Golf Course Architect Roundtable 6: Strategic Design and Template Holes

A discussion with the game's leading architects


We ask the game’s forefront architects questions and they answer. This time, we are joined by Mike Cocking of OCCM, Thad Layton of Arnold Palmer Design and Drew Rogers of Drew Rogers Design.

Who do you consider the most underappreciated architect?

Mike Cocking: Alex Russell. He was by no means a prolific architect but few could rival his strike rate for success. He is of course overshadowed by his mentor / collaborator MacKenzie in Australia but he created some excellent work on his own – no doubt heavily influenced by his time with MacKenzie. He created Lake Karinnyup, The East Course at Royal Melbourne, Yarra Yarra, and the wonderful links at Paraparaumu in New Zealand.

Perhaps though the more interesting answer is this. Frequently (but not always), the great courses of the world are the combination of many individuals who, either together or over a period of years, have collaborated, refined, altered and in many instances improved on the original product.  Unfortunately, people seem to want to try and credit work to one architect and we see that a lot here in Australia with MacKenzie. I tend to think less focus should be placed on the architect and more on the course. The club where I belong and consult – Kingston Heath – provides a great case in point. It was originally routed by Dan Souter and in 1926 MacKenzie devised a bunkering scheme plus a few minor changes to the course (a new 15th green and some new tees). He nevertheless rated the course highly, especially the routing and shaping work of Mick Morcom. Mick then bunkered the course but deviated from MacKenzie’s plan quite a lot. His son took over as the Superintendent for 46 years and altered every bunker (some more than others) and a number of greens. Between 1945 and 1995, the course slowly became overgrown, mowing lines changed and some bunkers were lost until Graham Grant became the Superintendent in the early 80s. He rebuilt every tee – creating the free form look which many others (including us) have copied, restored bunkers, reworked many others and rebuilt a handful of greens and approaches. For the last 20 years, we have been their consultant architect making some other changes – albeit minor ones. A few new bunkers plus others reworked, new tee carries on a dozen holes, more short grass, altering some mowing lines, work on the vegetation, new tees and a 19th hole. So who gets credited? Now, I’m not arguing that we should get credit by any means, but too often I hear people talk about the wonderful MacKenzie design or bunkering at Kingston Heath which is nonsense really.  No mention of Souter. No mention of the Morcoms. It’s a course that is the best it has ever been right now and continues to get better. Any restoration to a particular era would in my mind be a lesser design but magazines and media don’t want that story. They just want to hear about MacKenzie.

How Kingston Heath's 12th hole has changed over the years with different architects influence

Thad Layton: For my money, there’s never been another architect since Alister MacKenzie with such flair for the dramatic as Mike Strantz. Saying he thought outside of the box doesn’t quite cover it, the man operated on an entirely different plane. Reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting, Strantz’s golf courses have a surreal, almost liquefied quality that anchors them to their site. Tobacco Road, Bulls Bay, Caledonia, True Blue, and Monterey Peninsula CC attest to Strantz’s ability to create iconic, unforgettable golf.

Focusing on Strantz’s artistry alone would overshadow the sound strategy inherent in all his work. I’ve heard other architects discuss the value of having a course look hard but play easy but I’ve never seen anyone pull it off as effectively as Mike Strantz. Subtle feeding slopes around greens and wide fairways skirting dramatic hazards are just a few of the many ways he insured playability within the larger context of his designs.

Perhaps the most amazing characteristic of Mike’s work is that his courses were largely built on unflattering sites. He was fearless when it came to moving enough dirt to create a landform that looked natural and he had a knack for transforming ordinary ground into something captivating. I happen to think this is the highest compliment that can be paid to any architect.

Regrettably, he left us with only a handful of courses. It’s a shame he didn’t get more work and an even bigger crime that he wasn’t able to ply his trade on an epic site along the sea.

The approach to the par-5 13th at Tobacco Road exemplifies Strantz’s visually intimidating but fun and playable courses

Drew Rogers: There’s not one – there are many!  There is such a wealth of young, relatively undiscovered talent in our field today with so much creativity and they are easy to work with and possess terrific problem solving skills. I could go on and on. Most of this generation has not been blessed with great sites and uber-capable ownerships either. They even take on the most seemingly menial of design challenges. They understand where golf took wrong turns and they’re poised to learn from all of those mistakes. I guess what I’m saying is, I believe our profession is in very good hands moving forward and there will be more obscure names popping up as a result. They’re all somewhat underappreciated now, but this group of talent will make its mark. We’re already seeing some movement, and that is healthy for our game and our profession.

What is your favorite strategic hole in the world?

Cocking: My favorite types of holes are short fours and fives.  They’re inherently the most strategic and the most fun as there is a clear advantage to playing aggressively, while also working well for short and long hitters.  The opposite of this would be most three shot par fives where there is generally little interest in the tee shot as it doesn’t matter what line you take or how well you hit it. Even long par fours can be a bit monotonous…important for variety and the overall sum of the parts but not as a stand alone hole. When did someone ever nominate a long par four as their favorite hole?  Except of course if it’s the 17th at the Old Course!

There are a lot of great examples of holes on the edge of par that fit the bill. Recently, we saw once again what a fantastic short five the 13th at Augusta is. The 10th at Riviera also shows us every year at the old LA Open how interesting 270 yards can be and in Australia we’re fortunate to have a number of world class short par fours…in no particular order 10th West and 1st East at Royal Melbourne, 3rd at Kingston Heath, 4th at Woodlands, 8th at Long island, 4th and 15th at Barnbougle Dunes and the 14th at Lost Farm.

To nominate just one…that’s too hard!

Layton: The 17th at The Old Course. The width/angles, mystery, unusual hazards/recovery options, and overall funkiness come together to create a hole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It requires two committed swings to reach the green, the slightest hedge towards safety off the tee and everything starts to unravel – the essence of strategy really. As a golfer, I’d rather par this hole than make a birdie just about anywhere else. As a spectator, it’s good entertainment watching the best players in the world puzzle over this hole during The Open Championship.

Rogers: There are many examples to reference… and I’m always on the lookout for great strategy. Two holes that jump to mind are the 10th at Riviera and Road Hole at St. Andrews. Alps Hole at National Golf Links of America is another. These holes provide alternate routes of play and offer options to consider. I love holes that cause players to make decisions – where there are ramifications for ill-executed shots. I guess we could classify such holes as having both strategic and heroic playing elements. Holes like these can be played differently every day with different results under varied conditions – and they’re distinctively memorable as a result.

What are some of the best strategies for creating an extremely playable course for the beginner yet challenging and interesting for the expert player?

Cocking: We often talk about the sandbelt as featuring some of the most playable ‘tournament’ courses in the world. Week to week they play as terrific member courses and then without really changing much other than a little extra grooming, they make for wonderful championship courses. Why do they work so well? Fairways are wide so they’re relatively easy for a beginner to hit, but then they feature beautifully sculpted green complexes – well guarded with bunkers and undulation but arranged to favor play from one particular part of the fairway. They typically feature some sort of hazard…usually a bunker but sometimes a section of rough or heath. Classic strategic design.

But one of the biggest factors which is perhaps overlooked is their condition. It’s all very well to have wide fairways and interesting greens but if they’re soft and overwatered then the strategy will be virtually non-existent. You can’t make an approach difficult from the wrong side of the fairway for a tour player if the greens are soft. But if the putting surface falls away and they’re rock hard and fast…..

Sadly, in recent times the sandbelt courses have become a little short by world standards with most US tournament venues playing at least 500 to 800 yards longer. This all comes back to the ball but that’s a discussion best left alone here!

Layton: In the spirit of links golf, building all sorts of contours around the green maintained at fairway height is a wonderful way to serve two needs with one deed. If you give a skillful player a dozen ways to get it close, you’re really asking them to make a choice and commit to that decision. As Pete Dye often said, “when you get those dudes thinking, they’re in trouble”. This very same feature gives the poorer player the option of easily getting it onto the green by playing a more conservative shot along the ground, minimizing the damage so to speak. Another side benefit of stripping away rough and bunkers from around the greens is the reintroduction of approach shots along the ground where one needn’t have a parabolic ball flight to get it close to the pin.

Conversely, bunkers and rough flanking every green is a cheap, one-dimensional hazard. For the better player, there is just one way to play a recovery shot…and if pros are good at any one thing, it’s repetition. Rough and bunkers are particularly hard for high handicaps.

Rogers: I love holes that are blessed with width. Wide corridors offer opportunities to create multiple strategic alignments that lead to players having to make choices. Ideally these holes don’t have to have sand or water elements or even trees – they can simply rely on openness, firm ground and short turf that compliments dynamic ground plane contours. Good players are more comfortable with the aerial game while lesser skilled golfers are more comfortable on the ground. Holes with these qualities are incredibly adaptable – sort of where the rubber meets the road!

What is your favorite trend in today’s architecture (could be width, short course, unconventional courses, etc)?

Cocking: More variety. Width, alternate lines of play, alternate fairways and a spread of tees which vary lines of play more so than purely distance. Some of these are a throwback, but it’s probably been taken further down the path than we saw through the golden age with some new developments. If the budget and the land is there why not try and create holes which can be drastically altered from one day to the next. I guess it depends how you view the game and I can see the alternate view, but for me it seems a bit one dimensional to play from the same small square for 365 days of the year.

We’re starting to see a little more of this back home but not enough really. The way the course ratings and setup have been created are far too restrictive and don’t lend themselves to creating this sort of variety. Pity really.

Layton: It’s encouraging to see our industry deliver on the promises of sustainability and growing the game by building alternative facilities that broaden the definition of golf. While the Scots were culpable for establishing golf as an 18-hole affair, they had the good sense to create “wee links” for new golfers to learn the game. Relative to a full 18, these smaller facilities use less land and water, cost less to build and maintain, are more affordable to play, take less time to play, promote fitness through walking, and are less intimidating/more fun for the beginner increasing the chances that they’ll return. It’s also an appealing offering for better golfers as it gives them the chance to hone their game inside 100 yards. What’s old is new!

Further on the horizon, we’re starting to see big data’s influence on design decisions. The Longleaf Tee Initiative seeks to make the course play similar from tee to green for every level of player based on extensive research on how far they hit the ball (hint: it’s less than you think). Also, the PGA Tour’s Shotlink system is a treasure trove of data that we’ve just started to dip into, using this information to tweak Bay Hill to influence strategy and reward precise play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Rogers: I’m all for removing mis-planted trees and restoring the intended, wider fairways. I’m for providing ample teeing opportunities to meet the wide range of skill levels who are seeking enjoyment from the game. I’m also for providing more variety for recoveries around greens. Short courses are gaining momentum – and that is great to see. Not only are these courses fun to play, but they’re cheaper to build and maintain – the number of holes needs only be consistent with the area of land that is available. If more developers would consider the value of these facilities, I think the concept could really take off wholly.

The Redan at Fazenda Boa Vista

What is your favorite template hole?

Cocking: Probably the Road although I like a good Cape too. I like diagonal lines as unlike a bunker or bunkers they affect everyone. No matter how good or bad, everyone has to determine for themselves how much risk they’re willing to take on. I guess the wonderful thing about the Road is that you get the diagonal element with the tee shot but that’s just the start…you then have to deal with one of the greatest greens on this earth!

Layton: The Redan. It’s one of those clever holes that handsomely rewards thoughtful play and encourages the lost art of shaping shots. It’s also a curious case of function following form, relying on the form of the landscape (a gentle cross slope) to dictate the function (a fun and playable hole that blends gracefully into the landscape).

On our most recent project in Brazil, we had a similar scenario play out on the ninth hole at Fazenda Boa Vista. The 225 yard par-3 provides an array of options depending on wind conditions and skill levels. While one could take a direct route to the pin, this is most often the sucker’s line. In typical Redan fashion, the most prudent (and most fun) play is to aim away from the hole over the right bunker where a properly struck shot will trundle across the canted approach and onto the green. As a golfer, there is something primally satisfying about seeing your ball gather toward the target in this fashion.

Rogers: I’ve always been fascinated with the Biarritz green and the double plateau.  They’re both so quirky and contrived, but so fun and memorable to play. I just built a modified Biarritz green in Florida – a softer, less architectural presentation and it’s on a bunkerless par-5. The course has a more natural, rugged motif, so Raynor’s hard lines were not a fit. But I think we created something there that is quite special – and best of all, it fits.