Klein: Crash course in great architecture

No. 16 at Pasatiempo Golf Club

There’s a misconception about golf architecture, that it’s somehow an obscure, elite field, and one that gets in the way of playing. Far from it. Experiencing quality design can be fun and readily accessible. It’s also inspirational, because the more you see in a golf course, the more creative you’ll be in shotmaking. Your game will travel better, you’ll get more out of each round, and even if you don’t play well at a given course, you’ll come away appreciating each layout more.

The 10 courses listed here represent a sample of some of the most important works in U.S. design. This list is geographically diverse, is equally split between Classic (pre-1960) and Modern (since 1960) on the Golfweek’s Best lists and includes 10 design shops. They comprise a curriculum that will provide a better understanding of architecture, which, in turn, should help you score better.

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No. 1 at Pinehurst No. 2

Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C. (No. 17 Classic)

Let’s start with something solid, basic and – let’s admit it – a place you can brag about later to friends at home. The most famous of Donald Ross’ 400 designs, Pinehurst No. 2 presents golfers with fairly generous landing areas off the tees and maddeningly subtle deflection slopes at the greens. A recent restoration by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has brought back this resort layout’s playing width from 1936 (when it got its grassed greens and held the PGA Championship) along with sandy, wire grass areas on the margins. On any given day, without any tricks or special setups, Pinehurst No. 2 is equally challenging without being overwhelming from the forward tees (5,267 yards), middle tees (6,307) or back markers (7,495 yards). Among the lessons for the everyday golfer here are that you can play a course with one ball without stressing over out-of-bounds or water hazards, yet still feel like you have to hit quality shots. The most memorable and most strategic hole is the par-4 fifth, 425 yards from the middle tees, where smart golfers play wide right to a green that’s steeply canted; the left side is shorter but deadlier if you tug it at all.

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Tobacco Road, Sanford, N.C.

And now for something completely different, only 24 miles northeast of Pinehurst. The late Mike Strantz was an artistic genius who carved wild-looking landscapes that were playable and hypnotic. Tobacco Road, opened in 1998 on the site of a sand quarry and tobacco farm, is his most fascinating layout. Visitors should be forewarned that this daily-fee layout also is one of the country’s most polarizing golf tracts. Love it or hate it, you will come away amazed and unable to get some of these shapes out of your mind. This par-71 layout is only 6,532 yards from the back, but it carries a 150 slope (and a 73.2 rating) because its wild cants and severe vertical shifts quickly separate careful golfers from reckless ones. You’ll find horseshoe-shaped par 5s with dizzying options and a short downhill par 3 where the green is almost as wide as the hole is long. Strantz seems to have taken a rational golf course, mapped it out on AutoCAD and turned up the three-dimensional amplitude to create his “as-built plan.”

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No. 18 at The Old White TPC (The Greenbrier)

The Greenbrier-The Old White TPC, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Charles Blair Macdonald (1856-1939) was the father of golf-course architecture as a systematic field based upon a careful study of British and Irish golf holes. His long-term partnership with civil engineer Seth Raynor (1874-1926) produced many fine layouts that freely evoked versions of those old holes, invariably with their own twist. Lately, their handiwork at The Old White TPC, a 1915 design restored by Lester George in 2008, has been on display for the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic. Visitors to this famed resort sample a living museum of famous and quirky holes that Macdonald-Raynor relied upon. Here one finds a Biarritz, Redan, Cape and the fun little par-3 18th hole of only 162 yards, named Short, whose thumbprint green makes for a memorable if unusual finish to any round, let alone a PGA Tour event.

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Bethpage State Park Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y. (No. 21 Classic)

A.W. Tillinghast was an epic and tragic figure of the Golden Age of Architecture. He had a penchant for big, bold bunkers and greens, and created some lasting championship courses (Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Bethpage Black) before dying in obscurity and poverty in 1942. Bethpage, part of a five-course state park, was restored by Rees Jones for U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009 and remains a favorite of Long Island golfers. It’s walking only. While the out-and-back routing is one of the best anywhere, it makes for a long hike (eight miles) from first tee to final green. There’s a warning sign at the first tee for a reason. Public golfers with a tolerance for extremes will revel in holes such as the par-4 fifth, 424 yards from the middle tees, where golfers have to select the line across a long diagonal bunker, then confront an uphill approach to a well-bunkered green.

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Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash. (No. 25 Modern)

Another muni, another U.S. Open venue (2015). Here’s a links-inspired layout like few others in modern American golf. It was built on a sandy, waterfront site, with Puget Sound assuring powerful winds, long views and surprisingly playable conditions despite the Seattle-Tacoma area’s reputation for wet weather. This one is unlike anything Robert Trent Jones Jr. has ever designed, with fairways 70-80 yards wide, lots of roll across fairways that sometimes pitch 10 feet or more from one side to the other, and a fascinating concept throughout of “short grass as hazard.” At the par-4 16th, 425 yards, golfers have to deal with a shoreline railway down the right side, a deceptively wide fairway to the left, and a narrow-necked green stuffed behind a dune that makes half of the putting surface barely accessible. The architectural lesson here, contrary to the whole trajectory of modern tournament course setup, is that the wider the playing berth, the more room there is to get into trouble.

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Pasatiempo Golf Club, Santa Cruz, Calif. (No. 29 Classic)

Alister MacKenzie was a central figure in the Golden Age of Architecture (1919-1939) who championed dramatic putting greens and artfully crafted greenside bunkers. At this public layout, there’s a split personality at work, with the front nine cramped and somewhat predictable, while the back nine is adventurous, expansive, even outrageous. There are two defining moments during a round here. At the 567-yard, par-5 sixth hole, the second shot takes golfers right in front of the house where MacKenzie lived out the last years of his life and died in 1934. (I once deliberately hit a 4-iron into the yard as my way of paying homage to him.) At the uphill 387-yard, par-4 16th hole, golfers hit into a Salvador Dali-esque putting surface that looks like it’s melting down the side of a hill.

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Old Macdonald, Bandon, Ore. (No. 3 Modern)

The fourth course at the Bandon Dunes resort is a tribute to Charles Blair Macdonald. Designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina and opened in 2010, these holes evoke the Gothic scale of feature work that this monumental figure of golf championed. (Disclaimer: I was an unpaid consultant on the project.) The simple lesson for architecture students is that a course can be fun and easy to play without being easy to score on; the greens here are outlandish in size, averaging 14,600 square feet. You can toss out rules about proper proportion (i.e., “big greens for long approach holes; small greens for short approach holes”). The par-3 fifth hole normally is only 147 yards (though with a strong crosswind from either side), but you could hit the green and still face a 120-foot putt that breaks 25 feet.

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Lawsonia Golf Club-Links Course, Green Lake, Wis. (No. 58 Classic)

Eighty years after their design heyday, Midwesterners William B. Langford and Theodore J. Moreau remain among the least-known classic designers. Their ability to bring greens to life by propping them up on plateaus or moraine uplifts and turning down the shoulders of the surrounding land brought a vibrancy that continues to animate the few precious courses where their work remains intact. The best among them is Lawsonia Links, an obscure daily-fee built in 1929 in the middle of Wisconsin farm country. The putting surfaces are like huge catcher’s mitts, and the fairways have a bold, linear kick to them, a look that’s enhanced by the large fields of fescue that frame the holes.

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Jim McLean Golf School, a fixture at PGA West's TPC Stadium Course (above), abruptly closed April 30 after 16 years of operation.

PGA West-TPC Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif.

When it comes to stark modern design, there’s no place more inventive than this Pete Dye gem from 1986. He started with a dead-flat site and managed to go down here and up there just enough to produce landforms that are now bubbling and heaving, as if in motion. Dye also is the master of the long lateral hazard – sometimes water, sometimes sand. He does this at PGA West to help define landing areas, but also to show golfers the frightening contrast with adjoining trouble and to force you to pick a line. He’s a genius at psychology and knows that most golfers’ egos demand that they try heroic, but rarely successful, shots. At the 389-yard, par-4 14th, notice how a long bunker on the right makes a straight hole look doglegged, in the process tempting one to flirt with the hazard when there’s all the room in the world safe and away to the left.

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Wild Horse Golf Club, Gothenburg, Neb. (No. 52 Modern)

Not everyone or everything worthwhile is famous. Dan Proctor and Dave Axland, two of the crew members who built famed Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., 96 miles northwest of Gothenburg, designed and built this ground-hugging prairie layout that opened in 1999. It’s an antidote to everything expensive and luxurious in American golf, from the scruffy bunker faces and native contour greens to the one-room clubhouse that’s as inviting as any in the country.

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