Breaking down the design playbook

No. 8 at We-Ko-Pa's Saguaro course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

Too much of the discussion about golf courses is dominated by scratch players. Sit around the 19th hole at your average course long enough and you’d think that most opinions about course design concern yardage from the back tees and making holes tougher. Yet there’s little correlation between how well someone plays golf and how perceptive he is about the character and features of a hole or a course.

I’m reminded of the time I visited a solid, well-established Midwest private club that measured about 6,500 yards and was a par 71. The green chairman was one of those self-appointed types who wears too many club pins on his jacket lapel, attends too many golf society meetings, and whose golf bag carries emblazoned medallions from a dozen famous old clubs. His primary concern was to get more length on the course, to which end he already had mutilated the first hole (a short par 4) by squeezing in a new back tee that looked like a bad toupee. As I made my way around the pro shop to meet him, I glanced at the scoreboard for the just-concluded club championship, where a score of 13 over had won the three-day stroke-play event. And they need to toughen the course?

When I caddied on the PGA Tour (1976-83), I found lots of fine players simply calibrated their shots to a precise yardage and wanted to know nothing about the ground elements that stood in their way – except “how far.” That’s when I realized there was a fundamental difference between those who played everything in the air and those who wanted to know what happened when the ball hit the ground.

In golf, as in any sport, there’s a relationship between offense and defense. PGA Tour pros and aspiring young golfers tend to want to dominate the aerial game because their swings, their equipment and their confidence give them the ability to control exactly where the ball goes. They focus on making repetitive swings and on generating a consistent trajectory. All of that is on the “offense” side of the ball. It’s fascinating to see how ads for golf equipment pander to this with images of distance, control and spin.

That’s the world of modern golf pros and wannabe scratch golfers who think the path to golfing nirvana always needs to be made longer, harder and more challenging.

On the “defense” side of the equation are course superintendents and architects. Their job, by nature, is to construct a more complicated and frustrating path to the hole. That disruption can take many forms: unpredictable ground features, firm and fast turf that creates extensive bounce and roll, or steep hazards alongside desired target areas so that if you miss it a little, it’ll feel like you’ve missed it a lot.

No wonder that, at many courses, the head pro and greenkeeper clash. They stand, in manner of speaking, on opposite sides of a great metaphysical divide. It’s the dialectic between these two opposing forces – offense and defense – that makes golf such a compelling game.

If, like our prototypical green chairman, all you think about is the offense inherent in golf, your idea of architecture will be confined to tightening up a one-dimensional aerial power game. You’ll think, as the U.S. Golf Association did for decades when setting up U.S. Opens, in terms of long holes, deep rough, narrow landing areas and of punishing anyone who veers off a predetermined path. This also was the unimaginative path adopted by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in taking out the quirky, diagonal, midlanding-point elements of classical design and shifting fairway bunkers into a flanking formation at a predetermined yardage point – about 250 yards in his day – from the back tees.

Thankfully, those days are over. We have entered an era of sophisticated defense in design. In some cases, as with retro, links-inspired design, it takes the form of reintroducing hazards in the middle of ideal landing areas and asking skilled players to tack their way around while providing room for mid- and high-handicappers to play short. And sometimes the imaginative defenses assume new forms, such as the practice of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, among others, of using short grass surrounds as a semi-hazard around greens – more feasible, given improvements in turfgrass quality and maintenance.

By understanding the inherent tension between offense and defense, it’s possible to gain a profound appreciation for why golf-course architecture is relevant. Sure, there always will be those delusional developers who mistake great architecture for spending a lot of money and building grandiose features such as waterfalls. But that has nothing to do with sound golf or thoughtful design. It just adds cost, wastes land and creates a sensory overload

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