Experts tell us a smart first step for any golf course is to cut back on water usage. Drier turf is usually healthier, less susceptible to diseases and provides more roll to tee shots and smoother surfaces for putting. Less water means lower electric bills for high-volume pumps and less fuel for mowers used less often. Granted, the shade of turfgrass might be less intense.
To do our part, at the urging of some members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, Golf Digest has redefined the Conditioning category used in our various course rankings.
The old definition asked panelists, "How would you rate the playing quality of tees, fairways and greens when you last played the course?" The new definition reads, "How fast, firm and rolling were the fairways, and how firm yet receptive were the greens on the date you played the course?"
This definition has nothing to do with the color of the grass or the perfection of a lie. It rewards courses that water less (but sensibly) and makes it easy for panelists to evaluate conditions on the basis of golf shots. It takes into account all types of turfgrasses. Non-overseeded Bermuda fairways will be more firm and rolling than overseeded Bermuda, for example, and lean, off-green bent-grass fairways offer much more roll than saturated bent.
Clearly, we don't look kindly on greens that are thatchy or squishy, but we're not in favor of concrete-hard greens. They must be firm yet still receptive to earn high points.
What about situations of inclement weather? Because the first rule of good golf architecture is drainage, drainage, drainage, this definition rewards that. Courses whose fairways and greens don't easily drain after a normal rain (or after routine irrigation) deserve lower conditioning scores than courses with excellent drainage.
Great conditioning is not striped mowing patterns in the rough or uniform lies in bunkers. That's overindulgent cosmetics. We think every club would benefit by adopting our definition as a standard for course conditioning.