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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Augusta National: More Influential Than Nature?

I recently had the pleasure of playing The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. You remember The Ocean Course, don’t you? An incredible setting along the Atlantic Ocean where Pete and Alice Dye raised ten holes for unobstructed views of the big pond. Although the entire course was built along one small, uninspired sand dune, Dye’s effort (although 90% man-made) became a model for evaluating wildlife and establishing environmentally-sensitive maintenance procedures. Few courses in the United States can boast such a natural-appearing golf course along the Atlantic. Over the years, the ‘natural’ reputation of The Ocean Course has grown while, ironically, the course has slowly become less and less natural.

Rumors fly as to the reasons why, but what I can tell you first-hand is a golf course which has slowly covered up fantastic dunes and sandy wastes with turf, turf, and more turf. Some say the owners want the golf course to be more player-friendly yet others declare the demands of the PGA Tour players for recent professional major championships have rendered The Ocean Course a shell of its old self. Whichever is the true reason for the ongoing transformation from wild links to a typical 1980’s American yawner, the results are a shame and another example of the troubles the game of golf is facing. Let’s examine both possible defenses.

In an effort to make the golf course more player-friendly, the story is that the owners want to create more definition, “like Augusta”. Whereas Augusta National is a golfing institution in America, it is also a controlled environment that many typical golf courses have targeted as their own model, albeit without financial or physical resources. The result is a whole bunch of golf courses over past decades pouring money into artificiality and passing the costs onto the customers. The result? Golf is too expensive everywhere we look and the game is suffering. Regarding The Ocean Course, it is one thing to take an old parkland-style course surrounded by suburbs and try to apply the Augusta model to it, but trying to take a golf course which was built upon nature as its model (and best defense) is much more than sticking a round peg into a square hole. It is sticking an elephant’s round behind into a needle’s square eye.

As a golf course architect, my job is to make a golf course as site specific as possible. Following that principle is what made golf’s playing fields so compelling to the millions who play them, yet somewhere along the line golf architects, led by industry leaders and many Masters fans, decided that a controlled environment of artificiality is the way to design a golf course, “Let’s take a site unique to the whole world and make it look just like the site we built in Dover, Delaware ten years ago.”

It seems clear that The Ocean Course is going in that direction, but in the name of definition and fairness. Someone needs to remind them down there that golf was never meant to be fair and that is why The Ocean Course became such a legend so fast. It is hard to serve two masters in any aspect of life and that is what The Ocean Course is trying to accomplish: maintain a compelling layout that attracts golfers from around the world, but give them enough room to enjoy the game. That is a commendable approach yet wider fairways rolling into natural dunes can accomplish the same as narrow fairways rolling into rough rolling into dunes covered by Bermuda grass. Those things are called mounds. I can stay home for that!

The Tour is coming! The Tour is coming! The other possible explanation for the Augusta-ization of The Ocean Course is that some felt the professional set would frown upon the myriad odd lies and sandy predicaments along the dunes. The answer must be to cover those dunes up so that a fair lie can be had by all! The amount of sod being laid in order to accomplish this possible goal is mind-boggling and alarmingly disturbing. The Ocean Course is transitioning from a Pete Dye dunescape to a classic Charles Blair MacDonald layout. The dunes are gone and in their place are cavernous flat-sand bunkers with 2:1 grass faces.

Whether you are a fan of Macdonald or not, that is not the style The Ocean Course should be and that is not the style of golf course people travel to Kiawah’s eastern-most end of the island to experience. This is another example of a great golfing experience for all being destroyed to ensure controlled lies and runway strategies strictly for the highest level of golfer in the world. Even those guys want a little excitement (I think). I can only pray that The Ocean Course releases its dunes from the suffocation of Bermuda in time to show the golfers of the world great natural-appearing design.

That said, the Ocean Course was still a fantastic example of playing links golf here in America as thankfully the middle of each hole has not lost its hard and fast playing surfaces. I had numerous bump and run opportunities before me (a by-product of only hitting four greens in regulation) which are much more interesting and thought-provoking than the constant pitch shots with a flop wedge which perpetuate the majority of golf courses in the States. Oh yeah, and the Atlantic was still there, thankfully not covered in Bermuda sod! Yet.

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