Unimaginative design doesn’t dampen fan enthusiasm at Bellerive during PGA


ST. LOUIS – The PGA of America board could never have imagined the St. Louis market saving the 100th championship. Positive, appreciative and golf-hungry fans put up with blazing temperatures and not enough seating or space to move, seemingly willing the world’s best to showcase their talents despite an uninspired design beaten down by heat and managed as well as imaginable by Carlos Arraya and staff.

Thank you St. Louis for making the 100th something to remember. Thank you Arraya and friends for holding the course together.

“They have been unbelievable,” Tiger Woods said of the fans. “Not only supportive, but just so positive. They have been supportive of all of my playing partners and myself and it’s been a pleasure to play in front of them, it really has. Hopefully, we can come back soon.”

The design apathy expressed by players, pundits and even apologetic locals speaks to a remarkable refinement in architectural taste buds. A major venue is now expected to be a joyful and at times wily protagonist in the script. Yet the Jones family name on a course has become associated with anything but those sensibilities. Their efforts to shield courses from low scores and to defuse reward for even well-timed risk taking seemed like the right thing to do for decades. Host courses, not wanting to see their course give up low scores, signed off.

But history has shown the approach to be depressingly cynical and dreary to watch. Hosting a major now means wanting to see people have a great time watching golf at your course and hearing cheers of joy over seeing these gifted golfers display their talents.

The Jones remodel approach began in earnest with Robert Trent Jones’ 1951 U.S. Open reworking of Donald Ross’ Oakland Hills. Hogan brought the monster to its knees with a 67, and that somehow validated the approach. For the next 50 years the Jones family was called in to manipulate a majority of major venues, often leaving behind a course less enjoyable to play on a daily basis.

The end will come full circle as Oakland Hills soon embarks on a restoration.

Course designs headed for major overhaul

Yes, next May’s PGA is at the Rees Jones remodeled Bethpage Black, though that one is all about A.W. Tillinghast. There is another U.S. Open at his missed-opportunity Torrey Pines redo, and a Ryder Cup is looming at his father’s Hazeltine way down the road. But as far as majors chosen fresh off of their Open doctoring, Bellerive ends a long run of courses either designed by Robert Trent Jones or severely remodeled by son Rees.

Future venues Aronimink and Baltusrol will feature Gil Hanse restorations, as will Southern Hills. Architect Andrew Green is cooking up a restoration plan for Oak Hill, the 2023 site. Early reviews of his work at Inverness have people hopeful for a possible return to a vital American tournament venue.

Furthermore, upcoming PGAs at TPC Harding Park, Trump Bedminster, Kiawah Island, Quail Hollow and Olympic Club were all awarded without the Jones family design stamp.

The golfing world has grown bored of unimaginative, par-protecting measures. Fewer golfers judge a major by the winning score. We all want players tested with clever strategic decisions, risk-reward options and firm, fast ground to separate the merely great from the Hall of Famers.

Players showed their deep respect for the incredible St. Louis fans and members of Bellerive by not disparaging the design this year. Soft conditions could be blamed for muting some features. But even if it had been firm, players still would have proclaimed Bellerive as light on strategy and requiring almost no serious study in practice rounds.

While the PGA of America’s upcoming list of sites would easily lose a match to the U.S. Golf Association’s upcoming U.S. Open venues, both organizations have rewarded courses for peeling back layers to expose the more nuanced and cerebral design elements covered by decades of Jones family changes. This is not a coincidence, and golf fans have an incredible roster of courses they will look forward to in the coming years.

In the meantime, let’s just thank the fans of St. Louis for inspiring the players to show off their very best, even if the design stage could have been way better. Gwk

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