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Green Complexities

So there you are: You just smoked a tee shot with your mammoth new driver, center of the fairway, sitting pretty. One smooth eight-iron, then drop the putt and you have your birdie. But then you notice that monster ball-eating bunker at the front right of the green. And that break-your-heart ridge running across the center. Did you notice that the back of the green runs away from you?Now tell me: What do you really think your chances are?

With all the hype about souped-up drivers and balls, scoring still comes down to getting that little white ball into the hole. As a golfer, you're looking for any advantage to conquer the course. As golf-course architects, our job is to protect the course (a task complicated by the onslaught of new technology) while ensuring that the game remains fun for players of all skill levels. And one of the best tools in our arsenal is the design of the green complex—the putting surface and all the features surrounding it. We use undulations, multiple levels, bunkers, hollows, slopes, false fronts, fall-outs, collection areas and even hidden hazards to help guarantee that skill and strategy will always be crucial parts of the game.

Most people think architects design a hole in the order that it is played: tee to green. In reality, the opposite is often true. Once we have a sense of each hole's general characteristics as part of the overall course layout—that is, once we determine the hole will be a dogleg right or a short par five or a long par three—we often design the green complex first and let the rest of the hole's strategy flow from that. For instance, if we place a bunker at the front-right side of the green, we might then put some sort of hazard on the left side of the fairway off the tee. It's a simple principle that we use when designing any hole—risk versus reward. The more you risk on the tee shot by flirting with the left fairway hazard, the more easily you can attack the pin without having to hit over the greenside bunker. Thus the decisions we make regarding the green complex radiate down the length of the hole to affect golfers' decisions on every shot, starting at the tee. Reading the hole, seeing the hazards and understanding how they relate to the green complex—deciding on that basis where each shot should go and then placing it there—this is what strategy is all about. And the more a player knows about how architects think, the better he or she will score.

Green complexes come in all sizes and configurations, but there are a few rules of thumb. As a general principle—but not always—the longer the hole, the larger the green. On a 490-yard par four, it would be unfair to require recreational golfers to fly and hold 240-yard approach shots into a minuscule green surrounded by hazards. On long holes we usually leave an opening at the front through which players can run their balls onto the green, and we generally try to make sure the greens aren't elevated too severely above the grade of the fairway. On a short par four, however, a tiny green protected by hazards is a reasonable challenge. When you are only 120 yards out, you ought to be required to be accurate to get your par or birdie. But beware: Such greens are not only generally well defended by bunkers, collection areas and the like, but their putting surfaces may also feature subtle challenges, such as well-defined cupping areas players can aim for on their approach shots. We make sure that balls can come to rest within four or five feet of the hole—but sometimes cupping areas aren't much larger than that!

The long hole-large green formula doesn't always apply, however. On especially long par fives, where most golfers have little or no chance of reaching the green with their second shots, we often create smallish greens on the theory that players' third shots will be short and should require precision. Conversely, on short par fives we often design large greens receptive to long second-shot approaches, because reaching a par five in two is one of the great thrills in golf. But just reaching a large green in two is no guarantee of birdie, since those are the greens we are most likely to design with terraces and contours. The thirteenth at Augusta National is a great example of a two-shot par five with a challenging green.

Clients hire architects in part because of the green complexes they are known for. Robert Trent Jones Sr. was famous for large greens with lots of undulations, while Donald Ross was known for smallish greens that were sometimes domed, as at Pinehurst No. 2. As a rule, the architects at Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates try to avoid building excessively large greens of 7,500 square feet or more; our average green size is 5,400 square feet, considered on the low side. In part that's because extremely long putts of, say, eighty feet or more often lead to three-putts, which add minutes to a round, but more importantly it's because long putts are simply less interesting than pitches or chips. In our view it's far more intriguing to execute a creative eighty-foot bump-and-run or flop shot than to hammer a putt from the same distance.

No matter what an architect's overall style is, however, different courses demand different types of greens: On links-style courses the greens appear to run out of the fairways more; on parkland courses they tend to be elevated (in part to ensure they get adequate sunlight and ventilation); on mountain courses they often have steep fall-offs on at least one side. But whatever the style of the course, we try to create an appealing mix of green types—some that tilt right-to-left and others that tilt left-to-right; a handful with surfaces you can't see from the fairway; one or two with slopes that run away from the approach shot; at least one without bunkers; possibly one penal green completely surrounded by bunkers; and several with illusions.

Illusions come in many forms. For example, on the 467-yard par-four fourteenth hole at our Miromar Lakes course near Bonita Springs, Florida, we placed a thirty-foot-long false front in the green. This makes the playable surface of the green look much larger than it is. Any shot that doesn't carry past the false front is guaranteed to roll back into the fairway. This can be maddening, but it's also exciting for the players. Another example of illusion is found on the 412-yard par-four seventh at Oakhurst Golf & Country Club in Clarkston, Michigan. This hole is a dogleg left. From the landing area, the green is partially hidden by a large mound on the left. The farther a drive carries into the landing area, the more of the green that is revealed. The green appears to be tucked just behind the mound. In fact, the mound is thirty feet short of the green with a narrow, deep valley between the green and the mound.

My playing partners last summer can personally attest to the effectiveness of this illusion! Imagine their surprise when, arriving at the green expecting to putt for birdie, they instead faced tricky flop shots from awkward lies just to have a chance for par. And those are the shots that they all remembered and talked about. Creating lasting memories through unique design is one of our main goals as architects, because those experiences are what drive golfers to play their favorite courses over and over again. (But we are also aware of the opposite: Too many severe and penal features drive players away from a course, and from the game.)

As good as any individual green complex may be, however, it's the sum of them that makes a course truly stand out. It's the subtle and not-so-subtle features of green complexes that get you thinking and second-guessing yourself. And that's what makes golf a mind game.

AGE: 73
COLLEGE: University of Michigan; Michigan State University
NOTABLE COURSES: Shaker Run GC, Lebanon, OH (1979); The Golf Club at Georgia, Alpharetta, GA (1990); Bighorn GC, Palm Desert, CA (1991); Bay Harbor GC, Bay Harbor, MI (1998); Half Moon Bay Golf Links, Half Moon Bay, CA (1997)
SIGNIFICANT STAT: Twenty-eight courses selected as USGA, PGA, LPGA, NCAA and PGA of America tournament venues.


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