Saturday, March 18, 2006

10 Golf Courses to Study Golf Architecture – Part I

I thought it would be interesting to see which course have had the most influence on my design ideas and why. What I’m also providing is my list of must see course for any budding golf architect.

1. St. Andrew’s (nature) – the contours make the course

If you could only study one course it would be St. Andrew’s. There are too many lessons to explain, but the one that is most important is the value of a contour on and off the green. St. Andrew’s features some of the boldest undulations on any putting surface, and positional play is important to accessing many of the pins. It shows how great greens can dictate strategy right back to the tee. The wonderful knolls, knuckles, rolls, humps, and hollows found around the greens require additional creativity to deal with. They take a player’s full imagination to overcome and there is nothing more fun than that.

2. Pinehurst #2 (Ross) – the difficulty of short grass

Whether Ross created the fall away greens and chipping areas is a moot point, all that matters is what effect it has on play. Short grass can be a more effective hazard that a bunker, it’s easier for a weaker player, but far more daunting for a better player. The advantage to a weaker player is they can play to their strengths, the disadvantage to a good player is they are faced with too many options. Bad decisions are often a bigger factor than poor execution. They may not need to be a severe as Pinehurst’s greens, but the effect is still the same.

3. Muirfield (H.S. Colt) – adaptable to all conditions and players

The beauty of Muirfield is how well it adapts to all types of conditions and players. H.S. Colt designed a course with two loops in the opposite direction ensuring that the wind would be encountered on all sides and that the wind would never be the same for more than three holes in a row. The bunkering completes this masterpiece by the way its placed. There is room off the tee on most holes, and the player is invited to play a shorter line; but the more aggressive the player gets, the more difficult the course plays. Colt has bunkered in a manner that the landing areas tighten the further the player tries to go. The player is left deciding whether to play safer or risk Colt’s penalty for being too aggressive.

4. San Francisco (Tillinghast) – scale and grandeur

I admire Tillinghast’s ability to think on a grand scale. This is likely the hardest of all the skills to explain or to aquire. San Francisco is as big and wide a golf course that I know, it features some of the most elaborate and bold bunkering that I have ever seen. The delight is how the architecture fits the property through Tillinghast’s use of additional clearing width and large open spaces. It takes a very clever architect to understand how to expand the scale of a golf course without overwhelming everything around it. This is one of the few cases where it works to perfection.

5. Pine Valley (Crump) – difficult does not mean length

Like St. Andrew’s there are too many great lessons to learn, so I will stick with one, yardage. Pine Valley proves that difficulty and length are not synonymous. The course is a relative short 6,600 yards from the tips, and an easy driving course too, and yet it is one of the hardest courses in the world. How? Through intimidation, penal hazards and a series of very difficult approach shots where a miss is punished harshly. Pine Valley has a better variety of hole lengths than any other course in the world. Crump gives you the opportunity to go for a par four and asks you to hit a long running approach into another. Variety is the spice of life and variety in yardages makes for the most interesting golf courses.

The Next 5 Worth Studying:

Friday, March 17, 2006

10 Golf Courses to Study Golf Architecture – Part II

6. Merion (Hugh Wilson) – greatness on a small property

Merion may be the best routing in golf. On such a small property Hugh Wilson was able to find a flawless layout. The fun of the golf course routing is that it has a number of unconventional aspects to it: all par fives are in the first four holes, there is a long run of shorter holes from 7 through to 13, all climaxed by a grinding finishing 5. It works so well for two reasons; the first is that Wilson has simply used the best available holes and not been influenced by convention. The second is the rhythm of the course, it works almost like a three act play. The player is given a firm introduction to the course and it’s challenges in the opening 6, he is given an opportunity to try and be much more aggressive or to even score if he dares for the next 7, and the final act is survival. Merion gives the player all they can handle in the final 5 to see how good they really are.

7. Royal County Down (Morris, Coombe and Colt) – sense of place

Royal County Down has bearded bunkers, brilliant purple heather, dark green gorse, magnificent golden dunes, the slate grey sea, spectacular deep purple mountains and a beautiful red brick hotel fronting the town itself. The architecture is great on it’s own, but the surroundings simply add to the experience and make Royal County Down one of the finest places to be anywhere. If you can combine great architecture into the right surroundings, you have magic. These are the courses that stay with us the rest of our lives.
The lesson is to find the right site first.

8. National Golf links of America (MacDonald) – understanding strategies of the great holes

Many people believe there are no new ideas to bring to the game, that everything has been done, and the newness is more the ability of the architect to adapt old ideas to new situations. Charles Blair MacDonald (a Canadian!) adapted the great holes and strategies to create the National Golf Links of America. The lesson is simple, to be a great architect you must study and understand the ideas of the great holes before you can design them yourself. MacDonald’s adaptations are some of the finest, and some of his more innovative uses of them are well worth studying too.

9. Cypress Point (MacKenzie) – blending in and standing out

If you polled the architects Alister MacKenzie would likely be chosen as the greatest architect in history. He had a wonderful knack of incorporating natural features, and in particular natural hazards, into the golf course. At Cypress Point his bunkers were the key. The blended naturally right into the dunes, they contrasted wonderfully while mimicking the tree tops, and they added an elegant flair to the ocean side holes without competing with all the natural beauty. The artistry of his bunkers is breathtaking, yet for all their character and movement, they still magically blend comfortably into the surroundings.

10. Riviera (Thomas) – asking the player to work the ball

George Thomas probably combined strategy and beauty as well as any architect. He was a master strategist, who rewarded a player for positional play, but liked to make the player work to get the ball into position. There is no course quite like Riviera, where a player is continuously encouraged to hit either a draw or fade off the tee. Where the course excels further is the continuous balance back and forth so that no player has an advantage; many of the holes call for fade from the tee and then the draw on the approach, the next hole will often ask for the exact opposite strategy so no player can gain an advantage. He expertly used a combination of Eucalyptus trees, bunkers, slopes of the greens, and the baranca to make the player shape their shots. Riviera is a remarkably well balanced test of shot-making.

5 Modern Ones Worth Studying:

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mike Stranz’s Shore Course

Mike's illustration of the 9th hole

“I hope to carefully shape this new course so she will bend and sweep with the natural terrain of the rocks, trees, grasses and ocean. My dream is that she will appear as she has been dancing among the Cypress on this coastline forever, and now she is the new, wonderful discovery of just a lucky few people.” Mike Stranz describing what he wanted to do at the Shore Course.

Mike's illustration of the 11th

Last year I went out to see the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula with two other architects, Scot Sherman and Art Schaupeter. This was the course that Mike Stranz had won the commission with some of the most impressive sketches I have ever seen – it was a complete rebuild. This was to be my first chance to finally see a Mike Stranz course, the guy that many called a radical, an architect that drew praise and criticism in equal measures.

I know Mike’s favorite quote is by Alister Mackenzie “A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players”

The completed 11th hole

Defenders of Mike like to point out that his courses are visually intimidating, but have great playability hidden in the course and that his application of width and optional routes does reduce the perceived difficulty. Mike has commented that many players try to play from the wrong set of tees and also try to play beyond themselves. I wanted to form my own opinion.

I did expect to be overwhelmed with his obvious creativity, but was curious to see if I cared for the level of difficulty he was reputed to build in. The course was as provocative and attractive as I expected, but it was also very understated and very playable. All three of us were very impressed with the flow of the course. It fit the land. It seemed to hug the natural features and it embraced its surroundings instead of competing with them. It seemed to dance among the Cypress on this coastline forever.

The 12th fairway shows the sweep of the fairway and how well the course fits into the site

The other part of the course we all enjoyed was how he created the strategies. He used the natural looking bunkers to create wonderful horizontal sweeps in the fairway which enticed you into a game of risk and reward all day. He used bold bunkering and green contours to reward you for careful placement. He wound the course back and forth to bring the strong winds into the game, but gave you room and optional routes to deal with the inherent difficulties. Simply a well conceived and wel thought out piece of architecture.

The Shore course is a must play for a young designer like myself. Mike left so many wonderful and simple lessons on how to use that site to get the most out of it – and he did. It makes a wonderful testimonial to the artist that was lost with his tragic passing.

(I can't wait to see Tobacco Road in two weeks)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Central Bunker

The famous 16th at St. Andrew's.

A bunker placed in the centre of a landing area may be an immensely controversial choice, but it is a technique that should be used more. Let’s study some great examples to understand why.
The principal’s nose on the 16th at St. Andrew’s may be the first and earliest example of a central bunker. The weakest players are well short of this hazard and don’t give it much thought; in fact many just take dead aim right at it. The average player will usually bail well to the left to avoid the cluster and reduce the risk, whereas the best players must challenge the hazard to achieve the ideal approach to the green. The green is definitely best approached from right of the cluster, which also involves flirting with the out of bounds. The bunker makes this a hole full of decision making and creates an unusual and excellent example of risk and reward from the tee.

The 4th at Woking.

The 4th at Woking was originally a very mundane hole until Paton placed two bunkers right in the middle of the fairway at the 230 yard mark. Golfers could play short of the hazards and face a tricky approach shot over a difficult greenside bunker, or they could take the aggressive approach of driving between the bunkers and the out of bounds, but be left with a straightforward little pitch to the green. The idea was so bold that it was met with a huge uproar in the club, but it was so clever that Tom Simpson was inspired by this great hole.

The Shoe bunker is in the centre of the picture

There are lots of other great examples to learn from such as Braid’s Bunker on the 2nd at Carnoustie, probably the most intimidating example of all of them. The 5th at Friar’s Head, a drivable par four where the bunker is 290 yards from the tee right in line with the green. The Shoe Bunker on the 2nd at Pacific Dunes, where a player has to decide whether to try skirt it or fly it. The long par five13th at Rustic Canyon has a central bunker with lots of room left or right, but somehow many end up stymied in the little central bunker.

I think the reason this is not used very often is the “F” word, fairness. Most players feel that they should always be rewarded for a straight drive and this seems to contradict with their beliefs. What they fail to realize is that the central bunker is placed primarily for decision making. Most players feel that it is there god given right to hit driver all day. Although this doesn’t take the driver out of their hands - they often choose another club because of the risks associated with flirting with the hazard - and they label this a weakness of the hole. The only weakness was in their courage. If we still played match play instead of stroke play, this hole type of hole would be more popular, but once again fairness influences architecture because we perfer stoke play. Admittedly this hazard must be used sparingly to work well, but with careful placement, this is an idea has produced some classic holes.