Favourite features

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    Mark Alexander Golf Photography

    The opening hole at Prestwick in Scotland is flanked by a railway line. Drives close to the stone wall have a better angle of approach to the green

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    Getty Images/ Chris Condon

    The oak tree in the second landing area on the par-five eleventh at TPC Sawgrass adds complexity to what would otherwise be a straightforward lay-up

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    Kevin Murray

    The flat green on the ninth hole at St Andrews stands in stark contrast to the rollercoaster of contour elsewhere

Brandon Johnson
By Brandon Johnson

Alister MacKenzie succinctly sums up the purpose and ideal placement of hazards on a golf course: “A hazard placed in the exact position where a player would naturally go is frequently the most interesting situation, as a special effort is then needed to get over it or to avoid it.”

The varied landscapes over which golf is played allow for endless combinations of features – natural, man-made or a combination. If man-made features are thoughtful and artistic, and the combinations nuanced, this can present interesting, playful riddles for golfers to solve.

I’ve been fortunate in over 20 years as a golf course architect to travel, study and to be inspired by some of the most interesting examples of classic and modern golf architecture. Here are a few of my favourite features.

The straight line

Some say straight lines have no place in golf architecture – except perhaps in the shaft of a golf club. In my opinion this couldn’t be further from the truth. Discovering and embracing those rare instances when nature and/or the human hand contrasts, blends or juxtaposes the irregular and unpredictable form with a consistent straight edge may open your mind to something you haven’t considered before.

Courses that organically intersect with their built surroundings often have a functional yet elegant hard edge with which to contend, like ancient rock walls that ride atop a wavy landscape, or utilitarian channels that served the landscape prior to golf’s introduction.

The opening tee shot at Prestwick is one of the most intimidating, jarring, yet fantastic experiences in golf architecture. The stone wall between the course and railway line runs down the entire right side of the golf hole, narrowing until it rests snuggly against the right green edge. Challenge the property boundary for the advantage or suffer the consequences with a poor angle from the left after a timid play. This sets up a wonderful strategy to start your round and serves as a precursor for good, funky things to come.

The uncharacteristic inclusion of a straight line or edge into the landscape can be a thing of beauty and an interesting strategic puzzle to solve.

The single bunker

Elaborate artistic expressions of bunkers have recently taken centre stage, a far cry from their primitive forms as windblown scars and scraps formed by burrowing animals.

While there is excitement in and flair to an elaborate nest of bunkers guarding the ideal line, I’ve learned to appreciate the simpler, more elegant solution as well: the single bunker. In contrast to splashing sand everywhere, it is more difficult to distil from a layout one perfectly placed and ‘essential’ bunker location. You’re looking for a placement that might even dictate play on the shot prior, a bunker so pinpoint accurate that every player must eventually negotiate its request.

The Road bunker at St Andrews is one of the most ideally placed bunkers in golf course architecture. While not the only bunker on the hole, its influence dictates play on almost any shot to and around the green, with potentially disastrous repercussions for miscalculated plans of attack.

This single greenside bunker should weigh heavy on the mind and even influence tee shot placement if one is to genuinely consider reaching the green in two. Approach shots from the centre or right of fairway are ideal, and only from there can one realistically make a play for green. This bunker also sets up one of the most important leaves in golf. The short right and slightly more risky long left second shot options will avoid the bunker and leave a delicate pitch and putt for a par escape and joyous dash towards the home hole. The careless leave behind or around the bunker short will create confounding problems.

My other favourite single bunker is on another famed seventeenth, at TPC Sawgrass. If the island green wasn’t enough, Pete Dye cleverly places a tiny pit on the island to stand watch over that tempting far right pin location and feeder slope for the more conservative line. Aside from the skinny access path, that tiny thumbprint bunker is the only place where you can miss the green and still find dry land. Then you will be left with a terrifying shot from an awkward lie, trouble staring you in the face from all directions. It’s the same trouble you successfully avoided moments earlier, but now it’s back and poised for round two. Some say this is ‘Dye-abolical’, a sadistic joke from a master architect, but I tend to believe it’s a sense of humour, not persecution, that underlies this feature.

The lone tree or copse

I grew up in North Carolina, where towering pines and massive oaks are fixtures on the landscape and the local courses I learned the game on. I developed an appreciation for their strategic value, aesthetic presence, and ability to spice up the golf experience. Perhaps my fond childhood memories of learning how to conjure low fades and high draws to escape the grasp of greedy branches is an influential factor here. While it wasn’t fun hitting an errant shot into the trees, it was thrilling escaping from them.

Yes, an abundance of trees can make fairways too narrow. Yes, turf conditions can suffer from excessive tree cover. And yes, trees have a life span that can impact their role on a hole. All of that fails to see the point. There is something majestic about a large lone tree, or copse, claiming territory in an open landscape. Such a feature can be powerful visually and even more impressive when there is strategic significance tied to its inclusion on a golf hole. Think of the iconic eighteenth at Pebble Beach and sixteenth at Harbour Town, or the copse of trees beyond the eleventh at Kingsbarns that acts as a soft curtain, stopping the eye in the middle ground, keeping it from wandering too far before the second act is revealed.

I loathed the par-five eleventh at Sawgrass, and its lone tree, after my first round there as a 21-year-old. It took years of playing and watching frustrated companions grapple with this simple riddle before I finally discovered its brilliance. Now I’m enamoured.

Pete Dye cleverly used an oak on the right second landing area to complicate what appears to be a straightforward lay-up. Contour plays a supporting role, too, by creating a tricky, slightly downhill pitch shot over water that bisects the right lay-up from the left lay-up area, thus creating a choice between two equally awkward shots for those opting not to go for the green in two.

Our original design of the Old Tabby Links course at Spring Island in South Carolina had two towering pines standing guard over the second landing area. Trees so stately and full of character, we could not remove them with a clear conscience. In our 2012 restoration, we expanded the fairway right of the trees and adjusted the lake line far left of them to make them even more of a central feature.

Unfortunately, disease shortened their lives. The original trees were iconic and integral to the strategy of the hole. Golf had been played there for 30-plus years and will continue to be played there for decades more, so replacing the trees was the right, and historically accurate, decision. The two new tall trees will grow fast in the local environment and continue to be a defining feature and strategic factor on this hole for future generations to enjoy – or curse!

The subtle statement

A more contemplative artistic approach to design sometimes wanes in the face of opportunities to dial up ‘flash’ and present golfers with more stimulation; bolder contours, bigger bunkers and more severe, attention-calling features. While this shift from ‘quiet’ to ‘loud’ might be driven by the client, sometimes a more powerful, if not impactful, statement can be made by showing restraint – finding tranquillity amongst the ripples, contrasting bold with subtle, obvious with nuanced.

One of my favourite features of the Old course at St Andrews is the ninth green. It stands in stark contrast to the rollercoaster ride of contour elsewhere. One may think the oversized, flat, on-grade green was a mistake, but closer examination uncovers its hidden charm. The absence of contour or perceivable pitched slope becomes the physical and mental dilemma. There is nothing to feed, shed or stop the ball and the complexity thickens as conditions change. What is the appropriate play from 50 yards with a gust at your back? Putter? Bump and run with a 7-iron, or even a hybrid? Or a higher shot with a soft landing? There is no right or wrong answer; it’s about a confident decision and sound execution.

I applaud my design partner, Thad Layton, in his use of subtlety at Fazenda Boa Vista in Brazil, where the natural terrain on the back nine is much more raucous then the low-lying front. The contrast of the small, delicately contoured green on the par-five thirteenth with the rolling terrain around it makes a wonderful statement and is a quiet moment to savour before the thrill ride starts again.

Architects have a rich palette with which to work and our field is boundless in its ability to create joy, satisfaction, and confidence. For me, more than the complexities and carefully crafted puzzles themselves, that is rather the point.

Brandon Johnson is a principal at Arnold Palmer Design Company

This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.