Challenging Golf Course Design and Excellent Golf Course Designers

Golf course design is something of a political topic within golf at present. Many esteemed courses, ranging from the Old Course at St Andrews, Augusta and seemingly every ‘major’ course, has been ‘improved’, chiefly due to the advancements in golf technology which sees professionals now hitting the ball further than ever before and it is a problem that Bill Coore recognises within his new designs.

“There is no doubt that it [Golf Technology] has had a negative effect on architecture generally. Guys just hit past so much stuff these days. To which some people say we can move tees back, but sometimes you can’t, or move bunkers, but sometimes that isn’t practical or advisable.”

“I hate to see bunkers that have been there for decades suddenly moved. For one thing, rebuilding a bunker exactly as it was isn’t that easy.”

Ben-Crenshaw

Ben Crenshaw

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s shared ethos about making a course challenging in its own right for all golfers, not just to add extra length or bunkers to holes to accommodate long-hitting professionals, is a view shared by several entering the industry. Canadian professional Mike Weir’s philosophy for his golf design company states:

“Weir Golf Design believes that it is not the architects role to make the game difficult. Rather, it is the role of the designers to make the game interesting. Our vision is to craft unique, distinctive and thought-provoking creations that are fun to play.”

Another professional who has business interests in course design, Colin Montgomerie states via his course design website;

“Golf should always be a challenge, and a golfer, whether amateur or professional, must be made to achieve every round played. Nevertheless, above all, golf should be enjoyable and whether in someone’s leisure time or business time, they should leave the course challenged but satisfied.”

Colin-Montgomerie Scottish golf player

Colin Montgomerie

It seems therefore that there is a real change sweeping through in new course design to move away from simply adding length to courses to make them more difficult, but instead to design courses, which offer golfers of varying abilities a set of challenges, and conditions that are guaranteed to test their skills and provide an enjoyable golfing experience.

For many established courses though, such changes are almost impossible. The advances of golfing technology mean courses like the Old Course at St Andrews are quickly becoming less of a challenge for modern day golfers. Even the undulating green, wild rough and tougher pin positions at St Andrews Old Course cannot hide the fact that for the modern day professional, who can regularly drive the ball 320+ yards accurately, it is more a pitch and putt course.

There is a real need for the new courses being designed to provide a test, not just for the technology at the disposal of the average golfer today, but in the way courses are played. Prescriptive courses are entirely divisive in opinion. A great example of that is the famous 17th Island hole at Sawgrass, where the players hit over water to a relatively small green. In essence, this hole only allows the player to play one shot, a very lofted high, low spin shot, usually aimed at the centre of the green. Yes, the water adds drama to the course when players go into it, but does it add anything to the game of golf?

If, for example, the wind picks up mightily, where is the option for the golfer to play a low, bouncy run up shot onto the green, a tactic so loved on links courses of yore? The golfer cannot fly the ball over the flag and spin it back excessively as the ball could either, travel too far over the flag and green and end up in the water, or spin back too far and once again end up in the drink.

Golf-course-design

For the game of golf to continue to test professionals and attract new players, new courses need to be accessible to players at all levels, just as the great courses of today are. Thankfully modern golf course designers seem to have realised that and are now designing courses that may, in a hundred years or so, be regarded as classics in the same way that Augusta, St Andrews or Pebble Beach are today. In a sense, course design has gone back to the future, back to the simple principles that made golf the sport it is today, challenging, thoughtful and above all, fun.


Images by Gorilla Golf Blog, Keith Allison, Steven Newton

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