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An Open Letter to Golf Architect Pat Ruddy

By: Jay Flemma


Dear Pat:

Thank you for the gift of your new book "Rosapenna - Beyond his Lordship's Wildest Dream," which details your design work at the club. It was a surprise to get it in the mail unexpectedly, but a welcome one.

Congratulations to you on your work there, and good luck going forward. I look forward to seeing Rosapenna when I visit the northwest of Ireland, and hope we get a chance to have a nip of Red Breast Irish whiskey together (which is, in my not so humble opinion, the only Irish whiskey to drinků). Congratulations also on a terrific career as a designer. If the success of the European Club is any measuring stick, Rosapenna should be an immediate success.

I wanted to open a dialogue with you on a more pressing issue, however, one that impacts the way people think about golf course architecture. I want to have a heart-to-heart chat with you about your concept that you laid out in the book which you call "star views," but which I think dumbs-down golf architecture to a dangerously disconcerting degree and takes golf course design several steps backwards from the advances that have been made in the last 20 or so years.

"STAAAAAAAR VIEEEEEEEWS!!!!!!!"

You introduce the concept on page 22 in a chapter titled, "GOLF WITH STAR VIEWS - Bombarded by beauty at every turn." You write:

"Almost every golf course offers a few eureka [sic] moments. But at Rosapenna it is like living in a picture postcard all the way with . . . ocean and mountain views to bedazzle and bewitch the player from start to finish. . . . I decided this was a place to give birth to a new descriptive phrase.

Pat, to use the common phrase, I'm not feelin' it.

You describe the concept as one purely of natural setting: "Tees, fairways, greens, entire holes were to be designed to provide at once great golf and great visuals . . . thirteen of the holes provide Star Views from their tees with fairways and greens in full view together with their magnificent settings and backdrops. They sit there like diamonds on a precious necklace."

You further explain them as "iconic views," asserting that because of "star views" "Romance is quickly added to this golfing safari," and you feel that they "transform Rosapenna into the golfing Naples of the Atlantic."

Precious necklace? Golfing safari? Naples of the Atlantic? I dub thee "King of the Mixed Metaphor."

All levity aside, this is no more than the doctrine of framing, which spoon-feeds the shot requirements to the golfer - a doctrine which is, thankfully, in severe decline in this Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture. Yet on page 28 you continue your defense of "star views" by praising "the incomparable thrill of the downhill drive!" which "produce[s] the type of euphoria to be found only when one gains a high point in the soul," and "presents opportunities to play rewarding shots, shots to clearly defined targets . . . shots worth swaggering after."

"Swagger" and golf don't go together (that's for NBA basketball players or NFL linebackers, not ardent golfers), but that's a discussion for another day.

Far more pressing is your claim that, "Elation was the predominant emotion within as one planned this links and considered and selected one beautiful golf shot after another" and "one had to consider toning down the landscape rather than seeking to create land features to excite and please the golfer. Only one green had to be built up. They weren't there naturally," and that your goal was to "provide sporting golf and great views." (Both passages were on page 28.)

Pat, I believe your comments emphasize the importance of natural setting in golf architecture far too much. Of the many truths the Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture has taught us, perhaps the most important is that smarter is better. Not prettier, not harder . . . smarter. Winged Foot, Oakmont, Oakland Hills, Olympic Club, Merion - they don't need "star views," do they? Indeed, they perennially top all rankings lists while being somewhat underwhelming when it comes to their natural settings.

Instead, the concept of "star views" reduces golf design to its lowest common denominator - "Oh look how pretty!" - which appeals to casual golfers and looky-loos. In short: People who are not repeat customers or ardent golfers. The concept of "star views" neither grows the game nor elevates the craft of golf course architecture. Instead, it's as vacuous as "championship course," "signature hole," or (God Forbid!) "signature design."

Most importantly, it was Brad Faxon - along with Geoff Ogilvy (perhaps the smartest golf architecture mind of the active Tour pros) - who wisely noted, "It's not how a golf course looks, but how it plays," and we both know he couldn't be more right.

Back to the Future

Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Coore and Crenshaw, Mike Strantz, Jim Urbina, Dan Hixson; Cabot Links, Bandon Dunes, Sand Hills, Ballyneal, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Chambers Bay, Boston Golf Club, Streamsong, Wine Valley, Talking Stick North, and many others: a wave the likes of which we see once a generation has swept in a new age in golf design. We just don't think like we did in the Doldrums Ages of the 1950s through '80s and golf course designs are better for it. It's taken a long time to reverse the terrible design trends caused primarily from the desire to have a course host a big TV tournament and from PR drivel like, "Give your course a signature."

As I look at the photos of Rosapenna in your book, it appears there are great green undulations. The terrain seems marvelous, with excellent vertical movement and horizontal sweep to the fairways. You even have some excellent centerline hazards like the hollow at No. 9. Why do you need to move the attention to (perhaps even over-hype), the natural setting? If Rosapenna is as good as you say and as good as it looks, why the need for D-grade branding efforts?

In fact, your detractors can use your besotted-ness with "star views" as a strong argument against you far more effectively than you can use it as a selling point. Critics can say you've actually pigeon-holed yourself by coming out and showing everyone how much more emphasis you place on natural setting instead of strategic design principles that can defend a golf course.

For example, you boast that your 7,300-yard Canadian course "gave Canada the modern course it deserved." But old George Thomas proved that a well-designed strategic hole like the 10th at Riviera says more in a mere 300 yards than most modern architects can say in 500 yards of penal architecture. You also point out that many Arnold Palmer courses that are 7,300 yards or more routinely surrender low rounds, even multiple 59s. But of course that's true because as much as we love Arnie as the game's greatest ambassador and role model, his work as an architect has always been rightly criticized as light on strategy. Palmer says so little in 7,300 yards that it's no surprise that guys beat it to death with driver-wedge.

Take Bay Hill for example, widely regarded as Palmer's magnum opus. No less a personage than Tom Doak himself wrote about Bay Hill in his "Confidential Guide to Golf Courses": "One of the favorite courses of the pro tour, with long difficult holes and immaculate grass, but like everything else in Florida about a zero in the 'character' category. The two finishing holes are impossible, the other 16 just forgettable . . . anyone who thinks this is a great course is in dire need of deprogramming."

Deprogramming - that's been the goal of the Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture - its raison d'etre. To show everyone who's preconditioned, afraid of change and only likes things they see on TV, that making someone think their way around the course is more fun and interesting than being led around by the nose to pretty views.

Pat, I've always been a fan of your story - a self-made man and a writer turned architect who has won worldwide acclaim and success at the highest level. While I can't quite say you've conquered the world in your field as, say, a Doak or Hanse have, you're a serious player. You talked the talk, and then you walked the walk: impressive, most impressive.

There are many golf design observations you make that I do agree with. You say you want to take the driver out of golfers' hands; well, you don't do that with star views, you do it with centerline hazards! You do it with the doctrine of deception, not the doctrine of framing. If you make a good golfer think, his wires short circuit. Star views won't get in his head like cunningly placed hazards will. Star views may actually make it easier.

Success as a golf course architect comes with a responsibility to the craft of golf architecture, and that means you have to take things more seriously than "Star Views." (You even insist on capitalizing the term, the height of frivolity.) People see right through it. It's pompous and overblown, but you're not, so why project that image? Golf architecture has emerged from a long period of doldrums. Don't send us back that way.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.blogspot.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.