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Basic Course Design 101: Become an Educated Golfer

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Have you ever stood on a tee box at one of your favorite golf courses, gazed out upon the fairway and said to your playing partners,"Now that is a good golf hole."?

What if someone in your foursome took you to task on your proclamation?

"Why is it such a good golf hole?" asks Ron from Raleigh.

"You always par this hole, is that why you like it so much," jabs Gabe from Greensboro.

"Do you even know who designed this golf course?" chides Charlie from Charlotte.

Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, this isn't going to happen. Most days, your playing partners will simply nod in agreement as you sing the hole's praises, and crack another Budweiser.

But why not dare to be different? Why not become an educated golfer and a knowledgeable participant in the world's greatest game. You'd be surprised how much more fun golf becomes when you gain an understanding of basic course design principles.

"A lot of guys don't like for you to take the driver out of their hand, and they are the ones that don't know anything about architecture," says Hilton Head based golf course architect Clyde Johnston."If players understand good design, they will appreciate the game more."

But just what is good design? For Johnston, the definition centers on fairness.

"All of us designers do things different," Johnston says."I can only speak about myself and a few of the other guys, but one of the things we want to do is make the course blend in with the surroundings. Another thing I do is make the landing area apparent through framing, bunkers, or mowing techniques. Golfers should know where they should be hitting the ball."

Johnston points out that there is a fine line between showing the golfer what he is supposed to do, and holding his hand while he does it. A good golf hole has to challenge all levels of players, or it has failed, he says.

"If it's a hole where some strategy is involved, in terms of choosing a side of the fairway, you need to guide the player, but you can't make it a walk in the park," Johnston says."Donald Ross used to put a fairway bunker on the right, and a greenside bunker on the left, and I like to follow this concept so there are no easy ways out."

Florida-based golf course architect Ron Garl (at right) is known for producing some of the most visually stunning, player friendly courses in the world. Garl designs have been recognized not only for their creativity, but their sensitivity to high handicappers and women golfers. Garl says that good design rewards players for taking up and sticking with the game.

"You can't be too penal with players, especially new ones, or they will drop out of the game," Garl says."One of the keys to a well designed hole, or golf course for that matter is to have a wide selection of teeing areas that were thoughtfully placed. When people play a golf course or a golf hole, they need to feel that their time was well spent."

So where can we find these well-designed golf holes? Short game expert Dave Pelz (at right) believe you can't go wrong on a Tom Fazio designed tract.

"I think when players look out at Tom Fazio's designs, they know they are seeing good golf course design," says award-winning short game instructor Dave Pelz."Tom puts the entire hole out before you, and paints a picture of what you need to do. Nothing is hidden, or tricked up about it."

But, if we have learned anything from America's sensationalized movie industry, we know that where there is good, there is evil. Johnston says that the good and great golf courses far out number the bad ones.

"There is some bad design out there, but not much," Johnston says."Sometimes holes just don't work. Sometimes there are no options, or the strategy fails. I believe in giving players options on every hole. I think the mistakes that are out there are guys that put a blind shot where they didn't have to, or too much of a forced carry that makes it too tough for the average golfer."

Designing a good golf hole isn't easy, despite the straightforward recipes that architects like Garl and Johnston usually follow. Great players often have a good idea of what it takes to build a challenging, fair golf hole, and legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player were quick to delve into the design business during, and after their playing days.

Some golfers assume that a these player/designers are present throughout the course design process, walking the grounds, taking notes, drawing up plans, heck even driving the bulldozer. Architects will be the first to tell you that this isn't always the case.

"None of those guys would be out there everyday, but we (actual architects) are never out there everyday either," Johnston says."Jack Nicklaus in particular has different levels of service ranging from Gold Bear design, which he never even sees, to a Nicklaus signature courses where he is actually involved in the design work."

When it comes to Arnold Palmer's courses, it is commonly known and accepted that chief associate and business partner Ed Seay (at right) takes the lead on much of the design work. Seay, who has been with Palmer for over 30 years, says that Palmer's role is primarily one of reviewer and critic.

"From day one, from the time I hang up the phone or get a letter back that we've been hired or have been selected to do a job, I tell him the basic concepts of what we've talked about and we give him a layout and then we go over the grading plans and then we go into construction," Seay says."Once he understands what we're doing we then bring him on site, not to show him a hole in the ground or a pile of dirt, we show him a roughed-in golf hole, so he has an idea of the complexity of each hole."

So next time Ron, Gabe, and Charlie grill you on the tee box, tell them it's a good hole because it is strategic and fair, you always par it because you've taken the time to study the game, and that Tom Fazio designed the entire course except for the urinals.

No worries, even if it's just your local municipal course, they probably won't know the difference.

Senior Writer Derek Duncan contributed to this story

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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