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The "S" Word, Part II - Elements of Strategy

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

This is part two in an ongoing series about the concept of strategy in golf design.

In the previous column we wrestled with the concept of strategy as it pertains to analyzing a golf course. Due to a nearly indefinable complexity, I came to the decision that strategy is notsomething a golf course can possess, rather it is an approach to golf course design and play. Inother words, certain golf courses reward strategic play more than others, but they are notnecessarily intrinsically strategic. Strategy is an application.

It may sound like verbal nit-picking, and maybe it is, but the more we clarify our thoughts onthe matter the more precise we can be when assessing the relative merits of a golf course and itsdesign; some architects choose to force golfers to play strategically, others don't.

All golf courses encourage strategic play on some level since the player must always think orplan, even minimally, how to play the holes. The difference is in the way and the style thatstrategic encouragement is created, rewarded, and even punished.

If architects cannot imbue an entire golf course with the quality of strategy, they canstill use (or not use) strategic elements to create situations that reward a strategic approach.Let's take a look at some of the variations.


Great golf courses generally don't employ just one type of strategic defense - there are manytricks and tantalizations at an architect's disposal, and the best courses mix and match them. Infact, the difference between a risk-reward scenario for a golf shot and a decision-making scenarioare closely related.

The course that arguably poses the most meaningful decision-making quandaries is Augusta National. No two holes better demonstrate its decision-making paradigms than the 13th and the 15th.

Both par 5s are easily reachable for professional golfers from almost anywhere in the fairway,but positioning off the tee remains critical. The ideal drive on the 13th hole is a high draw thathugs a tributary of Rae's Creek on the left, catches the downslope, and finishes on a somewhatlevel lie. Almost anything else will result in an un-level stance. The green is still reachable intwo even with a poor drive pushed or hit through the fairway, but the following shot becomesproportionately dangerous. The same goes for 15, where drives down the left or right rough-lineresult (now) in tree interference as well as a downhill lie.

Round after round golfers agonize over the decision to try for the green in two or to lay up andtake an easy par. By adjusting the holes to an optimum distance and locating complicating greencomplexes near particular hazards, this type of design forces the player to correctly read the shotand possibly check down aggressive intentions.

It's not so much a matter of achieving or not achieving - as is the case with the risk/rewardshot - but rather a matter of degrees. The holes reward strategic play by working in confluencewith the golfer's mentality, thus the strategic battle is fought as much internally asphysically.


A risk/reward hole is an important sub-category of the decision-making hole. Beyond the basicconsiderations of "going for it" or laying up, the risk/reward hole plays out as an equation withvariable formulas, simply put, the greater the risk for one shot, the greater the reward for thenext.

Most of the time its initial component is some sort of an all or nothing shot option coupledwith a safer alternative. One of the classic examples of a risk/reward hole was the par-5 fourthhole at Lido Club, a now extinct C.B. MacDonald course on Long Island. The fourth hole offered twodistinct options on the drive: a conservative play to a large fairway on the left which effectivelymade it a three-shot hole, or an aggressive play to a smaller, elevated island fairway straightahead (surrounded by water) that, if made, resulted in a shorter and more direct second shot intothe green.

A contemporary example of this type of hole is the par-5 fourth at the Pine Barrens Course at World Woods Golf club in Florida. Here architect Tom Fazio sets up a similar dilemma - drive to a relatively widesection of fairway to the left and play it as a three shot hole, or blast a drive over a deepand dire waste area straight ahead, setting up a more achievable second shot into the elevatedgreen. On both holes the strategic decision is made when the tee is stuck in the ground; there'sless reading and reacting than in the decision-making hole - from the outset you're either goingto try to get home in two or not.

Recovery or Penalty?

Decision-making and risk/reward are strategic concepts that apply to individual holes, whilerecovery and penalty are philosophies that architects can apply thematically throughout an entiregolf course.

The riveting character of courses such as Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National derives from theability of the player to recover from poor, unlucky, or uninformed shots. The avenues of play arespacious and areas around the greens and off fairway are mown down so that players that miss themtypically have a chance to recover the shot, thought it's not always easy.

As a result players may approach each course in a variety of ways, or in other words, with avariety of strategies. Recovery in design encourages innovative rather than prescriptive play.

The opposite is the penal course, layouts that confine the variety of play to singular methods, usually straight, aerial golf shots. Anything less is penalized by high rough, tree interference, severe hazards - think of the traditional U.S. Open setup in which recovery is limited to chipping back out onto the fairway from the rough.

As we examined in the last column, even these types of holes might still be addressedstrategically by advanced players, but their nature is to confine the avenues of approach andminimize the strategic applications.

All the Best

The best courses in the world combine aspects of decision-making, risk/reward, and recovery (andsometimes penalty).

While veteran players understand that there is a perfect way to decode St. Andrews, toeffectively run the gauntlet (the same might be said for Augusta National), failure to do soresults in a range of challenging recovery options as well as peculiar instances of penalty. St.Andrews also offers elements of decision-making, such as whether to attempt to drive one of theshorter par-4's or fire at the green on 17.

Muirfield in Scotland and Pine Valley are perhaps the world's two finest examples of the decision-making penal course. On virtually every approach shot the player must decide which pins to play for and which sections of green are off-limits, and even when to lay up. The knowledgeable player that keeps emotions in control and strategizes shot to shot will be rewarded versus the next player, but all miscues are harshly penalized off the greens - doubly so at Pine Valley.

The National Golf Links of America offers perhaps the country's purest exercise in strategicinvitation. Not only is every hole remarkably different from the next (it's a Hall of Fame ofclassic British holes), there are infinite approaches to each. For virtually every shot the golfermust gauge which of several appropriate lines to play, decide whether to carry or flirt withfairway hazards, plot tee shots that find level stances or provide a view of the green, or evendetermine whether to play carom shots off mounds versus flying a high ball into a green.

Strategy is something that the architect and the land enables, or "switches on" so to speak.While rudimentary strategic planning occurs by merely swinging a golf club - you choose to aim atthe green and not the bunker - real strategic options are a product of an architect, not a golfcourse.

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.

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