The Value of Variety in Golf Course Design

As the spice of both life and golf (many readers will consider them one and the same thing), the importance of variety cannot be overstated. Imagine a course without any; where every nondescript hole looks and plays much the same as the others—how uninspiring and utterly forgettable.

Alister MacKenzie spelled out how fundamental variety was to good golf in his 1920 book Golf Architecture. “Every hole should be different in character,” was the fifth of his 13 “Essential Features of an Ideal Golf Course.” Number nine read: “There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes.”

Donald Ross was likewise pretty clear in Golf Has Never Failed Me. The native Scot’s very first standard for the laying out a golf course was beautifully simple and unambiguous: “Make each hole present a different problem.”

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10th hole, Friar’s Head (photo by Evan Schiller)

Today’s architects are similarly quick to recognize its value. Tom Doak devotes six pages to the subject in The Anatomy of a Golf Course, saying, “The golf course with the widest variety of holes has everything.”

Canada’s Rod Whitman is unequivocal in his appreciation, saying variety is perhaps one of the foundations on which golf is built. “No round is ever exactly the same,” he says. “And that is a large part of what makes it so fascinating.”

When thinking of variety in particular, the first course that comes to mind for Whitman is the Old Course, which he admits plays over ground whose character may not change much and which possesses a lot of holes running in the same direction, but which throws up an endless variety of bump-and-runs, pitches, knockdowns, and full shots. Two more courses Whitman thinks of are Friars Head on Long Island, N.Y., and Bandon Trails—Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s first design at Bandon Dunes in Oregon.

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2nd hole, Bandon Trails (photo by Evan Schiller)

Unlike the other courses at the hugely popular Oregon resort, Bandon Trails doesn’t have any holes on the coast and visits three distinct landscapes in its 18-hole journey—dunes, meadows, and forest. “When you’re talking about variety, you may not necessarily be talking about what you see on a single course,” says Coore. “You may be talking about a region or multiple courses at the same resort. I like that Trails brings Bandon Dunes something a little different, and it’s a part of what I like about Pinehurst. It wouldn’t work so well if every course looked and played like No. 2. It’s nice to have a No. 1 or No. 8.”

Coore prizes differences between holes and courses locally, regionally, and nationally, no matter how conspicuous or subtle they are, and laments the day golf became standardized. “I think that was the worst thing to happen to golf,” he says. “There was a time when courses just tried to copy whatever was attracting the most attention. A lot of courses ended up looking the same, regardless of the land on which they were built.”

Though he prefers to see stylistic cohesion between holes on the same course, Coore echoes what others say about variety of looks, challenges, and types of shots required. He struggles, in fact, to see how variety could ever be a bad thing.

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Pinehurst No. 8 (photo courtesy Pinehurst Resort)

Mike DeVries of Clayton, DeVries & Pont sees it a little differently, believing you can have too much variety. “It’s extremely important,” he says, “but if you are just throwing every different element into every hole/course, then you could overload the golfer and take away from the endemic qualities of a site. Golf course architecture is not a ‘tick the boxes’ exercise. It’s about finding the right balance to create the best golf challenge and experience.”

Doak, who says he knows a few modern courses where it feels like the architect threw in “everything but the kitchen sink,” makes a similar point in The Anatomy of a Golf Course when explaining MacKenzie’s fifth principle. “When Dr. MacKenzie wrote that every hole should have a different character, he didn’t mean that one should be marked by a waterfall, one by a horseshoe-shaped green, etc. He simply meant there should be a variety of holes—some severe, some benign.”

Doak adds that after so many “upturned saucer” greens at Pinehurst No. 2, it wouldn’t feel right to finish with a punchbowl at the 18th. “That would be weird, even though it added variety,” he says. “And though throwing a dozen revetted bunkers into Winged Foot or Cypress Point would add variety, it would clash with everything that makes those courses special.”

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Old Course at St. Andrews (photo by Kevin Murray)

While building Pinehurst No. 10, Doak, together with his Renaissance Golf Design team, decided to keep a very conspicuous feature on the 8th hole in the name of variety. “A large sand hill created during the old sand-mining days stands at the entrance to the fairway,” he says. “I thought about removing it because it’s very unlike the rest of the course… some will inevitably complain that it’s too quirky or that we’re trying to copy Tobacco Road or something. The crew all lobbied to keep it, however, so it’s staying and you’ll either play around it or over it.”

Whatever the era, architects from MacKenzie to Ross to Doak, Whitman, and DeVries have strived to avoid one of golf architecture’s deadliest sins—monotony. Though there is definitely a sense excessive variety is undesirable, it’s safe to say more is more. “It’s definitely better to err on the side of a little extra variety,” says DeVries. “With little variety, it sounds like a very boring golf course.”

What is your opinion of variety in golf course design? Let us know in the comment section.

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