I just finished reading Tom Doak’s “Anatomy of a Golf Course.” Polished it off in two days. And while I was decidedly underwhelmed by the book — read like a textbook with virtually no personal anecdotes — it did succeed in getting me to think of ways I’d improve my home course, West Seattle Golf Course, in my alternative life as a golf course architect.
I approach the task on the premise that a well-designed golf course should be challenging to golfers of all skill levels, which West Seattle is decidedly not for good players. Granted, I’m a 4.6 handicap and I still usually shoot in the high seventies, but that’s because I have a stonemason’s touch around the greens and make about fifty percent of my three footers. If I had even a modicum of short game I’d always be around par — tee to green, they don’t come much easier than the course I grew up on.
Much of that, of course, is the result of the size of the property. It just isn’t very big and, as such, it can only be made so long. Nevertheless, it still could be a bit more challenging and demand a little more precision from its players. In order, here’s what I’d do:
1. Back up the tee on 11. This is about as easy as it gets because the tee box is basically already there — it’s just rarely if ever used. A hole so severely downhill oughta be 180 yards minimum, even from the white tees. Cost: Low.
2. Get rid of the left bunker on 17. I have played West Seattle probably 100 times since they added a few bunkers to the course and I’ve never seen a single human being in the left bunker on 17. I cannot fathom what they were thinking there, but it’s a waste and just screams of a bunker for bunker’s sake. Cost: Low.
3. Rebuild and re-elevate the No. 7 green. No. 7 is a very short par 4 that defenders say was designed to be driveable. I’ve heard it’s been done but I’ve never seen it, nor have I come close myself, and I’m a reasonably long hitter. Truth is it can’t be done except in the driest of conditions, and that’s basically six weeks out of the year. The sad truth is that it’s basically a driving range drive and a wedge to a massive and very flat green — about as boring as holes get. (The green is so large that you’d think it should be receiving three irons rather than sand wedges. I’d rebuild the green, maybe push it over to the left some, elevate it, and shrink it by about fifty percent. At least then there’d be some precision required on one of the hole’s shots. The downside of this is that by shrinking the green you concentrate the foot traffic, which will increase the likelihood that the green will be in poor shape. But it would be no smaller than No. 2′s green and, truth be told, the overly large green is usually in pretty poor shape, anyway. Cost: high.
4. Give No. 2 some teeth. The second hole is a way too short par 4 where anything but a dead right tee shot is an easy par. I’d make a little tougher. First, I’d eliminate the current tee box and replace it with one 20-30 yards back and slightly to the right. There’s room there, and, if you wanted to hit driver to shorten your approach shot, it would force a left to right drive with a hazard on the right — tough stuff. Next, I’d add a large bunker about 240-70 yards off the tee. The guy who wanted to hit driver would then have very little room to bail out left. Guys who didn’t want to mess with the bunker or want to hit a hard cut drive would then have to lay up, the result being an approach shot of 160-70 yards or so with a hazard on the right. Good, tough stuff. Cost: medium.
5. Give No. 5 some teeth. No. 5 is almost as easy as No. 2. I’d back the tee up as far as humanly possible and add a large fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway to catch any pulled drives, sort of like they did on No. 12 (pictured above) a few years back. Right now the room over there is ample and a hooked drive requires nothing more than a hooded short iron recovery shot to recover. Make a guy hit his approach from sand with a mid- to long iron and the hole gets considerably tougher.
6. Deep bunker at front and left of 6. At 180 yards from the blue and 215 from the blacks, No. 6 has sufficient length. And with that length and a hazard to the right, there is no shortage of misses to the left of the green. Why not toughen that area? I’d shave about 25% of the green off on the left in favor of a fairly large and deep bunker that would start in the front of the green and wrap around on the left side. Any misses left would then be in the bunker, where players would hit second shots knowing that any skulls would end up long and possibly in the hazard — read: big numbers. The important part is to make the bunker deep rather than just a flat space with sand, as with so many of the other bunkers on the course. Cost: medium.
7. Add fairway bunkers to No. 9. No. 9 is long enough when played from the back tees. The problem with the hole, like so many others on WSGC, is that it requires so little precision. Any drive but a massive hook is fine, any second shot is generally fine unless you’re in the grove of trees about 100-20 yards from the green. I’d add a large fairway bunker on the right side to catch any pushed drives: given the OB left, pushes aren’t uncommon. I’d add a second fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway to catch lay up shots that stray too far left. That would make the second shot somewhat difficult — miss it right and you’re in the grove of trees, from where hitting the green is a chore even from 100 yards. Miss it left and your approach shot comes from a bunker — never easy. Cost: medium.
8. Make 12 a very long par 4. When I first started playing at WSGC in the early 1980′s, No. 12 was a 424-yard par 5. Off a mat. The tee was directly in front of the creek. It has since been moved back some eighty yards, which makes it an okay but very reachable par 5. I’d put a tee where the old mat used to be, so a 425-yard or so par 4. This would be controversial, no doubt. First, it would make the nines 37-34 — not ideal. Second, a very long but not long enough drive might finish with a severe downhill lie. Shorter drives would be flat but 200 yards or so, longer drives would roll on the way to the flat of the gully, where most third shots are played from today. If the powers that be decided that too many shots were stopping in that very downhill area, this idea would have to be abandoned. Cost: low.
9. Add fairway bunker to right side of 15. Like so many other holes, No. 15 is pretty much a grip it and rip it and, so long as you don’t pull it, it’s an easy short iron approach, even from the rough. I’d add a large catch-all bunker on the right side of the fairway to catch any drives left out there by guys afraid of the left-side trees. A 140-yard approach from sand is a lot tougher than an approach from the light rough, especially with winter rules. Cost: low.
10. Cut trees down on No. 18′s lower tee to make grass-growing a viable proposition. No. 18 is a very weak finishing hole from the upper tees. Driver wedge and, unless you hit it at a 45-degree right angle off the tee, it’s about as easy as a finishing hole gets. There’s not a lot to do about it — the real estate just isn’t there to make a very long or challenging finishing hole. One good idea would be to make the lower tee the default one — it at least requires a memorable and somewhat challenging tee shot. Problem is that the trees down there virtually block out the sun, making grass growing quite a challenge. Remove those trees and you have yourself a much better tee.
The great part of all this is that the city has — or, at least, had — funds available to improve West Seattle Golf. Until recently it was considering adding a driving range to the course that would have cost a few mill. (More.) My ideas could be accomplished for a fraction of that. And with these tweaks the city would be justified in raising the green fees some 10-15 percent — not ideal for most guys, but that’s really no more than about $5/round.
While I wait, I’ll look for more architecture books.