The recent influx of technology-fueled distance increases has complicated the practice of golf course architecture. Unfortunately, many courses have missed the point of golf by combating distance increases through new tees, excessive green speeds, narrowed fairways and high rough. Instead of focusing on “difficulty” as the main criterion for golf, the creation or renovation of a course should lead to a “soulful” experience where fun is the main objective. And fun, at least to me, is golf played in a natural setting with shots calling on feel more than a scientific approach.
The aforementioned “cures” for distance advances only add misery and reward a one-dimensional approach to the game. Not that golf should be easy. It simply means that there is a way to create challenge and interest while making golfers of all abilities want to return to a course. Allowing golfers opportunities to choose different routes to the hole creates decisions and, often, a certain amount of doubt. This can be far more difficult for golfers, even scratch players, to deal with than added distance or deep rough.
I frequently tell people who play our courses to think twice about their initial instincts because often the best line to the hole is not directly at the flag. Typically, certain sides of a hole are the best places to be off the tee to open up the best angle or view of the hole location. In trying to reward preferred angles of play, we’ll use offset hazards, obscured vision and bold green contours.
Also lost in the technology era has been the importance of the ground game – something my design partner, Jim Wagner, and I are constantly trying to bring back. The use of slopes to feed shots toward a target requires more precision and skill than a simple aerial approach for an accomplished player. Such shots are also more enjoyable to play for every level of golfer. When the ground is firm, the nuances of the ground game become even more interesting. That means working closely with the superintendent during turf selection, grow-in and long after opening day.
Our approach has been characterized as minimalist architecture. While I am not certain this is an appropriate definition for all of our projects, I am certain that we are proud to be included in discussions of course design with people such as Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Doak. One belief we share is that an architect needs to be a “maximilist” when it comes to getting the most out of natural features during the routing process and to be on site as much as possible during construction. The ability to extend the design window throughout the whole process is the key to injecting design nuances that create day-to-day fun and get the elite golfer thinking while keeping the everyday golfer engaged.
With increased emphasis on technology, we believe it is time to look back toward the practice of golf course design as more art than science. By providing a golfer with well-balanced options in firm conditions, we can avoid countering technology through added difficulty and frustration, and instead emphasize thought, creativity and enjoyment.
Gil Hanse, ASGCA, is a Malvern, Pa.-based course designer whose work includes Boston Golf Club (No. 48 Modern) and (with Geoff Shackelford) Rustic Canyon Golf Course (No. 99 Modern).