Tom Weiskopf: What makes for a good PGA Tour course?


It’s hard enough creating an interesting golf course these days. Building one for the PGA Tour is much tougher.

Obviously, you have to have a good site, just as you would with a regular golf development. You’d like to have changes of elevation throughout the property. You look for natural water features – streams, lakes. You hope there’s some diverse vegetation, especially some mature trees.

If you’re working with the PGA Tour on a TPC project, for example, you then have some very stringent criteria to deal with. The Tour expects a qualified architect (or, as when I worked with Jay Morrish, the design team) to work with a local Tour player as a consultant. Along with a documented routing you’re expected to document your ideas and strategy that you envision for that particular golf course. And then the competition committee evaluates it and makes suggestions.

For a Tour event, you know it’s going to be somewhere between a minimal 7,300 yards and, well, who knows these days. Given the way the ball is playing, you’d need an effective playing length of 7,500 yards or more.

The altitude of the site might mean you could need a lot of length.

Not that length should ever be the determining factor. Ultimately it gets down to the strategic requirements. But before we even get to strategy we have to make sure there are some logistical arrangements that are addressed.

You have to deal with where the corporate boxes are needed and whether the site affords that space.

The practice area is very important to the Tour, because it gets a tremendous amount of use for that particular week. It almost always has to be double-ended with a variety of greens for chipping and pitching targets.

You have to have lots of space outside of the golf areas. That includes adequate parking, and it has to be convenient for sponsors as well as for players who each have a car for tournament week. The clubhouse has to have plenty of room. And there needs to be a lot of space for spectators to approach and enter the site and then to move along the holes.

The ultimate question is how you strategize the golf course to fairly challenge the best players in the world for just one week. And then you have a scale, such as at the TPC Scottsdale, where you have public pay-for-play. When the modern golf ball came into play around 2000, we had to totally change the strategy. We didn’t change the greens, but we added length, though we were stuck there going back only so far with length. And you can’t stretch out the tees too far because you have to maintain the green-to-tee separations for the sake of pace of play the other 51 weeks a year.

On the golf course, strategy is key. ShotLink was a great help to me when I was redoing the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course in 2014-15. We had the ability to look back for five years, where every tee shot was hit for every day. It became evident to me that because of the equipment, the strategy from the original 1987 version of the course had become obsolete in terms of bunker distances off the tee. We were lucky that it was easy to move the bunkering around. There were five or six bunkers that no one hit into all week. We went from 74 to 64 bunkers, which is only going to help the everyday player as well. With the renovation of Torrey Pines’ North Course in San Diego last year we took the bunker count from 58 to 42.

Protections around the greens and in the putting surfaces have to be thought out, too. These guys are so good you cannot stop them. But you can make them work for their pars, especially if they miss greens and have 5- and 6-footers to save.

With par 5s, the only chance is to have only two of them – 650-680 yards and in the 550-yard range with a strong risk/reward element. The more par 5s, the easier it becomes. These days you also need a minimum of five or six really long par 4s, 480-505 yards. And two of the par 3s need to be in the 220-240 range.

If you can make those par 4s go in different directions with different challenges and wind situations, you can control your scoring pretty well. But every day you are going to have someone go crazy out there. Every round on Tour, there’s someone who shoots an unbelievably low score. We figured at TPC Scottsdale that 16-under-par total, 4 under each day, would indicate a very fine challenge.

I’m not sure scoring has changed that much since I came on Tour in 1964. The equipment certainly has. Courses are certainly longer. Green speeds are faster, which is why I think you need to have your greens under 2-percent slope in playable areas so you can get the greens as fast as 13 on the Stimpmeter without losing hole locations. That gives you a lot of flexibility in set-up.

The easiest thing is to build the world’s toughest golf course. But that would be a volatile golf tournament if the wind ever came up or the course dried out.

The reputation of the course would suffer. Players would not be happy. The challenge is to build something that rewards good shots but also that gives the average guy a chance the other 51 weeks a year.

There are some changes for older courses that can help them remain relevant even if they lack modern length. The guys still love those courses – Merion, Riviera, Westchester Country Club’s West Course. If you have U.S. Open rough with narrow fairways that run hard and fast and with greens to match, they will play very tough. If the speed is down and you have rain, these guys are not going to miss many fairways with irons in their hands. Older-style courses with poa annua greens can be something of an equalizer with their unpredictability.

I’ll tell you how to create a challenge that will preserve the older courses and make tournament golf more challenging and more interesting to watch: Cut the allowable number of clubs down from 14 to 10 or 12.  Make them think more as they go around the course.

The modern golf ball is an issue. The pros should have their own rules. Give us a tournament ball. That would help a lot. 

(Note: This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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