Book Review: “Golf Architecture for Normal People” by Geoff Shackelford

Geoff Shackelford’s 10th golf book (he also wrote a tribute to champion racehorse Zenyatta in 2011) probably won’t sell enough copies. That’s not to say it won’t sell plenty; it will—the author’s words are indisputably authoritative and invariably entertaining. It just won’t sell enough.

Not all 70 million golfers worldwide will buy a copy, though this is definitely a book every single one of us should own. From the relative newcomer who’s slowly getting hooked to those that have played the game for most of their lives and think they know a thing or two, Golf Architecture for Normal People provides a solid and sober perspective that will help everyone recognize why some golf courses are worth playing more than once while a single trip around others is all you’re ever likely to want or need.

geoff shackelford
Golf Architecture for Normal People by Geoff Shackelford

Though they make only a very brief appearance at the start of the first chapter, it could be argued the book’s two main characters are Miles Raymond and Jack Lopate. Miles is, of course, the tiresome but admittedly loveable oenophile in the movie Sideways whose resounding judgments on his favored Pinot Noir, and the Merlot he abominates, are freely given without, it seems, any room for disagreement. Jack, meanwhile, is the unruffled and easygoing friend who certainly enjoys a glass of red without feeling the need to tell the world about it. He’s the guy that can savor a certain wine based simply on how it tastes rather than who or what has told him that he should like it. You can sense this unlikely pair’s almost audible conversations and ruminations throughout.

Shackelford points out this book is for those who identify as “Jacks”—golfers who are curious about why somewhere is worthy of a second visit, or third, or fourth, and who are perhaps more likely to appreciate a place’s “quiet beauty” than the conspicuous flash of courses whose appeal might appear bright at first but fizzles out quickly.

The great courses—those that stand the test of time and which remain enjoyable after 25 rounds or more—evolve slowly, change daily, and reveal their many secrets one by one. No matter how many times you play them, you’re always discovering some new wrinkle, or a different way to approach certain holes. During golf architecture’s unfortunate period of mass earthmoving and creating glittery signature holes, designers and developers built courses that were desperate to attract our attention immediately.

More often than not, however, these turned out to be what Shackelford, returning to the wine theme, describes as “$4 plonk with the $100 story.”

To help us identify the timeless, valuable courses as opposed to those that might catch the attention of an easily impressed rater for a season or two, Shackelford suggests using a system based on the acronym “RED” where the “R” stands for “Remember,” as in how many of the holes can you recall in detail as you head for home; the “E” is for “Every day” and asks the question if you could see yourself wanting to play that same course every day; and the “D” is for “Dogs”—does the course welcome man’s best friend but, if it doesn’t, is it the sort of landscape on which a dog could run and sniff and play and scamper, and around which you could happily stroll without your clubs?

In the appendix, Shackelford lists his 10 ultimate REDs (five in the U.S. and five in Scotland)—courses that more than satisfy all three criteria. And, though they are all probably too expensive, too busy, or too private to play every day, the point is you definitely would if you could. Many readers will know courses that qualify as REDs, but which other readers may never have heard of. Indeed, Shackelford also lists 41 “less famous or offbeat” REDs, as well as 13 “non-eighteen-hole” REDs. This isn’t necessarily about rankings, remember, but courses you could add to your list of happy places and which will enable you to enjoy playing, watching, and talking about the game a little more than you already do.

The more you read, the more apparent it becomes Golf Architecture for Normal People really is full of common sense. The tone is pure Shackelford—smart and perceptive with the occasional poke aimed both at architects who build expensive but soulless courses with an absence of intrigue and subtlety, and at objectionable golfers who fancy themselves a bit special for snagging a tee-time at such places, then bragging about it.

As he often does, Shackelford will likely rattle one or two golfers who recognize themselves in the above scenario, but simultaneously win himself a legion of new admirers who appreciate the insight.

With just 160 pages, Golf Architecture for Normal People can be completed in a day and, though not quite pocket-size, won’t take up much room on your shelves. For such a small book, though, there is a disproportionate amount of wisdom between the covers.

You can tell how much useful information a book possesses, and how many pages demand to be reread, recalled, and absorbed by the number of Post-It Notes stuck to their edges. Suffice it to say, my copy has plenty.

You can order your copy of Golf Architecture for Normal People using this link.

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