Why past ASGCA president John Sanford says distance study "a marathon, not a sprint"



American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) past president John Sanford has been designing golf courses for more than 30 years with more than 70 new designs and renovations to his credit. Among those projects are landfill-to-golf-course transition sites such as Granite Links in Massachusetts and Trump Golf Links Ferry Point in New York, the latter of which he worked on with Jack Nicklaus. Sanford just completed his one-year term as president of the ASGCA last month and is leading the ASGCA committee that will study distance and report to the USGA. He answers five questions from Mike Stachura.

Has the ASGCA formed an official position on the USGA/R&A’s recent Distance Report?

I think this is a work in progress. One of the things mentioned in the report is they want to discuss this with the stakeholders. And as the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, first I’d like to say that we are very pleased that we are considered in this pool of stakeholders and that the USGA has reached out to us for our input on the matter. Obviously, we’re very happy that this is being studied by the governing bodies. We just hope to be productive information-providers, if you will. But we’re not in a position at this point to make any kind of a statement. When we have all the information that we need, we do want to take a position, but at this point it’s still a work in progress. I can tell you that just among the current board of governors, once the distance report came out and we were reading it and emailing it amongst ourselves, different members have different thoughts and positions personally on the matter. I think individually we definitely see both sides, and so as a group, yes, we see both sides.

Certainly, [USGA Executive Director] Mike Davis has made “the footprint” of golf courses a focus of the discussion. How do you see that issue?

I guess the ultimate question for me personally is this: Because the average driving distance on the PGA Tour increased by three yards in one year, does that mean there should be a rollback on the ball or equipment in general to help us to reduce the footprint of a golf course and make it more sustainable? That to me is the ultimate question. And personally I have questions before I can get to the answer to that question. For example, does the fact that the PGA Tour distance increased by three yards—and I understand that was a large increase vs. the previous years—does that mean the average golfer, the 99.9 percent of golfers on the planet, are they hitting it further? From what I could glean from the report the average golfer actually decreased distance in 2017. I think there’s a big gap in the information between the seven major tours around the world and the average golfer, how the masses affect the footprint of the course vs. the tour players. That’s why I’m glad to see the USGA is planning to take its time in studying this issue. They’re going all the way back to 1850 to look at distance, and they’re also trying to get a good sense of where distance might be going. From what we heard, this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. They’re making a very sincere attempt to look at this from a global, large-scale standpoint. I think this is going to take some time. This is a long-term view, and there are no preconceived notions. They want the data to speak to the solutions. I know from our perspective we need to see more data from the masses.

The footprint issue sounds very complex. Is it more than just yardage?

I think the case can be made that we’re already out there reducing the footprint of courses, not by shortening courses, but by reducing the maintained turf area in out-of-play areas and going to more native materials. Just about every project that we’ve worked on in the last five years in the renovation world, we’re taking courses that were built 30-40 years ago with, say, 120 acres of Bermuda grass in Florida when water wasn’t such a precious commodity and maintenance costs were a lot cheaper, and we’re taking that 120 acres and reducing it down to 80 acres in some cases. It just makes a ton of sense. You’re reducing all of your inputs, not only your water, but your fertilized areas, your chemically treated areas, your mown areas, and you’re going to unirrigated natural materials—what ever might be out in the deep roughs. Not only does that reduce the footprint in terms of the maintained area, but it actually beautifies the golf course, and adds more definition and more contrast throughout your course. So, to me, we’re already out there doing that already. That’s probably a better way to effectively reduce the footprint than just trying to shorten courses with some kind of shorter distance ball.

When you go to a meeting, whether it’s a new course or a renovation, is the first thing on the table, “Can you make my golf course 7,500 yards?”

No, not to me personally. Obviously, there’s much more renovation going on these days, especially in the states. Most of our ASGCA members would agree when we’re renovating these courses these days, distance is not the first thing that comes up. More so than lengthening the course, we’re talking about shortening the course by adding forward tees to it to play the course from, instead of 5,000 yards from the forward tees, to, let’s play it from 4,000 yards. And have another set of tees at 4,500 so everybody can go out and have fun and enjoy themselves.

How does a yardage of 7,500 yards or even longer change the way you design a course?

We’re starting on a project here in West Palm Beach that’s a 7,600 to 7,700-yard golf course open to the public, and we’re designing it from a 61, 62, 6,300-yard average player distance in terms of the features. But we’re going to add some tees that are just tee tops with native grasses that’s just a very very small irrigated tee top for those longer distances. Of the 90 acres of turf that we’ll have on this course, probably less than a half a percentage of it will be the additional distance that we’re adding to the golf course. And a lot of people say that if you’re going to go that long you’re going to have to make it wider and this is where I’d like to see more data. I want to know that these guys who are hitting it 320, 330, 340, does it have to be wider? Personally, and I play with some of these guys, I don’t think so. I’m watching these Tour kids flying it 320 and they hit it straight, whether it’s the ball or the technique or the athleticism. So I don’t think these longer courses have to be wider. And that’s where you get into the question of a bigger footprint for a longer course with more maintained areas. If we can find out that we are simply designing them longer and not wider, then you can design a course that plays well from 6,200 yards for the average player that also has tees to play from 7,600 or 7,700 yards. The distance report in my mind is just opening up more questions, especially as far as the architects are concerned and how it may or may not affect the overall footprint of the golf course. That’s why it’s smart for the USGA to say we’re going to continue to study this issue and go out to the stakeholders in the industry and talk about this and then come back at some point with some more definitive decisions.