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A holiday wish list from the Armchair Architect

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

There is much to be thankful for this year in terms of golf course architecture, positioned as we are in the midst of what could fairly be called an architectural upswing. With continued advances in turf grasses and turf grass management, dependable golf course construction, young architects coming into their own, and the embracement of properties previously deemed to remote to be marketable, it's possible that golf design has not achieved such heights of overall excellence since the 1920's and 1930's.

Most exciting is the development of courses and resorts in low-density, often extreme regions. Owners are opening their minds and pocketbooks to architects in places like New Zealand, Tasmania, Northwest Ireland, Scotland, Central America, Central Nebraska and Wyoming. No frontier currently seems off-limits. These new destinations will undoubtedly help continue to shrink the golf globe and endow players with mesmerizing new landscapes on which to dream.

But in architecture, like in any art, stagnation is recession. Changes are not just necessary but inevitable. The evolving conditions of how modern players play challenges architects and owners to be both proactive and creative. In the spirit of the holidays and of these high architectural times, I'd like to help brainstorm by presenting a sort of Christmas-style wish list. I'd likeā€¦

A Trip Home

No, not a trip to my home - a return to the home of golf at St. Andrews, at least in spirit.

Somewhere along the line golf has changed from a gentleman's sport, an outdoor endeavor, and a communion with nature to a long day of appropriateness and utilization of luxury items. The ramifications of the country-club-for-a-day splurge in the 1990's - that of the flawless grounds, bag attendants, expansive locker rooms, carts and cart paths, GPS systems, scented towels and whatever else ilk - was the tipping point and nearly removed every last simple, recreational aspect from the American game.

Am I the only one that longs for the days when we changed spikes sitting on the trunks of our cars, carried our own bag not just across a dirt parking lot but around the course as well, and for green fees that were more in line with a movie date than a car payment?

Golf is, and probably will continue to be, a corporate driven business where bigger and brighter is better, but here's wishing for a little more modestly, a little more ruggedness, and a little less amenity.

A Return of Value

Along with the rise of the upscale golf "experience" comes a gross escalation in green fees.

Nearly everyone in golf agrees it's important to introduce young players to the game, but does anyone else worry about where all these new enthusiasts will play once they have to start paying for it themselves? So much architectural emphasis is put on making golf courses playable for all levels, but little is made of making golf affordable for all levels.

Sure, there are inexpensive places to play, but how many are truly architecturally interesting, and how many aren't desperately overcrowded or operating on shoestring budgets? Not enough, I assure you. It's already difficult for young people just out of college or starting a new job or a family to find the time to play; without an influx of fun, viable courses on which to accommodate their interest the game, they will quit altogether. Golf may not survive the passing to the next generation.

A Clean Close Shave

I'm seeing scalped green surrounds more and more, and hopefully this trend will continue in larger and more encompassing ways.

Quite simply, a tightly mowing the chipping area around a green, rather than growing a collar of rough, multiplies recovery options and introduces an element of both touch and indecision to the short game. High handicappers get to use their favorite club to get the ball back onto the putting surface, and the scratch player will second guess her decision if she doesn't get it up and down. The difference is linearity vs. plurality.

A Bald Crown

This goes hand in hand with shaved chipping surrounds: a resurgence of crowned, roll-edged greens. Again, nothing new, but when elevated, convex greens are crafted intelligently (instead of concave greens nestled in mounds) they add an intriguing fear element to approach shots.

The green complexes at the new Jack Nicklaus May River Club at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, SC are easily the best examples I've recently seen. These Saarinenian art-forms bubble at angles from the broad floor, their various shapes and slopes curving off into swales or deep bunkers. Missing approach shots in the wrong place, or losing them too close to the edge, results into balls shuttling five, ten, or more yards in an undesired direction. A course with this level of multiplicity in its pin placements could never grow tiresome.

An Experiment in the Third Dimension

Since we're on the subject of contours, how about some wild - and I mean wild - absolutely three-dimensional green contour, the type you see only in black and white photos in books about architects like Alister MacKenzie.

Of course green speeds would have be dropped significantly and this would drive scratch players and precision wonks mad, but what's wrong with that? A few sporting courses with true MacKenzie greens would be of real value to offset all the mindless "championship" courses already in existence, whatever that means.

Skyline Elements

Another classical feature I'd like to see taken out of the dustbin is the skyline green.

On of the reasons these elevated putting surfaces with no visible backdrop (all you typically see is a flagstick and blue sky) have fallen out of vogue through the decades is the increasing disparagement toward blind shots. Most architects and owners are of the mind that players need to "see" the target, see where the ball lands.


When appropriate (as in, where the terrain allows for it), a skyline green can add guesswork and visual uncertainty to an approach shot, provide a test of faith, of judgment. There's also the delayed drama and release of escalating anticipation when you pull level with the putting surface and see, or don't see, for the first time the result of the shot. What's not to like?

A Pain in the Rear

So much of golf course architecture in the last 30 years has been about flying the ball over things. The prevailing concern has been almost exclusively about carry-distance.

Placing more hazards behind greens might just force the modern player to readjust her thought process, or at least complicate it. Greens with front-to-back slope and rear hazards, and nothing blocking the entrance, force players to consider maximum distance rather than solely the minimum distances they now calculate programmatically.

What about a long diagonal hazard backing the second shot landing area on a sizeable par-4 or a reachable par-5 and continuing on behind the green, a sort of deadly backboard? Strong players, instead of simply slugging away at the green and thinking only "Get it there," would also have to factor in how far a long shot might run out on the ground. This feature isn't as much a factor for the average player but might get the scratch player to let up off the gas a bit, or at least think twice about gunning freely.

Naturally Hazardous Things

The bunker has been the official golf course hazard almost since the game originated. And back in the day they were just that: hazardous. But take a random sampling of bunkers today and you're likely to find they neither look nor play especially dangerous. The typical bunker has devolved into a shallow, clean, curvaceous, and well-kept garden of sand. As such, this modern plastic bunkering, I find, could not look more out of place.

Deepening and roughing up the bunkering on a course is one solution, if you need a solution, but why stand on convention? What about ditching bunkers altogether and in their place incorporating whatever exists indigenously on-site?

If the course is designed on prairie land, bring the wild grasses in to the corners of doglegs next to the fairway where a bunker complex would ordinarily be. This would make for a true hazard as well as appear uniquely natural. In the pine forests of the Southeast, simply don't grass portions of the rough and allow the dirt and rock and pine strewn floor to creep up to the playing lines and around green complexes. Use what's already there rather than adding things - bunkers - that are alien to that environment.

Radical, perhaps, but so was Pine Valley originally, the finest example of this concept. It's also already the model for many desert courses.

New Shorts

Finally, let's quit thinking that we have to build golf courses longer. There are ways, if owners and architects are willing, to create interesting and challenging designs and actually decrease overall length. The key to it is the short par-4. Go ahead, read on.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Finally, someone gets it right

    David McCollum wrote on: Jan 5, 2005

    Excellent article and ideas. It should be required reading for all golf course developers and players. Particularly the concept of affordable golf. Most new courses I've played are just too expensive and require way too much maintenance for the average player.
    As the owner of a shortish (6,800 yards), rather shabbily maintained course in a fantastic setting (a 500 foot deep gorge, no houses), I have asked our golfers many times whether they would prefer better maintenance or added features and improvements in exchange for higher fees. The answer is almost a universal "no". Almost despite the facts that our course has lots of character, a spectacular natural landscape, and is probably the most challenging course in our area, I believe most golfers choose to play there because their golfing buddies play there. Affordability in our market has a lot to do with making this the compelling reason. And isn't a little competition with friends what this maddening sport is all about?
    Kids, by the way, can play for $5 during the weekdays in the summer.


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