You gaze out from the tee and notice the wide fairway sweeping gracefully toward the green. Irregularly cut bunkers are positioned just where you subconsciously expect them to be. The green is distant but traceable; it rises, there is a flag, and another bunker. Trees, old and imperious, stand to the left and right. There is no water, just green grass, golf, and an utter sense of comfort. Everything is as it should be.
You address the ball, take another look, and for some reason your eye leaves the centerline of the fairway and drifts left, up a small rise. A golfer is walking up over the top of the rise and down into the fairway. You thought he had moved on. Your gaze is now riveted on higher left side. It follows the top of the billowy elevation that runs the length of the hole, all the way to the green.
Mounds! What are they doing there? Why?
My list of lamentable features on a golf course may not begin with mounds, but it certainly includes them. I find waterfalls, island greens, fanciful bunker shapes or perfectly symmetrical and flat bunkers all to be more egregious uses of land and money. But when mounds are deposited on a course in the contrived, abrupt manner that they frequently were in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, they do in fact claim the most ignoble honor.
The problem with mounds is that once you become attuned to them, you see them everywhere.
But why did mounding also known as containment mounding, and hereby defined as manmade, usually grass covered hillocks running parallel to fairways and surrounding putting surfaces become so popular in the first place? Despite claims of their usefulness, there are few things on a golf course as out of place and down right ridiculous looking at exaggerated mounds.
The origins of golf course mounds can be traced back to the pre-World War II era when dynamiting or removing large obstacles within golf course routing was often impractical. Contractors would often simply cover and grass things like large boulders, making unique and random mounds.
As heavy machinery became an economical means of construction in the late 1940's, the possibility of mass mounding, particularly in the construction of green sites, became both possible and common.
Perhaps the real impetus for the modern era of runaway mounding was the novelty of the stadium-style courses built by the PGA Tour in the early 1980 's, beginning with the TPC at Sawgrass. Both the Stadium and the Valley courses feature, in places, high grass banks and vertiginous mounds.
That concept seems to have worked well given its purpose to allow spectators better views of the action (as well as to enhance the difficulty of greenside recovery for the players) but that doesn't fully explain why the trend extended to new courses that were unlikely to host major tournaments. Like Sansabelt and fly collars, it was just the fashionable thing.
Much of the popular architecture of the last 20 years involves architects making a primary effort to frame golf holes, creating visual balance by using whatever means, natural or unnatural, are available. Framing and manipulating the view of a golf hole is certainly nothing new in architecture, but in recent years the practice has been sharpened to closely coincide with perceived aesthetic ideals.
Containment mounds, or perimeter mounds, were crude precursors for the current advanced "framing" methods. It's also possible they initiated the change from golfers being willing to play "on top" of the course, out in the open so to speak, to a desire to play down and below the grade of the horizon, to be held, to have golf holes enclose or border them.
Today's style of mounding is often tastefully executed and attempts to seamlessly tie together on-course and off-course areas. Older examples, however, seem contrived and outlandish take a look at much of Rees Jones' portfolio from these years, or the Jack Nicklaus stuff from the preceding era.
Aside from the visual merits or non-merits and discussions of naturalness, is there a utilitarian justification for it?
Fairway containment mounding serves several purposes: it provides an economical outlet for redistributing earth excavated elsewhere on the property; it provides isolation from one hole to another, a conceit often desired by many modern players and club members; it provides a safety buffer between golf holes and between courses and residential property; it obscures views of cart paths; and lastly, I've heard it argued, it aids wild players by keeping their shots on the course.
Of these reasons, the last two seem dubious. Why hide an eyesore (a cart path) with a greater eyesore (unnatural, occasionally grotesque mounding)? And secondly, golf balls routinely end up on the outside or downslopes of containment mounding, complicating the following shot. Creating uneven lies to challenge the player is a wonderful way to impart strategic nuance into a course, but when it's the result of an effort to make the game easier, it's a failure.
I grew up playing a course that had some of the most unique and maddening mounding I've ever come across. The only relief at the small, flat site came at the green complexes, which were literally configured like catcher's mitts elevated and pitched back-to-front, with three- to six-foot mounds surrounding three and a half sides. The only opening was a small entrance at the front.
Missing greens quickly became tiresome lob wedge after lob wedge from the rough, up and over the mounds, hoping the ball would stop quickly. It was worse to miss the green by only a few yards. This resulted in a downhill stance from the inside of one of the mounds, usually played from long rough.
This was an extreme, but the inherent playing challenges it presented are played out on every course with greenside mounding. Greens surrounded by rough-covered mounds reduce recovery to U.S. Open types of hit-and-hope shots. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's one-dimensional and repetitious.
What you don't see very often on American courses are elevated greenside mounds mown at fairway height. We're all familiar with shaved slopes and chipping areas set below putting surfaces, but why not shave down the high mounds to add a devious dimension to missing greens? It's one thing to play a Texas wedge or bump shot from a tight lie up to a putting surface, and something altogether different to play it over the top of a three-foot rise.
Much of the business of golf course architecture in recent years has turned to the renovation and remodeling of existing courses usually older courses with irrigation problems, old turf, dilapidated features, and tree overcrowding. It wouldn't surprise me if over the next decade or two those renovation services are expanded to include that mass paring down, or removing altogether, of some of the most overstated mounding built from the '80s and '90s.
That aggressive style hasn't aged well. The bizarre moonscapes and chocolate drops from that period might have been interesting at the time but it now appears contrived, unnatural, and out of place. But even though sensibilities have given way to a softer, gentler style of mounding, mounding still exists.
As a practice, as a model, as a rule, is it really necessary? Is it really cost-effective? And will it serve an enduring aesthetic purpose any better than the former mode? Can golfers not relearn to play on natural surfaces, even if it doesn't coddle their desire to be framed?
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!