Golf Course Architect Roundtable 3: Five Courses to Play Forever

Reader questions answered by the game's best architects and shapers


If you had to pick 5 courses to play the rest of your life, where would you choose?
-Patrick B.

Riviera C.C., Pacific Palisades, CA. – George Thomas

It’s so easy to underestimate the routing of Riviera. The site is a simple box canyon with not a lot of features, but Thomas incorporated the central barranca so effectively on six holes. He then utilizes the side slopes and elevation changes at the edges of the canyon to play a significant role on another six. But what takes Riviera to a whole other architectural level is the excellence in design details on the remaining six holes that traverse over the lesser land of the property.

The 10th hole is the game’s greatest creation. Thomas used deception, strategic angles, pitch and the juxtaposition of grand and small scale to confuse and confound the player. It is also a testimony that a player’s ego can be used against them to reduce their chances of succeeding. In other holes he relied on dramatic bunkers and creative green contours to play an essential role in how the hole must be approached. In all cases he insists upon constant positional play, which means even when the land isn’t dramatic, the challenges still hold your attention.

There is no course that plays quite like Riviera. You are constantly asked to hit either a draw or fade off the tee. Thomas did this in a variety of ways, including the use of key trees, careful placement of bunkers, slopes of the green, and even the keen use of side slopes that require a tee shot to be shaped to remain on the fairway. The joy at Riviera is the constant flow back and forth between fade and draw, even alternating on the same hole at times (like the 3rd hole). It’s a course where skill and cunning is required to score, but on the occasion where you find yourself well out of position, the ball is still easy to find and easy to put back in play.

The 18th at Riviera C.C.

Royal Melbourne (West), Melbourne, Australia – Alister Mackenzie

Royal Melbourne is one of golf greatest collaborative efforts. It begins with Alister Mackenzie’s fantastic routing. His routing challenges the rolling terrain in so many different ways, mostly diagonally, but on occasion even straight up. The impact is tremendous variety of cants and fairway contours in play in landing areas. In fact, it’s one of the best driving courses in golf. The course also features a series of beautiful green sites, some on plateaus others within bowls, but each beautifully blended into the surrounding landscape. Russel and Morcom deserve much credit for getting Alister’s plan and details in the ground, but it’s Claude Crockford’s integration of native plant materials and course presentation that make this course sublime.

What I enjoy most is the epic scale of the site. Mackenzie added multitudes of dramatic bunkers that are very much in play. You are constantly asked whether you should carry a hazard in order to gain position or play safe and take on a longer, tougher approach. But you know that if you’re going to get anywhere you must take on some of the trouble. This balance of playability and disaster engages you. Missing fairways or approaches comes with a price, but making the shot comes with a just reward.

I love the freedom to choose and think. I love the notion of taking on as much as I dare. I have all the safe options I would ever want, but just as many dangerous and compelling options that I can’t pass up. It’s all up to me.

The Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland – Robertson/Morris

St. Andrews is the wellspring for golf course architecture. Almost every great idea ever incorporated in golf design can be found on this immaculate links. The irony is many ideas were not planned by expert nor was the course built over outstanding terrain. The magic lies in the multitude of small details that when collected together deliver an incredible playing experience. It reminds us every time that golf is not about how a course looks, but how it plays on the ground.

After finishing a recent enjoyable round at St. Andrews Old, played in very aggressive winds, I had an epiphany about the experience. I realized that the style of the architecture at the Old Course had little to do with punishing poor shots and had much more to do with encouraging intelligent play. Its greatest attribute was the freedom to choose. I had always appreciated how the course provided me with the option to select an appropriate route and the opportunity to play a variety of shots. I’m still thrilled by the unlimited options throughout the round, but it took a round played under difficult conditions to drive home the importance of having the freedom to set your own path.

I played well that day despite the wind. While I was pleased with the results, I knew that to improve my score that I would need to take on much more risk the next time out. St. Andrews Old is one of the few courses I know where you can have this sort of experience regardless of weather.

Jasper Park, Alberta, Canada – Stanley Thompson, 1925

In Jasper, Stanley Thompson inherited a marvelous piece of land from the Canadian National Railway. The site had wonderful rolling terrain which got progressively stronger the closer you were to the mountains. The heart of the property contained a beautiful glacial lake that could be incorporated into the golf course, but the vast majority of its shoreline had to be left for the lodges. The routing stays mostly on the softer undulations, but it does venture down into a lower valley and right up to mountains a few times during the round for drama. What’s most memorable about the routing is the way Stanley managed to line up all 18 holes with 18 different mountain peaks.

What I enjoy the most at Jasper Park is the scale of the golf course. Stanley recognized that if he increased his clearing width, he would open up wider vistas out to the mountains, but it would also change how the course played. While it is hard to lose a golf ball, the golf course could have become insignificant within the setting. So Thompson added a lot of very large bunkers to match the scale of the site to bring the attention back down to the golf holes.

When you play there you are in awe of how the visual canvas works in harmony with the setting. You find out the scale provides you with so much more room that you hit more fairways. The elevation means you gain a few extra yards on each shot. As you play you will have likely made more pars or birdies than you’re used to. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the mountains than a fun-filled round of golf at Jasper Park Lodge.

The road hole 7th at NGLA - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

National Golf Links of America, Southampton, NY. – C.B. Macdonald

I’m a massive fan of golf architecture history and there is no better museum that the National Golf Links of America. Charles Blair Macdonald studied the classic holes of Great Britain extensively before creating his own adaptations of those holes at the National Golf Links of America. We know Macdonald famously said there are only four or five good holes in golf, but at The National, he managed to create a magnificent collection where most of his templates exceed the quality of the original holes.

But what sets The National Golf Links of America apart from other great golf courses is its ability to adapt. There are so many interesting and challenging pin positions on every green that a week spent playing the course will be a week playing entirely different approaches because of the intricacies of the greens. Some greens are so radically different, depending on pin locations that often players will need to come in from the opposite side of the fairway to have a sporting chance.

But the greatest joy lies in the style of play. Eventually, we all begin to hit the ball shorter and lose the height from our shots. The joy of the National Golf Links of America is you can pretty much play along the ground all day and still do fine. In fact, I’d argue that you should on many holes, regardless of skill, because that is a smarter play. No matter what skill level you have, the National accommodates all players and allows almost every playing option. For me, that equals fun. – Ian Andrew, Ian Andrew Golf Design

What architect/architects would you consider to have the biggest influence on your design principles and ideology?
-Jon B

That’s a tough one because I have taken pieces of wisdom from every architect I’ve ever studied. That said, I will stick close to my Canadian roots and say Stanley Thompson has had the biggest influence on my design philosophy.

He was an accomplished golfer which provided important insight into how the game is played. He was a master at routing golf holes, often times spending weeks and even months walking/learning the land before making any design decisions. Also, he was often very involved during construction phases which gave him the ability to make important ‘game time’ tweaks and adjustments in the field.

All of this adds up to being a well-rounded and grounded golf course architect. I believe Thompson relied on his instinct and intuition as a cornerstone of his MO. This ‘intuitive design’ approach is something that I have adopted in my own work, and is a big part of my design philosophy. – Riley Johns, Integrative Golf Co (Listen to our podcast with Riley Johns here)

When planting new trees on a course, what factors do you take into account? How do you decide what kind of trees goes where? Do you have any specific trees that you always use? Why?
-Axel O

With trees, context is everything. Consideration of the golf course’s larger environment helps the decision whether to utilize trees or not. If the decision to add trees is a go, then the function of a particular tree will dictate its location, size, and species. When planting new trees, my top three functional reasons relate primarily to safety, playability, and aesthetics.

  1. Safety: areas on the course where the addition of a tree can help contain errant shots
  2. Strategy: where the addition of trees factor into decision making on the course
  3. Aesthetics: layering, framing, accents, screening, camouflage any necessary grade work on site

Of course, the very best trees are those you don’t have to plant. An architect on his game will take the time necessary to sensitively route the course, taking advantage of the site’s natural vegetation and giving him the best chance to blend the course seamlessly into its environment. On our most recent project outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, we identified and saved a specimen Silk Floss Tree (bombacaceae chorisia) that influenced every aspect of the short 143-yard 14th, making it one of the most memorable holes on the course. – Thad Layton, Arnold Palmer Design Company

A giant Silk Floss Tree fills the foreground of the par-3 14th at Fazenda Boa Vista, lending beauty, mystery and authenticity.

At the US Open and PGA Championship we see bunkers positioned within the rough. What do you think about that?
-Tony D

One of my favorite memories from recent major championship TV coverage was watching Andy North demonstrate how balls run toward the bunkers on the Old Course. As he dropped balls in the fairway, they would roll in the hazards as if there was a magnetic attraction forcing them to join. The opposite of this effect is what we are forced to watch most weeks on the PGA Tour where bunkers are scattered about in the rough, making an aerial impact the only way that players will ever find their ball in the sand. Overall, the tactic of meaninglessly placing bunkers in the rough is the result of a “paint by numbers” style of architecture where shotmaking interest and the ground game take a backseat to the misguided notion that penal rough and skinny fairways are the most effective way to test the world’s best players. – Rob Collins, King Collins Golf Course Design (Listen to our podcast with Rob Collins here)

What is the life span of a golf course before it needs renovation of greens, tees and irrigation system? If a course opened in 1998, when would we expect it is time for a renovation?
-Scott W.

The first thing that comes to mind is that it depends on how it is designed and constructed, and the talents and abilities of the Golf Course Superintendent. Depending on whether or not the right approach is taken in these areas, all can greatly extend or diminish the lifespan of a golf course

In addition, the lifespan of a golf course and its individual components can vary greatly depending on a multitude of factors and scenarios, the decision and timing to renovate can be influenced by one or more factors. I do not think you can accurately predict the life span without breaking it down somewhat into categories. The life span can vary greatly due to geographic location, turfgrass varieties, environmental stresses from wind rain heat or cold, soil types, design characteristics, construction methods, material selection, maintenance practices, budgetary inputs, level of play, cart traffic and so on.

Examples:  A northern US golf course constructed on a sandy soil base with a perfect environment for growing cool season turf will generally have a longer life span than a sand-based Florida course with high precipitation, warm season turf, and year-round traffic and growing conditions. The same could be said for a clay-base course under similar circumstances. A golf course with high precipitation rates and wind exposure will certainly need to renovate bunkers sooner than one in an arid climate with less wind. Design characteristics can have a major impact on life span also; a course with high flashed bunkers exposed to wind and surface drainage will fail much sooner than a grass-faced bunker with flat sand bottom. A course with small, highly-contoured greens, limited hole locations, and higher play volume will generally experience a shorter lifespan than one with larger greens, less slope and ample hole locations for the amount of play it receives. I’ve seen irrigation systems fail the first year they were installed, and others have minimal problems 30 years down the road. Pipe durability, control packages, valve performance, and flow control with pumping systems are all significantly better now thanks to technology. A well-designed irrigation system with proper hydraulics and control/pump station that is installed by a qualified installer can last indefinitely, certainly longer than the 20 years I often hear cited. As you can see, golf course features such as greens, tees, bunkers and irrigation systems constructed with proper methods and materials, and well-maintained by a talented golf course superintendent can greatly lengthen the lifespan of a golf course. This is often overlooked by clubs and course owners when considering proper compensation and hiring of the GCS. Providing an adequate budget and hiring the right talent and experience on the front-end most likely will save them ten-fold down the road.

As you can see from the above, many factors and conditions are involved. Most likely, a course built in ‘98 would have done some sort of renovation work to the bunkers by now. Generally speaking, bunkers are renovated in the ten to 15-year range depending on the conditions described earlier. If designed, built, and maintained properly, and depending on location, a 1998 golf course should not be in need of too much renovation, other than its bunkers, at this time. Most greens, tees, and fairways will last well beyond 25 years, and irrigation systems tend to need attention starting around 25 to 30 years.

In my career, I have performed major renovations on courses that are just seven years old. The greens and bunkers were failing due to improper construction, poor material selection, and on one occasion, an over-zealous approach to design. Most of my renovations are to courses 30 to 50 years old. This past year, we reconstructed a set of original Ross greens that were 101 years old and had never been rebuilt. They were some of the finest putting surfaces I had ever seen, carefully attended to by a long-term superintendent. They were restored to the original sizes to recapture lost surface area due to tree growth, shade impacts, and rough encroachment, and to take advantage of new technology in turf varieties, irrigation, soil science and drainage systems that weren’t available in 1915.  Therefore, there are always exceptions. – Kris Spence, Kris Spence Golf Design