Golf course design is a subjective topic and opinions on layouts differ from golfer to golfer. The exception is the greatest courses in the world, which are for the most part met with universal acclaim. Those are the Cypress Point Clubs, Old Courses, and Royal Melbournes. Debating which is best is a somewhat trivial exercise, and I find it’s more rewarding to look at what features make them great. That exercise uncovers common themes that each possesses in spades. The themes are architectural principles that make golfers long to take another loop.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of golf courses in the world are what I would label as bad golf course architecture. And that begs the question, what is the key characteristic of bad course architecture?
The answer is quite simple; bad golf courses lack strategy. The legendary architect George Thomas who designed timeless classics such as Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles Country Club, and Bel Air Country Club said it best:
“The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game.”
The strategy of a great golf hole typically isn’t easy to distinguish at first sight. The strategy is a riddle wrapped up among the hole’s different hazards, shapes, and features. It presents different routes of play that allow players to choose the amount of risk they want to take on. Players who accept risk reap a reward and the safer play results in a more difficult second shot. The ideal strategy of a venerable hole can vary greatly with a simple change in wind direction or pin position. Great golf course architecture closes the skill gap between great and average golfers. Each skill set always has options and the average player is never forced to take the risky, potentially penal, route.
A bad golf hole’s strategy is evident at first glance. I like to call bad golf course architecture “robot golf.” It makes the game much easier for great golfers because it tells them exactly what to do. It presents a clear preferred option, and any alternative has little or no upside. This type of architecture is an epidemic at most golf courses. It makes great players better and bad golfers worse.
To provide a visual of each style of golf course architecture, let’s take a look at two golf holes.
Sand Hills Golf Club
7th hole par 4 – 283/231 yards
A glance at the scorecard and the 7th at Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s masterpiece Sand Hills Golf Club might look like a pushover. Depending on the day’s wind direction, the par 4 can be reached in one shot by many players. But, its short length is also met with intimidating and strategic hazards and endless options on how to attack the hole. A good score is attainable for players of all skill levels, but the hole places considerable stress on the expert golfer looking for a birdie. Here are the different options presented from the tee:
Option A: Go for it
The most aggressive play can reap the reward of a putt for eagle. The short yardage begs golfers to take on the treacherous 20-foot-deep front left bunker in chase of the big bird.
Option B: Hit it right of the green
An aggressive hedge to taking dead aim is to play into the wide collection area right of the green. It’s a less difficult shot than Option A and still provides a good chance for birdie. This option carries the risk of a pull into the bunker left or push into the fescue on the right.
Option C: Layup right
The safest option is to lay up on the right side of the hole. The price of safety is a significantly more difficult angle to attack the green and hit the second shot close. For an average or beginner golfer, it provides a path to the hole that completely avoids the deep left bunker.
Option D: Layup left
For those looking to lay up but still make birdie, this is the ideal option. It provides a straight-on approach but carries the risk of a mishit shot finding the deep hazards.
Each of these four options carry more or less upside depending on a day’s pin position, wind direction, or weather conditions. Despite countless trials and attempts at Sand Hills’s 7th, I am still not sure which route is best.
Golf Club of Houston
18th hole par 4 – 484/458/442/410 yards
The annual host of the Houston Open features one of the most difficult closing holes in golf. The Rees Jones design is intimidating and challenging for every level of golfer. The hole requires a perfect tee shot and second shot to have the slightest chance birdie (or even par). This scenario is arguably fair for the PGA Tour players, but it’s almost impossible for 99% of golfers who play the course. Here are the options:
Option A: Hit the fairway
The majority of players will need to land their tee shot in a tight 20-yard window to earn a 200-yard approach to the heavily hazarded green.
Option B: Hit the fairway short
With this option, the player accepts the hole as a three-shot par four. The decision to hit a long iron or 3-wood makes the tee shot only slightly easier and it still requires an excellent shot over a diagonal hazard to a narrow fairway. The result of the safe play? Over 250 yards left to the green.
The 18th at the Golf Club of Houston lacks any reward for the risk required from the tee. The strategy is simple, obvious at first glance, and the hole is unreasonably difficult for the vast majority of golfers.
Great courses force golfers to execute tough shots, but they also stimulate endless thought and second-guessing from players of all skill levels. When a design limits strategic options to the point that it removes the need for thought or decisions, it falls into my category of bad.
Andy Johnson is a golfer and writer who runs The Fried Egg, a website and newsletter dedicated to golf course architecture, tour coverage, and amateur and collegiate golf.