Teeing Off at Torrey Pines to Learn How Technology is Changing Golf

And its most prized courses.

Perfection. That is the word in my mind while gazing out from my balcony at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California. The Pacific Ocean is in the background. Hang–gliders drift across a blue backdrop. The eponymous Torrey pines give the setting a coastal windswept look. The Torrey Pines South Course and North Course stretch from the lodge to the cliffs, the routing of the holes moving poetically across the shoreline. If the sheer beauty of the place isn’t enough, it also happens to be the legendary spot where Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg. He holed a 12–foot putt on the last green of regulation play and went on to win a playoff. For a golfer, this is an unimprovable location.

February 25, 2020
A golf hole with a yellow flag faces the water
A hand holding a golf club
A bird’s-eye view of holes 4 and 5 on the South Course
A bird’s–eye view of holes 4 and 5 on the South Course.

Or maybe not. It turns out Torrey Pines has made quite a few improvements in recent years. Fourteen million dollars’ worth, primarily in preparation for hosting the U.S. Open in June 2021. The most recent set of changes was actually the second major renovation in the last two decades; the first came in the lead–up to the 2008 U.S. Open. The course has had more surgical interventions than, well, Tiger Woods. Tees have been added. Bunkers have been added, moved or reshaped. Greens have been rebuilt. Fairway angles altered. It would be easy to get into the renovation weeds, but the bottom line is this: Torrey Pines is much tougher than it used to be. In the late 1990s the South Course played just over 7,000 yards. At next year’s U.S. Open, it will play just under 7,800 yards.

Torrey Pines South, which opened in 1957 and was designed by William F. Bell (who also built the course at the nearby Rancho Bernardo Inn), is as good a symbol as any of how golf today is hostage to the dilemma presented by advances in equipment technology. Some of the world’s most cherished golf courses – the Old Course, Augusta National, Pinehurst No. 2 – are not just historic, they exemplify the strategic beauty of the game. The great architects – A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, the Canadian Stanley Thompson, Alister MacKenzie – relied on hazards, angles and routing to test players, but elite golfers now hit the ball so far that the challenges of years past have become irrelevant. The go–to solution for most courses has been to add length, fuelling an arms race that no one is winning.

South Course’s 5th  and 4th fairways, with San Clemente island in the distance.
Looking across the South Course’s 5th and 4th fairways, with San Clemente island in the distance.
Lining up the golf club to hit the ball
Sand pits on the golf course

Why has it come to this? Well, if you run TaylorMade or Titleist and your research team can make a golf ball that will fly farther and straighter than last year’s, why stop them? Golfers enjoy hitting the ball farther, myself included. Unfortunately, the game’s governing bodies (primarily the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient) have taken a hands–off approach to technology, which means the pros – who gain virtually all the benefits of innovation – have obliterated the meaning of the standard scorecard. These bodies did release a Distance Insights Report in early February of 2020 acknowledging the problem, but have yet to suggest solutions.

The game’s more astute commentators are sounding alarm bells. As long–time golf architecture writer Bradley Klein sees it, “some courses, such as Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines South, seem to have given up some of their classical character for the sake of hosting major championships.” Torrey Pines’ continual tinkering with bunkering and length “is a process that hasn’t made the most out of its dramatic cliffside setting from a strategic standpoint.”

A broken golf tee lying flat on the ground
Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course sits atop a cliff that overlooks the ocean
A man crouching down to play golf
A rake lying in a sand pit next to a golf ball
Playing the South Course, up close and from afar.

This seems to be a golf problem. They haven’t enlarged tennis courts just because Federer serves faster today than McEnroe did 30 years ago. Ballparks aren’t much bigger today than when Babe Ruth played. The basketball hoop is still 10 feet high. And last time I checked, Usain Bolt only had to run 100 metres at the Olympic Games. Yet golf continues to radically alter its playing fields instead of regulating technology – odd for a sport that places so much emphasis on its history. No one is quite sure why it’s been allowed, except that it seems the governing bodies do not want to alienate the major equipment companies.

We might well ask what impact all this has on the average hacker. Well, also unique to golf is that everyday players can walk the same turf as their heroes. You don’t see many baseball enthusiasts playing pickup at Yankee Stadium, but any golfer can tee off at Torrey Pines.

Aerial view of the Torrey Pines Municipal Golf course along the ocean shoreline
A man trying to get his golf ball out of the sand

To be fair, restorations are sometimes about upkeep. The most recent South Course renovation improved the irrigation and drainage, an environmental move that will decrease water usage. Overall, says San Diego golf course manager Michael Jones, the work was “meant to enhance the playing experience for everyone – from the everyday player to the best players in the world.” Adding forward tees on certain holes will make it easier for the average golfer, but other changes, such as bringing the cliffs and canyons more into play, are designed to test better players.

A group of golfers walking along South Course

Staying relevant to the modern game is, in short, a constantly moving target. The lengthening of courses, notes Geoff Shackelford, a Golf Channel columnist and part–time golf course architect, is making the game more expensive and time–consuming. The only positive is that people are now realizing it’s hurting the sport. “The three greatest golfers ever,” says Shackelford, “lamented spikes in distance and the pursuit of longer courses. Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have all spoken out on this topic. And the sport hasn’t listened to them.”

“You can’t build a course long enough for tour pros today,” says Ben Cowan–Dewar, the man behind the now–famous Cabot Links concept on Cape Breton Island. He believes the pros should have restrictions placed on their equipment but us duffers should be left to use whatever we want, since, after all, “golf is a game of recreation for the majority of golfers.”

Aerial view of Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course and two golf carts
A man swings his arm to drive the golf ball

Golf is at an intersection in which many seemingly unconnected roads are in fact converging. The technology debate is linked to demographic change, environmental pressure, water usage, class and property issues, playability and cost. They can all be reduced to a fairly simple question, which is, how do you keep the game playable for the masses yet challenging for the pros? The obvious answer is also the one that would immediately and positively impact every other issue. With a ball that flies shorter distances, you would have shorter courses, meaning you would need less land and play would speed up with less ground to cover. A smaller footprint would mean less maintenance, less water and fewer fertilizers and pesticides, all of which would make the game more affordable to play and more environmentally friendly.

A man walks into the sunset with his bag of golf clubs on South Course
Sunset links: Approaching the 3rd green during a late round at Torrey Pines South Course.

Something has to give, because the drift toward longer and harder golf courses is not sustainable. The game is already struggling to attract the younger generation and making it more difficult, time–consuming and expensive doesn’t seem like a particularly shrewd solution. Golf is at the kind of crossroads you can witness up close at places like the 9th hole at Torrey Pines South. It is a solid 540–yard par 5, but once on the tee I see a narrow strip of turf running another 80 yards back to the slightly elevated pro tees, a bland addition created for tournament play only. It feels somehow emblematic of the entire debate. Twenty years ago, you’d have said that Torrey Pines was pretty much flawless. But, like so many courses, it is now having to continuously adapt to technological advancements. Turning back towards the hole, I tee off, then squint to track the flight of my ball as the ocean breeze tries to nudge it towards the fairway bunkers on the left. It just avoids them, which means I might have a shot at reaching the green in two shots. Not perfection, by any stretch, but close enough for me.