Road to Par Becomes a Horror Show

This column is not for the squeamish. It is a portrait of a man about to lose friends in high places. As they say on TV, "May contain material offensive to some." Strong language, but no nudity.

It's about golf, a game with which, if you've been paying attention, you know I've had a 40-year unrequited love affair.

They are tampering hopelessly with it, doing terrible things to a great game.

They're building golf courses these days for Fred Couples, not married couples. Or any other kind of couples. The more diabolical, the more maniacal the layout, the better.

I don't know why. Ninety-five percent of the people who play the game can't. That is to say, they are like us--every shot is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, as Churchill would say. We don't need tilted fairways, glassy greens or doglegs to nowhere, bunkers with trees growing out of them, greens surrounded by water, and we certainly don't need railroad ties till you can't figure out whether you're playing a golf course or the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.

Look, if they want to test the best golfers in the world, let them go to Pebble Beach, Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Oakmont or Shinnecock Hills.

But what about the 20-handicappers among us? We're not trying to make the Ryder Cup, we're trying to break 100. A golf game should be a walk in the park, not an afternoon in Gestapo headquarters.

If you want a challenge, you go to Riviera, L.A. North, Winged Foot or Southern Hills.

Let me ask you something. If you want a day at the beach, you don't try to find the most shark-infested or jellyfish-plagued strand, do you?

Well, the way they're building golf courses today, they have everything but alligators and quicksand.

I belong to a complex of golf courses in the desert, one of which the pros refused to play, forcing their tournament to a more friendly locale. The others have things like 170-yard carries over water to reach the green and fairways so canted toward lateral water hazards that even pretty good shots on the right side of the fairway trickle inevitably into the water. They have target greens surrounded on three (or four) sides by water. They are built for one-handicappers but are played in lots of cases by auto dealers' wives or stockbrokers and their brothers-in-law. Or sportswriters with eight-piece swings.

And who is devising these torture racks? What Machiavellis are at work here? I'll tell you. Golfers, that's who. Guys who shoot 63s in U.S. Opens. Guys who broke 80 when they were 9 years old. Guys who think nothing of teeing off with a one-iron on long par fives. Guys who hit four-irons 225 yards. Guys who have no feel for anybody who isn't a scratch player.

Old golfers, like old soldiers, never die. They become architects. They incorporate every golfing horror they have ever encountered and build it into an 18-hole course. It's as if they never wanted to see anybody break 90 again.

I played on a golf course one day that had three sand traps on three different holes no more than 90 yards out from the tee. I had asked the player-architect why they had tricked up the course so callously. At first, he said the members wanted it. That didn't wash. "I'm a member," I told him. "I don't want it."

Then, he said the owners wanted it. They prided themselves on the degree of difficulty and, besides, it was good publicity. Also, they wanted a tough track for tournament play. "Tournament play!" I scoffed. "Chi Chi Rodriguez won't even know that trap's out there! But your wife or your father-in-law will hit into it every time. It's got nothing to do with tournament play, but it is a play-slower for recreational play."

I don't know what these guys are driven by. Ego? Vengeance? Are they getting even with the game by leaving indignities for newcomers to suffer?

It didn't used to be this way. Golf layouts were blueprinted not by former players but by landscape engineers more interested in aesthetics than scoring. Sure, their courses were demanding, even difficult, but not impossible. There was a feel for the weekend player. There isn't a drop of water on Riviera or Merion, and the only water at Pebble is the Pacific, which comes into play only if you hit a really wild shot on 18.

It's almost as if Babe Ruth were hired to design a ballpark and he made right field--where he had a 296-foot target in Yankee Stadium--600 feet out. What if Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson designed the bases to be 100 feet apart instead of 90? No one would break their base-stealing records. Former tennis players can't raise the net.

Golf, after all, is a game, not a punishment for our sins. Have a heart, fellows. It's the king of games, but not so long ago more people were giving it up than taking it up. This obsession with difficulty can turn that clock back.

There are plenty of places for the superstars and the macho wanna-bes to test themselves. What about us in the silent majority? They are making the game an unplayable lie for us.

When this comes up, I am always reminded of the first time Bobby Jones played Riviera. He shot 73 and came in to be asked what he thought of the course. "Riviera?" he asked. "Well, it's very nice. But, tell me, where do the members play?"

It was a revealing statement. You see, in those days, you had an L.A. North that was difficult. And you had L.A South that was for the members. Medinah, Winged Foot and other country clubs had similar dichotomies.

The thing was, in those days, they knew there were two games--one for Bobby Jones and the other for, well, the ones who couldn't keep up with that Jones. For every guy who brags at the 19th hole, "I shot 70 from the blues!" there are dozens of us who have to say "I picked up on 15. I ran out of balls--hit 10 in the water, nine o.b. and the rest of them I couldn't find in the fairway rough."

There's no place for the members to play anymore.

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