Golf Courses Are Adjusting to Longer Shots

Thanks to advances in golf equipment, shots travel farther and higher than golf course designers had envisioned years ago. With enhancements to both clubs and balls, even duffers can hit for greater distance.

As a result, courses are being reimagined to keep them challenging for elite players. But in the process, golf course architects are looking anew at golf course communities — often developed decades ago — to ensure that the game remains safe for people in adjacent homes.

Adding to the trend of longer shots is the fact that more casual players are getting fitted for their clubs, which may improve distance and accuracy. And many golfers are more fit, spending several days a week training.

“There’s a whole crop of people who can hit the ball much, much farther,” said Jason Straka, a golf course architect based in Dublin, Ohio, who is also president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “It’s not necessarily bad that balls can go farther; there’s just no consensus on what to do about it.”

How much farther balls travel depends on the player, of course. Todd Beach, the senior vice president of research design and engineering at TaylorMade Golf, said that in the 40 years since the Carlsbad, Calif., company began operations, clubs have moved from steel to graphite and titanium. (TaylorMade just introduced “Carbonwood,” a new line of drivers that, as the name suggests, is composed of carbon.)

Professional golfers can now drive a ball roughly 40 yards farther than they did in the past, Mr. Beach said, while average players are hitting drives that travel a few extra yards.

That’s why architects are rethinking distances, hazards and screening as they renovate courses and golf communities. To be sure, the risk to homes, residents and pets remains low. According to Forrest Richardson, a golf architect based in Phoenix, “it’s only occasionally that the ball can go farther and cause a problem.”

Nonetheless,older communities are examining how to improve safety. Because property setbacks cannot be altered, a starting point is to move the tees closer to property lines so that golfers hit away from residential areas. In addition, sand bunkers or water hazards may be incorporated closer to homes so that players aim in a different direction, Mr. Straka said. Trees or other vegetation may also align a golfer closer to where he or she should be hitting.

“We might put something in the way of where a lot of people might otherwise want to land their shot to force a golfer to hit in a more controlled way,” Mr. Richardson said.

In other instances, Mr. Straka said, it may mean straightening out a so-called dogleg hole by shortening it, which may mean transforming it from a par 4 to a par 3.

Another option for older communities, which often have houses on both sides of the course, is to make the courses smaller, said Art Schaupeter, a golf course architect based in St. Louis. To renovate those courses to accommodate bigger swings, “we are converting some by making them into smaller courses, whether eliminating some holes or taking a regulation 18-hole course and converting it to a par 3 course” or one that is a so-called executive length to allow more distance from the existing homes.

Ultimately, “it’s all about examining the landing area, where balls are most likely to go off line,” said Ron Despain, a senior vice president of Troon Golf, which operates golf courses worldwide.

Nets are another option for residential areas and courses adjacent to public spaces and roads, but these are costly because they need to be at least 120 feet high. Adding in the cost of steel poles, Mr. Straka said, nets can exceed $1 million. And apart from the cost, a net’s aesthetics often mar the open spaces associated with golf course life.

The risks also extend to driving ranges and practice areas.

Three Carpenter, who manages the Crow Valley Golf Club in Davenport, Iowa, faced the problem when land adjacent to Crow Valley’s driving range was getting developed for offices and townhomes.

For one of the areas, the developer planned a project 15 feet from the property line, Mr. Carpenter said, and the initial solution was to build a berm. But because even that was insufficient to shield all errant balls, the driving range now requires a so-called “limited flight ball” which cannot travel as far, a solution that some golfers dislike because it is an imperfect measure of a swing, Mr. Carpenter said. Separately, the club has purchased additional land abutting the driving range because buying the property was less expensive than constructing an extensive net.

There is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution, and not just because golf courses vary in shape and length. Factors like the terrain, climate, wind conditions and altitude all affect how far a ball can travel. In addition, designers are looking at who the players are — amateurs or more elite. New developments can anticipate these issues.

Jim Birdsall is one of three co-owners of TPC Colorado, a multiuse community in Berthoud, Colo., that includes a championship golf course that can be stretched to just under 8,000 yards. That length, he said, can accommodate longer drives. But, he said, added length comes with the additional expense of maintenance, including water and fertilizer.

He said that newer balls, which seek to add spin to a shot, can be problematic. “If a weekend warrior doesn’t know how to control the spin of a shot and they overcook it, there can be unintended consequences,” including the errant ball that winds up in someone’s yard.

The harder hitting among elite players is leading some to contemplate dialing back equipment. The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Britain’s governing golf entity, two years ago suggested studying the issue — the Distance Insights Project.

Mr. Beach of TaylorMade said his company is working with the golfing organizations but hopes there are no restrictions on advances in equipment, which he said would be costly and difficult to monitor.

But for some golf course architects, technical advances are not the primary motivation for golf course renovation.

“Golf courses are natural. They evolve and they can get worn out,” Mr. Schaupeter, who designed TPC Colorado, said. “There can be just one house that gets a dozen balls in their backyard over the weekend. That’s when you might shorten the hole or move the tee.”

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