October 26, 2008

My Three Ideal Courses

Cypress Point, Merion and Seminole prove that a course can be fun for the average player and still challenge the pros and the scratch amateurs

The 375-yard 17th at Cypress point is a stunningly picturesque test on which the golfer must place his drive carefully to avoid being stymied by the cluster of cypress trees in the fairway.

The 375-yard 17th at Cypress point is a stunningly picturesque test on which the golfer must place his drive carefully to avoid being stymied by the cluster of cypress trees in the fairway.

This article originally appeared in the April 1984 issue of Golf Digest.

Herbert Warren Wind, the distinguished golf historian and authority on course architecture, begins a two part series in which he discusses three famous American courses that play the best for both the tour star and the average golfer. In this article he looks eloquently at Cypress Point and Seminole. Next month he writes about Merion, site of the 1981 U.S. Open, and comes to several challenging conclusions about the state of course's design.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when we were enjoying an unprecedented Age of Affluence in this country. We threw away rare opportunities in many directions. We most certainly did in golf. With the game booming and entrepreneurs of all stripes eager to build courses mat at some later date might be mentioned in the same breath with St. Andrews or Pine Valley, something went terribly wrong. A few very good courses emerged but, by and large, the typical product was what has now come to be known as the fake championship course. The name derives from the fact that the men promoting them invariably referred to their babies as -- "7,OOO-yard championship courses" -- 7,OOO yards was the magic number, the awesome length of many of the courses on which the United States and British Opens and other major competitions were held.

However, the similarity ended there. On these rushed-through, artificial courses, there was no golf to speak of. It was just slog, slog, slog. As often as not, the fairways ran in a straight line from tee to green and were as flat as landing strips. The greens resembled each other as closely as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The bunkering was repetitious, and the water hazards bore no relationship to the terrain. The star of the show, once the bulldozer operator had departed, was the publicity man who often succeeded in selling gullible golfers on the idea that because they were playing a course almost as long as Carnoustie or Oakland Hills, they were dealing with the same challenges that confronted Hogan and Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus.

Today when the golf ball can be hit huge distances -- perhaps too far -- a course has to be fairly long to test the top players. Nevertheless, sheer length does not a superior golf course make. What does, essentially, is the character and the shotmaking values of the holes, and they are the result of good, sound design. The men who know golf have long understood this. For this reason, if you ask them what are the best courses in the United States, in their top half dozen they will usually include three relatively short courses: Cypress Point, Seminole and Merion. Cypress Point measures a little under 6,500 yards from the back tees, as does Merion. Seminole is a bit longer-about 6,500 yards from the standard tees but close to 6,800 from the backs. [Editor's note: In 1979, Cypress Point joined Seminole and Merion in the top 10 in Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Courses.]

The point is this: The average club golfer can play these three courses with enjoyment and with no sense of being overpowered, yet at one and the same time a professional or a crack amateur has to summon his best shots to equal par for his round. Since these three courses represent golf at its finest and most stimulating, it seems to me that by studying them attentively we can all learn-in this period when lengthy courses still tend to be overvalued-what golf and golf architecture are all about.


Let us begin with Cypress Point. Like Merion and Seminole, it has a special quality about it. To savor this it is necessary to know something of its genesis. Cypress Point occupies one of the westernmost projections of the Monterey Peninsula, which thrusts itself into the Pacific about 125 miles south of San Francisco. For years the bulk of the peninsula's acreage was owned by the Del Monte Properties Company (today, of course, it is owned by 20th Century Fox), which first made the area synonymous with superb golf when it built the Pebble Beach course in 1918-19.

In the mid-1920s Marion Hollins (the United States Women's Amateur champion in 1921, who had gone to work selling real estate for Del Monte Properties), Byington Ford (at one time the mayor of the neighboring village of Carmel), and Roger Lapham (a fourth-generation shipping magnate and a part-time administrator for the Federal government who is probably best remembered as an outstanding mayor of San Francisco in the 1940s) formed a syndicate that purchased 170 acres from Del Monte Properties for $150,000. The land, about four miles from Pebble Beach along the Seventeen Mile Drive, was worth much more, to be sure, but the company thought that another course would be a good thing for the duchy, and it liked the fact that many of the people involved came from prominent San Francisco families. Some of them would surely want to build homes near their club.

Seth Raynor, the golf course architect hired by the syndicate, died shortly after he had begun work on the project, and Marion Hollins selected Alister Mackenzie to succeed him. At that time Mackenzie, a Scot who had been a practicing physician before changing professions, was in the process of acquiring an international reputation. He came to California early in 1926 on his way back from Australia where, among his other commissions, he designed Royal Melbourne, one of the world's great courses. Mackenzie, you might say, was at this moment at the top of his game. (Augusta National, still a few years to come, would be his next big assignment.) From the outset Mackenzie recognized that the land he would be working with at Cypress Point was an extraordinary cornucopia of many kinds of natural beauty, and he did a masterly job of utilizing it with sensibility, imagination and audacity.

When the average golfer thinks of Cypress Point, the holes that come first to his mind are the 15th, 16th and 17th, which are perched on a rocky headland above the Pacific. The 15th, a 139-yard par 3 across a deep chasm, is not at all an easy hole to par, for as often as not there is a formidable west wind to reckon with, and the green is both well bunkered and cleverly contoured. (The greens at Cypress are seaside bent, the fairways a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass, redtop and seaside bent.)

The 16th, over the last half century the most photographed hole in golf, is a par 3 of 233 yards, almost all of it a dangerous carry across the foaming ocean, with the tee set at the edge of a high cliff and the green set even higher on a tiny promontory. Here the prevailing westerly wind blows against the golfer and from right to left: The 17th, a 375-yard par 4 that doglegs sharply to the right, is also one of a kind. What makes it unique is the cluster of seven cypresses that commands the fairway; the golfer is required to place his drive with extreme care to avoid being stymied by the cypresses on his approach shot.

These are spectacular holes-one of the most thrilling sequences in golf-but the other 15 are a marvelous mixture of characteristically inland American holes with tree-lined fairways, holes that swing up into hills covered with Monterey pines, a number of holes with a British seaside flavor, and a few duneland holes unlike any others in this hemisphere.

The Cypress Point Club formally opened its course on Aug. 11, 1928. A little over a year later, word about how exceptional it was was carried home to the various corners of the country by golfers who had gathered at Pebble Beach for our Amateur Championship and who made it a point to get in at least one round on the new course next door. Bobby Jones, who played an exhibition at Cypress Point, made a typically astute judgment when asked to compare the two courses: "Pebble Beach is a more severe test, but Cypress Point is more fun to play." Cypress Point made such an impression on Jones that in 1931 when, after his retirement from competition, he was preparing to build his dream course, the Augusta National, he chose Mackenzie to act as his co-designer.

In Jones' day Cypress Point was about the same length it is today -- 6, 464 yards. No land for expanding the layout has been available for quite some time now, but, even if it had been, the club would probably have opted for keeping the course just as it was. Down through the decades a few new tees have been added, and one green (the eighth) has been altered, but that has been the extent of the changes. Under favorable conditions some very low scores have been shot--Gay Brewer holds the record with a 62, and Jim Langley, the club professional, has had a 63 -- but very few golfers take the course apart despite its shortness. Quit the reverse. Harold Anderson, a recent president of the club, kept charts during the 1970s on how the pros fared on the three courses they played in the Crosby tournament, and his records bring out that many scored lower on Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, the heavyweights, than they did on Cypress Point. What are the attributes that make a course of only 6,464 yards such a sturdy challenge? No one is better qualified to answer this than Lewis A. Lapham, a son of one of the founding fathers, who has been involved with the course since the summer of 1926 when, a long-hitting Yale undergraduate, he was requisitioned by Mackenzie to drive hundreds of balls off rubber mats so that the architect could determine the best spots to place the back tees. Lapham, who really knows his golf-he put in five years in the 1970s as the chairman of the PGA Tour's Tournament Policy Board -- analyzed Cypress Point in the following fashion when I talked with him not long ago:

"To begin with, one of the chief strengths of the course is that nearly all the holes offer the golfer alternate routes to the green. If he wants to take the conservative route, fine. On the 16th, for example, he doesn't have to go for the green -- he can play a safe 4-iron onto the fairway out to the left.

Mackenzie, in his wisdom, set up the holes so that the golfer can bite off as much as he chooses. If a big hitter attempts to carry a corner to position himself for an easier second, he is suitably rewarded if he hits a strong, accurate drive. If he plays a poor drive, though, he suffers a severe penalty. Just about all the holes possess this beautifully balanced strategic design, so there's not the premium on long-hitting you find on many courses.

"You must control the ball at Cypress Point. You can pay a high price if you stray from the fairway.

The grass in the rough can be coarse and clumpy, but, more than that, in the rough your ball can end up in elephant grass, thick lupine bushes and fine white sand that is loose and fluffy-the ideal sand for fried-egg lies. Then there's the dreaded ice plant. The most famous patch lies along the cliffside edge of the 17th. You're very lucky if you can dislodge your ball from the slippery stuff in one shot. You can take a great many shots. We all have.

"Last but not least, there's the wind. It makes selecting the right club difficult. The westerly we get is behind you on the first four holes and then against you the rest of the way. In a south wind, which is our storm wind, it can be pretty tough out there. To give you an idea, when you play the short carryon the 16th in that wind, you have to hit a 4-wood and you have to hit it well"

Lapham put a hand under his chin and was silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "All those intriguing holes Mackenzie built at Cypress Point test a man's capacity to play the game of golf. He must stay alert and he must be able to hit a lot of different golf shots. It doesn't hurt to be a good wind player and a good sand player-many of the best golfers at the club, such as Charles de Bretteville and Sandy Tatum, are. It also helps to be a good putter: the greens can be fast and some of them are hard to read.

"Even when I am playing badly, I love the ambience of the club and the course. The savvy old caddies, many of them commercial fishermen. The absence of golf cars-the club has only nine, and you must have a doctor's certificate in order to use one. The cypresses. Watching the tide and the surf. I love the exciting use of the natural terrain. Those tight tee shots on the eighth and ninth. Coming around the corner on the 12th and feeling the wind in your face The diversity of the scenery, the quietness, and, it goes without saying, the seals, the sea otters, the deer, the birds. You're in a world apart. I feel I have a proprietary interest in Cypress Point. I think most of the members do."


Photo: Stephen Szurlej


Seminole, which is situated on the Atlantic about 15 miles north of Palm Beach, is the work of another master architect, Donald Ross, a Scot from Dornoch. Ross had been in this country for about 30 years when he built Seminole. Subtropical in appearance, what with its dark green Bermuda grass fairways and greens, its brilliantly white bunkers and its palms and rubber trees, it is a far cry from the courses one generally associates with Ross-the original four at Pinehurst, his longtime headquarters, and the hundreds, literally, that he laid out on rolling countryside in the northern part of the country, mainly between Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Appearances can be deceiving. Seminole, along with Pinehurst No.2, is the quintessential Ross course. It may look mild and manageable-the fairways are wide, the rough is civilized, the undulations restrained, the greens large and candid-and because of its reasonable length from the standard tees the average player can sometimes salvage a par after a poorish drive. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, the course demands golf of the first order. Unless a player positions his tee shots carefully, he will not be able to regularly hit and hold the splendid variety of stiffly bunkered greens, and strokes will inevitably start to slip away fast.

While the course measures only 6,778 yards from the back tees, when the long-driving tournament stars drop in, they find it all they can handle. Low scores are such a rarity that old Seminole hands are still a little aghast that Claude Harmon, the club professional for many years, once got around in 60. On a calm day Seminole is an enjoyable challenge for golfers of all degrees of skill, but it would not be the celebrated test it is were it not for the southeast wind off the Atlantic that sweeps across the holes. More about this later. First, a little background music.

The Seminole Golf Club is about the same vintage as Cypress Point: it opened its course for play in October of 1929. The two clubs share other similarities. The bulk of their members, aside from being well-off and social, have a considerable knowledge of golf and a deep affection for it. They have taste, too. Both clubs, for example, eschewed expansive adaptations of the Alhambra or Mount Vernon in favor of small, comfortable, charming clubhouses. Seminole's is Florida Spanish, built of terracotta-colored concrete. Designed by Marion Wyeth, it typifies the variations Wyeth made on the style that Addison Mizener established during Palm Beach's palmy days. Incidentally, Seminole has 325 members. Its entrance fee is $10,000 and the annual dues are $1,100. Cypress Point has 235 members, its entrance fee is $15,000 and the dues are $95 a month. Because of Florida's hot and humid summers, Seminole is closed from mid-May to November, which probably explains why it is less expensive than Cypress Point, which is playable the year round.

Allan Ryan, who came to Seminole in the early 1930s, has been its president since 1971. He knows 1he history of the course like few people. "When Ross arrived, the area was just a jungle," Ryan recalls. "The property had every kind of Florida wildness. A crew of 180 men worked on it for nine months. They went into the swamps with hip boots and hacked down the heavy brush. They used teams of mules to move the earth into place and they shaped the greens by hauling the earth in pans. The course is a triumph of drainage and irrigation. Ross, you know, constructed three small lakes, and they come into play, directly or indirectly, on nine of the holes. I am still thoroughly amazed by the job Ross did."

There are no weak holes at Seminole and many very good ones, but nearly everybody who knows the course agrees that the best and most representative hole is the sixth, a par 4 only 390 yards long that invariably shows up whenever someone lists the top 18 holes in the United States. An impressively original hole, it has a two-level fairway, the left side rising well above the right.

From the tee all the trouble on the sixth is on the left: four good-sized bunkers menace that edge of the fairway. It is a mistake, nevertheless, to simply play down the right side, for this increases the difficulty of the approach shot. Ross, you see, devised a green that slants out of the fairway from left to right at about a one o'clock angle. In order to get home from the right with your second, you must carry a chilling succession of bunkers. The bunker farthest from the green cuts deeply into the fairway, and the others patrol the entrance to the green on the right and then move along the right-hand side of the green. To keep you honest, there are two bunkers to the left of the green.

The correct way to play the sixth, if you have the ability and the nerve, is to hit your drive as close as you can to the bunkers on the left. Then all you have to do is to playa crisp approach over the first or the second bunker in the long white line. From the back tees, the pro at Seminole, Jerry Pittman -- he succeeded Henry Picard, who succeeded Harmon usually hits a 3-iron or 4-iron for his second when the wind is against him and as little as an 8-iron or a 9 when it is with him.

Occasionally the wind at Seminole comes out of the north but the prevailing wind, as noted earlier, is from the southeast. It changes direction and force quite often, but however it blows it has a decisive influence on how the holes play. On the 17th, a par 3 that is 175 yards long from the back, Pittman uses a 2-iron to a 5-iron. On the 18th, a 417-yard dogleg left on which the tee, like the one on 17, is set on a sand ridge above the beach and the ocean, he plays anything from a 3-wood to a 4-iron on his approach. "The southeast wind sweeps across from left to right on both these holes," Pittman says. "It can be a strong wind, but you don't feel it on the 17th tee because you're sheltered by the growth of sea grape. When you move down the fairway, you feel its full force. By that time, of course, you've already seen what it's done to your shot." In a north wind the 18th can be a tartar.

Pittman remembers playing in such a wind with Jack Nicklaus and George Burns, two of the most powerful hitters in the game. Neither of them was able to get home with two woods. In any wind, and from any of the tees, the last two holes at Seminole provide a properly rigorous finish.

One of Seminole's best-known members and staunchest admirers is Ben Hogan. No one is more effective in describing its appeal and its worth. "It's one of the few courses I know that I don't get tired of," Ben said last autumn. "The wind is different nearly every day, and that changes all the shots.

I used to play Seminole for 30 straight days when I was preparing for the Masters, and I was just as eager to play it on the 30th morning as I was on the first.

"Seminole is a placement course," he continued. "Most of the holes bend one way or the other slightly, and you must place your tee shot on the right side or left side of the fairway to have the best angle to the green on your approach shot. I was always a spot player-that is, I played to a spot on the fairway and then to a spot on the green. That's the fascination of golf for me--placing the ball in the proper position and then coming as close as I can to playing precisely the kind of shot that's called for. You just don't hit a club -- say, the 4-iron -- the same way all the time. There are 10 different ways to hit a 4-iron. At Seminole you get the chance to play all the shots there are. I like that and the fact that you can visualize clearly what you have to do.

"If I were a young man going on the pro tour," Hogan added, "I'd try to make arrangements to get on Seminole. If you can play Seminole, you can play any course in the world."

One more thing. As Hogan and its other enthusiasts seldom fail to mention, the ingenious routing of the holes contributes immeasurably both to Seminole's enchantment and its difficulty. Seldom do two holes in a row move in the same direction. Quite the contrary. The sequence, full of twists and turns, varies so abruptly from hole to hole that it brings to mind the complex pass patterns that

Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs, and the unpredictable gyrations that John Havlicek of the Celtics used to resort to in order to lose his man and get free. Particularly on courses like Seminole and Cypress Point, where the wind is such a factor, a fine routing pattern can change a good course into a remarkable one.