Gil Hanse’s Architecture 101: Greens and Their Complexes

On a visit to The Los Angeles Country Club in preparation for the 2023 U.S. Open, I did something that I rarely do. While walking the course with the superintendent, we putted on every green. And I must say, it was a lot of fun, free from trying to “make” a putt and instead watching the ball roll, looking at the contours, putting to imaginary hole locations. It helped us see the slopes, how they function, and how they challenge the eye. This “fun putting” also got me thinking of the green complexes and contours I enjoy most.

In prior musings, I’ve mentioned that I like greens that rely more on slope than contour for their challenge. In this regard, the complexes on the East Course at Merion are the finest I know. Having been involved in the East Course’s restoration and greens rebuilding gives me an insider’s view. Architects of the Golden Age like Merion’s Hugh Wilson built green complexes, not just greens. By this I mean that the connection between the putting surface, the surrounding features, and the created or natural elevations in the landscape are seamless. Wilson paid as much attention to how the green functioned in its surrounds as to the surface itself.

Green Complexes
Merion (East) 9th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

At Merion, the original connections between surrounds and green surfaces were sublime. But over time, disconnects had occurred: The putting surfaces had receded and bunkers had risen so far above greens that the importance of the putting surface as the focal point had been lost. Through careful analysis of early photographs, we worked hard to restore Wilson’s sublime balance from both a visual and playability perspective.

While the importance of green complexes and the interdependency of the surface and its surrounds cannot be overstated, what most people want are greens that are fun to putt. For me, the most fun are greens created by Seth Raynor and C.B. Macdonald, whether it is the scale and boldness of the greens at The National Golf Links of America or the more subtly contoured offerings of The Creek or Westhampton. Seeing template greens in different settings and with different contours and emphasis is always a wonderful form of exploration.

Two other sets of greens hold a special place in my heart, and yet could not be more different: Winged Foot West and The Old Course. This summer at the U.S. Open we will see the genius of A.W. Tillinghast as his Winged Foot greens confound the best players in the world. Punctuated with aggressive slopes and swoops, and sitting up in the air on raised landforms, Tillinghast’s greens are among golf’s most demanding targets. Some are modest in proportion, and many of them rely on a false front, a steep slope that’s part of the transition from the fairway to the raised landform: Technically part of the green, it’s called “false” because even if you hit there you won’t be on the green for long.

Green Complexes
St. Andrews Old Course 5th and 13th holes (photo by Kevin Murray)

At the other end of the spectrum are the venerable greens of The Old Course in St. Andrews. Massive in scale, since they’re shared/double greens, and many laying close to the ground as an extension of the rumpled, corrugated landscape, they reward a deft touch and the ability to visualize long, flowing putts.

What the Merion and Old Course greens have in common is that they were conceived as single units, continually flowing from one section to another without the artifice of man’s hand appearing awkwardly at any point. On the Old Course, nature designed the greens and man outlined them; at Winged Foot, Tillinghast gave us an inspired example of designing putting surfaces that require and reward thoughtful study and the notion that sometimes the line to get to the hole is neither obvious nor direct. Having restored Winged Foot, I spent many hours walking and studying its greens. However, when I watch club historian Neil Regan putt on them I am amazed how many different options and routes exist. We refer to it as local knowledge, and it is no coincidence that, much like golf courses as a whole, greens worth thoughtful study are the most intriguing and enjoyable.

When you think of the greens that give you the most joy, or consternation, figure out what they have in common. Better yet, if you get the chance, go out in the evening with a putter in hand and putt those greens, liberated from trying to score or make the putt, and see if you don’t enjoy them even more. Here’s guessing that you do.



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