There has long been the notion—among golf’s more analytical adherents—that what makes certain courses better than others is something that can be measured and explained objectively.
Back in the early 1920s, Joshua Crane, an avid golfer from Boston, created a purportedly scientific ranking of the great links of the UK, breaking down the likes of the Old Course and Muirfield into component pieces, with scores assigned to everything from the arrangement of hazards to the contour of the greens—and much, much more. Crane’s ranking, in which the beloved Old Course finished dead last among its peers, was guided by a sense of “fair play.” His disdain for quirk led to heated debates in print with the likes of Alister MacKenzie and Max Behr.
These days, the analytical approach is encapsulated by something called “shot values.” A term bandied about at many a 19th hole, it seldom means the same thing from one golfer to the next. Golf Digest’s definition (“How well do the holes pose risks and rewards and equally test length, accuracy, and finesse?”) is probably the one that has most filtered down into the general population of golfers. That magazine’s architecture editor, Ron Whitten, made a couple of points via email that hint at what a rigorous mental exercise thinking about “shot values” can be. “It doesn’t require that each hole provide a variety of risks and rewards,” he notes, “just that the full 18 holes of a golf course do so.” So shot values must be considered both in relation to the individual hole as well as how that hole fits into the collective.
And that’s just for starters. Whitten suggests that in order to get a full picture of “shot values,” one shouldn’t just judge the course from the tips. “Too often architects design a challenging risk and reward from the back tee, but then dumb it down from forward tees,” he wrote. “That may add to playability, but it detracts from shot value, in my mind. Average golfers like a challenge, too. It just needs to be proportional, not totally eliminated.” Analyzing the nature and quality of a hole as it relates to one’s own familiar game is one thing; seeing it through the eyes of Jordan Spieth (or an 80-year-old granny) is quite another. It’s not impossible, but it takes some experience and effort.
Perhaps the next big way of thinking about shot values is articulated in Columbia professor Mark Broadie’s Every Shot Counts, an early salvo in golf’s nascent statistical revolution. The book’s most significant innovation is “Strokes Gained,” an analytical instrument in which shots played to and from certain positions fractionally increase (or decrease) one’s chances of gaining ground on the field. The PGA Tour has already begun to incorporate Broadie’s concepts, and apps for our mobile devices are following suit. Strokes Gained data could be overlaid against a topographical map of a course design. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what percentage of your peers—say, 5–15 handicappers—hit the island green at Sawgrass, or managed to get up and down from the Road bunker at St. Andrews? This begins to look very much like shot values, quantified at last.