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3rd Anniversary Article: Tom Fazio should be more careful with his comments

So it’s my third anniversary as a sportswriter. It’s been a great year, so a heartfelt and grateful thank you to my writing colleagues, my editors, the GWAA and MGWA, the USGA and PGA, the TOUR and the players who give me so much of their time and insights, the architects who do the same and to all the folks at the private and public clubs around the country who help me write so that you may play better places and spend your money more wisely.

Thanks to all of you, we hit some sweet high notes this year: admission to the GWAA, covering the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, some terrific college tournaments and seeing many fine private and public courses from Florida to Oklahoma and from Pennsylvania to New Mexico.

The rest of the year will be devoted to handing out the Jazzy Awards – my year end awards for writing and architecture – and planning the New Years run of course reviews as well as next years tournament coverage schedule. Until then, here is a piece to celebrate my third anniversary:

In 2005, Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten famously asked “Is Tom Fazio Good For Golf?” but he was not the only one with the question on his lips. In his piece Whitten noted, “Golf’s leading designer is beloved by many, yet his courses have lifted expectations — and costs — to troubling levels.” He went on to allude that Fazio’s strategy-light, budget-bursting designs should not be be the enduring standard for golf design into the future. Here’s a good quote from the Whitte piece I found on Geoff Shackelford’s website , “Hope not, if you’re one who believes that golf should still be a test of thought and skill rather than just a walk on the beach where you never get sand in your shoes.”

But this year, I began to notice a disturbing pattern; Fazio telling sportwriters and golf course raters to pay less attention to – and indeed deduct points when rating – classic golf strategies that came over from the U.K., for example – and these are his words – “perpendicular hazards” and “redans” and “cardinal bunkers.”
Tom Fazio could not be more horribly, horribly wrong. Perpendicular hazards are the lifeblood of the game’s strategy for better players and such hazards can easily be routed around by the architect for poorer players so they may still enjoy the course.
First, Fazio went to Atunyote at Turning Stone Casino during the week of their woefully attended Fall Series event (3,500 per day is a dismal attendance figure), and said the following headscratchers:

1. From the interview he gave to the press tournament week: “When golf was brought here by the Scots, mostly and some of the Irish and the UK countries, the UK Kingdoms of where golf kind of started the idea was a golf professional or someone who knew golf came over with the idea of building a golf hole in the early days of my career I used to hear the word Rodin greens, and Cardinal bunker, and all those old famous things that you can find in the British Isle golf courses. And people would come here to bring those ideas and incorporate them. Well, we’ve had enough of those and plenty of those built. And now over the last, say, 50 to 75 years, five or six decades, we have so many golf courses we’re always trying to create different styles. And certainly Turning Stone is a perfect example….For example, we could have a U.S. Open here if the golf course is of that quality.”

From the same interview, when asked about short par-4s and their strategies: “I’ve been building short par 4 golf holes before that became famous.”

2. Then from the round table Q&A Gold Diest held for their course raters just a few weeks ago:

“If I can make a rule for golf, if I was rating a course, I’d say no hazards perpindicular to the line of play. I’d take off points for that.”

3. Now this one is second hand – from Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Indian Nation to Chris Wagner of the Syracuse Post-Standard: “When we talked to Tom Fazio, he said that he would like to make this the Augusta of the North,” Halbritter said. “And we liked that. We liked the sound of it. We liked the quality of it. We liked the history and the legacy of it. … So, that was part of the whole process of thinking, for people to think of our Atunyote as the Augusta of the North.”

As Ian Fleming wrote in Goldfinger, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time is enemy action.” There is a pattern here; Fazio is banging the drum trying to get people away from the great new wind of renewal in golf course architecture.

Since about the mid-90’s golf design has emerged from a long doldrums of penal architecture, too much length, water and the corresponding machismo and every course trying, without any real chance, of luring a U.S. Open. Now people are rediscovering the brilliance of MacKenzie and Macdonald. An entire generation of architects has helped lead us out of the misguided doctrines of framing and symmetry.

Have you notice how the vast majority of Fazio courses – indeed the overwhelming majority – are 36+36=72 with two par-5s and par-3s on each side? Have you noticed the massive amount of earthmoving and bulldozing? Fazio simply decimates the natural features of the site and builds big, wide and flat courses with “helicopter pads masquerading as greens” writes Shackelford. The expense is staggering and he forces a formulaic design upon the land instead of letting the land dictate the routing.

If he wants to build courses that “dumb down” golf to its lowest common strategic demoninator (but highest natural setting!) that’s one thing, but running around telling the press and raters that that’s how they should rate courses is another matter entirely. We need more Redans not less because golf is a cerebral game which is designed to pose interesting intellectual problems to be solved with golf clubs. What’s next? is he going to tell us to stop building greens with contour and character? It’s not far off, given his words. Thank goodness for critics and writers like Taylor Anderson, who recognize such drivel for what it is:

I’m not sure what exactly the definition of a “perpendicular” hazard is – does it have to be situated across the entire line of play? Fazio claims to want to make a rule for golf that there be no perpendicular hazards because it’s unfair to the beginning golfer.

This is an absolutely absurd notion – that courses with hazards like this should not be rated. Let’s take perhaps two of golf’s best and most famous holes – the 12th and 13th at Augusta National. The 13th is perhaps the most interesting and strategic hole in all of golf. Both holes feature a perpendicular hazard (a creek) directly in front of the green.”

Now I spoke at length with Bob Carney of Golf Digest who assured me that, far from sending forth an infernal legion of mindless minions designed to mark down courses with perpendicular hazards, the G.D. meeting was an even-handed discussion and Q&A where Geoff Shackelford and John Fought admirably argued the other side of design strategies from Nicklaus and Fazio (well, admirably as much as they could with Rees Jones effectively heckling Shackelford from the audience). Bob said that the context of the comments was a learned and widely varied discussion of playability.
But nevertheless, Fazio is not only aggressively marketing his courses – calling them “The Augusta of [insert geographic region]” and effectively pulling the wool over the eyes of golf industry rubes such as Halbritter, but it could be argued that he is aggressively trying to indoctrinate those golf writers that are either malleable, easily impressed with his name or inexperienced, and course raters to devalue the same architectural features that set the truly great courses apart form the merely pretty good ones.

Yes, Bob Carney did allay my fears and the fears of others that GD raters were going to go out and mark down courses with perpendicular hazards and yes, Bob also said that -for the purposes of the GD Q&A, Fazio used extreme examples of difficult cross hazards, but when you couple Fazio’s comments at the GD Summit with those from Turning Stone, a different, more concerning picture emerges, one where the wonderful, inspired features built by Doak, Silva, Strantz and others – who are Fazio’s stiffest competition – one where those features are not only eschewed but condemned and wrongfully so.

A while back, I introduced everyone to a great historian named J. Eric Thompson. Sir J. Eric Thompson (1898-1975) was one of the most influential Mayanologists – Mayan Historians – from the 1930’s until his death, over forty years. He was a master of Mayan calendrics, a topic he taught himself. He worked for years in the dirt at many of the most revered sites in the Mayan world such as Chichen Itza and Copan. He studied the living Maya themselves in their villages. He worked hand in hand with the greatest archaeologists of the day. He was a prolific and convincing writer and college professor and made many indelible contributions to the study of the Maya.

However, by sheer force of his sardonic personality, acerbic pen and powerful alliances on both sides of the Atlantic he single-handedly held up decoding of Maya writing from the 40s until close to the day he died.

Thompson was convinced that the hieroglyphics were merely ornamental pictures and could not possibly be letters, words or syllables. He vehemently and violently (for an academician) maintained the writing was not a language and he would never cease attacking anyone who disagreed until they were completely discredited.

Thompson was horribly, horribly wrong.

One of his early victims was brilliant American linguist Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) who was absolutely right that the carvings were writing, but was never able to achieve a proper phonetic decipherment. Thompson ruthlessly and sarcastically attacked Whorf and other opposition relentlessly, dismissing their positions as unworthy of study or debate. Others soon joined Whorf as notches on Thompson’s belt. “It was a brave or foolhardy Mayanist who dared go against his opinion” wrote eminent Mayanologist Michael Coe in his groundbreaking book Breaking the Maya Code.

Happily, Thompson’s influence did not extend behind the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union – the most unlikely of places – saw the birth of the truth. In 1947 historian Sergei Tokarev challenged his brightest pupil, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov (1922-1990) – “If you believe that any writing system produced by humans can be read by humans, why don’t you try to crack the Maya system?”

That’s exactly what Knorosov did. In the late 50s, Knorosov correctly solved that the hieroglyphics were groupings of syllables forming words and published his findings. Years of verbal sparring with Thompson ensued. Thompson even dubbed his rival “The Red Menace” and never failed to make the leap of logic in his published papers that Knorosov was wrong, among other reasons, because he worked in the U.S.S.R.

But Knorosov had survived Stalin’s terrible spectre so he had no fear of Thompson and was safely out of reach of his influence and in 1960, Tania Proskouriakoff, a disciple of Knorosov and his syllabary approach, proved that the monuments recorded dates of history and the deeds of rulers by a comparative analysis of a broad array of carvings. On the evening her paper made its way into Thompson’s hands for his review he stormed, “That can’t possibly be right.”

The following morning Thompson told the same people that gave him the paper, “Of course she’s right!” Within fifteen years, we deciphered every Mayan monument known.

However the moral of this story is that for forty-five years, the influence, name, stature, reputation, and work of one man held up the craft for nearly half a century.

The same thing happened with golf course architecture in America. Robert Trent Jones (1906-1999) – simply “Trent” to everyone in golf – was one of the most genial, affable personalities to grace the game. He designed close to 500 golf courses in over three dozen countries. His contributions to the science of building a golf course – turf grasses, hydronics, equipment and agronomy, for example – were staggering and therefore he was able to build on lava, granite, sandy beach or red rock flatirons where no one before him could. This talent made him the “go to guy” to build anywhere.

Trent was also a master marketer and a gifted salesman. He could talk anybody into anything. His catchy business phrases like “give your course a signature” were, sadly, the defining mantras of decades of the craft. As a result, for years Trent landed the most high profile resorts all over the world. As television brought color broadcasts of his beautiful water hazards, emerald fairways and cloverleaf bunker shapes, Trent’s look and feel became synonymous with American parkland golf.

Therein also lay the problem, for as time has shown, while the resorts at which you find Trent’s work are great venues, they are not necessarily the greatest golf course designs. Yet through the sheer force of his personality dominating the landscape so thoroughly for so long and through TV constantly bringing to viewers what looks pretty instead of what is a fascinating strategic golf hole, Trent’s designs became so indelibly tied to the game that it took decades to break out of the design doldrums he helped trigger.

Because of Trent’s widespread influence, draw bunkers became regularly placed at 280 yards out, slice bunkers at 260. Scenic water hazards also created heroic all or nothing shots and tight, tree-lined fairways placed a premium on accuracy. Elevated tees and long forced carries offered challenge to the professional players and expert golfers. Greens were often elevated so much that the ground game was all but eliminated in favor of aerial attack. More power, less finesse, harder is better and nothing should block the player’s view of the challenge in front of him; those were the results of Trent’s design philosophy. Blind shots, so much a part of the game where the game originated, were anathema to Trent and all but eliminated in favor of his doctrine of framing.

Tom Fazio does exactly the same thing. By sheer force of his name, reputation and power, he has impeded the spread of the revival of great classic features. Casual golfers and those learning the game rely on being spoon-fed how to play the hole and are pre-conditioned to accept that there was really only one play – down the middle. And that has got to stop.

We now know wider is better and more air space, not less helps create multiple playing options and angles of attack for all golfers. Trent’s courses were frequently murder on novices because they were either too narrow with little air space (for example Crumpin-Fox which has trees lining both sides on the Trent designed back nine) or had all uphill approach shots that all but eliminated the ground game and therefore playing options most often used by the average golfer. One mistake meant at least double bogey. Yes, Fazio is – generally – much easier on the average golfer then Trent, the problem still exists, just in a different form. By force of reputation, Fazio is holding us back.

Of the hundreds of courses Fazio has designed, indisputable masterpieces? Perhaps World Woods. Everything else? They’re great resorts or pretty places – Pelican Hill, TPC Myrtle Beach, Ventana Canyon, Barton Creek – pretty places that have golf, but isn’t there a reason no major championship has returned to a Fazio design? Yes, there is. Because when you look behind agronomy and horticulture, look behind the “$500,000 cooling system underneath the 3rd green at Ventana Canyon Mountain Course to keep the green at a consistent temperature, look behind the meaningless mantra of “hard par, easy bogey,” look behind the flash and waterfalls and stained glass windows and “magic gates” that open to let you into the facility, you see what the U.S.G.A. and PGA knew since 1987 after the last Fazio design held a major. His work on the ground – the lack of fairway undulations and green contours and strategies – does not quite soar to the heights reached by either classics by Mackenzie, Ross and Seth Raynor or the modern day work of Pete Dye and Tom Doak. Dye has numerous indisputable masterpieces including Harbour Town, Whistling Straits, TPC Sawgrass (Stadium Course), Kiawah Island (Ocean Course) and Blackwolf Run. Doak has built around two dozen designs – a mere fraction of Fazio’s number – yet, Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal and Cape Kidnappers are all among the world’s greatest designs. The same is true of his one-time protege Mike Strantz, who in a few short years built indisputable masterpieces at Tobacco Road, Bulls Bay, Monterey Peninsula C.C. and Caledonia.

With Fazio, the resorts frequently surpass the golf. They are great vacation spots with excellent to world-class accommodations, but the golf is rather pedestrian, especially regarding the often exorbitant price tag.

Fazio can design as he pleases, but to take his arguments to their logical conclusion, he would have us eschew Augusta, National Golf Links of America, Merion and yes, even his favorite, Pine Valley – of which he is a member – all because they have tough cross hazards that an octogenarian or thirty-six handicapper might have trouble playing. There is no question Fazio is affable and all are unanimous in their praise of him as a human being. Nevertheless, he also shares the same historic parallel with Thompson; for decades the power of his reputation actually limited variety of thought in the design features used in golf course architecture. We have a duty to golf to begin a dialogue with Fazio to show him why we might think he is mistaken.

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