Photos by Jeffrey Bertch (linkslandphoto)
I wouldn’t say it was one of the great sites ever for golf. And yet Mr. Ross—the way he routed the course to highlight the dune ridges was just beyond artistic. –Bill Coore
This Sunday, TaylorMade Driving Relief—a skins match featuring Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Matthew Wolff—will create a lot of buzz for its venue, Seminole Golf Club. Commentators and viewers will likely focus on the club’s exclusivity, seaside setting, and immaculate conditioning. All of those are significant factors, but I think there is a bigger takeaway: how this 1929 Donald Ross design gets the most out of a less-than-ideal site.
Unlike most world-class courses, Seminole was not blessed with excellent golfing terrain. The property consisted of a swampy basin bordered by two sandy ridges. Today, accessible public courses tend to be built on similarly ill-suited sites. How Donald Ross tackled the challenges of Seminole’s site can teach us a great deal about the best practices of golf architecture on tricky land.
The 13th hole at Seminole. Photo credit: Jeffrey Bertch (linkslandphoto)
On our recent podcast about Seminole, Bill Coore described how other architects who visited the property wanted to level the ridges and use the sand to fill in the low-lying wetlands. This would have been a massive engineering project, but it was the most obvious way to address the drainage issues.
Ross, however, saw that this not-so-great site had two great features: wind and elevation changes. Whereas other designers proposed eliminating the latter of those features, Ross prioritized taking advantage of both. He figured he could keep the ridges intact as long as he built a system of ponds and trenches in the basin to handle drainage. Fortunately, club president Edward Hutton saw the superiority of Ross’s plan, and Ross got the job.
Today, his routing stands as a model of how to design around wind and prominent landforms.
Pressed hard against the Atlantic Ocean, Seminole sees very few calm days. Wind is the course’s primary defense, just as it is on the links of Great Britain and Ireland. To accentuate the influence of the wind, Ross’s routing continually changes direction. Never do more than two holes in a row play in the same direction. On one hole, the wind is behind; on the next, it’s quartering off the left or right; on the next, it’s in your face. The ridges also play a role. Depending on whether you’re playing up onto them, down off of them, or along the top, the nature of the wind changes.
The 17th and 18th holes at Seminole. Photo credit: Jeffrey Bertch (linkslandphoto)
These unpredictable shifts force you to not only hit the ball well but also think through a variety of factors on each shot. Even highly skilled players have a hard time dialing in their yardages and getting in a groove at Seminole.
Coore memorably compared the Seminole site to “a big salad bowl with two forks in it.” What makes Ross’s routing so ingenious is how frequently it engages with the “forks”—that is, the ridges. The western (right) ridge houses greens or tees—or sometimes both—for 10 holes: Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 14, and 15. The eastern (left) ridge accommodates the 13th green, 14th tee, 16th green, 17th tee and green, and 18th tee and green. Only four holes—1, 8, 9, and 10—don’t touch these focal landforms.
Also, the ridges are used in a dizzying variety of ways. The 2nd, 14th, and 16th holes play up to greens benched into a rise, but each approaches the elevation change from a different direction. Both 3 and 18 play off of and back onto their respective ridges, but 3 turns right around the western ridge while 18 turns left around the eastern one. Ultimately, you never feel like the routing uses the terrain the same way twice. You are constantly facing new challenges on new landforms in new winds. This means that if you’re a scratch player or a pro, used to being in control on the golf course, Seminole will put you seriously on edge.
Seminole’s routing works in tandem with greens that slope severely in a variety of directions. One key to success is staying below the hole, but that’s easier said than done because of the continual shifts in wind and elevation. So the canted greens strike fear into the hearts of even the best players. If the wind is up, don’t be surprised to see Rory, DJ, Rickie, and Wolff aiming away from flags with wedges in their hands.
The 5th green at Seminole—an intimidating target. Photo credit: Jeffrey Bertch (linkslandphoto)
That said, Seminole isn’t unduly punishing for the average golfer. The generous fairways and limited forced carries tend to keep everyone in the ballgame. While recoveries from greenside bunkers can be tough for high handicappers, club culture dictates that players pick up after a certain number of strokes around the green. Seminole, unlike many courses that aspire to be challenging, doesn’t sacrifice playability.
No doubt this is an exclusive course that relatively few people get to play. But the virtues of Donald Ross’s design are simple and attainable. Given problematic, relatively unpromising land, Ross concentrated on what standout features the site did have. The result is a course where the challenges are authentic to the natural advantages of the property. It isn’t about ocean views or artificial water hazards, though Seminole has both. It’s about wind, elevation, and variety. Those are features that many courses have and can use more effectively
So during the TaylorMade Driving Relief telecast, maybe we could focus less on how unattainable Seminole Golf Club is and more on how the best aspects of its design can be emulated anywhere.