The Lure of the Puzzle

Why links golf grips the soul at a time when few things do


Recently on a cross-country drive back from a pair of projects, I made a little time to see and play some golf. One stop was for a brand new course I had never seen, another was for a place I helped build a decade ago but had yet to see fully grassed, and another was for a course I had already played. With a family holiday weekend looming and time at a premium, why make a repeat visit to that third course? Because I knew it was the kind of golf course that reveals itself only over time, with multiple options for shot types and lines of play throughout. With characteristics similar to those of the Old Course at St. Andrews, it may be the ultimate version of links golf on this side of the pond.

Ballyneal, with its tight, firm playing conditions and contours galore, is a puzzle from tee to green. Its questions begin before even teeing off, where, because of the lack of any tee markers, you need to decide which flat spot will make for the most compelling hole that day. From there, you have to figure out which line to take out into the ample fairway. Are you trying to gain an angle advantage to that day’s hole location, or might it be better to get to a high spot to increase visibility and/or avoid being stymied by a big hill or ridge?

Then comes the approach, which again is not often straightforward. Do you try to fly it straight to the hole and stop it? Unless you can generate a ton of spin or are playing into the wind, this may be an impossible task. If you want to bounce it on, where do you land it? What is the trajectory? Do you play it lower and chase it up a ridge? Do you play it well away from a hole to use a large side slope and feed the ball on? Do you get crazy and pull out the putter even as your playing partner looks up from his rangefinder and shouts “you’ve got 120 to the hole” from across the fairway? (I recommend trying this at least once at Ballyneal and attempting to count how many times the ball changes direction.)

The games are far from over at the green, especially when you miss it. With slopes and puttable short grass all around, there are often multiple routes to the hole, including circuitous ones you may not see at first. Even if you hit the green, sometimes you may want to putt back off it to get close, or maybe, when stymied by a bunker, use the surrounding funnel contours instead of flopping it over, à la the Road bunker at St. Andrews.

The scenic route around the bunker on the 16th hole at Ballyneal. Photo: Brett Hochstein

These types of options can lead you to open up your inner monologue to the rest of your group, announcing your potential plays and thought process, and, after your first attempt, immediately dropping another ball or two to try out the other paths. Maybe others in your group will come over and attempt those same shots or explore alternate solutions. There can be a bit of one upmanship as each player tries to find the most outlandish, out-of-the-way route to the hole.

In my own group, we ended up hitting one shot 180 degrees away from the hole, 30 yards up a big slope, to reach a pin that was originally just 10 yards away. On certain greens, we could have been out there for hours, trying to solve the puzzle.

The "E" green on the 8th hole at Ballyneal is loaded with ways to get from section to section. Photo: Brett Hochstein

Golf, unfortunately, is not often like this. That’s too bad, and it’s something I hope to help change throughout my career. It was, however, just like this at the beginning.

The linksland bred the game, inviting wandering citizens to engage with it—to play upon it. Once bored shepherds and traveling Dutchmen discovered they could roll ball-like objects along the naturally tight turf of these rumpled grounds, they were compelled to do so over and over. What fostered this activity into a lasting sport, and particularly one of individual pursuit, was the varied natural terrain and the puzzles it presented. If the ground had not been so mentally engaging—if it had been a series of simple, slow flats, for instance—golf may not exist today. It may have simply been a fad that fizzled out, much like the short-lived Victorian era of golf architecture, known for straightforward designs and regimented attempts at fairness. Thankfully, golf endured and thrived in its most puzzling iterations—on the linksland and through the Golden Age of golf architecture.

There is a reason humans love puzzles and games. They stimulate our brains, challenging them without the stresses of real-world consequences, and providing the joy of finding solutions. Furthermore, in this technological age of constant connection to everything yet no real connection to anything, the puzzle of golf forces you to focus and engage with your surroundings and the task at hand. When you are busy in a beautiful setting figuring out whether putting way back off the green and then off another ridge inside the green is a reasonable play, not a whole lot else matters. That is a beautiful and increasingly rare thing.

This week at Royal St. George’s, we should see the best in the game stewing and churning over shots you rarely see on a normal week of the execution-based PGA Tour. It is that critical thinking, that pacing back and forth to look at different angles, those deep discussions between Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller, and the wide variety of possible outcomes that make the Open so special and entertaining. The Open rota courses are loaded with puzzles, and Royal St. George’s, with its heaving contours and dunes and holes that play right over and through them, may be the most vexing outside of the Old Course. Convex fairways without obvious aiming points demand a level of control and pause: do I really want to just bash away here, or is laying back the better play for keeping the ball in the short grass, even if it means sacrificing distance and visibility for the next shot?

1996 Open champion Tom Lehman summed it up well in a 2011 ESPN article for the last Open held at Sandwich: “I think it’s the most unpredictable of the venues I’ve played. There are so many unique shapes on the golf course where the ball gets kicked one way or another. It requires a lot of course management and really understanding how to play the course to do it right.

“I’ll give you an example, the 17th hole, the areas where the drives come down. There are a million bumps all over the fairway. Guys were so upset because they hit a good-looking drive, they hit the side of a bump and it would kick one way or another and run down into the high crap. But just short of that is a real flat area. The course was designed to hit a shot into that flat area and run into the bumps. You can keep yourself in the fairway.”

The 17th hole at Royal St. George's. Photo: Jason Livy

“To me,” Lehman concluded, “understanding the strategy of the course is what is very, very interesting. It’s very enjoyable.”

The approaches and greens at Royal St. George’s also reward attention. Some are blind or semi-blind, and others have fronting or flanking slopes that can do scary things to a rolling ball. Choosing where to land approaches is critical; rarely is the best option “right next to the flagstick,” as it is at most courses. Often the ideal landing spot is well short or well off to the side or, more likely, some combination of the two. Players with the greatest vision and ability to solve these puzzles should come out ahead.

The 9th hole at Royal St. George's. Photo: Jason Livy

Unlike our last major, which some may forget was lamented for its uneventful style of golf up until the dramatic final round, the 2021 Open should be compelling television from the first tee ball in the wee hours of Thursday morning to the final putt on Sunday. The reason for that is the same reason we golf lunatics travel far and wide to strange, remote places to see new courses. It’s the same reason we spend so much of our free time not actually playing golf but thinking and talking about golf. It’s the same reason so many publications, websites, and forums have arisen to discuss and debate the subject of golf and its design. When golf is a puzzle, it demands our full attention. And at this moment in history, we need that more than ever.

Brett Hochstein is a California-based architect and shaper who has worked for Renaissance Golf Design, Origins Golf Design, Infinite Variety Golf Design, and the Arnold Palmer Design Company. You can find more of his writing on his website.