3/2/17

Golf Course Architecture 101: Part 1

Playability, width, options, and strategy

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Playability, width, options, strategy.

These buzzwords get thrown around a lot in golf course design talk, but there is substance behind them. Today’s leading architects—as well as the past masters who inspired them—draw on the principles of playability, width, options, and strategy to make their courses more fun and interesting. To grasp why one golf hole might be more compelling than another, it’s vital to understand these principles, which are all interconnected.

Playability

The designer of a course should start off on his work in a sympathetic frame of mind for the weak, and at the same time be as severe as he likes with the first-class player.Harry Colt

Ninety-nine percent of golfers play the game as a recreational activity. So it stands to reason that the vast majority of courses should be playable for all. Here are a few ways an architect can accomplish that goal:

  1. Limit forced carries, allowing beginners to chop their way around the course without facing an unrelenting series of penalties
  2. Create alternate paths for those who want to take the wide route around a hazard
  3. Accommodate all shot shapes, though obviously holes that give an advantage to (as opposed to absolutely requiring) a cut or a draw can be strategically compelling

Width

Narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game, and in causing a stilted and cramped style by destroying all freedom of play.Alister MacKenzie

Generally speaking, the wider the playing corridor of a hole, the more playable it is. Width allows golfers to play their own games and hit their own shot shapes.

At the same time, even if wide corridors keep the ball more in play, they don’t automatically result in easy courses. Rather, width allows architects to create different options for playing the same hole. Some of these options will be relatively risk-free and lead to predictable over-par (but not too over-par) outcomes; other options will be fraught with danger, having the potential to produce either very low or very high scores. With width, architects can construct these kinds of strategic scenarios; without it, strategy will be limited because the player’s only option will be to hit the ball straight and down the middle.

Options and strategy

The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game. -George C. Thomas

If a hole has substantial width, a good architect can create a hole that is both playable and challenging by, on the one hand, forgiving the unskilled player while, on the other hand, forcing the skilled player to make tough decisions and execute precise shots in order to score low. Choosing among the different options that a wide course presents is the soul of strategy in golf course design.

The beginning golfer tends to focus simply on keeping the ball in play and finishing each hole without disaster. The architect might as well throw a bone to this kind of player by providing plenty of short grass.

The advanced player wants to make birdies. Some architects assume that the best way to challenge such a player is to make the fairways narrow, the greens small, the rough long, and the hazards severe. But all this type of design does is give excellent golfers a free pass not to think. Strategic golf course architecture, in contrast, forces the player who wants to shoot a low number to choose from an array of potential shots and make a series of difficult decisions. In this way, the game becomes far more challenging and interesting.

A strategy-rich hole presents different options, each with a different degree of risk and reward. On a par 4, for instance, the safest option off the tee might be a spot on the fairway where 1) it’s very tough or risky to hit the green with your next shot or 2) it’s relatively easy or safe to lay up and reach the green in three. In contrast, the riskiest option off the tee, when executed well, might lead to an easy approach.

To create these options and risk-reward questions, architects use not only wide playing corridors but also cleverly designed angles, contours, and hazards.

Principles in action: The Golf Club of Houston

To understand how width can create options and strategy, consider the 11th and 12th holes at the Golf Club of Houston, host of the Shell Houston Open. (Ed. update: as of 2020, the Houston Open has moved to the Tom Doak-renovated Memorial Park.)

The 11th (right) and 12th (left) holes at the Golf Club at Houston

Designed by Rees Jones, these two holes contrast starkly with one another. The 11th (on the right in the photo above) is long and narrow; the 12th is relatively short and wide. Let’s dig into the options and strategy that each hole presents.

No. 11 – par 4, 445 yards

The 11th is one of the toughest holes at the Golf Club of Houston. Off the tee. the player faces a 25-yard-wide fairway that narrows to about 15 yards in the landing zone for long hitters. While different pin positions can create different ideal sides of the fairway (right pin = left half of the fairway; left pin = right half of the fairway), the corridor of short grass is so narrow that the only feasible goal is simply to stay out of the rough, water, and sand.

If the fairway were wider, this hole would become more playable for average golfers and more interesting for skilled players. The objective wouldn’t just be to hit the fairway; it would be to hit a particular portion of the fairway in an effort to gain the best angle of approach. So the lack of width not only makes the 11th hole at the Golf Club of Houston less fun for the everyday amateur but also diminishes its strategic complexity for the elite pro. It is what I call “robot golf”: don’t think, hit it straight, hit it close.

No. 12 – par 4, 335 yards

The 12th is one of the widest holes at the Golf Club of Houston and, not coincidentally, one of the best. This short par 4 uses the width of its fairway to generate multiple options from the tee.

There is plenty of short grass to the left where a less skilled player can avoid the water hazard. Meanwhile, a more accurate ball-striker has choices. Longer hitters might be able to get near the green from the tee, but the wide fairway, the water hazard to the right, the green-side bunker to the left, and the angled putting surface create multiple strategic scenarios. I see four basic options, labeled below.

Option A: The safest option is a lay-up with a long iron or hybrid down the left side. Here you’re well away from the water, but you don’t have a great angle into the green, especially if the pin is back left. If, however, the hole is cut front right, you have a better chance of getting your approach close.

Option B: The riskier of the two layup options is to challenge the water hazard on the right. If you hit your long iron or hybrid accurately, your reward is an unobstructed look at any flag. If you let it leak right, your punishment is obvious.

Option C: Just pull driver and let it rip. A drive down the left side is relatively safe from the water and leaves a flip wedge. But from this angle, it’s a very tricky flip wedge. Also, a miss too far left brings a long, awkward bunker shot into play.

Option D: The highest-risk, highest-reward play is a driver up the right side. It’s dangerous but can yield a big payoff for those who find an ideal angle to any pin or even the front edge of the green.

So this is the importance of width. The main difference between Nos. 11 and 12 at the Golf Club of Houston is their width. Whereas the 11th hole is brutally difficult for high handicappers and has little strategic interest for low handicappers, the 12th hole offers something for both groups: playability for one, strategy for the other.

I know which of those options I’d prefer.


For examples of the principles of playability, width, options, and strategy in action at Coore & Crenshaw’s Streamsong Red and King-Collins’s Sweetens Cove, see Part 1A of Golf Course Architecture 101.

For Part 2 of Golf Course Architecture 101 (on routing, variety, and naturalness), CLICK HERE.