Freeway Architecture and Saskatchewan

michael_hurdzanSubmitted by Greg Murphy

“The result of freeway golf architecture is that a majority of golfers experience the game on courses with little or no architectural value beyond their serving as an occasion for hitting a succession of golf shots.”

Dr. Michael Hurdzan

I love golf in Saskatchewan. It’s where I learned to play golf. It’s where I have played most of my golf. And it’s where I’ll likely play most of the rest of my golf.

However, if I have a beef with Saskatchewan golf courses in general, it is that so few are based on strategic design principles. There are historical and economic reasons for this. In the half century following the Great Depression, very little golf development occurred in Saskatchewan and when it did take place, it was exceptionally frugal and restrained. For example, with the advent of irrigation, courses began replacing sand greens with grass. Rather than actually build new green complexes with contoured surfaces and greenside features like bunkers, hollows and mounds to add strategic interest to the holes, the typical approach, still so starkly in evidence at the Murray Golf Course in Regina, was to simply enlarge and grass over the existing surfaces.

Compounding this bare bones approach, in the years following World War II, there developed a school of architecture, aptly named Freeway Golf by Dr. Michael Hurdzan. The primary goal of Freeway Golf was to provide cheap golf to the masses by moving them through a maze of straight lines in the most efficient, expedient and trouble free manner possible. Hallmarks of Freeway Golf include round greens with symmetrically oval expressionless bunkers placed to each side (sometimes far enough away to allow room in between for a tractor-pulled gang mower to pass—remind you of the Murray?), a minimum of fairway bunkering (prior to work in the nineties, the Wascana Country Club had one fairway bunker on the entire course), fairways mowed in straight line patterns, trees lined up like guardrails in straight rows along the freeway, and trees or bushes or monuments placed at intervals like highway guideposts to tell players how far they had to go to their destination. No thought is required to play this kind of course as there is only one correct line to follow from tee to green. Quoting from Dr. Hurdzan’s book, “Golf Course Architecture”:

It is true that some freeway golf courses are nicely camouflaged with large flowing earthwork, dramatic hazards, and railroad ties or rock walls. But underneath this artificial façade lies the dead weight of cement. Such golf courses are lifeless, providing a venue for the game without any semblance of its soul. Unfortunately, such facilities are attractive to owners because of their suitability for high-volume, daily fee play. The result is that a majority of golfers experience the game on courses with little or no architectural value beyond their serving as an occasion for hitting a succession of golf shots.

By the eighties and nineties, new courses began sprouting up in Saskatchewan, with a more pleasing presentation than the stark, straight line, Freeway Golf courses that preceded them. Examples include White Bear and Long Creek in the south and Elk Ridge in the North. Long Creek is set in a shallow creek valley. Elk Ridge is cut through a northern spruce forest. White Bear makes its way through a birch and aspen forest. Their appeal lies in their secluded refuge environments that provide respite from the sometimes harsh open prairie. I have played them all, Long Creek more than a dozen times, White Bear a few times and Elk Ridge a couple of times. But like the Freeway Golf courses that came before them, they, too, force one line of play from tee to green. In addition, they severely punish wayward shots as their relatively narrow fairways are bordered by thick bush and trees. The biggest choice when playing these courses is not so much where to drive your ball on each hole (straight down the middle is the only choice) but rather whether you should just keep the driver in the trunk of the car. The locals I’ve hooked up with at White Bear never hit anything but an iron off the tee. This is the wise play at most of the holes at Long Creek and Elk Ridge, too. Like the Freeway courses, the green complexes are frugal, plain and restrained. Very rarely does it make any difference what angle you attack the pin from.

Katepwa Beach is different. The desire on the par 4’s and 5’s was to have strategic choices off the tee and into every green. Some examples will illustrate. The first hole invites one to blast away off the tee. There is out of bounds left and bush right, but the fairway is 3 to 4 times as wide as, for instance, the par 5, 12th at Deer Valley. For those with enough length to get into position to reach the green on their second shot, there is a distinct advantage coming in from the right hand side. Played as a three shot hole, the second shot offers numerous choices. The shortest route is usually over the fairway bunker, bringing the bunker and long grass around it and over it into play. Avoiding the bunker altogether by playing right, lengthens the hole and could result in playing through the fairway if not careful. Finally there is the choice of how close one wants to get to the green on the second shot. Laying back to the 100-120 yard range or so leaves a more level lie and a full club. Getting closer to the green means a very delicate, high shot is required off an uphill lie. And of course, however one arrives at the first green, it is imperative to be below the hole.

The first choice on the second hole from the tee is, “how far do I want to hit it”. The green is relatively shallow so ideally one wants to be in wedge or 9 iron range, but that brings the pond potentially into play on the right and bush into play on the left. The safer play off the tee is to lay back a bit, but then the shot into the green from 140-160 yards becomes much more difficult. The ideal angle into the green is from the left side of the fairway. A slight regret on this hole is that we didn’t put a rise in the middle section of the green to cause more interesting putting issues for those ending up on the opposite side of the green to the pin and if the green were slightly more angled to the fairway it would have increased the reward for playing to the left side off the tee. Although the pond requires a forced carry, we provided a generous bail out to the left of the green for those in doubt about their ability to carry the water.

The fourth hole is an extremely strategic short par 4. Playing directly at the green or even slightly left of it is dangerous because of the bush tight to the left side of the fairway. But there is a lot of reward playing to the high left side. Some can drive the green, especially with the “turbo boost” slope short of the green that can kick a ball forward onto the green. But even those not quite so long will have a much better angle of approach into the green if they play along the left side off the tee. From the left side, the green side bunker is taken out of play and the shot into the green may be flown in high or bounced on low. The safe shot off the tee is middle or a bit right and with a club that will not send the ball through the fairway into the bush long and right if missed to the right. A ball placed directly down the middle will require a tricky approach off a side hill lie. Further right brings the bunker at the green much more into play and shortens the green but it generally provides a flat lie to play from.

The sixth hole is a gambling tee shot. Cutting off the corner over the hill to a blind landing area is disaster if played too far left but the reward if executed properly is a full shot less into the green. Playing safe to the right still requires a good shot off the tee and the second shot can also be dangerous if too much club is taken and the shot is lost to the right. The approach into the green really needs to find the proper level and in some cases there is the opportunity to creatively bounce the ball off the left and/or back fringe onto the green

The seventh hole is a blast in fun rounds but a real knee knocker in competitive rounds. The safe play is a lay up with a 170 yard iron to a blind fairway landing area, followed by a wedge into the green. The wedge shot requires a lot of skill as the green slopes away and to the left. The bold play is to try to drive the green. Like the fourth, there is fairway slope that can at times give a ball a little short a boost to the green, but its just as likely to kick it left into the bunker or tall grass.

The eighth hole requires the longest tee shot the player can muster. Like the first hole, the fairway is super-wide but there’s a bunker and OB left and bush right. Playing to the right shortens the hole but provides a much poorer approach angle into the green, which is sometimes hidden by bush at the corner of the dogleg. The best angle into the green is achieved by taking the slightly longer route to the left. From there, the ball may be flown onto the green but the green is also open at the front to allow a ball to be run on. The high front right side of the green also need not be carried and can actually be used to receive a ball curved in from left to right. When approached from the right, this feature of the green can kick a ball long past a short or middle flag.

Finally, the ninth hole tempts a tee shot down the left side to shorten the hole and set up a second shot into the green but bush is there waiting all along the left side for those who bite off too much of the dogleg. Playing to the right off the tee makes the hole play longer but opens up a long second shot between the bunkers at the green. Playing three shots to the green, there is a distinct advantage playing the second shot to the right side of the fairway to set up a better angle into the green, which is almost perpendicular if approached from the left.

Wider fairways and turns within fairways at Katepwa combine to create landing zones far larger than what is found in most other Saskatchewan courses such as Long Creek, White Bear, Elk Ridge and Deer Valley. It should be apparent that strategy requires width in the landing zones. Some may think it an “extravagant” use of land, and it may not seem in keeping with our deeply rooted no-frills, no-waste, depression era mentality. But it is the essence of strategic golf.

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