Designing for all abilities: how low should you go?

  • How low should you go?

    What level of bad golf should an architect be expected to design for?

  • The Old course at St Andrews

    Golf courses that are accessible to the public, like the Old course at St Andrews, may be more likely to feel the need to be accommodating for beginners

  • Pine Valley
    Jon Cavalier/@LinksGems

    Hell’s Half Acre looms in the distance for those setting out on the seventh at Pine Valley. But founder George Crump had designed the course specifically for very good players

  • Old course at St Andrews
    Gary Lisbon

    Tom Doak says absolute beginners can enjoy courses like the Old course at St Andrews and Royal Melbourne (pictured) because they are completely playable from 250 yards and in

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Back in the prehistoric days of golf architecture (otherwise known as the nineteenth century), courses were generally laid out with scratch, or at least high-quality players in mind, and a good course was believed to be one that provided the best test for the best players. 

That changed with the revolution that struck golf course design in the early part of the twentieth century. Architects such as Harry Colt wrote that the ideal course was one that provided a test for the top player and fun for golfers of every level of ability. And, even allowing for exceptions like Pine Valley, where founder and designer George Crump sought to make a course that was only suited to very good players, that viewpoint has remained dominant ever since. 

It is well known that trying to cover both these bases is harder now than it has ever been before, simply because the extreme distance achieved by elite players now means the gap between good and bad is so massive. Yes, it is possible to provide tees of radically different lengths so that the 330-yard and the 110-yard driver use the same landing zone. But then what? Suppose a hole is set up so that the landing zone leaves an approach shot of between 150-180 yards. That’s a very short iron for Rory McIlroy and completely out of reach for a typical super-senior. 

For course rating purposes, according to the new World Handicap System, a male bogey golfer is one with a handicap index from 17.5-22.4, who hits his drives 200 yards and can reach a 370-yard hole in two, while a female one has a handicap index of 21.5-26.4, hits her drives 150 yards and can reach a 280-yard hole in two. Very useful for its purpose no doubt, but completely irrelevant when designing a golf course, even as far as playability for the bogey player is concerned. Because a bogey player, in reality, could be someone who hits a very short ball, perhaps a man who can only drive 150-160 yards, but almost never misses a fairway. Or it could be a young man who takes a fearful swipe at the ball but has only the vaguest idea of where it is going to end up. 

What makes golf interesting is its infinite variety. But the “infinite variety of strokes used” (perhaps not entirely in the meaning MacKenzie intended when writing his ninth principle) makes nuts-and-bolts golf course routing somewhere between hard and impossible. 

“I think that in the past, I have made my courses just too long and tough for a lot of ordinary golfers,” says English designer Adrian Stiff. “With the original course at the Players Club, the Codrington, many people can’t play it, and even for me now, at 62 and nearly crippled, I can’t make the carries off the back tees. Off the front tees, I reckon some carries are 100 yards, and certainly for a lot of women that’s impossible. That’s the reason only about five ladies play that course! But then it is those great carries at Cypress Point or Pebble Beach that take courses to elite status. You have to figure out your audience I guess.” 

Catering for ‘ordinary’ bad golfers, those who top a few, slice a few, hit a few reasonably straight but don’t go out of the county is not too difficult. As American architect Phil Smith says: “It comes down to attack angles when designing particular holes. I try to minimise forced carries whenever possible and I always try to design a safe option to play a hole, so high handicap players can navigate the hole by using bump and run shots if desired.” 

Ron Forse says that the focus should mostly be on the tee shot (because it typically goes further, there is more scope for error than on shorter shots). “Properly positioned forward tees for those with slow swing speeds; bailout areas along the right side of common hitting areas; areas pitched inward to help contain balls; sand bunkers placed beyond their range but positioned as visual guides; wide welcoming fairway dimensions; easy undulations in their landing areas; a preponderance of lakes or water hazards on the left side rather than right,” he says, noting that all this doesn’t do much to help left-handed players! “At the green, provide a wide approach for a run up. If there’s an upslope present, many times the good golfer will spin the ball off it. This feature does not scare the high handicap, but a front pin is treacherous for the fast clubhead speed. To keep interest for the high handicap, cross bunkers can be placed where a second shot on a hole can easily be carried. Dimension-wise, invading or cross bunkers at 300 to 320 can readily be carried with two decent shots.” 

So far, so straightforward. This is fairly commonplace design thinking that architects have practiced for a hundred years or more. The real challenge comes about as a side-effect of the equipment changes that have made courses so short for elite golfers. There are now plenty of players out there who are capable of giving the ball an almighty thump, but who have little or no idea of where it is going to go. 

“I regard the long inaccurate wild golfer as his own inherent problem,” says Forse. “His biggest issue may be getting sued by fellow golfers or owners of passing cars!” 

“Random shots are hard to predict,” says Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design. “I do think I give a lot of thought to the very forward tees, but I leave it to the players to show some common sense once they have set off from the tee. I know it is difficult to predict where it is going if you’re that much of a novice, but you have a responsibility to yourself to make it easy on yourself if you have the choice. Very poor golfers ought to limit themselves to simple courses until sufficiently experienced, otherwise they’ll just put themselves off.” 

Golfers of all standards are prone to blame architects for their own failings, says Smith. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere between what is the architect’s fault and what is the player’s. “That line usually emerges during a member or town hall meeting,” he explains. “Someone will pick upon and continue to criticise a simple design issue, because it affects their personal game. I have made the comment a few times after someone like that continues to complain: ‘I can’t design for that!’ There has to be some level of skill to meet me part of the way and that’s why facilities have golf professionals.” 

Texas-based designer Kurt Bowman, who worked for Nicklaus Design for many years, remembers a memorable line from his old boss. “I was once at a grand opening with Jack, and he was asked, ‘how do you do strategy for a 20 handicap?’ Jack answered, ‘You can’t’. He said if you don’t know where the ball is going, how am I supposed to know? He said all you can do is limit forced carries and give them a lot of space. I do think you can do both, mind, so long as you have ample space. Augusta National and Royal Melbourne are proof.” 

Tom Doak says that width, which has been the mantra of golf architects in recent years, is a double-edged sword – because more width makes a course more expensive to maintain. “There is a point where some players ought not to be pandered to,” he says. “I believe I was one of the pioneers of increased fairway width in this era, but I think that has gone way too far in recent years; we are encouraging young guys to hit it long and wrong. A narrower course might get them to gear down a little bit, and that would be better than maintaining that extra 20 acres. 

“By the same token, we can keep building forward tees for the weaker player, but we could also just tell them to tee it up at the start of the fairway and go from there until they get good enough to play from, say, 5,000 yards.” 

In Germany, players have to pass a test to play on a course, as architect Angela Moser points out: “A 54 handicap equals a pass on the ‘Platzreife’ – the practical test to be officially allowed to play on the course.”   

“While you can't ‘design for’ the 50-handicap – after two shots, they could be anywhere – you can make a course playable for them,” says Doak. “I have seen elderly golfers and even absolute beginners enjoy the Old course at St Andrews and Royal Melbourne. The key is that they are completely playable from 250 yards and in, principally because the ‘out of play’ areas are generally not lost ball country, due to favourable climate and turf species, without irrigation. 

“It’s worth noting that it is up to the developer or club to decide what level of player they wish to accommodate. Not every golf course has to be playable for the 50 or even the 15 handicapper – there are a lot of courses in the top 50 that certainly aren’t. I don’t think that’s something for the average course to give up on, but there are some sites where it is difficult, cost prohibitive or just a waste of resources to try and provide 60 yards of playable width off every tee, and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a golf course there at all.”