Former USPGA champion and multiple US Ryder Cup team member Davis Love III doesn't believe the high rough that surrounds most greens at tour venues is necessarily the best way of asking questions of the world's finest golfers.
"I've always felt that the best place to challenge the top players is at the green," says Love. "The great green designs provide different options in the way an approach can be made, but accuracy is always a premium. The well played shot is rewarded with a reasonable putt and the marginal shot, while not necessarily penalised, requires work to get down in two. These types of green designs, whether with bold contours or with more subtle shaping, are getting harder to build today because of the increased green speeds. Putting surfaces have had to become flatter, in general, to accommodate these higher speeds and a lot of older courses are actually softening the contours of their greens in order to keep them playable. The best defence is a traditional style course with firm, fast greens with no rough around them to keep the ball from running away from the green."
Presenting the player with choices is crucial, especially at the highest level, Love reckons. "I think it's any design feature that presents options to a player, that can put doubt into your mind as to the best play, or one that makes it hard to commit to a certain shot or club selection," he says. "Length by itself isn't the answer; good golf courses, the ones that are fun to play and that have stood the test of time, offer variety, options, strategy. Some of my favourite holes to design or to play are short par fours that can be played in any number of ways. Take the tenth at Riviera, it's a driveable four, yet it is one of the most intriguing holes we face all year.
"Natural golf to me means courses that are designed and built to fit the land, with less impact to an overall site," says Love. "Less impact should hopefully mean less money spent, both in construction costs and in maintenance. Keeping the game affordable and accessible for all who want to play is certainly in the best interest of everyone involved in the golf industry."
Love's own course design business, founded in 1994, has worked across the US, including renovating the course at Forest Oaks in South Carolina, a regular PGA Tour stop. "A design feature we are looking at with our courses involves creating situations that encourage players to shape their shots – that reward shotmaking," he says. "With modern technology focused mainly on longer and straighter, it has become a little bit more difficult for players to consistently work the ball one way and then another."
Naming classics like Seminole and Chicago GC among his favourite courses, Love says playability is key. "The more traditional courses tend to have more thought put into strategy, not just water hazards and bunkers to penalise bad shots," he says. "My brother Mark, who runs the day to day business, and I have been fortunate to see many of the world's great courses and we've both always been fascinated by the older, more traditional designs. These courses were built at a time when construction techniques were limited and the land's natural features were used as a big part of the final design. I've always said that I don't want people to stand on the first tee of one of our courses and say, 'Oh, this must be a Love course.'We'd rather them finish their round, talk about how much they enjoyed the course, and then ask who designed it.
"I'm not sure I believe there is a real right or wrong in course design, as long as a hole is playable, it's more about what you like and what you think is fun.We do have a few general principles that we try to incorporate into every project, such as limited forced carries, room off the tee, good green/tee relationships where possible, and I like the majority of our greens to be open enough in front to allow for run-up shots. I've said from the very beginning that we should be designing courses that both my mom and I can enjoy playing."
This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.