2005: Routing’s big picture

Every course architect knows the key to a good layout is the proper location of the holes upon the land. This is what’s known as routing – the sequencing of holes so that they flow naturally, adhere to the land’s contours and present themselves in some sort of sensible order – ideally one that can be walked.

The Old Course at St. Andrews is a perfect example of routing that emerged in the most natural way – by people going out for a walk and then coming back.

An awareness of routing isn’t just a technical exercise of interest to course designers, however. It’s also an intimate part of the way golfers experience the course. The more aware we are of the routing, the more enjoyable our round will be and the better we are likely to play.

The best test of a routing is whether it enables you to experience the setting you’re in and to feel a course’s unique and special aura. Pebble Beach, for instance, offers a frightening scary start – there’s no semblance of the ocean on the first two holes. In fact, you might be at any resort. But as you walk the third hole you sense the water in the distance, and by the short, par-4 fourth there’s no question that the sea looms large. Indeed, one of the beauties of the crossover figure-eight routing of Pebble Beach is that you get to experience Carmel Bay first on the right, then on the left of play, and on both nines as well. Contrast that with the disappointment of Spyglass Hill, where the course races headlong to the sea, turns its back on the sixth hole and never returns.

One good test of a routing is if you can retrace it after a round. When relaxing afterward in the clubhouse, get out a napkin or a scorecard and try drawing a quick stick-figure map depicting the relative position of the holes you’ve just played.

Most people focus on one hole at a time when they play a course. That’s how they utilize yardage books, even when evaluating a hole for the first time from the tee.

How about taking an different approach? Instead of looking at a map of the hole, look for a drawing with the entire course to get a larger perspective on your position.

Without a sense of where you are, you’re simply lost out there. I always laugh when I watch a PGA Tour player or his caddie standing there with blades of grass in his hand that he tosses up in the air to judge the wind. And what happens, I always wonder, when the trajectory of the shot carries above the tree line and the prevailing wind takes over?

A simple way to get oriented is to carry around a little map of the course and to have each hole marked with basic compass directions so you know where you stand in relation to the entire golf course. Take note before the round of the prevailing wind and orient yourself accordingly. That way you’ll know the direction the hole runs, and you’ll also have a better sense of how the prevailing wind might affect the ball’s flight once the shot goes above the tree line. Tossing grass only tells you about the wind in a microenvironment. An awareness of routing tells you about the macroenvironment.

The same holds true for dominant slopes. Unless you know your relative position with respect to major topographic points, such as mountains, lakes or side slopes, you’ll have difficulty judging the shape of the ground or reading the subtlety of greens.

For years, I was a member of a club in Connecticut where the local mantra was that all putts on the back nine broke toward the clubhouse. Great – if you knew where the clubhouse was. That wasn’t the easiest thing since trees often masked its location. A

slight misread of direction could have severe consequences. Here and elsewhere, an awareness of routing and relative position proved a great help.

Another test of a good routing is if it enables you to sense where you are on the course. One classic sequence can be found at Muirfield, in Scotland, where the front nine wraps clockwise in a grand exterior loop and the incoming nine is curled counterclockwise on the inside part of the property. The effect of the wind is ever-changing, and yet you always have a sense of where you are. It’s a far cry from a conventional out-and-back links routing, in which holes run straight in succession for a long stretch and there’s only one or two abrupt swings in how the wind influences play.

Of course that’s preferable to a forced march through real estate frontage, side streets of condo development or paved parking lots that are so common on modern courses.

An awareness of routing is an overlooked part of any round. Architects have talked about it for decades. It’s time golfers did, too.

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