Course Design

The exciting brand of FineGolf  is a thinking person’s game:

It requires invention and creative shots, on courses that exemplify the ‘risk and reward’ strategic design concept.

Harry Colt and James Braid were the most prolific golf course architects during the ‘Golden Era of 1900 to the 1930s’, and led golf course design to move the traditional in-land course penal hazards away from ramparts across the fairway, designed to catch the foozled, topped ball of the higher handicapper, to the sides of the fairways.

They created a new strategic design style incorporating various ways of playing a hole with different risks and reward. Hazards were placed where the not quite perfect shot by the scratch player would get caught, while giving more latitude for the higher handicapper.

The concept of penal hazards regained popularity within modern target-golf courses built in the 1980/90s, which employ irrigated narrow fairways, frequent lakes and baracades of bunkers in front of greens.  This reduces the strategic element of having to drive your ball on to the part of the fairway that most easily gives the opportunity to run ones ball on to a firm green. The softness of target-golf greens gives a receptiveness to the ball. This allows the golfer to fly the ball right to the pin and stop it, without bouncing through to the back of the green. Therefore to create a greater challenge to the better golfer, target-golf course architects, often required by their clients to build a long ‘championship’ course for marketing reasons, have generated this new penal style of design, which is not a success with higher-handicappers.

Penal holes offer only two possible results, success or total failure.

Strategically well designed fine golf courses are challenging but give everybody a chance.  Strategic and heroic features ensure the higher the risk, the higher the reward, while the high handicapper is still able to enjoy their round and be challenged at their level. There are a number of ways from tee to green that can be taken dependant on ones ability. Receptive, soft greens reduce the challenge.

“Signature” holes are a modern phenomena:

The marketing gurus of television led commercial interests look for ‘signature’ holes.  Modern target courses get remembered for spectacular penal holes which attract easy television fame.

Nevertheless, it is not all downside, as the money that has come into the game via television has given us some advantages in helping develop new equipment for golf course design. For example ‘shaping’ is now much easier and less labour intensive.

The question naturally arises: can modern golf architects design true ‘Fine running-golf courses’ on land that is not naturally draining?

Kingsbarns is one attempt, heralded by many as a great links course.  It was built on lush, fertile meadow land sloping down to a rocky shore. This is the opposite of what is needed for a links course which needs infertile sandy soil that drains.  The bulldozers and shapers carved out a links design look with delightful revetted pot bunkering while artificial drainage and lots of sand allowed planting of fine grasses and a wonderful product evolved.  In my view it must be welcomed by anybody who enjoys FineGolf and it is an example of how modern technology in the hands of people with vision can give us a high “joy to be alive” FineGolf factor. One has to add some fifteen years on that annual meadow grass (Poa annua) has started to invade perhaps because the majority of the land did not have indigenous perennial fine grasses to start with.

Predictability wins: My only disappointment with Kingsbarns is the lack of quirkiness in the fairways. Perhaps it is too expensive to artificially construct such natural features, which on fine courses often just happened to be there already and were used by the architects without need for earth movement.  I suspect nevertheless the influence of the Professionals, of whom many prefer flat fairways with their predictable bounce, may also be in the commercial mind of the architects!

Another example of a parkland course not on naturally draining land that provides ‘running-golf’ is Wilmslow.

Reader Comments

On August 12th, 2009 David Hargreaves said:

I don’t agree with your comments about Kingsbarns-it has a falseness about it right down to the cheap prints on the clubhouse walls.
Good courses should not be predictable but having played Kingsbarns 3 times now I get less enthralled each time I play it.

On January 17th, 2010 Melvyn Hunter Morrow said:

‘Penal’ and ‘Strategic’ are they really separate, two different concepts of design or are they, as I believe, part and parcel for the strategic design package?
The modern attitude is for easy golf, of riding and not walking, of using distance aids, be they books or electronic aids in place of one’s own eye/brain coordination. In my opinion they are a serious loss to the average golfer who at a stroke has cut him/herself off from the delight and more importantly satisfaction of doing it under one’s own steam.

With this in mind I believe that the modern designer may have concentrated on what is called a strategic design but with a well watering down penal aspect. Yet as we see in our modern society, strategic policies without a penal element are a sign of weakness and rarely works. This I see in golf.

We need a mix and I say yes to deep bunkers that might force a retreat out the back or sides as the best options available, yes to hazards that makes the golfer think carefully before deciding if he/she feel their skill is worthy of the shot. Lets not forget the game of golf is all about the challenge, it’s not just about hitting a long ball from the Tee, its all about facing and overcoming the traps and hazards placed by the designer to test your ability to navigate around his design in the least number of strokes, to push you to your limit and perhaps even help you rise to the occasion. I exclude Island Greens because they go way past accepted penal; they are in fact the equivalent of hanging someone for stealing. The Island Green is more than a hazard, the immense size of some only allow the good golf the chance of managing the Green, as for the average golfer, these hazards not just penalise you, worst still they can kill the game and perhaps your interest in the course stone dead, not what I consider the meaning of a hazard in golf even a penal one.

Yet how many think, let alone actually notice the work of the designer. At least while walking and using ones own God gifted senses we have more time to understand exactly what we are really facing. That is something that riding and aids just can not match. Lets not forget that golf for over 600 years has been a walking and thinking game, its only in the latter half of the 20rh Century that Golfers seem to be will to water down their own experience and their game of golf by not playing in the time honoured manner. Perhaps we need to look to that building in front of The Old Course at St Andrews and ask those who are meant to protect our Game of Golf why they have allowed these aids onto our courses.

I will in defence of the cart say that for those unable to walk the cart is a good tool but for able bodied golfers, I just ask why are you bothering to play golf, clearly its is to much of an effort to play the game as its has always been played. As for those distance aids, well that in my opinion speaks volumes about the ability (sorry I should have said lack of natural ability to judge distance) of those golfers. But then, that again is only my opinion.

Golf is a great game no matter ones skill level, it’s the fun and challenging aspect of the game but it needs that penal aspect that is naturally inherent within strategic planning. Surely the real fun and enjoyment comes form doing ones best, being able to perhaps achieve a little victory over one of the 18 holes, yet that victory then becomes ones target for the next time you play that course. Why are the club lounges, bars and pubs near a course always full of happy smiling faces including those who feel they failed to conquer any part of the course on that day. That’s because it golf, a walking and thinking game.

Like a well known beer ‘normal golf can refresh the mind that other aids can not reach’ not forgetting that ‘Golf’s final frontier is all in the mind’, but you do need to loose your toys (carts distance aids etc) to experience the joy of the game.

Melvyn Hunter Morrow

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