By mark harman
USGTF Level IV Course Director
Ridgeland, South Carolina
At the risk of having any future invitations to
Augusta National revoked, I wanted to point out
what I consider a fl aw in the current design from the
championship tees: there are too many holes that are
too similar in length.
Take the yardage of four of the par-4s on the first nine: 455, 455, 450, 460. Not much variety there,
wouldn’t you say? The two par-5s measure 570 and 575
– again, not much variety.
The second nine at the National, the most famed
nine holes of golf in the world, does have a little more
variety in the yardages, and that’s part of what makes it
perhaps the best nine in the world. Still, there are two
par 4’s that measure 440, and two more par 4’s that are
just 10 yards apart in length.
So, this begs the question: just what does make for
a good test of golf ?
The answers are probably as varied as the number
of golfers who play the game. Golf Digest, for example,
in ranking courses, lists shot values (rewarding good
shots and punishing bad shots in proper proportion),
resistance to scoring, design variety, memorability,
aesthetics, conditioning, and ambience as the criteria
for judging a great course.
For this article, I will focus on one aspect that I
believe is highly underrated – design variety.
Too many courses are like Augusta National in
the sense that there are too many similar yardages.
How often do you play a course and the par-3s are all
between 150 and 170? It’s very common. The four par-
5s might “range” from 510 to 520. Of the 10 par-4s, half
or more are likely to be in the 360-380 category from
the white tees.
Another similarity you are likely to notice is that
most of the greens are virtually the same size. It doesn’t
matter whether it’s a short par-4 or a long one, both
greens are likely to be nearly identical in size.
What is the problem with having too many holes
similar in length? The most obvious is that one phase
of the game gets tested disproportionately. Is it really a
well-designed course when players hit ten 6-irons into
the greens? Hardly. Yet, you would be surprised at the
number of “top” courses you would do exactly that.
And what about courses that have all greens
virtually the same size? I’ve played courses where you
see the same size green, whether it’s a 450-yard par-4
or a 320-yarder. This doesn’t make sense; yet, I would
wager most courses are like this.
Another aspect of lack of design variety is in the difficulty of the course. To me, it’s no fun to play 18
torture tests – just as it’s not very interesting to play 18
To me, a good course would have the following
aspects of design variety:
Size of greens.
Greens should be smaller for short iron
approaches and larger for long-iron approaches.
You would think this would be common sense, but
very few courses that I’ve played are designed this way.
Length of holes.
In addition to having too many
holes of similar length, how many times do we see the
longest par-3 (from the white tees) being 170 yards and
the shortest par-4 at perhaps 320 yards? All the time.
From the back tees, you might see the longest par-3
at 210 and the shortest par-4 at 360. In both cases, we
have a 150-yard gap. Why are so few holes designed
in this yardage range? I really don’t know, except that
most architects probably consider this range to be
awkward. However, think about it – wouldn’t it be
interesting to play a course that had holes of 240 (long par-3), 260 (short par-4), 280, 300, and 320 yards? A
trend now is to have a “driveable” par-4, but usually
it’s only one hole and usually it’s not driveable for us
mere mortals. Finally, a course that has a wide variety
of hole lengths will test all phases of the game equally
– short irons, medium irons, and long irons/hybrids.
When one aspect is disproportionately tested, it’s not
only monotonous, but competitively, it provides too
much bias in favor of and against certain players.
Difficulty of holes.
How about six easy holes, six
medium holes, and six hard holes? Again, you rarely see
this. Most courses veer towards the vast majority of their
holes being in only one category, and usually it’s either
easy or hard. A course that has mainly difficult holes
is dispiriting, even for good players. A course that has
mainly easy holes leaves many players feeling empty,
as if they weren’t really challenged. A good balance
of holes in terms of difficulty leaves the golfer feeling
both challenged and a sense of accomplishment.
Ironically, I find that older courses tend to meet
these criteria much more so than newer courses. It
seems the modern architect is so bent on the concept
of getting each hole to “fit” with the others that the
concept of design variety gets lost in the shuffle.
Given all this, perhaps Golfweek’s architecture editor
Bradley S. Klein summed it up best a few years ago. He
said that, despite whatever criteria that magazines use
to create rankings, the best test is one question: “Did
you enjoy playing the course?” Hopefully, the answer
will be “yes” for your next round of golf.
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