Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Three Schools of Design - and where I sit

Hell's half Acre - unquestionably penal (but great)

I was asked once my opinion on heroic, strategic and penal schools of architecture.

The penal school of design revolves around punishing a golfer for a missed shot. Whether a hook, a slice or a miss hit tee shot, they all end up penalized if the golfer does not find the target. Pine Valley, the greatest course in the world, is primarily penal in design. Their strength is that they reward accuracy above all else and that courses like are ideal for championship golf, but they unfortunately punish the average player so severely that they make the game too difficult for the average player. This would be the first school of design since the earliest changes by man seemed to follow this philosophy.

The 9th at Riviera, one of the most strategic courses in the World.

As the first architects appeared, their study of architecture brought new ideas about of golf design, and the strategic school grew as a reaction to the penal school of design. They felt that the penal architecture was too hard on the “dub” and that the game should challenge the great player without discouraging the poor player. The new architects started to look at positional play and rewarding a player for making a tough shot. If they provided a risky line from the tee, they would then reward the player with an easier approach to the green. They began to place hazards along the best route to defend holes while leaving the rest of the hole undefended for playability. The work of Tillinghast, Colt, Thomas and Mackenzie would be described as primarily strategic in nature.

The 16th at Cypress Point, certainly heroic, thank Merion Hollins for the hole.

The final style is well identified with Robert Trent Jones, but has origins with Charles Blair MacDonald and Stanley Thompson to name two other earlier architects. The final school was the heroic, where golfers are given either forced carries or very dangerous diagonal carries over hazards. The island green at the TPC at Sawgrass could be called the ultimate heroic hole, but the 18th is likely the best example of the course. Golfers are invited to dare as much as they can for ideal position, but the penalty is a return to the tee for missing the shot. As you can see this is actually a blending of penal and strategic into a new school. The work of Pete Dye has evolved into heroic through his evolutions.

So where do I stand on this? Penal all by itself will discourage all but the greatest players and even then would be fairly daunting as a daily diet. Heroic is fun on occasion, but there are far too many course where the player faces one carry after another to the point where they can’t distinguish one course from another or even one hole from another on the same course. This strategy is so overused by modern architecture that it is dull through repetition. So that leaves me as a strategic designer right?

Sort of, but I believe the only way to design is to let the land dictate the holes and the strategy. That means there should be no set style. If a natural heroic carry appears, or a hole is surrounded by trouble (that would be penal) then that becomes part of the course. I’m mostly sitting in the strategic school of design because I definitely like to defend the ideal line to a hole and I strongly believe in some playability, but limiting myself to one school of design would limit the creativity and the variety of my golf courses. I do know I believe in a little more penal and a lot less heroic architecture than the modern designers, but generally yes I would sit in the school of the strategic.

One footnote to this is that I very strongly believe in penal hazards (bunkers), which is different from penal design. There is no question in my mind that a great hazard like the Road Hole Bunker can make for fascinating holes while providing lots of room for the weaker player to avoid them. Whether that is strategic, penal or heroic architecture, it is still great architecture and that matters more that a label.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Fairways Interview

The following is a question and answer interview I did with John Tenpenny, editor of Fairways magazine. The magazine is out now if you want to get a copy from your local course. You will see a lot of the ideas in my blog coming together in one place.

What elements are missing in golf courses designed today?

The game of golf is supposed to be fun. Natural rolls, rumples, ridges and slopes, left completely untouched, add a huge amount of interest to a course. The joy of the game is trying to figure out how to play over, along or around these natural features. The game originated with chance as one of the elements of the game and that has been sadly replaced by fairness.

Almost all the great courses have awe-inspiring green contours. Take St. Andrew’s for example, it has some of the boldest undulations on any golf course, 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.

Almost all the current bunkering lacks the character and charm of the bunkers created in the Golden Age (1900-1930). I have spent a lot of time restoring courses from this period, and I needed to learn all the old construction techniques in order to recreate the original features. I came to realize these hand-made bunkers are always a lot better than anything built by a machine. Think of brush strokes on a canvas versus using a roller, "hand-made" features add the detail and character that a machine can never match.

What kind of golf courses should we be building?

As crazy as this may sound, we need to build shorter courses, to return the variation in lengths of holes. Courses should have two or three short par fours, most now have none to keep the yardage as long as possible, yet these are the holes that golfers love the most. There is also an abundance of unnecessary bunkering dotting the landscape; the road hole proves that one well placed bunker can be enough to dictate how a hole is played. We still need lots of width for playability, but all the natural rumples and rolls should be left intact for charm. The final key is the return of the undulating greens. A great green will influence strategy right from the tee. This will all return the fun to the game, and bring people out to play the course.

And Why aren’t these kinds of courses being built?

I don’t know why, because it’s certainly cheaper to build this style of course. I assume it has more to do with the architect’s style. This is the era where golfers no longer play against nature, but instead they play against the architect. The architect usually sets up a very specific set of shots, and shapes the land to fit their strategic intent. The architects are also very conscious of fairness, so they shape every last foot, to avoid a player getting a bad bounce or unfair result. Nothing is left to chance in the round – too bad.

It will change - initially through simple economics. There are a lot of high end clubs all competing for the same group of players, many of those courses can only survive if they maintain that high green fee. That green fee structure is currently under a great deal of pressure. Owners will see that my method not only delivers a great course, it does it for a lot less money.

Why are courses built before WWII so much better and more highly acclaimed than so-called modern courses?

There is good architecture and bad architecture in every era.

Courses from the Golden Age have the advantage of maturity, evolution and natural selection to help them become the classics we recognize. I also think they are founded on a great set of design principles. These provide a template for all architects to follow, the ones that do, produce the best courses in this era.

Describe you favourite kinds of golf hole.

My favorite hole is undoubtedly the short par four. Everybody has a chance on a short par four. For the average player, here lies the opportunity to make a par; and for the better player, a chance to make birdie.

The short par four offers more options than any other type of hole. On a well designed short four, an aggressive player will be enticed to try the driver to set up an easy pitch or approach to the green. Another player may choose an iron for position, so that they can have a full shot into that same target for control. If the hole is very well designed, the risk and reward will increase the closer to the green, and the player will be faced with a myriad of routes to the green.

The greatest “designed” hole in the world is the 10th hole at Riviera. Easily reachable from the tee it entices a bold player to play for the green. Missing right is certain peril and few pars are made from missing right. The genius is in the green itself, it slopes away strongly unless you come in from well left. The smart play is the least obvious and the riskiest play is the most understandable; truly a moment of inspired genius.

For a player, options equal interest. The measure of a great golf course is not how tough it is but how interesting it is to play. Short fours make the game interesting for everyone..

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Architecture of William Flynn

The 2nd shot to the 18th at Huntingdon Valley

Why is William Flynn not held up in the same standing as other elite architects of the Golden Age?

His best work, Shinnecock Hills, is considered by many the best course they have ever played. His body of work includes Rolling Green, Huntington Valley, Indian Creek, Cherry Hills, Lancaster and Lehigh to name a few great courses. Put his work up against Colt, Mackenzie and Ross and his quality holds up well.

Critics say that Flynn was a good, but his work all looks the same. I think this is where our modern outlook of golf course architecture lets us down. We are in an era where the average player thinks a golf course should be friendly to play and beautiful to the eye. It’s no longer about excellent shot values; it’s now about shots from the camera. Today’s popular architecture is all about marketing. The problem for an architect like William Flynn is how do you market great shot values? Fortunately time always brings the best work to prominence, subtle greatness such as Pinehurst #2, gets realized through play. William Flynn’s work is the same, to understand how good a strategist and architect he was, you need to play his courses.

Let’s take a look at Huntingdon Valley to understand how he thought. Huntingdon Valley is set in a wonderful steep sided valley with a beautiful brook running through the property. The routing of the course breaks convention by running along the slopes as it works its way around the valley. Think of a Nascar track with steep sided banks as the routing for the front nine. The result is a series of holes where cross-slope becomes the dominant factor on how each hole is played. Conventional wisdom would have had more holes going up and down the slopes and particularly more doglegs going with the natural terrain. This approach would have made the course “fairer” and would have offered flatter lies to the player. Flynn’s reason to take a different approach was because he was instructed by the membership to build a true championship golf course. What Flynn envisioned was a test of shot making to create the best players, so he created situations where unless the player was going to work the ball into the natural cross-slope, they would not hit fairways. He then took it one step further by applying the pressure of having the holes dogleg against the slope. The only way to hit this fairway is to work the ball into the slope to hold the hill. What made this style of hole even more challenging was the second shot. The player was in a situation where he had to draw a ball from a fade lie or fade a ball from a draw lie just to hold the green. Now this added a great deal of pressure to the skills of a player and only rewards a skilled shot maker able to craft the correct approach. Flynn did not always call for this, often there were options to use the hill as a feeder slope into the green with a bounced in approach; but what made his courses challenging and interesting was his occasionally insistence on the player meeting a specific challenge. Some of the holes at Huntingdon Valley are unpopular to the “fair play” crowd, but they make an excellent test to player’s ability without always resorting to the uncreative option of simply adding length.

The 2nd shot to the 10th at Shinnecok Hills

Another great example of his cunning is the 10th at Shinnecock Hills. The tee shot plays down hill and the player is left with a downhill approach to a raised green. The back of the green is shaved to shed the ball and the front of the green is a huge slope that will back the ball all the way to the bottom if the approach is too timid. As Johnny Miller said in the broadcast, I have played this hole dozens of times, I still have no idea what to do, but for some reason I look forward to playing each and every time.

His main influence must have been Wilson’s masterpiece of Merion. The course is a perfect test of shot making; due mostly to the use of all of the subtle slopes to influence positioning. Anyone visiting Merion is taken by how efficiently and effectively the land is used on each hole. Merion’s bunker placement is stunning, both directional and strategic bunkers are used to define each set of shots. They help set off the angles of greens and fairways so that the strategic placement of shots is easily visible to the player. Finally, the green contouring is bold enough to challenge putting and to dictate play from the tee.

Like Merion, he used the slope of the land to dictate how the course should be played; and like Merion he used well placed directional and strategic bunkering to define where the ideal line was into each hole. Whether the bunker was placed to indicate a useful slope or even a kicker to get more distance, a carry line where the player was rewarded with a better angle into the green, or as a warning bunker to show where to play away from, each bunker was important. Since the strategic value of his bunkering was so important; he would rarely place any extra bunkers just for framing or to simply add beauty. Detractors may have said this makes Flynn’s bunker work a little dull, but I would counter that this makes his architecture extremely honest. Flynn’s bunkers were much understated. They are open fronted for easy viewing, and flashed high for clear visibility. The Flynn look had more to do with clarity than visual stimulation. While not the fancy shapes of Thomas or Mackenzie, they still have their own subtle charm.

William Flynn greatest strength as an architect was his strategic vision. He demands that you focus on each and ever task throughout the entire round. He challenges you create shots from all sorts of different stances. He insists on courage and precision when attacking the course. To play well; you must use the land to make shots, understand the ideal angle for each approach, and position yourself on the greens, and of course putt well. He may not get the national attention of a Donald Ross, but Flynn is every bit the equal of the elite of Golf Architecture.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Importance of the Insurmountable Hole

The 6th at Kawartha 235 yards to a high plateau

I wrote a long time ago about the need for a “breather hole” on a course dominated by a series of exceptionally challenging holes or through challenging terrain. Today I want to talk about the importance of the Insurmountable hole, in this case set among a series of easier holes.

Yesterday I played golf at Kawartha Golf & Country Club, a great Stanley Thompson layout that has been profiled on this blog before. The first five holes at Kawartha are a nice slow introduction into the course, a selection of medium par fours with one very short par five (a hole I would love to see play as a long par four with just a few shorter tees for playability). After the first five, the player runs smack into the teeth of the course, the first of the long par threes. The 6th hole is a very long and very uphill par three of around 235 yards. What makes the hole tough is that it plays at least one if not two clubs uphill. The green sits atop a diagonal ridge to the left that is severely sloped, with a rambling deep bunker cut in the face of the slope. Long right is a directional bunker that is impossible to recover from because of the slope of the green. The green is also set up a few feet higher on an additional slight rise, like the 15th at Catarqui (another insurmountable hole). Only the very best shot will find the surface and the slope turns the rest od the approach shots around and back down the slope. Oh yes, and then there is the green, nothing fancy just a severe pitch directly at the bunker on the left. You must be underneath the pin to make a putt. The green is not ridiculous enough to roll the ball off, but a putt from the sides is pretty much impossible. That, my friends, is an insurmountable hole. You would remember a birdie there for a long time, a par is a victory to be savored (it probably won you money) and a bogie is clearly an acceptable result. The members say the average group finishes out in 20!

My playing partner called the hole goofy. I in turn said after 5 short holes where Thompson allowed you lots of opportunity to score, the hole is ideal. Golf needs changes of pace to be interesting, and it is at its best when holes contrast the previous in length or difficulty. What I like about the 6th at Kawartha is if you haven’t got your game together yet, it’s time for Thompson to start taking strokes back. He’s telling you that it’s time for you to show what kind of player you are.

I’ve often talked about flow in a round of golf. This is a course where Thompson was building for the employees of GE (originally owned by GE) and he made the decision to build a golf course that was playable. There are almost no fairway bunkers on the entire course and there are lots of middle length holes to enjoy where good players have ample opportunity to score. What Thompson did is ramp up the difficulty in a few select holes to test the player. Remember it is nearly impossible to lose a ball on our insurmountable hole, he just used the land to say you’ve had your fun, now can you play a little.

Great holes like the Road Hole at the Old Course are practically impossible to make par on for all but the greatest players. Overcoming one of these “par and a half” holes means a lot more to the average player than making a par on a on a simple par four. The insurmountable hole is important to providing interest and contrast in the collection of holes. It often provides memories too, make a birdie on the Road Hole and you can tell that story for a lifetime!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dealing With Flat Sites

The TPC at Sawgrass was one of the best courses ever built on a por site. Dye lifted the fairways and used bunkering as transition.

Greg asked, “How you would work with a flat piece of land. Is this a golf architect's worst nightmare, or something better? Does a flat piece of land provide more options, or fewer? What are the main things that drive a flat design? What would you do with a wooded lot vs. a clear lot?”

The good is that you have almost complete artistic freedom to create exactly what you want. The bad is that no matter how hard you try, you will always be limited by the flatness of the site.

The key to handling it becomes making a decision on how to provide some relief to the holes to make the course interesting. The old standard of placing containment mounds around the outside of holes makes for a horrible and unnatural golf course. The key is to create a natural feature like a sand quarry or a ridgeline to add at least one prominent landscape element from which you work from. The pit can be used to create the fill needed to lift areas such as tees and green – even fairways too. The ridgeline running through the middle allows you to use it for backdrops and to provide views out over the property to situate tees greens and even fairways.

A flat site is not an architect’s worst nightmare, but it presents a very complicated build for drainage and a very average starting point which usually doesn’t lead to a great golf course – unless an architect has an immense imagination and a good solid budget to work with. Built on the cheap, there is very little an architect can do to overcome the site.

The architecture for a flat property can have the most options since it is limited only to the imagination and the earthmoving budget. You are left to create it all, which suits someone like Pete Dye, whereas to many others this task is far to large for them. You have a blank canvas; the problem is if you have no natural features to work with, you also have to manufacture all those too. It’s a lot to create and very taxing on the imagination.

The things that drives a flat design is getting fill to make features and finding a way to drain the golf course effectively. You have to brilliant with drainage to build flat courses, it suits the engineering side of the golf architects mind more than the seat of the pants designer. It is also hard not to fall into using large bodies of water that come into play – that provide you with lots of fill to work with. This is used so often that you can probably picture these types of holes everywhere. Here in Toronto it describes almost every new 18th hole built in the last 25 years!

Ballantrae is a housing roject built on a flat site, where the golf course deals with all drainage and storm run-off.

The only thing I would do different with a wooded site is to not place fill up against the trees. The key to creating a natural looking course is to disguise the fills so they look like they are natural and nothing is more obvious than mounds or a big fill against a tree line. The best example of working with flat site in the trees is the TPC at Sawgrass. That was a horrible site, but Pete managed to make a magnificent natural looking course by raising the playing areas up in the middle and then using ponds, rough areas and waste areas against the trees to hide the fill placed on the fairway. I would definitely borrow my approach from Pete. He borrowed his from Raynor and Banks. I might even consider a course based on the template holes of Raynor and MacDonald as my method of dealing with a perfectly flat site.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Routing to Add Difficulty Part 2

In routing to add difficulty I wanted to discuss four (possibly more) different ways to make a hole more difficult by the way you place holes on the land. So far I have touched on using crowns and using cross-slopes to add difficulty in a routing. The lesson at Garden City is one of the best and easiest to use because the situation exists on almost every property right down to the gently sloping ones. The rest usually require natural undulation to exist.

The third method is the placement of strong topography right in the landing zone, so that the landing zone is in fact much tighter and much more challenging than the fairway width. I have two different examples of this, one is using a valley style hole that has the placement of the rolls of the hills make the tee shot tough to negotiate, the other uses huge bowls eating into a huge plateau to make placement important.

The first example is the 11th hole at Oakland Hills. The large roll on the left extends right across the fairway and deflects any tee shots to the right side of the hole. What makes this extra tough is the right side roll is where the bunkers are cut. The difficulty lies in trying to thread the tee shot by the bunkers by playing a draw, having to try take it down the left and risk a downhill lie in the rough, or having to lay short of them and having a brutally long approach into an elevated green. Convention would have had the fairway go further right creating a natural bowl shaped fairway, but when Ross kept the fairway left he made one of the better driving holes in golf.

The second example is the 16th at the National Golf Links of America. The tee shot is played to a huge plateau starting 180 yards out. What makes the shot fun is that three 30 foot deep bowls that eat into the plateau. The first one on the front right has a large bunker cut into it and it frames the tee shot. The one on the left is 240 yards from the tee and collects a tentative tee shot. The last one on the right behind the first one is 300 yards and collects the longest player playing too aggressive. The fairway runs the ball all the way to the bottom into the left bowl and far bowl and the player is left with a difficult and very blind approach to the punchbowl green. The alternating bowls make accuracy off the tee important on this hole.

The second type of hole is the use of the plateau. My examples involve green sites, but landing areas can also be a plateau and usually involve an elevated tee shot over a valley played to a plateau on the other side. But it is the plateau green that adds the most difficulty when used in a routing. The plateau green can come in two styles, the green that is set above the grade but is still visible to the player on the approach, or it can be much higher and not visible from the landing area. When there are no trees immediately behind these are often called skyline greens, because that is all you can see. The difficulty comes first from gauging the club required and then from having the ball repelled away from the green if the green is missed. If you take the extreme case at Pinehurst, sometimes the ball is repelled off the green even when you the hit green itself, but now we are heading more into the detailing than the routing of a hole.

The first example is sometimes called the volcano green site, because of its appearance. The 2nd at Pine Valley involves an uphill approach to a green that falls off in all directions. The green is fronted by deep and intimidating front hazards putting pressure on the approach, but missing wide or long leaves the ball well down a slope with the green running severely away. This is not a long hole, but is still one of the toughest in golf.

The second example is the finest par four I know, the 14th at Royal Dornock called Foxy. The green is about 10 feet above the fairway. The difficulty is in finding this green with your approach. In this instance the approach and sides are all cut short which means only a great approach will stay on the green, the rest are left to run off the slope and stay down in the valley leaving a touch chip back up the slope to try save par. The front and side slopes work to create almost a crown effect with the front of the green adding further difficulty to the approach, this is an extremely challenging hole with no bunkers.

There are others, like leaving uneven or rumpled land in the landing areas, and running greens with the natural slope which is away from play, but I think many of these examples cross over into detailed design. So I’ll leave this subject there…..for now