This year’s slate of major championship hosts is as long as ever. Augusta National is nearly 7,500 yards, U.S. Open host Torrey Pines South’s tips are listed at 7,802 yards and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, 2021 PGA Championship host, has tees that can stretch it past 7,900 yards (though not all will be used at once). At 7,189 yards, Open Championship host Royal St. George’s Golf Club seems like a pitch-and-putt.
And you can add Ryder Cup host Whistling Straits – back tees: 7,790 yards – to the list of stretched-out sites for big-time golf in 2021.
Intimidating as these courses seem, they each fall hundreds of yards short of the Pines Course at The International Golf Club in Bolton, Mass., about a half hour west of Boston.
It measures a wild 8,325 yards from the tips.
Originally laid out by Geoffrey Cornish, New England’s Johnny Appleseed of mid-century golf, and later renovated by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the Pines was known for decades less as an all-around standout course than as the answer to a trivia question: What is the longest golf course in the world?
Cornish's original plan had the course at a tick over 8,000 yards but Jones’ renovation in the 1970s stretched it to its current maximum "Tiger" tee yardage of 8,325. In addition to multiple 270-yard par 3s, the course boasts the 715-yard, par-5 5th hole, with an enormous two-acre green that measures almost 90 yards from front to back.
One course in China and two in South Africa have since eclipsed the Pines’ record, but it still remains the longest course in America.
That distinction, however, will fall away soon, leaving the 8,191-yard Ross Bridge course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail as America’s longest.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose golf course design firm has produced some of the greatest modern golf courses, will be renovating International’s Pines Course in 2022 and 2023 (Oklahoma-based architect Tripp Davis will be renovating the club's Tom Fazio-designed Oaks Course this year).
The directive from Escalante Golf, the club’s new ownership group, is simple: produce the best course possible from the site on which the current course sits. The current plan will use some existing hole corridors, but will nevertheless substantially change the course’s overall routing. When all is said and done, we may fairly call it a brand-new golf course, rather than a redesign.
It also means the Pines will no longer be America’s longest golf course.
In an online press conference to announce the project, Bill Coore specifically mentioned 6,900 yards as an approximate new back-tee yardage, which makes a statement about the value of restraint and an emphasis on fun and playability for club members ahead of using a big back-tee yardage as a marketing tool. At a time when 7,000 yards has long been considered a standard for serious golf, even by players with no business venturing much beyond 6,000 yards themselves, both Escalante and Coore & Crenshaw seem ready to roll back that narrative.
Coore stated that there will be “no attempt, no thought” toward maintaining the Pines’ standing as America’s longest course. “We aim to build a traditional course,” he said, eager to take advantage of the site to make it “distinctively New England.”
Echoing words written by legendary 20th-century architect Donald Ross decades ago on the importance of fun, rather than raw difficulty, Crenshaw added, “Golf should be a pleasure, not a penance.”
Over the last 20-plus years, scores of new golf courses have opened with eye-popping yardages, and almost every renovation of an existing course nowadays includes the addition of new back tee boxes. This means extra time and money spent on course upkeep as a show of legitimacy to the tiny percentage of golfers for whom those tees are relevant.
This even happens at courses that have no prayer of ever hosting a major championship, much less a PGA Tour event. But rank-and-file golfers take cues from the pros, and it puts pressure on operators and memberships to keep up.
Along with some other recent projects, the redesign of the Pines Course at The International points toward a potential reversal of that trend, coming just over a month after the USGA and R&A took a giant step toward refining the regulations on golf equipment with an eye toward a more sustainable future for the game.
Golfers and developers alike are increasingly awake to the fact that length doesn’t have the same cachet it used to among golfers. Coore & Crenshaw’s Sheep Ranch course at Bandon Dunes debuted last year to great acclaim at just 6,636 yards. Plans for the partners' upcoming course at Cabot Saint Lucia reflect a 6,561-yard total.
Keeping golf course lengths modest in the future will enable superintendents to direct time and resources toward the best possible upkeep of greens, fairways and other parts of the course that all golfers, not just the elite players, enjoy. In turn, the USGA and R&A’s efforts to rein in runaway distance gains will make this task easier and keep the game right-sized. Everyone wins.