By George Peper
When I’m appointed Czar of Golf, my first order of business will be to address the game’s three big weaknesses—its glacial pace, extortionate expense, and damnable difficulty—and I will do so with my signature decree: the Affordable Course Act. The ACA will at last bring high-quality golf to the millions of U.S. citizens who currently have no access to it.
Affordable in this case means manageable in terms of one’s time, money, and ego. Under the Act, no course will be allowed to open unless it achieves an official ACA rating of 475 or less (as with all things golf, lower is better). Let me explain.
The ACA Rating is comprised of three metrics: minutes, dollars, and Slope.
• Each ACA course will have a USGA Pace Rating of no more than 240 minutes. (This means the course will be navigable by a group of four players, whether in carts or on foot, in four hours or less.)
• Each ACA course will have an average green fee of $100 or less. (I will allow a bit higher fee on weekends and in the peak season, but such fees will be balanced by lower charges during the week and in the off-season.)
• Each ACA course will have a maximum USGA Slope Rating of 135. (And be aware, that’s from the very back markers. The regular tees should check in at closer to 130 or less.)
Clearly, I’m talking about public courses here. Honestly, I’d like for my edict to apply to all clubs and courses—both public and private—and be retroactive as well, forcing them to retool their courses and rethink their policies, but I fear my czaristic powers will extend only so far. So I’ll leave the private clubs and marquee courses to figure things out for themselves. Surely they’ll see the light, as golfers of the future show they simply don’t have the time, money, or patience of their forebears. Already, private clubs and golf course-based communities throughout the nation are getting nervous as the millennial generation and beyond demonstrate comparatively little interest in either golf or home buying.
But rest assured, once my ACA is fully rolled out, golfers of every stripe will be doing the math: “Do I really want to play Pebble Beach or Pinehurst No. 2 (each with a rating in the 900s) when there’s a great ACA course just down the road?”
Mind you, there’s a lower limit here as well. Just as any self-respecting, clear-minded, able-bodied golfer won’t want to play a course ACA-rated higher than 475, he or she also will shun any course rated much lower than 350. Think about it—if you’ve paid a green of less than $50 and you’ve finished your round in under three and half hours (210 minutes) it’s probably because no one else wants to play the course, and that’s because it’s a dull, pittypat layout with a Slope rating somewhere around 95.
Take a look at your own course or club. If the daily fee (or guest fee) is around $75, the Slope from the regular markers is about 125, and your regular weekend group routinely gets around in say 3:45 (225 minutes), that’s a total of 425, which is pretty much my ACA sweet spot.
Now, golf course architects, developers, and builders should have relatively little trouble heeding my edict because the three measurements—cost, time, and difficulty—tend to move in lock step as course-design decisions are made. Take bunkers; in fact, don’t take them. If you decrease both the number and size of bunkers, three good things happen: 1) Maintenance costs go down (less sand to tend to); 2) Playing time goes down (fewer shots are hit into sand, meaning fewer shots out and less raking); and 3) Scores go down since everyone except Tour pros plays better from grass than from sand.
The same thing happens if watering is limited and the fairways are kept firm and fast. Irrigation cost (the single biggest maintenance item) plummets while at the same time the ball bounces and rolls farther, effectively shortening the course, which invariably means both faster play and lower scores.
These and other such changes don’t mean the course has to be dull or unchallenging—just fun. Big, wide fairways can mean options and strategy rather than forced marches and punishment. Hazards and OB, if kept to the left side of the course, will catch fewer players since most of us are right-handed slicers. Fairway bunkers, if placed to snag long hitters rather than average players and used as buffers to keep balls from rolling into worse peril, will keep play moving faster and more happily.
The ideal ACA track will be a one-ball course, where you rarely reach into your bag (or wallet), waste little time searching, and add no lost-ball penalty strokes to your score. Finally, greens that favor the C.B. Macdonald punchbowl style rather than the Donald Ross inverted punchbowl (and roll at a maximum Stimpmeter speed of 10 rather than 13) will be far less vexing, no less interesting, and much more fun to putt.
These are the courses that will succeed with golfers of the future, will put money in the pockets of their owners, and will help secure the continued vitality and popularity of our beloved game.
Thank goodness once czardom is conferred on me, I’ll get all this done for the good of golfkind. I recognize, however, that my coronation may not be imminent so I hereby magnanimously offer my ACA formula and specs to all course owners, developers, and architects in the fervent hope that they’ll step up and do the right thing.