A new era appears to be emerging in golf, and it isn’t arriving a moment too soon.
If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, we might have crossed a threshold in the game, a place and time where longer, harder, bigger, and more dramatic golf courses, built as part of an arms race with club and ball manufacturers, are finally, mercifully, going the way of Cold War bomb shelters and Devo albums.
After 30 years of architects doing their best to one-up each other with the most picturesque vistas and outrageous features, a time when flash bunkers looked like they might require rapelling gear and crampons; greens had all the subtlety of a roller coaster; boulder outcroppings split double fairways and carries were forced over everything from crocodile pits to the Rio Grande River, the boom finally ended, not because the artists and designers got tired of pushing the envelope, but because players finally rose up and said, "Enough!"
And it's not just weekend duffers who were sick of losing a dozen balls and a pound of pride every round. The best players in the world have taken to the microphones about the need to throttle back the madness. The game's greats are finally putting their feet down and saying long doesn’t necessarily mean good.
As we close out 2012 and look toward a 2013 where short, strategic Merion is back in the major championship rotation and every organization in the sport is promoting shorter courses for greater fun, the game and those who shape it might have finally shifted back to the side of sanity.
Take the comments last week from Kingston Heath for example.
Before teeing off in the Australian Masters, Ian Poulter tweeted, "Kingston Heath is totally awesome. Someone please tell modern day architects we don't need 8,000-yard tracks. They’re not enjoyable. Best yet."
Far from a monster, the 87-year-old club in the east suburbs of Melbourne tips out at just over 6,900 yards, yet it is consistently rated as the one of the top two or three best courses in Australia and one of the top 25 in the world.
"It's a fantastic golf course, just a real advertisement for how a golf course doesn't need length to be tricky and tough," Graeme McDowell said before this year’s tournament. "It reminds me a little of the west coast of England there with your Birkdales and your Hillsides and that little stretch of phenomenal golf courses.
"I played here on Sunday and I played in a northerly wind, then I played nine holes yesterday afternoon (Monday) in a very strong southerly wind and (that) completely changed the dynami," he explained. "If I ever design a golf course, it would certainly have a lot of elements that Kingston Heath has to it. I love a golf course that asks you to position the ball off the tee with many clubs as opposed to the modern-day course which is bombs away."
Most architects have come around to this way of thinking, not because they wanted to, but because the market demanded it.
"We have to get away from the big and dramatic, especially since that has, at least in recent years, translated into courses that are too difficult and too expensive," the noted designer Denis Griffith recently told me. "There aren’t enough golfers willing to pay to play those sorts of courses anymore."
"These green complexes are just fantastic; they're subtle without overkill," McDowell said, continuing to heap accolades on Kingston Heath. "The bunkers are the most beautiful sand you'll ever see, the firm faces: the ball runs back into the middle of them. If you control your ball, you'll score; if you don't control your ball, it'll beat you up. I love it."
You will rarely hear that sort of effusive praise for 7,900-yard par-70 courses built in the 1990s by architects who go by one name. Not even the longest hitters in history enjoy playing them.
Today, the world’s best are recognizing that shorter is better. Even courses like Bel Air Country Club, Siwanoy Country Club, Philadelphia Country Club and Myopia Hunt Club -- tracks with rich, storied histories that will never make it onto television because there is no room for galleries or tented retail pavilions -- are getting a new fresh look from young players who never knew what they were missing.
What they are discovering is something we should have known all along: elegance is subtle. It always has been. And, in the end, it is the only thing that lasts.