Our 8th Commandment Admonishes Us to ‘Punish Only in Proportion to Golfing Ability and/or Sin’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


One critic said of the bunkers at Pine Valley, "The right of eternal punishment should be left to a higher power than the golf course architect."

In football, imagine a goal-line barrier preventing all touchdowns! No fun, right? In reality, the defense covers most – but not all — the field. If the offense attacks the right areas, it can score. Golfers need similar chances to plan and execute well, and get good results for good shots, and exceptional results for exceptional shots.

Generally, penalties should arise from bad shots, and bad penalties from really bad shots. Severe penalty should be the golfer's fault, not the result of greens too small or severely contoured to hold shots or prevent good putting. And this should usually apply to average golfers, accepting that better players may prosper even more.

Then again, many golfers – even good ones – don't want any punishment for their bad shots. Some players even demand designs to make their golf easier, forgetting that if it were too easy, they would lose interest. We need "consequences" for bad shots to appreciate good ones. Who wouldn't speed without the possibility of a ticket?

Conceptually, what is the proper punishment to dole out? The answer lies in the concept of "risk and reward," similar for Wall Street and golf. Those willing to take risk by buying stocks/challenging hazards accept both potential losses, but potential for much higher returns*.

In golf, this idea evolved from St. Andrews' double fairways, which allow golfers to play tee shots safely left. But "playing as far right as you dare" – nearer hazards and O.B. – yields better approach angles. Hard ground and wind require run-up approaches to an open green. From the left, greenside bunkers and slopes often deflect approach shots. We are still adapting this concept.

However, even when golfers successfully negotiate a fairway hazard, thereby gaining an easier approach, they don't birdie every time. Any approach advantage represents a partial stroke advantage. Therefore, "thinking" golfers are more tempted to challenge partial-stroke hazards** allowing hope for recovery, and are less tempted to play boldly near multi-stroke hazards, like O.B. and water.

Designs should walk the fine line of providing the enjoyment of golf challenge, combined with moderate difficulty, which are different concepts. Challenge may mean hitting an iron with a high fade, while difficulty means targets not holding the ball or those guarded by difficult hazards – like water.

The most dramatic holes are "do-or-die" and these have their place, particularly late in the round where the need to improve a score typically increases for the player trailing in his match. Generally though, half-stroke penalties** affect both handicaps and matches enough to make a difference. Larger penalties only help raise scores, temper and blood pressure to unpleasant levels.

* Everyone wants high returns with the safety of a CD. Many golfers think that safe shots should produce the best "investment return." It's wishful thinking on both counts!

** Meaning you will recover about 50 percent of the time, not that your score on that hole may be 5.5.

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