Routing Golf Courses: My Personal Experiences
This article is spurred by an iseekgolf.com forum contributor’s statement that: “In considering golf course routing I am continuously disenchanted with the compromises I see, especially in new courses”. He quotes William Flynn’s aphorism, then asks: “Has routing become a compromised art?”
Cypress Point was then raised as an example of Mackenzie, that great course routing genius, making the most of a fabulous site – a mix of pine forests, great eroded sand flashes, jutting cliffs into the sea, and not caring about back-to-back par 5’s and par 3’s, because that’s what the site yielded most naturally. Let’s be a little careful here, however, and give credit where it’s due: the essential routing for Cypress Point was undertaken by Seth Raynor in September and October 1924, nearly two years before Mackenzie was asked by Samuel Morse, (the real estate developer of much of the Peninsula), on Seth Raynor’s untimely death, to finalize the golf course design on the point. Raynor’s routing plan (dated X.’24) shows that Mackenzie changed little in his plan, although the famous Hole 16 was a risk-what-you-dare 320 yard par-4 playing from tees further back and hugging the inner coast, the drive more towards the 18th hole. And the 18th green seems to be about up towards where the clubhouse now is – a hole of some 390 yards instead of the Mackenzie – realized 345 yards par-4. (Did Mackenzie ’compromise’ Hole 18’s length on instruction from the fledgling club’s board about relocating Raynor’s original clubhouse site, nearer the sea, up to the crown of the hill?)
Continual DisenchantmentI am intrigued by the “continual disenchantment” comments with course routing “compromises”, and ask firstly, “How would one know what compromises were made by the architect in devising anything like a’satisfactory’ or ’elegant’ routing arrangement with a new course?” Does one automatically criticize a layout simply because it complies with the norms? That its par is 72, with two par-5’s and two par-3’s in each returning nine, etc? In a highly competitive industry, where developer money most often drives the creation of a new golf course – and yes, often to serve a contiguous residential infrastructure, the architect will at least try to map out the golf holes to yield the usual course ’arrangement’ to satisfy the client’s reasonable wish to have a golf venue most players will regard as ’correct’. Perhaps many people are unaware what vitriolic criticism is leveled at a course by many patrons when the usual course extent and distribution of holes strays much from the ’accepted’. And they tend to vote with their feet.
But that is not to say that one would, or must compromise the use of natural values in the available land in achieving that common course journey. Any clever architect will exploit whatever site features and lines of strategic interest are there in a linking pattern, to make a convincing and varied routing. Most often there are still alternative avenue options to weigh up, always mindful of the exigencies of boundary conditions and, yes, the desire to mould a course which respects the ’accepted’ layout character. It’s not a question of ’compromising’ the course but of selecting the routing patterns which ultimately satisfy all demands of it. If possible.
So, here are some personal experiences of recent course routing dilemmas which I believe were well or properly solved, developing the natural land values intrinsically wherever possible, with no real compromising evident.
The Henley Course at The HeritageReally, I defy anyone to arrive at a better course layout than is currently being wrought from the land at Henley.
Let’s look at the site problems. Firstly, the course had to start and finish as closely as possible, obviously, to the access bridge – it’s already a long hike from the main (only) clubhouse, and players probably will be shuttled to and from the course by bus. Secondly, there were environmentally-sensitive wetlands and oxbows throughout the flood plain component of the site which had to be utterly respected – not even to allow play across them – the only new water feature is the main central lake system (extended out of existing very low zones), the material excavated being used to elevate broad play lines for Holes 3, 4, 5 and partly 6 above the 1 in 20 flood event.
Thirdly, there was only one avenue for climbing gently up to the necessary high-land component: this became Hole 13, and much of the course routing towards and away from that slow valley was predicated on its essential use. Fourthly, there was no way (and no point anyway) one could get two returning 9-hole loops’ to the starting point at the bridge, negotiating slim land parcels between wetlands. So I positioned a ’half-way house/ toilets/ drinks / snacks’ building at the Green 9 / Tee 10 node – note this serves for Hole 6 and Hole 12 as well. Finally, the ’lumpy’ land features especially on Holes 2, 9, and 17 (residuals of the river’s turbulence over millennia, and looking much like links land) determined my approach to routing good golf holes in these zones. I have not changed the character of such land at all – just used it as it is.
The Dunes at RyeThis thread on the iseekgolf forum then wanted to identify possible alternatives to Hole 6 at The Dunes, and I direct readers to my article of August 2004, where the whole genesis of that golf hole and adjacent course routing was analysed and justified. Actually The Dunes’ routing was significantly determined by other ’compromises’ I had to accept: my new clubhouse and precinct were to remain basically where the old Limestone Valley clubhouse, access road and services prevailed, meaning that, with the 9-holes ’Cups Course’ also to be essentially retained in situ, the opening holes of the main course had to play essentially to the east, and Hole 9 returns into the western sun. Not good.
Next, I had to retain the transverse original Hole 17 from the old course for 15 playing months in routing the linking Holes 4, 12 and 16 into the new land – I think the final result however is satisfactory, even elegant – Hole 4 in particular gets international acclaim.
And there were two major dunes over which play had somehow to be routed, resulting in both cases in blind tee shots. Some people are not comfortable with such blind holes, which certainly are ’compromises’ in the course routing unless peripheral site exigencies demand their use (as they did), or money is available to wrench them out of the land. In my view, what a pity it would have been to ignore or remove them – Hole 5 and 7 are sturdy and interesting golf holes (Tom Watson’s hidden bunker perhaps a point of discussion).
Thirteenth BeachAgain, there were necessary compromises which conditioned how the two courses were laid out, and readers may like to understand how a golf architect’s thinking needs to progressively change as fixed and new factors continue to come into play.
- The clubhouse/control precinct on flat land in pine stands was determined by the developers, and the golf architect had to live by that.
- The land was in two formats: a reasonably narrow but long east-west strip of glorious secondary dune country, separated from that Clubhouse precinct by about a par-4 length; all the remaining site was flat farmland, with windrow pine stands, the soils sandy loams at best. The early intention was for only one 18-hole course, and it wasn’t until it was open and being raved about that the developers decided, firstly, for a 9-hole extension, actually partly built them rescinded in order to route a finally-decided second 18-hole course, still starting and finishing at the same clubhouse. Some of the routing complexity I had to work through resulted from those ’compromise’ staging decisions, as you will understand. For example, I could not re-use precious land I had’squandered’ in routing generously the 9th, 10th and 18th holes of the first course, nor the large practice fairway which was by then in heavy demand.
- Then there was the demand for 150 house sites and 150 residential units to directly front the golf course(s), in changing formats and locations. When you play the Beach Course, imagine Holes 2 and 3 in the (better contoured) land now occupied by houses in the loop between holes 1, 2, 3, and 4. I’ve therefore tried to generate some melding feeling of the dunes land into these holes, and time will work in their favour; it’s a compromise, but one hopefully not obvious.
- The second, Creek Course routing was largely determined by using subtle land elevation levels in generally flat farmland, the need again for house lots skirting some holes, and yes, a conscious personal decision to make a few stand-alone old pine trees determine playlines for a couple of holes on land singularly without visual or physical relief. The 9th hole does not return to the clubhouse. No budget for strongly manipulating most fairway zones was available – we worked mostly on greens and tees.
- There is a meandering dry creek line through the site which was exploited in the routing, as much as possible in the necessary linking of holes. Did I go overboard a bit with bunkering, in order to define things visually? Did Faldo? Possibly. Time, the great softener, will decide that, and the strategic values in the course for players of widely different skill levels are flexible and satisfactory, as the many enthusiasts for the course attest.So, in my humble thinking, the routings of both courses, although somewhat burdened with compromises, do not stagger under the loads: they are free and comfortable arrangements surely to the play, to the golf journey.