Increase golfing fun by design

Golf is adding to its already-considerable popularity. From Tiger to Sergio to the Ryder Cup, golf stories are filling the sports pages and sometimes even the front page. Some estimates suggest that every year, 2 to 3 million new players try the game.

Unfortunately, it seems like a similar number leave the game each year. The industry can do more to help newcomers stick with the game. Golf-course architects are in a unique position to help make golf more fun for novices by creating designs that are less punitive to beginners but still deliver the challenges that serious players demand.

Improving playability Perhaps the greatest cliche, in golf-course design is that a course must be challenging for the low handicapper, yet manageable for the duffer. This propaganda is probably in the brochures of 90 percent of today's designers, and the sentiment is hardly new. Promotional material for a Donald Ross design that opened almost 70 years ago refers to a "golf course that will command the admiration of professional and amateur alike...furnishing the maximum excitement and the minimum of pain to golfers of every handicap." Rest assured that as long as designers exist, they will continue to express this platitude.

Despite the hackneyed nature of the sentiment, it is nonetheless true. The goal is to balance the design so that the average or even the poor player can enjoy the hole, and the scratch golfer or professional still face a challenge.

* Tees. The most obvious way to accomplish this goal has been to create an array of teeing areas that can vary the length of a hole to match the skill level of the player. Robert Trent Jones Sr. initially developed long "runway" tees for this reason. Today, courses typically use a series of individual teeing areas rather than one long "runway." The effect is the same, however. On a course measuring 7,000 yards from the rear tees, the forward tees may measure only 5,000 yards. When a project's budget permits, I prefer to have three intermediate sets of tees. That allows us to fine-tune the course distance to a length appropriate for almost every golfer.

In addition to yardage variations, multiple tees provide tremendous positioning flexibility. The most obvious situation you can address with this flexibility is the forced carry over water. In certain situations, you can place rear tees behind a hazard, confident that better players will have no trouble with the carry. For the forward sets, simply place them on the opposite side of the hazard to avoid the trouble altogether.

You also can use tee position more subtly. For example, imagine a dogleg-right par 4 with a bunker guarding the inside of the dogleg. The better player eyes this bunker as a challenge, determining whether it can be carried or how close to play to it. For less-skilled players, the bunker may be a more imposing obstacle. To reduce the difficulty and ease the intimidation of this situation, you can "fan" the successive tees slightly to the left to provide a more direct line to the green that is less encumbered by the bunker.

* Hazard placement. Beginners tend to have difficulty getting the ball airborne. When they do, they tend to slice. From simple observations like this, we can derive design solutions that help create a more user-friendly course. Hazard placement is one way to do this.

Place lateral hazards so that an alternate path around the trouble is available for the beginner. Because of the tendency of beginners to slice to the right, it's best to place the majority of the trouble on the left. This philosophy is completely consistent with challenging good players, who are much more likely to miss to the left than to the right. Despite the simplicity of these concepts, an inexplicable number of courses ignores them.

- Water hazards. Curtail or eliminate forced carries over water. For beginners, as well as veteran high handicappers, the game is difficult enough without a series of heroic shots over vast expanses of lake.

The absence of forced carries does not necessarily result in a course that is boring for low handicappers. The challenge for good players usually is not sending their ball across water, but rather in delivering it accurately to the target. Therefore, flanking the green with the water hazard, rather that placing it directly in front of the green, opens a path for beginners, while maintaining the challenge for the scratch golfer.

The amount of water you introduce into the design must relate to the market the golf course is targeting. The quantity and position of water features for a resort course that wants to gain a reputation as "the Monster" would be completely different than for a daily-fee course that wants its players to enjoy themselves and look forward to returning the next week.

As I mentioned earlier, in almost all cases, we strive to place most of the water on the left so that it is less punitive to the typical slicer. Positioning two-thirds or more to the left is advisable.

- Bunkers. The bunkering of a course should feel balanced, yet accommodate the tendency of most players to slice. Therefore, be careful not to place too many bunkers on the right side of a hole. We usually use a guideline of 60 percent on the left and 40 percent on the right.

To minimize the damage a bunker in that position can do to an average player's score, we sometimes position them so that they are "directional" in nature. As this suggests, their purpose is to provide the player with clues as to the direction they should play. For example, on a dogleg left, we might position a directional bunker on the outside of the dogleg on the right side of the fairway. The bunker might be well beyond the reach of most players' tee shots, but still serve two purposes. First, it helps define or "turn" the dogleg. Second, it may be in play for a long hitter, providing some challenge to good golfers.

Make greens flexible The design of the green complex also is important in the flexibility and playability of a course. We often orient the axis of the green surface so that it is diagonal to the intended line of approach. This configuration allows us to provide varying degrees of difficulty depending upon the position of the flag. The front portion of the green can be left open and accessible to a run-up shot, while the rear portion of the green may be guarded by sand, grass hollows, mounds or water.

Be sure to give proper attention to the elements surrounding the greensite and how they affect play. Usually, our goal is to create a design that collects and contains balls close to the putting surface through the use of bunkering and contouring. Because the scratch player is frequently on the green in regulation, we believe our job is to help funnel the higher-handicap player's ball toward the putting surface so that he can remain competitive with a chip and a putt.

The golf course as art Despite our best efforts to reduce the pain beginners may experience as they learn the game, a certain amount of frustration on the links is inevitable. During some rounds, the only consolation will be enjoying the company of your foursome and the beauty of the environment.

As designers, we can greatly influence the player's surroundings. We should strive to be artists, as well as engineers. The golf course is our canvas. Our palette includes the topography and vegetation, and how we choose to modify them. We can paint exquisite landscapes with verdant fairways and starkly white bunkers. Trees can frame and direct vistas. The shimmering beauty of lakes and streams can distract a discouraged golfer even as they consume his golf balls.

Designers should be more cognizant of their potential to enhance nature's beauty. They should review a preliminary course routing not only to determine its effects on play, but how it fits the existing terrain; how the shadows at dawn and dusk interplay with the contours and tree canopies; and how it takes advantage of vistas that may be available. Designers should seriously consider modifications that will benefit the aesthetics of the course, even if they require some tradeoff with respect to the course's length or strategy. Far more players will appreciate the additional beauty than will mourn the loss of a subtle point of strategy or a few yards on the scorecard.

One way to achieve dramatic effect on the course is by using native plant material. In Scotland, the local fescue grasses, as well as shrubs such as heather and gorse, grow in the roughs in an almost untended fashion. Their rugged appearance provides stark visual contrast with the closely mown fairways and greens. Here in the United States we have our own native plant materials, ranging from grasses to cactus, that can perform a similar role. The key to successfully introducing these elements into the design is to do so where they provide a feast for the eyes without unduly punishing the golfer.

By balancing the various elements I have described, you can offer new golfers more enjoyable experiences and perhaps encourage them to become enthusiasts for life. You also can create a course that fills its niche in the local golf market while catering to a range of golfing ability.

John K. Millhouse is a principal with Sandy Lyle Golf Design (Santa Rosa, Calif.).

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