- Associated Press - Saturday, July 7, 2012

ROSLYN, WASH. (AP) - It takes too long and it’s just too tough.

That’s become a common refrain in these days of closing golf courses and stagnant growth and industry officials are listening.

So after years of seeing high-end, challenging golf courses being built, and many of them founder because they failed to target the correct demographic, design concepts are changing to make courses easier to play to accommodate the recreational golfer who doesn’t like paying hundreds of dollars to card scores in the 100s.

“People have too much fun playing on golf courses that are a little easier to play and not so long,” said Bob Cupp, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “Those two things, there is a message there that is loud and clear.”

The shift in design philosophy is part of an overall reassessment of the game aimed at curbing the trend where first-timers are picking up clubs at the same rate that other players are putting them in storage.

Ideas are coming from all corners of the golf world, whether it is the creation of different, shorter routing options from the traditional 18-hole setup or a push to play a proper set of tees for the golfer’s skill level _ a program called “Tee It Forward” being backed by the PGA of America.

All these new ideas are good for the game, but also highlight the disconnect between developers, course designers and the actual player who was misinterpreted or misunderstood for much of two decades.

“One of the reasons we’ve lost golfers is because we’ve lost recreational golfers. We haven’t lost the golfer who wants to be highly challenged. He’s still playing golf. But all we’ve done is built golf courses for him,” said designer Jim Hardy, who along with Peter Jacobsen constructed Rope Rider in Roslyn, Wash., which is receiving raves for its friendly design. “And all the recreational golfers are saying it costs too much to do this anymore and it takes too much time, I’m going to find another outlet for my recreation, for my recreational dollars for my recreational time, I’m going to find another outlet. If golf continues going the way it is, we’re going to continue to lose more and more and more of those part-time recreational golfers and we’re going to lose golf courses and the game is in trouble.”

Compared to 20 years ago, golf course openings now are rare and celebrated, with most new course openings happening overseas and the American golf design industry relying heavily on remodels.

Rope Rider, which opened in 2011 at Suncadia Resort, is one of the few to fall into the new category and there are simplistic design elements that are being noticed by the rest of the industry.

Hardy and Jacobsen constructed a course that still plays at nearly 7,300 yards from the back tees, yet features no forced carries either off the tee or from the fairway. Bunkers were built to be easily escaped and all holes feature designs around the hole where players have an opening to run the ball up onto the putting surface.

There’s also a significant nod toward junior golfers in the design, with tees specifically placed between 90 and 150 yards out for kids just learning the game and routing for three- and six-hole options for kids who might get bored with nine or 18 holes. The goal for Hardy and Jacobsen was to build a course that was fair and scenic and could be played without taking up 25 percent of the day.

“We need golf courses that average golfers can get around in four hours or less. When I was a kid that was the standard,” Hardy said. “I don’t know why it’s lost. Hell, we’ve got carts today. We didn’t have carts when I was growing up. We might have played in two hours.”

Suncadia is lucky. The resort is large enough to have three courses on property _ two public and one private. With the first public course designed to be a greater test, the resort could take Rope Rider and create a complement that caters to more skill levels.

Not every course is that fortunate.

About 115 miles to the west, at White Horse Golf Club, course operators saw firsthand what happens when a golf course opens to great reviews but has too many players coming back saying it wasn’t fair.

White Horse was nearly shuttered before being purchased by a local Indian tribe and paired with a successful casino. As part of the purchase, the course underwent a “softening” remodel, completed by John Harbottle III. The softening equated to the removal of bunkers and trees, making landing areas wider and green complexes less complex.

It’s a two-fold victory for the course. It’s now easier for the average player and it became less costly to maintain.

“Bigger, stronger, harder, faster got out of hand. … Now the reverse is happening,” Harbottle said back in May before suddenly passing away at age 53. “We’re trying to put a lot of strength and character in the golf course. Even the best players in the world don’t want them too tough. Today, we’re trying to make it look tougher than it actually is.”

Golf is as closely tied to the economy as any sport because of its cost and recreational nature. The changes being made by designers are another way to try to withstand the economic swoons that have hit golf hard during the last half-dozen years.

“I think it’s many, many, many years and much more of a global effort that I think our industry has to take on in order to grow the game as much as we saw the Tiger Woods effect. Tiger singlehandedly grew the game 15 years ago by introducing the true athlete into golf,” said Brady Hatfield, who oversees Rope Rider. “He made golf an athletic event. We saw the football players and baseball players of the world opting to play golf instead of the other sports and in recent years it’s flattened out for all the reasons … and we have to find a way as golf professionals to bring those people back into the game.”

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Follow Tim Booth on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ByTimBooth

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