One size fits all?

Sean Dudley

John Strawn

Can golf course architects design courses suitable for both professional tournaments and everyday play? The answer is a qualified yes. Architects must understand how skilled the best players are, as well as they know the limitations of the ordinary player. Beyond that, the site’s the key.

As a general rule, links courses are more adaptable to the shifts between tournament and everyday play than are parkland courses. Parkland courses are tree-lined, with narrow, relatively flat fairways and a variety of hazards, such as lakes, ponds, wetlands and bunkers. Parkland courses usually grow the rough long and shrink the fairways when they’re hosting a tournament. The tees are typically set so the course will play as long as possible, and the greens will be lightning fast.

Links courses, by contrast, have few or no trees, no lakes or ponds, and wide, generous, undulating fairways. The bunkers on a links may seem randomly placed, while on a parkland course the fairway bunkers are almost always at the turning point from the tee. Parkland courses also have more greenside bunkers. The bunkers on links courses are often penal – that is, a bunker may be so deep it requires a sideways shot to get out – while parkland courses use bunkers more as beacons or as omens than as punishment.

Golf course architects need to know how different types of players approach the course. A fourteen-handicapper facing a two hundred yard carry over a lake sees a watery grave before him; a tour player focuses only on the small landing area beyond the lake, and is utterly indifferent to the forced carry. Tour golfers are never intimidated by hazards, which they simply observe and avoid. Bunkers terrify the average player. Tour players pay a lot more attention to subtleties such as their lie, their stance, the type of shot which they expect to hit, and the conditions of the turf. Ordinary players just try to get the ball going forward. The pros prefer tight lies and fast greens, and they want to know which way the wind blows. Hackers like fluffy lies, slow greens and calm days.

Links courses have numerous built-in advantages over parkland courses when it comes to staging a tournament. Links courses can easily accommodate galleries without needing to modify the course or its set-up in any significant way. Because links courses are built in and among the swales and crests of dunes deposited by natural forces, with the holes typically playing through the low-lying areas, links courses already possess mounds and hillocks convenient for viewing.

Links courses are relatively easy to modify. Altering a parkland course, with its tree-lined fairways, may require a chainsaw, a not always popular approach. Links courses can also expand or contract their fairways and roughs through modification of the mowing patterns. Adding length is not as difficult on a links, either, assuming there is room to move the tees back. Links courses can tighten their landing areas, while mowing the fall-off around the greens at almost green-cut height, which can make the ball run away from the hole on errant shots. The parkland courses on the American circuit, with lots of greenside bunkers, are harder for the average player, but they’re welcomed by the pros. Touring pros dislike playing the perched greens and tightly-mown runoff areas at courses like Pinehurst #2, while they welcome a simple blast from a bunker.

Trying to toughen a course for a tournament may not always succeed. Parkland courses which shrink their fairways for tournaments, for example, take the trees out of play. The tall rough will capture errant tee shots before they reach the trees. Players with the strength and skill of today’s great pros can hit decent shots from all but the deepest rough, so they’re inclined to bomb the ball as far as they can and take their chances on a decent lie in the rough. If the rough was mown tight – as, for example, Alister MacKenzie intended it at Augusta National – offline tee shots would run into the trees and therefore into the trouble, rather than stopping short. So it’s possible that what’s perceived as an effort to tighten up fairways in order to demand more accurate drives may have the contrary effect of keeping balls out of real trouble.

Most links courses are benign unless the wind is blowing, when they really show their teeth.While the marram grass and heather on the margins of the fairways can certainly gobble up balls, most links courses provide plenty of space for driving the ball. Courses with lakes and ponds and cross-hazards are clearly the most difficult for the average player. Bunkers in front of greens intimidate the hacker and have no effect on the pro. Keeping penal shots to a minimum while providing openings for run-up shots at the greens is one simple approach to the problem of assuring that players of all abilities can play a course.

Trying to ‘Tiger-proof’ courses by lengthening them makes no more sense than would raising the height of a basketball goal to rein in Shaquille O’Neal. Tiger’s advantage just goes up on a longer course. But forcing players to hit shots they’re not accustomed to making – perhaps a hook from a fader’s lie – might restore some balance between the shotmakers and the bombers (not that Tiger isn’t both). Putting more slope in the greens and slowing them down also would not be popular among the pros, but would please the everyday player.

It should come as no surprise that the great links courses on the rota for the Open Championship are admired by the great professionals and loved by everyday players. They are open, inviting, adaptable, flexible, and at times unpredictable. The links courses of the British Isles are an enduring source of inspiration and insight for golf course architects everywhere.

John Strawn is CEO of Robert Trent Jones II, based in Palo Alto, California. Thanks to Jay Blasi,Mike Gorman and Ty Butler of RTJII for assistance with this article.

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2005.