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Rethinking golf course design strategy

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

(This is the third and final installment in a series on the aspects of strategy and golf course design.)

In the first article in this series on strategy I've attempted to define how strategy is something that can be applied to the playing of a golf course but is not something that inherently exists in the golf course itself. In other words, strategic play exists within the mind of the player, not the golf course.

Part two examined several generic concepts architects utilize to encourage the golfer to engage the course strategically. By creating decision-making scenarios, risk-reward shots, and implementing penal or recovery-based design philosophies, architects can set up situations where strokes can be actively won or lost should the golfer willfully participate.

The winning or losing of shots - or holes, in match play - is at the purpose of strategic design. If historically there has been a strategic Golden Rule it is: The greater the risk endeavored the greater the reward shall be.

It need not always involve either/or options or a confrontational risk such as flying a dangerous bunker complex at the corner of a dogleg. Risk can be a sly, calculated play, something as subtle as tickling the edge of a hazard for better position or aiming at a flag cut to the edge of a green. The bottom line, however, is that certain risks are taken in order to gain a subsequent advantage.

The classic embodiment of this type of strategy is the par-4 17th at National Golf Links of America (Leven). The green is bordered short and to the right by a dunes-like hazard. From the tee the player has the option of hitting a long drive down the left side of the fairway over a diagonal hazard. If executed, the approach shot into the green is not only shortened but also affords the optimum angle (around the hazard).

The player unwilling (or incapable) of executing the high-risk drive will play to the right side of the fairway, leaving not only a longer second shot but also one that must fly over the hazard, which obscures the view of the green. The first hole at Cuscowilla Golf Club in Georgia offers a similarly equated scenario (Figure 1).

Architecture has rarely broken from this type of risk equation (high difficulty + execution = optimum second shot). Risk taking, achievement and reward, and going for it have always been at the heart of golf's appeal.

However, modern golf often bears little resemblance to the golf of preceding eras, especially among elite players. Television shows pros and top amateurs regularly making mincemeat of golf courses, including classic courses that only eight or ten years prior served up supreme challenge (Ricky Barnes and other teenagers overpowering Oakland Hills in the 2002 U.S. Amateur comes immediately to mind).

The reasons behind the modern power game have been well documented, but the bottom line is that advanced players currently drive the ball outlandish distances. As such they've not only de-emphasized many of the classic challenges that have defensed golf courses for decades, they've also minimized many of the strategic conundrums that architect's have historically implemented.

The changes in the way players hit the golf ball have invariably changed the way architects design, or must design, golf holes. The most immediate and widespread response has been to lengthen courses. But, as I've wondered repeatedly in this column, where does it stop? How long before 7,500-yard courses are obsolete?

Davis Love shot a 65 from tees measuring 7,781 yards at the recent grand opening of Kinderlou Forest, a course in Valdosta, Georgia designed by his architecture firm. Many new courses are opening with tournament tees over 7,500 yards and there's little evidence to suggest they can long withstand assaults from the game's new breed without a USGA-style setup.

Certainly lengthening courses is necessary, but is it also time to re-evaluate that first strategic commandment, to rethink the risk-reward equation?

Tinkering with hallowed philosophy may seem blasphemous but given that in the modern game the equation has become unbalanced, perhaps reconciliation is in order.

The premise for change is that egregious length already offers its own reward - hitting a much shorter club. Offering a simpler approach shot on top of hitting the shorter club tilts the scales disproportionately. A new strategic model would not consistently reward pure length with easy follow-ups but would instead encourage the player to consider alternative angles of approach, often using a longer club.

Length is its own reward. In the above-mentioned models - the 17th at NGLA or Cuscowilla's first - carrying the fairway hazards is accomplishable for all power players and therefore no longer truly distinguishes heroism or risk-taking (or even skill, in some cases). It's really no longer an option-laced choice - just bomb away. True, the tees could be continually moved back, but what if we took a different course of action?

If the green complexes were uniquely sloped (front-to-back, side-to -side) and tweaked in opposite directions from their current orientations, players might reconsider the benefits of hitting driver every time. In Figure 2 the green complex at Cuscowilla's first hole has been altered so that the length of the green opens up to the longer approach from the right (Player A) and the greenside bunker no longer needs to be carried.

In attacking the fairway hazards Player B has gained a shorter approach shot, which is still a tremendous advantage, but instead of having a short, unimpeded shot to the green she's left with a short, tricky pitch over the bunker to a shallow green. Instead of playing the aggressive line day-to-day she may begin to consider the alternative line depending on the pin position, weather conditions, and how she's swinging. Where formerly there was little daily variance, option has been reintroduced into the equation.

Figure 3 shows a hypothetical par-4 that similarly illustrates how this strategic model balances the equation. Player A plays a shorter drive straightaway leaving a long but fairly open shot into a deep green. Player B may choose to play a high-risk drive farther up the right side of the fairway gaining valuable yards, but is not rewarded with an easy second. The resulting approach is shorter but also difficult; two bunkers must be carried and the green slopes away from the shot. Perhaps a shorter, spinning shot will still hold the green - and that's the consideration - but the option has been reintroduced.

A hypothetical par-5 (Figure 4) demonstrates the same principles on a three-shot hole. The green complex has been rotated forty-five degrees counter-clockwise from what would typically be strategic convention (one that would set-up well for long, aggressive players). Player A plays it as a three-shot hole, positioning for a pitch that works with the angle of the green. Player B is long enough to get home in two after a risky drive down the left, but the green orientation does not make this a no-brain decision. On certain days it may be worth the second-shot risk but on others the three-shot avenue may be preferable.

Note that none of these models eliminates the driver option. Cutting down the landing area and forcing the player to hit a shorter club is strategically counter-intuitive. The benefits of hitting driver, however, have been readjusted.

In the driver-wedge modern game the scales have been tilted too far in the direction of power. The purpose of this strategic paradigm is not to make players lay up but rather to balance the equation. Modern power players hitting short irons or wedges, or mid-irons into a par-5s, is already a tremendous advantage. Architects may consider letting that length be its own reward and create angled, sloping green complexes that better welcome shots played from alternative fairway points.

Bring options back. Balance the equation.

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
  • What about the others

    Tim Nugent, ASGCA wrote on: Oct 30, 2004

    Your analysis is very good. You have stated the prolem and developed a solution. However, what we Architects must constantly leep in mind is only 1 fraction of 1% of the 36 million golfers in the country play golf at that level. An architect's mission is to defend par. The ability for a few outstanding player to bring clasic designs to their knees has to be balanced with the enjoyment of the 99.999% of the golfing public. While your suggestions on how we Architects could toughen up courses are valid for that instance, what about the short hitters and higher handicappers. These make up more than 80% of golfers. In your make over of #17 NGL, where does the lady hitting from the forward tee or the seasoned citizen hitting from the #2 tee land? Sine multiple tees have been developed to equalize the course vs abilities of the golfing population, you find that the dilemma comes from the fact that the two classes above will have the same landing area as the scratch or even further ahead. And if the green is set up to make a high lofted spinning shot one that a pro would think twice about, what have you left for those of much lessor talent?


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