SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK I recently traveled to the east end of Long Island for a bit of golf and managed to find time between rounds to speak with my friend Tony Sessa. Tony is the head professional at the East Hampton Golf Club (he serves in the same position at Augusta National during the off-season up here), and we got to talking about an event his northern club had just hosted, the Coore Crenshaw Cup. It is an annual tourney for retreats like East Hampton that have courses designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. And the competition serves as a good time for golfers bound by a common love for their architectural work to get together.
Tony told me that one of the topics raised most often during that gathering, which was attended by representatives of 11 Coore-Crenshaw layouts, was the virtue of shorter and smaller golf courses. Probably because that is just what East Hampton is, a par-71 track built on less than 100 acres and measuring a mere 6,400 yards from the tips. And the overwhelming view was that size does not matter at all when you are talking about everyday, recreational golf. Especially when you have a pleasing mix of long and short holes, well-crafted green complexes and bunkering that not only protects par but also provides players with a host of interesting angles and approaches.
“I’ve been at East Hampton since it opened in 2000,” Sessa said. “And the more I come back here, the more I realize what an exceptional course it is, and how much fun it is to play.”
I thought a lot about Tony’s words after our conversation and realized how right he was. I had played East Hampton with him a couple of years ago and enjoyed every golf hole, especially the ones on the back nine, which is an architectural wonder considering it is laid out on just over 40 acres of land. Then, I started considering other stellar tracks of merely modest size.
Such as the National Golf Links of America, which I have just played in the amateur invitational event known as the Singles. To be sure, that course can be stretched pretty long (as it no doubt will be for the Walker Cup it is hosting in 2013). But it measured only 6,500 yards in the tournament (for those of us in the Senior division), and it showed itself to be a true thinking man’s course from that length, one that rewarded finesse and dazzled with deft design as opposed to brute length. It was also a gas to play. Even in the nerve-wracking medal round.
A similar track is the one I grew up playing, the Country Club of Fairfield in Connecticut. Routed by Seth Raynor along Long Island Sound, the par-70 course is only 6,442 yards long and occupies fewer than 100 aces. But it boasts a quintet of par 3s that are as fun as they are challenging, including dynamite renditions of a Redan and a Short; a couple of par 4s only a hair over 300 yards; and three par 5s that better players can reach in two. Then, I considered Augusta National, the place where Tony makes his winter home, and the par-72 course where the members’ tees play only 6,365 yards – and where only one hole (No. 10) is longer than 400 yards. Also Cypress Point, a 6,332-yard middleweight from the middle markers, with just two if its 10 par 4 measuring more than 400 yards. Then there is the one and only Old Course in St. Andrews, hallowed Home of Golf and a place that generally adds up to 6,400 yards for everyday golfers. At most.
After contemplating these places, I couldn’t help but think that we needed a “Build It Shorter” initiative to go along with the “Tee It Forward” movement Barney Adams kicked off 18 months ago.
Bill Coore would no doubt be a backer. “East Hampton is just a beautiful course in a beautiful area, and it possesses many of the characteristics that make short golf courses so good,” he says. “It requires skillful play, thoughtful play. You can’t just overpower it. You need to be a good iron player to do well there. You need to have a good short game.”
Those are the sorts of things that make Coore a fan of what he calls diminutive golf. “When Ben (Crenshaw) and I design a course, we start by trying to pick up as many natural features as possible, and let them dictate the design,” he says. “The size of the property does not impede our creating interesting green complexes and approaches. And as far as I am concerned, the shorter shots are the most interesting ones in golf.”
Bruce Hepner, the longtime associate of architect Tom Doak who now runs his own design firm out of Traverse City, Mich., agrees. “So much of my work in recent years has been with old golf courses and clubs,” he says. “And one thing so many of them have in common is the great variety of shots they compel players to hit. Your basic par-72, 7,000-yard layout doesn’t usually have that. It doesn’t have the range of short par 3s, par 4s and par 5s that give so many of these shorter courses so much character.”
And with so many of those traditional layouts being built from the green backwards, Hepner adds, the old-time architects devoted much of their time and effort to fashioning the green complexes and approaches and didn’t worry as much about length off the tee. Which is why recreational golfers find so much joy in their superlative designs.
No matter how long the courses are.