Greens are golf ’s great equaliser. Only a select few have the ability to drive the ball 300 yards down the fairway with any degree of consistency, or to pull off a miracle recovery shot from rough, trees or heather, but all of us have the physical ability to putt, even if most of us don’t do it very well. We watch professionals with awe when they have long clubs in their hands – but with the flat stick, we see them roll in putts and think: “I can do that, or at least I should be able to”.
Great golf courses have great greens, and green design is, along with routing, perhaps the most important part of the golf architect’s role. Canadian architect Ian Andrew has written extensively on the subject of green contouring. “Interesting green contours are one of the consistent qualities of the great courses,” he writes. “There are a few exceptions on great sites with lots of drama, but the courses on average sites all have one thing in common – interesting and complicated green contours. In a day and age where many of the best known designers continue to push courses back looking for excessive length, they have forgotten that green contour is the great equaliser in the game. A more complicated green surface requires a player be more careful about position off the tee in order to access very complicated pin areas. If you have more contour, not only do they now have to avoid certain positions or risk a three putt, but a miss around the green can be further complicated by getting on the wrong side of a feature like a prominent roll. The key to defence, the key to the pleasure of the game is found in the small contours, not in the big ones.”
Look at classic golf courses, and you will typically find greens that provide interest over and over again. They need not be wildly sloping, like those at St Andrews, Oakmont, Machrihanish or Augusta, but they will have enough tilt and internal contour to create challenging putts again and again.
These courses, though, have a number of advantages over their modern counterparts. Firstly, the effects of time on greens are important. A small degree of settling is inevitable over a period of many years, and even slight changes in the profile of a green surface can make apparently simple putts far more difficult to read and execute – proof that small contours, as Andrew says, create much of the pleasure.
The second advantage held by old greens is also a function of time. It’s a sad truth that many golfers would react differently to the same green depending on its age. Old greens are ‘quirky’, ‘fun’ and ‘characterful’. The same green, built nowadays, might be ‘fluky’ and worst of all ‘unfair’.
British architect Martin Ebert echoes the point that greens don’t need to be hugely sloped to be interesting, but must have contour. “When I see problems with modern greens that are judged too sloping it’s because the vertical scale has been exaggerated,” he says. “Take Rye in Sussex. I’ve just returned from playing there, and although the undulations in Rye’s greens aren’t big they create a fantastic challenge.”
Those great old greens, though, were not built for the playing conditions we see today. Who in the 1920s could have conceived of mowing technology able to cut greens to the heights we see nowadays, or grass strains that can tolerate such aggressive mowing without curling up and dying? Rather, they were sowed with natural strains of fescue and bentgrasses – or common Bermuda in the warmer parts of the United States and other hot areas – and were not expected to roll as quickly. The much-vaunted ‘Augusta effect’, though, has had a huge impact on golf courses, especially those that aspire to upmarket status. Fast greens are now taken, almost without question, as a sign of a course’s quality. And fast greens that have severe contours are greens that will find a proportion of golfers complaining about them. Ebert again: “At Augusta even the flat areas aren’t flat. That’s why the ball takes so long to come to rest.” This is all very well for Augusta National, whose prime purpose nowadays is to serve as a venue for the Masters, and which has its reputation as the home of the world’s toughest greens to protect, but how many of us want to play golf this way on a dayto- day basis?
How then can architects reintroduce contour to their greens without making them too difficult for average golfers to play? Although there are signs of a slow growth in the use of traditional turfgrasses – a trend that may well accelerate as the availability of water for irrigation purposes becomes more of a problem – it is probably true that the use of such grasses at the top end of the game is never likely to be more than a niche. For high-end courses, modern creeping bentgrass strains will remain the order of the day – and these grasses inevitably result in faster greens.
Some architects, happily or reluctantly, have come to accept this situation, and thus confine themselves to building greens with gentle slopes and little in the way of internal contour. Sand-based greens drain water away from the surface so quickly that high parts of the green easily become dried out, and the quality of the sward often suffers: thus the reluctance to build the little in-green mounds that can govern play without needing huge hills. Heavily contoured greens are, no doubt, harder for greenkeepers to maintain, and so architects have often learned that building those greens means clients complain about the greater maintenance burden they have created.
One solution is the ‘greens within a green’ concept. Martin Ebert cites Mackenzie and Ebert’s new course at Goodwood in Canada as a good example of the type. “We are lucky, I accept, in that we haven’t felt much pressure from our clients to build flat greens,” he says. “At Goodwood, the greens are very large, and that allowed us to incorporate good movement but still giving plenty of pinnable areas. Our client was fully behind that approach. If you’ve got enough room and budget to build big greens you can still put interesting contours in your greens without worrying too much about them becoming unplayable. You do need to ensure that everyone in the client organisation understands what you are doing, though. We always discuss the philosophy behind our green design with the client and the maintenance staff. We can be made to look stupid – as can our clients – if greenkeepers put the flags in the wrong positions. So we need to help them understand how the contours of each green work, and where the possible pin positions are.”
Talk of big greens might be thought to imply big budgets, and to an extent it does. Greens construction represents a substantial proportion of the total cost of a golf course, and the larger the greens, the higher the cost. But there are situations in which building heavily contoured greens can help the architect make the best of a limited budget. At Peacock Gap in San Rafael, California, where his company has recently completed a major renovation of Billy Bell’s original design, architect Forrest Richardson has built a few of the wildest greens many golfers will have seen. “We balanced some wild greens with more tame specimens,” he says. “This is important, for too much of anything can be a negative. The other thing we did was to make sure the greens were relatively large. We should not think of a green as necessarily one thing, for many ‘greens’ are really a combination of smaller ‘greens’ that just happen to be connected.” Richardson’s budget for the renovation did not permit large-scale reshaping of fairway areas, so although the greens might have been more costly to build than smaller specimens, he was able to extract maximum playability for the golfers.
The death march for fast greens has been going on for many years. It’s fascinating to read, in a USGA Greens Section report from 1990, the comment that the value of fast greens has been greatly over-emphasised: how much more must that be the case now, almost 20 years of technological development – and wall to wall TV coverage of fast greens on Tour – further on? But the march must stop soon. As Richardson says: “Like many, I feel that green speeds have hurt the creativity we can inject into greens. There has become a disconnect between visual green undulations and the need for softer, more subtle undulations as a result of increased speed. What the eye sees is therefore less interesting, harder to read and probably less fun. Golf was supposed to be fun. The shadows and aesthetic side of green contours are essential. As we mellow out the green we are mellowing out the visual interest of golf.” It’s time we as golfers learned that faster is not always better
This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf course architecture published in January 2008