Thoughts on Modern Golf Course Architecture

I will state straight away that I believe that the current crop of golf course architects – led by Doak, Coore and Crenshaw et al – will be remembered with great respect and their creations will last the test of time in much the same way as Colt’s, Mackenzie’s and Tillinghast’s have.

But not all Club’s have the resources to employ these top name craftsman for their new courses or renovations. Many of the layouts where I live in England have bland, generic architecture or their previously outstanding original design principles have been lost over the years through a combination of wear and tear and vegetation encroachment. In addition, the uninteresting and thoughtless design of municipal courses, which provide the entry point for so many golfers in the UK is such a lost opportunity to grow the game.

But great design features do not have to require a Trump like budget. So what should Golf Club committee’s consider to improve the design of their course and heighten the enjoyment and experience for all levels of golfer? Here are some areas that I think are important:

Slow down greens and add contours

Whilst attempting to judge a putt on the equivalent of your kitchen lino offers a certain appeal to some, there can be little doubt that attempts to maintain greens running beyond 11 on the stimp require significant resources both in terms of labour and chemical inputs which is expensive and non-sustainable. From the golf experience standpoint, super-fast greens slow down play and limit hole position options.

Consider the original 18th green at the Mackenzie designed Sitwell Park in Rotherham, England:

This surface would be unplayable with modern green speeds. But would you not like to experience playing upon it? If Sitwell restored it to this original would that course not immediately jump onto your to play bucket list?

When considering ideal speeds and contouring, we need look no further than the links courses doted along the UK coastline.

11th and 7th greens, The Old Course, St Andrews
Photo credit: National Club Golfer

Speeds on these surfaces are limited as they would become unplayable in the ever-present coastal winds. The slower speeds allow the unique contours to be utilised for pin positioning, adding variety and interest.

What is wrong with cross bunkers?

It seems that it has become unfashionable to situate bunkers across the line of the fairway. Too penal for the average golfer, I hear them scream. Many of these original features of century old courses in England have long been filled in at the discretion of greens committee’s seeking to placate Mr Humphrey-Browns rage following his recent correspondence.

This seems to me unfortunate as in many cases we can be robbed of the thrill of the challenges such as the Cape Bunker at Royal North Devon (above) or the magnificent Kings Course at Gleneagles (below)

The Cape Bunker, Royal North Devon.
Photo credit:

If these bunkers are strategically positioned so that the golfer has the choice whether to lay-up ,take on the heroic challenge or indeed take a longer route around the sand, then the penal nature is reduced to a level that all golfers can enjoy.

Make Hazards iconic

There can be little as boring in the golfing world as the over-use of generic hazards in the design of a course. Lines of conifers and large, blob like shallow bunkers are my particular gripe.

Fortunately there are plenty of examples of interesting hazard use. Here is the recently constructed par 3 17th green complex at the JCB Club in England:

There are multiple design features to appreciate here:

  • The interestingly shaped front bunker that ‘bleeds’ into the water
  • The selective use of the multiple species of trees to frame the hole and add height and depth.
  • The use of back bunkers to prevent the accurate and bold shot from going into the water.
  • The bold contouring of the green surface.

Some hazards can in fact be so iconic that they are among the most memorable aspects of any round. Here is the crudely named ‘Devils Asshole’ bunker from Pine Valley Golf Club (New Jersey)

The Shape of things to come

In an ideal world, course architects would design the course without any movement of the existing land. Many of the original links bunkers were formed in the pits used by sheep to shelter from the prevailing winds.

Unfortunately not all courses are afforded the pristine natural dune or heath-land settings that seem to exist just waiting for tees and greens to be cut. For the last 100 years, course architects have shaped the land to suit their design. Alistair Mackenzie was so successful in recreating natural features by artificial means that he was asked to give demonstrations to members of the Army Council in the Great War which led to the establishment of the first school of camouflage.

Successful golf course construction and successful camouflage are almost entirely due to the utilization of natural features to the fullest extent and to the construction of artificial ones indistinguishable from nature

Dr. A Mackenzie

Modern technology, in particular the rotating bucket, has made shaping quicker and easier than in Mackenzie’s day and even modest budgets can achieve some outstanding results. An example of what can be achieved with a sizeable budget is Dumbarnie Golf Club in Scotland, a modern links crafted from perfectly flat land:

Photo credit:

Different tees add interest

In addition to the wonderful shaping work in the photograph above, we can also recognize that multiple teeing grounds add variety and interest.

The recent trend of removing gender limitations from tee placements is a positive one and opens up different options for the golfer based on driving distance, ability levels or simply to add variety on multiple playing of the course.

I would encourage Clubs to create as many teeing options as practically possible for each hole. Even tiny areas can be utilised providing that they are used selectively to avoid wear. The recent re-introduction of a long lost area at the 10th hole at Pebble Beach is a great example:

Photo credit:

The image demonstrates well how the use of multiple teeing areas throughout this 72 hole PGA tournament introduced a range of different strategy options, including the opportunity to drive the green from the ‘new’ tee for round 4 on the right hand side by taking on the cliff edge.

So, with a few principles, a reasonable budget and some imagination, the golfing experience at any course can be improved. The challenge now is will members clubs and those running municipal public courses take heed and provide that necessary level between TopGolf and the top 100 golf courses that is currently not fulfilling it’s potential? I am aware that selected architects are making moves to address these issues so watch this space….

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