Finding Common Ground in Golf Course Architecture
September 12, 2019
By George Waters, USGA
Designing golf courses that are enjoyable and challenging for all golfers has long been an ideal in golf course architecture. Alister Mackenzie said that “the ideal hole is one that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number,” and Donald Ross stated that “the ideal course is one that presents a test of golf for the everyday golfer and the first-class player.” While most modern architects share those sentiments, it has become increasingly challenging to translate these noble ideals into reality.
“Designing for all golfers is much harder today than it was in the past,” said golf course architect Tom Doak, designer of CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora, Colo., which is the stroke-play co-host for the 39th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and home course for the Colorado Golf Association. “The disparity in distance between the best players and the average golfer has never been greater. Better players are hitting shorter clubs into greens, they’re less affected by rough and if they end up in most greenside bunkers, they’re thinking about trying to hole the next shot.
‘Adding more bunkers and rough to challenge the best players doesn’t really work and it makes a course impossible for the average player. The things that challenge really great players are usually more subtle than you think – it’s an awkward stance, a tilt in the green, just something that makes them uncomfortable. Meanwhile, dealing with those same challenges is manageable for everybody else.”
At CommonGround, Doak and his team needed to create a golf course that could function as a busy public course while being able to host statewide and even national championships featuring highly skilled players. Striking that balance is never easy. Perhaps surprisingly, Doak believes that many of the features that make a hole playable and fun for the average golfer can actually make it more confounding for an expert.
“It seems like the best players have more trouble on a hole that’s 360 yards from the back tee than they do on one that’s 460 because they aren’t sure how to approach the shorter hole,” said Doak. “Do they want to hit driver, or do they lay back to a yardage? Meanwhile, the average golfer thinks holes like that are great because they get to hit a short iron into a par 4.”
Eric Iverson, Doak’s lead associate on the CommonGround project, noted that wider fairways are another design feature that can accommodate the average golfer while giving the best players choices they may not be accustomed to. “It’s absolutely a positive for the average golfer to build a course with wider fairways,” said Iverson. “It makes the game more fun, helps them play faster and gives them room to execute a strategy that’s within their ability. In terms of the elite player, width just for width’s sake might make a course easier. But if that extra width allows them to play farther out of position from the ideal approach angle, that can be a really effective challenge.”
“A great example is the eighth hole at CommonGround,” said Doak. “It was honestly the hole we struggled with the most during the design process, but I think the end result is really interesting. Good players can hit it way up by the green with their tee shot, but there are some really awkward pitches if you’re not in the right place. There’s plenty of room in the fairway and around the green, but there’s also a fair amount of trouble. As a result, you see people all over the place on that hole, even really good players.”
Doak has always had a reputation for building a lot of interest into his putting surfaces, and that has become even more important in designing for the modern game. While bunkers and rough have become much more manageable for the elite player than the average golfer, clever putting green contours still keep everyone on their toes.
“We put a lot of thought into our putting surfaces,” said Doak. “One way to effectively challenge all players is building enough tilt into the greens. If a good player is trying hard to stay below the hole, it usually translates to putts that are 5-20 feet after a really good shot instead of a tap in. Players that keep their approaches within a tight circle around the hole are still getting the most advantage, but the change in thinking usually means a few less birdies per round for the expert without a hugely negative impact on the average player.
‘One thing we try to keep in mind is that the best players are often really conservative because they know they’re going to make some birdies no matter what. They are religious about avoiding big numbers on the scorecard, so when they have doubts, they just shoot for the middle of the green. We try to build contours into the greens that make that not such a great idea. We might create a wide green that is less receptive in the middle or add some contours that give an advantage to players that successfully choose a side.”
Incorporating a combination of tilt and contour into the putting surfaces also increases the emphasis on placement from tee to green. Golfers that have a better understanding of the green contours, or the implications of a given hole location, can gain an advantage even if they don’t hit the ball as far or as high as other players.
In terms of bunkering, Doak is increasingly selective in his use of sand as a hazard. “We’re currently working with the PGA Tour on a course in Houston that’s going to be a busy public facility while also acting as the host site for a Tour event, and we’ve got around 20 bunkers planned. The reason is that sand doesn’t really bother tour professionals but it’s very troublesome for the average golfer. Placing fewer bunkers in key locations and giving them a character that really influences play makes more sense in today’s game.”
‘Take the seventh hole at CommonGround, for example. There’s a deep bunker at 300-325 yards from the back tee. Even a really good player is going to struggle to get home in two from out of that bunker but laying up short of it means leaving themselves more than 200 yards in, which is longer than they want on a relatively short par 5. They’re making a sacrifice if they want to take the risk out of play.”
While some of the bunkers at CommonGround are placed to challenge the expert, there are also those intended to provide excitement for the average player. “There are plenty of examples of golf courses that are really dull for the average player because all the bunkers are too far from the tee,” said Iverson. “The key is mixing it up for players of all abilities. You absolutely want something for the average player to contend with that’s a little scary, but still within their ability. You don’t want to remove all the danger for them, there has to be some thrills for everyone.”
As the 39th U.S. Mid-Amateur unfolds, it should be exciting to watch elite golfers contend with the challenges that Doak and his team built into CommonGround. Skillfully negotiating bunkers, closely mown slopes and contoured greens will certainly play a key role. However, the ability to make good choices and strategic adjustments will also be crucial. Perhaps the greatest challenge for golfers of all abilities is dealing with our own thoughts, and Doak makes it clear when talking about designing courses for all players that his focus is on the mental hazards of the game as much as the physical ones.
George Waters is the USGA’s manager of Green Section education. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.