This article was first published in the Fall 2023 issue of By Design, the magazine published by the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
In the 1920s, Dr Alister MacKenzie wrote: “Nine-out-of-ten games on most good courses are played in matches.”
This no longer holds true. Professional golf has brought with it a strong predisposition towards a scorecard, which has filtered down through the amateur ranks and into the game played by everyday golfers. That’s not to say match play isn’t popular, particularly for the casual golfer who struggles to keep high numbers off a scorecard.
The game’s top players like it too. During the pre-tournament press conference at Austin Country Club for this year’s sole match-play event on the PGA Tour, which has since been scrapped from the schedule, defending champion Scottie Scheffler said: “I love match play. I like the simplicity of it. All you have to do is go out there and try and beat the guy that’s in front of you and if you don’t, you lose, and if you beat him, you win.”
For MacKenzie and his fellow Golden Age architects, the dominance of match play afforded a degree of design freedom. A ‘scorecard wrecker’ of a hole might be unpopular in stroke play, but in match play there’s no scorecard to wreck. So MacKenzie and his contemporaries didn’t fear including a few of those in their designs. Golfers were fine with such holes too; knowing that a high score would lead to the loss of just one hole, rather than any hope of victory, while also enjoying the chance to pull off heroics in the face of difficulty.
But the shift to stroke play means it would be understandable then if today’s designers were reluctant to include holes with a high tariff, to minimize the possibility of golfers coming away from the round unhappy.
There are, however, still occasions where match-play-led thinking prevails.
One of those was near Cobbtown, Georgia, where Mike Walrath asked Gil Hanse to set out 22 holes of golf across a gently rolling and forested landscape. The result would be the highly regarded Ohoopee Match Club.
“When Mike asked us to create a match play course, Jim Wagner and I talked a lot about what that might mean,” says Hanse. “It was the most liberating conversation – and design – we have undertaken because we were not burdened with the notion that holes would be evaluated based on what score someone shot.
“We were able to push the envelope knowing that if someone made an eight on a hole, they were not going to have their round ruined; they would simply lose that hole and move on. As a result, we pushed for holes that fell more into the heroic school of design with big risks and big rewards. Depending on the status of the match and how the player was feeling, they could decide to take on those big risks, or play more conservatively. These types of holes and ‘all in’ options might be a bit overwhelming if one were keeping score, but in a match the thought process is completely different.
Freed from par
Hanse and Wagner were also freed from the constraints of par. “The holes where match play is most evident are those that play to a half par,” says Hanse. “For example, at the ninth, which is a drivable par four with a diabolical green that is divided into four significant quadrants. If you miss the quadrant where the pin is located, you may struggle to two putt. This allows a lot of thinking on the tee because if you go for the green and get out of position, you will be busy trying to make par. If a player is good with a wedge, they may lay back off the tee and use that club to their advantage to hit it to the correct segment of the green.
Hanse also obscured several landing areas, from the back tees, throughout round. This means that players won’t be 100 percent certain about the fate of their, and their opponent’s, tee shot, adding another dimension to the competition.
“We generally design our courses with match play in mind, trying to create holes that are interesting to play and provide different options for how to play them,” says Hanse. “We also spend a lot of time thinking about the sequence of holes and what might make for an interesting flow of holes from a match play standpoint. Sometimes this manifests itself in the closing stretch of holes offering opportunities for positive outcomes to decide matches, as opposed to having truly difficult holes where negative scoring might decide the contest.”
Breaking a mindset
When PGA National Resort in Florida decided to rethink the Squire, one of its five 18-hole layouts, match play was the inspiration for a new design from Andy Staples. His proposal was to turn the first and last holes into a nine-hole par three layout, and then rework the remaining sixteen to become ‘The Match’, an eighteen-hole course of 5,744 yards where match play would be the preferred format.
“The Match was one of the most creative and fun projects I’ve worked on,” says Staples. “When the idea came to split the site into two new layouts, the design brief evolved to explore ways to create offerings that are not exactly like the other courses at the resort. A course designed around match play was the perfect solution to creating an innovative golf experience on a course of non-traditional length – and, quite honestly, as a means to break the ‘American golfer’ mindset of needing to post a score.”
The Match eschews specific tees (markers simply denote the back and front of the teeing area), so that golfers can choose where they play from. There is no designated par, and no course rating.”
“As we were building The Match, I was in the habit of describing its concepts with the motto ‘my six beats your seven!’ Anyone that has played a match understands that it isn’t about making birdie or avoiding bogey – it’s about beating your competitor in any way possible,” says Staples. “With this mindset, I feel we were able to capitalize on strategic risk-reward opportunities, and push the limits on preferred angles into greens, green contouring, and shortgrass runoffs, in a more heightened, dramatic sense.
“There is no doubt that the greens on The Match are what protect the course and serve as the great equalizer against sheer length. We paired this concept with inspiration from the template holes of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor, which provided great direction for tried-and-true strategic variety. The result was a set of holes that present unique options attainable for golfers of all skill levels. Every hole will allow you to attack or lay back depending on which ‘tee’ you choose to play from, as well as your game’s strengths and weaknesses, based on your standing in the match.
“I feel these concepts are perfectly embodied on the twelfth, a hole inspired by the ‘Sahara’ template, where players are presented with a daring shot over a large waste area that can bring a major advantage… or a severe penalty. The conservative play is to lay up to the left into the widest, flattest part of the fairway, only 180 to 200 yards from the tee. This angle sets up a full swing short second into a green with two main ridges parallel to the line of play. However, the shorter overall hole length invites many to take their chances with the driver. The green can hold a well-placed drive, but a ball off line is challenged with a deep swale on the front, a gnarly coffin bunker on the back left, and a severe roll-off behind… not to mention the carry over the Sahara waste!”
PGA National’s newest layout has been a big hit with ‘golf buddy’ groups since it opened in September 2021.
“The fine line created by the risk-reward strategy of a hole is what I believe makes The Match, and match play in general, most exciting,” says Staples. “Par, slope, course ratings, and designated tees simply don’t matter. What matters is playing against an opponent in a fair, balanced way that engages both your skill and decision making on each hole.
“What I might love most about The Match is that you can play it again and again, learn its subtleties, and come to realize how your game best fits the course; it is almost like a rewiring of your golf-brain to be more creative, and less structured. We think it certainly has replay value… especially when it comes to a redemption match!”
Read more: Greg Martin explains why he thinks the industry should focus its attention away from stroke play.
Match play’s holy grail
When Tom Fazio was appointed to redesign Adare Manor in Ireland, it was made very clear that the goal of the project was to attract golf’s most famous match: the Ryder Cup.
Nevertheless, knowing that was just one week, the Fazio team still had to ensure the course would appeal to all types of golf and golfer.
“A good design for a golf hole should allow both fun match play and smart stroke play,” says Tom Marzolf, of Fazio Golf Design. “Yes, when it’s match play, the hole needs to taunt the player into offense or defence, depending on how the match stands.”
And perhaps these attributes come most sharply into focus on the closing stretch, when matches are won or lost. Marzolf highlights the fifteenth and eighteenth of his redesign of Adare Manor as great examples of offering distinct strategies for offense or defence. “The par-four fifteenth is a ‘pull the driver and go for the win’ hole, as well as offering the smart lay-up option to avoid losing,” he says. And while few matches make it all the way to 18, his high-risk design is ideal for when the stakes are down.
“The eighteenth is the ultimate example of a par five, with players teased to go for the green over River Maigue in two to secure the win, or to tie the match,” says Marzolf. “The Ryder Cup has never had this level of idyllic setting for such a head scratching second shot option. The firm green perched atop a wall on the edge of the river is tough to hold with a wedge if you lay up. The smart play is to cross the river in two.”
Marzolf says that a good Ryder Cup hole needs a strategy that makes a player think, but also allows for options in course setup.
“Greens will need shapes that allow for a variety of pin positions so that different shot shapes can get close enough to win the hole. Everyone enjoys viewing a ‘sucker’ pin that is tough and risky enough to allow a heroic shot to win or the ultimate choke to lose the hole. The green at the par-three eleventh is one example. It is subtle enough that some may miss the virtues of shotmaking that exist there. A pin on the front half of the green requires a left-to-right ball flight. The back pin demands a draw, flirting with the river, to get close to the hole.”
There doesn’t need to be a Ryder Cup at stake for a match play oriented design to make sense. Clubs that are looking to inject some variety, or have a site that might not accommodate a regulation eighteen, might find a match makes heaven.