment and techniques have evolved to the point where they need to get to in order to compete on the courses pros are presented with. If we played Royal Melbourne or the Old Course every week, no one would be hitting 350-yard drives. We would all be shaping shots and hitting the ball lower. It would be a different game. The way golf courses are presented has directed everything else. You wouldn’t go to the range and try to hit 350-yard drives if straight 280-yard drives were the best way to play golf. You just wouldn’t. People have always been able to go to the range and hit the ball as hard as they could. But in the old days they didn’t. Because that wasn’t part of the game.
Balls today would spin more if the greens on tour were firmer, because we’d be sick of watching shots bounce through. The set-up of courses has created the game we play on tour. And it would be easy to change. All they have to do is set up the courses properly. No one would be hitting drives 350 if a 350-yard drive ended up in the crap after running 50-yards.
MC: If you think about it, nothing of significance was invented for more than half a century after the persimmon heads came in around 1930. The early metal woods were terrible, but golf was in a pretty good place back then. But then they invented things that really worked. We were sold distance before that, but it was all an illusion. Now they actually give us stuff that produces more yardage.
GO: That has happened in everything. Telephones were the same for 50 years too.
MC: True. But the last 20 years have been an extraordinary time for invention in all aspects of our lives. You never get lost anymore. But we have de-skilled everything. My handwriting today is terrible.
All of this is good for the amateur, is it not?
MC: Well, it’s good for me. I don’t argue with my wife any more about where we are going. That’s not true (laughs). But is it good for the amateur? I’m not sure. I read a great piece by former PGA Tour pro Phil Blackmar. He listed all the improvements over the last few years. Then he pointed out that the average score in America has gone down from 88 to 86. So has it all been worth it? Has it really made much difference?
GO: But it’s not really about score. Golf is too expensive and every layer of technology you add only makes it more expensive. Why would you do something that takes as long as golf and costs as much when you could do almost anything else?
MC: When I was a kid the 27-handicappers at my club loved golf. People today can’t love the game more than they did. And they were playing with basic equipment and small balls.
So why is participation going down when the game has never been “easier” to play well?
GO: People perceive a lack of time, despite the fact that they have as much time as they had before. And golf is too expensive. Only a very small percentage of the population in America can even consider playing golf. It’s not very many. But in the UK there is always somewhere you can play for not much money. And even there, participation is falling. So maybe it’s a time thing more than money.
MC: I saw the perfect model for a golf club recently, the Frankston Club near Melbourne. They have figured it out. It is nine-holes. They don’t employ anyone in the clubhouse. You bring your own food and drink. There are three guys on the greenstaff. And the course is fine. If that was the model everywhere, golf would be flying.
But if the game is easier now, it should also be more fun right?
MC: Geoff Shackelford made that point in The Future of Golf. The number of American tennis players dropped when they introduced the big racquets with huge sweet spots. I’m sure there were other reasons for the fall, but it is a myth that making the game easier for bad players makes it more popular. Golf has gone the same way.
GO: There is no doubt that today’s equipment is easier to use. But that has made the courses more difficult to play. But the best courses are still easy courses, best played with equipment that is difficult to play with. St Andrews played with modern equipment doesn’t have quite the same charm as it used to have when you could hit all kinds of shots. It was a more complete challenge then. Golf is evolving into a game where we make the courses as hard as we can because the equipment makes the game too easy.
That relationship between difficulty of course and difficulty of equipment is not what it used to be. How that affects individuals I’m not sure. It used to be hard to hit the ball but relatively easy to play the course. Relatively. The rough wasn’t as thick. You could hit par 3s with irons, not drivers.
MC: At every club that has a tournament the members don’t want to see their course taken apart. So they make the greens hard and fast, which slows play down to a crawl. That then adds to the perception that golf takes too long. But if the equipment was, at the pro level, more sensible and members were not so obsessed about 20-under par winning, then the greens wouldn’t be so fast. Then it wouldn’t take so long to play. A lot of the issues would go away. Going back to Frankston. You could play there in an hour with five clubs. That’s not what all golf should be. But it is a rare thing nowadays.
GO: Maybe the old-school conservatism that still surrounds the game is part of what scares kids. They just don’t want to put up with all that. Jackets in the clubhouse. Everything that came from the UK really. Kids are just not interested in tucking their shirt into their pants. As long as they look like a grown-up, I’m fine with whatever they want to do. Maybe they should learn to dress sensibly on the course, but that should not be the reason they don’t go. And there are a million other reasons why they don’t. Too often, golf clubs are just not welcoming places for kids.
MC: They can be scary places for kids. I started caddying so I got used to being around clubs. But if you weren’t doing that, they could be scary. If I went to a tennis club I wouldn’t know what to do.
GO: But it’s a moving target, what people want.
MC: The next question is: would the game be better off shrinking? There are two entities in golf – people who make money out of it, and people who play it. And the aim of the money-makers is to make as much as they can out of the players. So would golf be better off if it was smaller?
On that theme, how many golf clubs does the average pro need in order to get round most courses?
GO: He probably needs close to 14, because of the way he goes about it. But we could all play the tour with way less clubs. Eight probably. Lose a few of the middle irons and stack each end of the bag. We don’t use the middle of the bag very much. There would be a driver. Some sort of hybrid. A longish iron. A mid-iron. Eight-iron through wedge and a putter. The long guys especially could do that.
I’m not sure they would play better though. Back in, say, 1980, a pro could hit his 5-iron in all kinds of different ways. There is much less of that now, with the exception of Bubba Watson. For most – like, say, Jason Day – everything is flat-out. Between a soft 6-iron and a hard 7-iron, he is going to hit the seven. He’d have trouble playing with fewer clubs. But if he did for a while he’d become a better player.
MC: Every time I see Jason on TV, I wish he would take one more club and not hit the ball so hard. He thrashes everything.
GO: We’d all be better if we played with 14 clubs but practised with fewer. Then you’d find yourself not wanting to use them all. But this is one of those things that can go either way. Do you work on mastering each individual club? Or do you work on mastering your swing and let it adapt to different clubs? Do you go the Seve route and have one wedge, then learn to hit every shot with that club? Or do you just get five wedges? You can be great both ways, although maybe not as good as Seve (laughs). Golf has gone the five-wedge way and not the Seve way. So the game has lost a bit of its feel and romance. The most fun in golf is found in the great areas. But we are headed into the black or the white, however you want to define it.
MC: I have a theory that equipment companies don’t really care about selling 4-irons to 9-irons. There’s not much money in those. They make their money from drivers and hybrids. And wedges. And putters. So everyone has four wedges. And putters can cost $500. Every year a new driver comes out that promises more than the previous version – and costs more too. When I was a kid, I bought new clubs in the middle of the set. I kept the clubs at either end. It’s completely different now.
GO: But the clubs at the ends are the ones that affect your score the most. So they were always going to cost more. Driver. Putter. Wedge. A 5-iron doesn’t have much effect on your score. A new one goes about the same distance as your last one. But get a new driver and it might go 25-yards further.
MC: Vijay changes his wedge every three weeks. I used to have them for years.
GO: But you would have changed if you could.
MC: It was harder to find good wedges back then. So when you found one, you kept it. Wedges are so much better now.
GO: All clubs are better now. They have figured it out. But the whole thing is ‘get a driver that works’ and set up everything else around that. The ball is built to not spin and go a long way when hit with a driver. So 3-irons are not going to work any more. People stopped hitting 3-irons because they don’t work any more, with the modern ball. I would prefer to use a ball we could play at St Andrews, off the old tees. But for my father equipment was always a big part of the game. It was a big reason for him to play. He loved the search. And he is part of a valid section of golfers. So he loves this period. And many others do too.I get that. When I was a kid there was nothing better than walking through a pro’s shop. I loved to look at the stuff.
MC: Back then, woods had character. Now, woods have no character. They have no personality. They are simply efficient bits of technology. There used to be a range in quality. Now they are all good. Because they are so clever.
But is that bad?
MC: The romantic part of the game has been lost.
So it’s not bad; just different. But I knew what driver every guy on the European Tour used. I knew what they looked like, what colour they were. What shape they were. Now I have no interest in knowing what they use.
GO: That’s not true. You are always pulling clubs out of other people’s bags (laughs).
MC: There were beautiful irons back then too. Spalding used to make lovely custom-made sets. But you couldn’t buy them off the rack. Now everyone can buy a great set off the rack.
GO: Isn’t that better?
MC: Of course it is.