The irresistible variety of British courses

The irresistible variety of British courses
Mike Clayton
By Mike Clayton

For whom do you design golf courses? It’s a question often asked of course architects. The answer, often leaving the questioner bemused, is that we don’t design them for anybody in particular.

For whom is the Old course designed? Royal Melbourne? Cypress Point? Sunningdale? Royal Worlington and Newmarket?

They are not designed for any specific type of golfer. There is space to play – lots of it – at so many holes. The uninformed often argue that all of them would be better for narrower fairways and rough. John Huggan, the eminent Scottish journalist, would call them point-missers. He would be right.

Hazards are spread randomly so as to threaten everybody at some point in their round. There is nothing wrong with the occasional hazard only affecting shorter hitters or high markers. Why take away all the interest for them?

A short hitter having to carry a hazard a hundred yards ahead faces the same choices as Rory McIlroy having to carry a hazard three hundred yards from the tee. They still have to hit their best shot and to avoid the carry means considering the alternatives. On a good course, those alternatives should be worthy.

Surely, the ideal course is one which captures the essence of the principle that the better you are, the harder the course plays, but the higher your handicap, the easier it is to match it.

Royal Melbourne and the Old course manage it perfectly. If the holes are cut in the most challenging parts of the greens to access, it’s an advantage to drive to the better defended parts of the fairways. From there, the approach shots will be noticeably easier. It’s difficult to make birdies by playing away from the trouble because it is exponentially harder to get anywhere near the flags. However, poorer players, hoping to make bogeys with a few pars sprinkled in-between, can steer safely away from the hazards and play ‘bogey golf’.

The opposite would be a water-infested course, the type we see most often on professional tours in the United States or in Asia where, because of the outsized influence it has on the game, the newer golf courses very often mimic what is seen on the PGA Tour.

These courses tend to be brutally difficult for poorer players because crooked hitting on unforgivingly narrow fairways is severely punished. The higher your handicap, the harder it is to make the same score you could achieve at Royal Melbourne, Alwoodley or Cypress Point.

The game was really hard when nearly all of the best championship courses in Britain and Australia were conceived. It was played with hickory shafts and the balls, by today’s standards, were pretty miserable. The introduction of steel shafts in the 1930s helped, but Melbourne’s Kingston Heath was just over 6,800 yards in 1932. Clearly, from the back tees it was not a ‘members course’. It was designed to test first-class play, as were the rest of the best Australian courses.

The wonderful shorter courses of Britain such as Woking, The Addington and West Sussex, were conceived to be not only member courses but also places to hold county championships and national championships so as to test the scratch man.

The greatness of such layouts comes from their ability to be a beacon for golf architecture without resorting to making everything about ‘championship golf’.

And it is why the game in Britain provides the world’s widest variety of golf and golf courses.

Once the current pandemic has passed, I am looking forward to spending part of each year living near London, as I did when I played the European Tour in the 1980s and 1990s, and working with my colleagues at Clayton, DeVries & Pont. Australia will always be my home and my heart will always be Down Under, but my thirst to keep enhancing my knowledge of classic course architecture means that the British Isles offer attractions I just cannot resist.

This is the fifth article in a series from Mike Clayton, a partner at golf architecture firm Clayton, DeVries & Pont.

Read more:
Brown is just fine – June 2020

Tree-free golf – July 2020

Rough justice – July 2020

Design rankings or beauty contents? – August 2020