How I came to care about Golf Course Architecture

Here is architect Donald Ross’s routing plan for what ultimately become Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington, KY (credit: Tufts Archive).

I never paid much attention to, or was really even aware of, golf course architecture until recently. I attribute the oversight to how I came to the game of golf and when I got serious about it. Now it’s a subject I can’t help but ponder with disturbing regularity.

I played baseball growing up, where it was always 90 feet to first base and 60 feet 6 inches from the top of the pitching mound to home plate. Sure, the outfield dimensions may slightly differ occasionally, but the infield is reliably uniformed from one field to the next.

So I should be forgiven for taking two decades to recognize that golf is the only game on which the playing fields are so decidedly and intentionally not uniform from one course to another.

Golf course architecture is the study and practice of how to design, build, and preserve the golf courses on which the game is played.  It is a specialized form of architecture that is a unique and fascinating combination of so many arts and sciences.

Agronomy, drainage, dendrology, landscaping, engineering, and environmental regulation compliance are only a few areas of expertise a golf course architect may be expected to master before he or she even begins to consider the strategic elements of the course that will matter most to demanding golfers with a diversity of talent and ability.

Awareness of the architecture makes the problem so much more fun than simply getting from point A to point B.

I started hitting golf balls on golf courses roughly twenty years ago, but I didn’t really start trying to actually play golf (instead of just golf swing) until a few years ago. So for most of the last twenty years, where I swung the golf club was only of moderate importance to my enjoyment of or frustration with the game.

I have also worked on the lowest rung of the ladder of maintenance crews of two different golf courses, but never game much thought about the courses themselves other than what needed to be raked or mowed.

In fact, until very recently, I evaluated a course in elementary ways: how were the course conditions when I played (i.e., how much did it look like Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters broadcast each April), how scenic are the views from, or of, the property, and if I had fun playing the course or had played it particularly well.

My early forays into competitive golf, however, sparked my interest in better understanding the way golf courses are laid out, and how might be the best ways to play them.  A few years ago, I started playing a handful of tournaments each year put on by the Kentucky Golf Association.  Being slightly embarrassed by the scores I posted in these events that were played away from my home course proved motivational to play better golf.

Thus, I started paying attention to golf architecture from a competitor’s perspective, rather than that of a lover of the art form (which I have since discovered applies to golf course design). I wanted to unlock how to think about a golf hole beyond the obvious “hit it here” and “don’t hit it here” dichotomy between the fairway and the rough or hazards. I wanted to know why the shortest distance between my ball and the hole may not always be the straight line.

The study of golf architecture is as much a study of history as it is a craft, in a way. It’s helped me find my love of reading again.

To think strategically, to be able to decipher the risks and rewards, to understand the percentage plays and how they fit with my own golf game and course management, over time those elements became what golf was all about as much as the fundamentals of the golf swing. And therein a game that was largely about biomechanics and hitting a ball with a stick acquired depth, intrigue, and complexity.

There was no light bulb moment, no stitch in time when a conscious decision was made to start caring about the “hows” and “whys” of golf course design and construction, but the game itself began to change for me.

Here, several years on, I’m a 9 handicap golfer (which isn’t very good), but still improving, and the desire to play more and better golf continues to burn. For this reason, the desire to be a better golfer, is why I’m a novice golf architecture enthusiast.

Where did I turn to enhance my golf course architecture knowledge? Social media, of course! I somehow discovered that J. Drew Rogers, ASGCA, is a University of Kentucky alum, had worked on some of my favorite courses, and had grown up in a town not far from where my father was raised. So I reached out to Drew and started a friendly conversation with him on Twitter. He graciously turned me on to a “golf architecture for dummies” reading list of books that delve into and explain the principles of golf course design.

I also started listening to golf architecture podcasts* and taking interest in “Architecture Week” on Golf Channel.  I’d not heard of a “template hole” until a year or two ago, even though I have played several of them regularly, and I was roundly embarrassed by this giant blind spot in my golf knowledge. I also started following golf architects and architecture enthusiasts on Twitter and Instagram, which is a fascinating, if minute, subgroup of the greater Golf Twitter crowd.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing…like when a hole’s strategy isn’t obvious and that sinking feeling of doubt creeps into the player’s mind.

I will never commit what architects from the Golden Age of the American Golf Architecture designed what courses, or who has remodeled, renovated, or restored which classic playing fields when, unless I get to play them myself.  I know the names of the great architects from the bygone eras, but I don’t know their individual stories well enough to identify one particular architect’s work to the exclusion of the others. But I’m starting to make small architectural connections nonetheless.

This past summer provided a great example. Kentucky is not exactly a bastion of golf architecture show pieces. It has exactly one Donald Ross designed course; Idle Hour Country Club here in Lexington, a very private club where I’ve been fortunate to play twice.

There is an essay waiting to be researched and written to put an answer to the speculation that my home course, Gay Brewer Jr. Course at  Picadome, was contemporaneously influenced or even partially, anonymously designed by Ross as he was developing Idle Hour.  I could scarcely reconcile such a wild idea until we visited Mid Pines Golf Club and Pine Needles Golf Club of Southern Pines, North Carolina, in August, when things started looking and feeling very familiar on two classic Ross courses.

Recognizing the strategic options available to me on these courses, in the moment, in real-time, because they were strategic options available at my home course, was exhilarating! The experience crystallized why architecture was important to me: I want to be able to stand on the tee or look at the yardage book and recognize what lays before me and fully understand the options.

Can I run the ball up onto the green? What is the terrible miss? Is this a pin position I can attack or should I am away from the trouble of this particular green? What is the course giving me and what happens if I don’t execute my shot?  Understanding the design philosophy of a given hole is just a fancy way of thinking about course management.

Adding a few golf books to the Christmas and Birthday gift lists renews the promise of warmer weather each winter.

I’m still a novice enthusiast, a long way from any sort of expertise. Approaching architecture selfishly, not for the beauty of the art, necessarily, but so that I can play better golf all but ensures that my enthusiasm will likely never rise above a casual hobby and that I was probably never cut out for the likes of the Golf Club Atlas and the other venues where debates over styles, preferences, and merit can get terribly heated.

But who knows: my interest in golf course design has come pretty far in a relatively short time. I already have a couple of names of architects on my list to interview to build my first course once I cash that big lottery ticket.

Regardless, developing an appreciation for golf course design, for how a course is routed across and fits with the land, the general characteristics of the bunkers and green complexes, and how to unlock any secrets that the architect left for the player is a wonderful way to approach the game of golf. As I continue to develop my understanding of this incredibly rich craft, the game grows richer and more interesting to play.  And that is why I have learned to care about golf course architecture.

* For great discussions on golf architecture and golf history that shaped it thru the years, please check out the following golf podcasts, available on iTunes and all of your favorite podcast apps, at your leisure (note: not an exhaustive list):


4 thoughts on “How I came to care about Golf Course Architecture

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