Seeing the Golf Course Architecture in the moment: a short case study

The view from the tee up the hill to the green of the par 3 10th hole at The Castle Course.

My relationship with golf course architecture, primarily from the standpoint of a player, is a continuously developing gambit.

I know most of the names of the important architects from various eras of golf course design and I’ve committed a handful of template holes to memory so that I can pretend to keep up with a serious golf course architecture discussion.

However, a crucial aspect of my architecture study continues to need work and further development: recognizing the strategic architecture, or the architect’s intent of how the home can best be played, as I’m playing the course.

I often feel like I’ve inflated my score simply because I was too focused on myself, my swing, my opponent, etc., instead of giving the hole that I’m playing a quick study.  I have no doubt that devising a short plan of attack specific to the hole, rather than my more general strategy of simply, “Aim! Fire! Repeat!” could do wonders for improving my score.

Most times I’m simply too engaged in thinking about some other part of my match or game that I miss some pretty obvious signals from the course. But not always.

I love it when a plan comes together!

Standing on the tee of the par three 10th hole at St. Andrews’ Castle Course recently, I caught a glimmer of what I thought course architect David McLay-Kidd had in mind when he designed the hole.  My suspicions about how the day’s back-middle pin position might play were eventually confirmed once my competitors hit their tee shots.

The yardage book diagram of the tenth hole was invaluable in assessing the back-middle pin position and how to best attack it.

The 10th hole is a medium length par three hole that plays a fair bit uphill, away from the clubhouse and the coastline. During our round, the distance to the pin was in the 160 yard range nominally, not taking into account how much higher the pin position sat in relation to the tee box.

Swing thought: 162 yards, cross breeze from the right? That’s a smooth 7-iron, directly at the pin.

The entire surface of the is visible from the tee, though the large shelf that occupies the back center and back right portions of the green are slightly obscured by the ascending sight line.  From the tee, it was difficult to tell where the green stopped and the collar and approach began.

Taking a quick look through my laser finding, that shelf on the back half of the green, on which the day’s pin position rested, looked imposing. I doubted that a shot that landed short of the shelf would be able to make it up to the top of the shelf near the pin.

Swing thought: There’s a lot of uphill here, and that wind isn’t doing us any favors. Fade a nice 6-iron up to the pin.

Nearly 20 feet to the left of the pin, the upper shelf gave way to a lower tier, a collection point for any shot landing left of the flag on the upper shelf or running long and bounding off of the hill behind the green.  Even from the tee it’s clear that any ball coming to rest down there would prove a tough putt, having to negotiate the elevation change.

Matt had the honor on the tee, hitting a low, piercing 7-iron that never reached the apex height he desired, drawing slightly towards, then left of, the flag. The ball landed near the flag, losing no steam as it ran hard to the back and left of the green, leaving Matt with a putt from the dreaded intermediate tier described above.

The extreme detail of the green contours proved invaluable in leveling the playing field between myself and Mr. McLay-Kidd.

Watching his shot was as instructive for me as it was demoralizing for him. The object of the tee shot now became stopping the ball on the upper tier of the green at all costs.

Swing thought: I have to get it all the way back to the top shelf on the back of the green, but it has to land soft or spin hard to old the green. Damn it. Can I hit a hard 7-iron that far uphill?

While Fred took his turn on the tee, resulting in a flared miss short and right, I took the opportunity to give the hole one last, hard look, and there appeared a possible solution to this increasingly quizzical shot. A quick glance at the yardage book lead to confirmation with the range finder.

Finally! An Answer! The hill behind the right half of the green, meaning the area directly behind the shelf on which the pin was located, was a closely mown area. And the shape of the hill seemed to funnel to the middle of the green. A backstop!

Swing thought: All I have to do is hit a standard 6-iron into that hill and let gravity do the rest! Is it really that simple?

Having misjudged and misused the extreme contours on the 5th green earlier in the round proved instructive for the rest of the round.

Having suffered the humiliating effects of miscalculating the slopes of the fifth green and then riding the slopes of the 7th and 8th greens with success, I was convinced that hitting the ball away from the hole on this 10th green and letting the ground move the ball back to the middle of the green was THE way to play the hole.

It was as if all of those rounds on Pete Dye designed golf courses, with his visual tricks, his excessively contoured greens, and use of angles and elevation had prepared me for this moment.

Final swing thought: you have a backboard, just get it back there on the right half of the green. Smooth, nice and smooth.

In a rare stroke of good execution, I hit my tee shot exactly where I intended, and the ball reacted exactly how I anticipated: it landed on the green, hopped up the slope, and rolled back down toward the hole for a decent birdie chance that ended in a conceded tap-in par.

The severe slopes between tiers of the 10th green require a certain precision in your attack if you are going directly at the flag. If you look closely, to the right of the flag you can see my ball, while long and left you will find Matt’s effort.

It was the rarest of holes that upon playing for the first time, I was able to decipher a precise strategy that gave me the best chance of success, and was able to execute that strategy on the first try.

There are two lessons to be gleaned from this experience at the Castle Course. First, my scores should improve if I put more thought into deciphering the strategy of the holes before or as I’m playing them.

Second, and perhaps just as important, if not more so, was that having devised a strategy for my shot that I had full confidence in resulted in a well struck on my intended line at the intended distance. I had belief, which lead to confidence, which allowed me to execute better than I normally would.

Seeing the architecture of the hole and how it informed the best strategy to produce a good score in real time was an experience that I hope to have more often in the coming golf seasons. It’s incredible that I had to go all the way to Scotland to find it.

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