Why OK is no longer good enough

Thad Layton explains that resort golf courses must reinvent themselves to survive s

  • Lovely Golf Course

    At Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida, Thad Layton has redesigned the course to be more interesting and playable

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Layton has aimed to accomodate for all standards of golfer

Thad Layton
By Thad Layton

Across the world, golf resorts have spread wherever the game is played. For well over a hundred years, golfers have enjoyed the opportunity to go somewhere on holiday and play their favourite game.

Golfers, not unreasonably, do not generally want to be beaten up during their holidays, and because a high proportion of resort customers will be seeing the golf course for the first time, architects and operators have evolved a form of golf that is ‘dumbed down’ to the lowest common denominator – flat greens, wide fairways, few interestingly placed hazards. So golfers now cringe at the term ‘resort golf’ as it has become synonymous for a vapid and predictable golf course – play one and you’ve played them all.

But the holiday golf market is hugely competitive wherever you go around the world. European golfers, who used to go to Spain or Portugal without a second thought, now have Turkey, Morocco and several other destinations to consider. In Asia, Thailand might be the established golf holiday destination, but China’s Hainan Island has developed from nothing to a golf hotbed in only ten years, and now Vietnam is emerging as a major challenger too. For American golfers, their choices are almost endless: if it is sunshine they require, then the traditional destinations of Florida and Arizona are still strong, but golf tourism is expanding across Central America and the Caribbean.

This ferocious level of competition can only drive innovation. Combined with the new level of interest in classic-style golf design that has been prompted by the emergence of destinations like Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links and Streamsong, resort operators across the world are realising that the old models don’t cut it any more.

At the Rosen Shingle Creek resort in Orlando, Florida, things are now rather different. The course reopened earlier this year after a major renovation which I led.

Shingle Creek has always been a favourite of the local crowd, an uninterrupted golf experience set inside a spacious and pristine native Florida landscape, but the renovation has made the course significantly more playable and interesting for all golfers.

We set out to do something resolutely different at Shingle Creek. Orlando is a golf town and our back yard. As such, we sought to design and build a golf course that would inspire and challenge every type of golfer. Through a hands on approach and countless hours on site, we handcrafted a golf course with design features reminiscent of some of the finest classic golf courses in the world.

These features include a variety of green shapes and sizes with a relatively large amount of contour, more than one way to get the ball close when off the green, with a decided advantage to one side of the corridor. Bunkers on centrelines, risk reward carries, green orientations, and pin positions will in most cases dictate the correct side of the fairway to use. There is always more than one way to get the ball close when off the green. The different slopes in and around the greens when combined with fairway mow-outs around the greens promote creative recovery options.

Bunkering has been reduced by more than 50 per cent, concentrating the remainder where it dictates strategy.

Width is critical – and there is plenty of it at Shingle Creek – as it offers the dual benefits of playability and strategy; it is easier to keep the ball in play and there are more ways of navigating holes, keeping the interest of players of all levels.

The project was driven by the desire of owner Rosen Hotels and Resort to expand the Shingle Creek hotel from 1,500 to 2,100 rooms. This meant that new land was acquired at the edge of the golf course, to compensate for that lost to the hotel expansion. We used that land to add three entirely new holes to the course, including the dramatic par five thirteenth, which features a canal all the way up the left side of the hole. Golfers seeking to reach the green in two must play as close to the canal as they dare to set up the second shot to the narrow but very deep green, hemmed in on both sides by strong mounding and bunkers.

Our design philosophy was to implement one critical feature on each hole that must be deftly negotiated to score well. The par five second hole, for example, is dominated by a small pot bunker in the middle of the second landing area. Boldness and accuracy are required to successfully cover the coquina bunker protecting the left side of the fairway. This will set up the best angle and shortest distance for the second shot, where the small pot bunker lies just left of the middle of the fairway and 60 yards from the green. Once again, left is the preferred line here to open up the best view into a small green. A deft pitch is needed to place the ball near the pin as the front quarter of the green slopes toward the player while the remainder of the putting surface works slightly away.

The new look eighteenth, by contrast, has a split level fairway to force a definite decision on the tee. A ridge saunters through the centre of the wide fairway, setting up two distinct levels from which to play. The higher inside fairway is the preferred route most of the time as it provides the best view into the green and the shortest distance. For pins cut on the very front of the green, the lower level provides a better angle into the green.

We have also enhanced the additional golf facilities that are available at Single Creek, including a new short game area and the introduction of a 15,000 sq ft Himalayas-style putting green, which is a huge hit with the convention crowd.

What I particularly like about Shingle Creek now is that the course, while not too difficult, presents an interesting challenge to golfers of most every standard. There is a low score to be shot out there for the good player who makes bold choices and executes well, but for whom excessive bravery combined with less than ideal execution will lead to some big numbers. The quality of this test is recognised by the USGA, who continue to use Shingle Creek as a regular site for US Open local qualifying.

But the course is playable even for the occasional golfer who, finding himself in Orlando on vacation, fancies a round in the Florida sunshine.

Thad Layton is vice president and senior golf course architect for the Arnold Palmer Design Company

This article first appeared in issue 49 of Golf Course Architecture