Dr Alister MacKenzie’s thirteen principles of golf architecture have been famous since he first elucidated them in 1920, and, taken as a whole, are widely accepted as being a terrific checklist for anyone seeking either to create or evaluate a golf course. But those thirteen principles were not all created equal; some are more honoured than others. It would be difficult, for example, to find a golf designer who did not agree that “there should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes.” But his eighth principle: “There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls,” has been less commonly adopted.
Taken literally, this principle would require courses either to mow their entire property at or close to fairway height, or, more radically, to surround every hole with a hazard such as water, from which the player is immediately aware that no recovery is possible. Fairly obviously, neither option is practical or desirable, except perhaps in very occasional cases. But an increasing number of golf courses around the world are trying to take Dr MacKenzie at his word, and a lot of golf designers support them.
Basically we are talking about the elimination (or near elimination) of maintained rough, and its replacement by fairway cut all the way to wherever the golf course maintenance ends – the native grasses or vegetation. Some are going even further. At the nine hole Winter Park municipal in Orlando, recently renovated to great acclaim by architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb, there is literally no rough at all. The course sits in the middle of a residential district, and the holes are bounded by roads, a railway line and a cemetery. Course superintendent Ed Batcheller is mowing everything at the same height, except the greens. “Keith explained that the plan was to make the holes flow together, and we took out most of the trees in the middle of the playing areas,” he says. “The remaining trees are on the edges of the course, where I can’t mow it too tall because I have shade issues. Where there isn’t good grass, we use the pine straw.”
Why go for such a seemingly radical approach? Well, one answer is given to us by Dr Mackenzie himself, in another of his thirteen principles: “The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.” Mowing is by its nature unnatural, though it is of course necessary for golf. Way back in the early days of golf, the mowing machines were sheep and cattle – who of course did not do their work in a straight line. The more heights of cut, the more obvious is the hand of man – and so, those courses and architects who are seeking a natural look try to reduce the number of heights of cut.
Kyle Hegland, superintendent of Sand Hills GC in Nebraska, universally regarded as the world’s finest course of modern times, is one of those. He says: “With years of accumulating fertiliser and water, our native areas (especially the first few yards of transition from maintained areas to native) were becoming a major problem. The look, the feel and most importantly the playability of these areas needed to be addressed. Extracting a golf ball from the native was becoming more and more difficult, not to mention that probability of finding said ball. Working closely with Bill Coore we decided to put together a plan to insure our native areas remained native. Our first task was to find as many old and archived pictures of the golf course that we could find, with the intent to get our native to look as it did during construction and early years of the golf course.
“Our first step was the easiest and took the least amount of deliberation. We needed to eliminate all inputs that came in contact with native areas. The biggest priority was to eliminate all water inputs. This included auditing the entire golf course from tee to green, with the intent to be sure zero irrigation casually hit any native areas. This also included (though a little more labour intensive) the removal of heads that irrigated some or more native then mowed grass. A second part to eliminating inputs was to be very diligent in how we applied fertiliser to the golf course. A deliberate effort had to be made to eliminate any excess of fertiliser from falling/drifting into native areas.
“Our next step to native management was to come up with a plan to harvest/mow any playable area. The sandhills of Nebraska are rich with cattle and cowboys and we wanted to replicate what a cow was doing each year. In a perfect scenario, the answer would be to incorporate cows and have them just graze these areas for us. However, for us that was not going to be a solution we could use to our advantage. Burning our native areas was also thought of but quickly shelved as a possible solution as well. Perineal high winds and an arid climate do not produce people willing to light a match in such a fragile environment. The plan we came up with was to simply mow our native areas, with an emphasis on removing most of the mowed material. Simple and easy, we borrowed a sickle bar mower and small square baler from a good friend and neighbour, allowing them to have most of the bales (we use some bales to hold down bunker areas and walk paths) for allowing us to use their equipment. After the course is closed in the fall we simply bring out the light equipment and knock down most in play areas of the golf course. It does take some time (roughly three weeks from start to finish) but the results have been fantastic for us. Mowing coupled with our arid climate effectively leaves us with a native area that is light, wispy, and playable.
Our last and most researched process was to move or tweak our mowing lines. This step involved the most scrutiny and one that we worked tirelessly (and still do) to get right. Mowing lines move and change over time, it became our mission to get not only our fairway lines right, but also our native lines that tied into those fairways correct. Slow and steady we started to methodically take lines that had encroached over time back out to original intent. We started off with just a few lines (both fairway and native) that we thought had impeded playability the most.”
Golf architect Brian Curley says: “We are doing it as much as possible in Asia and on desert courses. I am a huge fan of the look, presentation, and playability.
“The subtle movement of the ground shows up better and the lines established by a fairway cut are eliminated. This is especially an advantage when you are trying to create irregular lines in your turf and bunker lines. Fairway cut dries out faster and is not as susceptible to wet condition issues. Fairway cut speeds up play as there is little effort spent finding one’s ball.
“Rough shows cart traffic much more when the grasses lay down, but fairway cut tends to not show off the tracks, at least not as strongly. We often will take fairway cut right to the cart path for this reason – carts can spill on and off without producing worn looks.
“The misconception is that fairway cut is ‘easier’ but if there is roll, fairway cut combined with cross slope will send balls into areas you may not want to be such as behind trees, to turfed depressed lows, or into sandy expanses. The results can be bad angles and elevation change that may obscure the green.
“The all-fairway cut can be used to make bunkers more in play (as the ball continues to roll into them) and tight mow at green surrounds brings gravity into play and eliminates the need for excessive bunkering. Bunkers in Asia are typically poorly maintained and golfers do poor raking jobs and walk up the faces.
“Most superintendents I know prefer the all-fairway cut from an operations point of view. I believe irrigation and water application is slightly easier to manage as you do not have heads serving two different heights and water requirements.”
Another famous old club that has embraced the no rough look is Old Town in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Greens chairman Dunlop White says: “We have expanded our fairways from 35 to 75 acres – and counting. Thus far, we have converted about 40 acres of maintained bermuda rough to fairway. Today, in more old-school tradition, one single swathe of fairway connects holes 4, 7, 17, 8, 9 and 18 successively without interruption of maintained bermuda rough. This harks back to the days of gang mowers and eliminates a multitude of busy modern rough lines. Plus, closely-cropped turf better exposes our rumpled terrain. Every natural depression and bump – all the imperfections in the ground – are now exposed with shadowing that would otherwise would be lost to the eye in the rough. There’s nothing else like it around here. This unique look, feel and playing character comes at a small cost. It’s a fairly simple model: the shorter the cut, the more often you need to cut it.
“Our pre-restoration bunkers were once buffered by zoysia grass at rough height. Today, our zoysia surrounds have been replaced with 419 bermudagrass, that’s maintained at fairway height. The inside leading edges of all bunkers are maintained as fairways. Better yet, many bunkers are maintained with closely-cropped edges 360 degrees around its entire perimeter. The tight mowing pattern lures golf balls like a magnet, and as a result these bunkers play exponentially larger than ever before.”
This article first appeared in issue 48 of Golf Course Architecture