What ten of the world's best courses teach us about golf architecture

Last winter, after seventeen years working for Carrick Design, I opened my own course design business. While searching for new projects, I've also had the chance to spend some time reviewing what I've learned about what makes a golf course great. In considering some of the principles of design that I plan to concentrate on, I often return to a handful of courses—some classic, some modern—that have most influenced my thinking. Along with the Old Course at St. Andrews (the wellspring of architectural inspiration), these courses illustrate the wonderful diversity of elements that can be drawn upon—from subtle intricacies to aggressive features that strike fear in the hearts of golfers. No course can contain all of these qualities, and it takes a skillful architect to know when to employ them, but I believe these courses are some of the very best for any student of the game to play, enjoy and examine closely.

The "Great Hole" Concept

Southampton, NY; C. B. Macdonald (1911); private

C. B. Macdonald studied the classic holes of Great Britain extensively before creating his own adaptations of them at the National Golf Links of America. The lesson is that we must first understand how great holes work before we begin to design our own. "In reality," he once said, "there are only four or five good holes in golf. The local scenery supplies the variety." His adaptations are considered some of the finest holes in the world—even North Berwick's old-time head pro, Ben Sayers, called the Redan at the National superior to his course's original. Named for a Crimean War fortress that repelled multiple British attacks, the term now describes a green (traditionally on a par three) that is highest in the front right and falls away on a diagonal to the back left. The Redan demands the ball either be played short and bounced onto the surface or struck with absolute precision to hold the green. The front bunker remains the key hazard, since play must go over or around it. Macdonald found a natural site to match North Berwick's, but instead of being blind this hole is clearly visible from the tee. The architect then set about increasing the depth of both the front and back bunkers, making the hole all the more perilous.

Study the Site

Baiting Hollow, NY; Coore & Crenshaw (2002); private

Bill Coore recently explained how nature offers infinite design possibilities to architects. "We can't produce the randomness, the amazing variety of contours, or the way that vegetation inhabits a landscape," he said. "But we can study nature and follow its lead." At Friar's Head, Coore and Ben Crenshaw left all the ripples and rumples in the fairways to add challenging stances and lies for approach shots. Around the greens they kept those humps, bumps and hollows and cut the grass short to require players to use their imaginations to solve the complicated path to the hole. Even the greens they created mimic the site's knolls and knuckles to confound both approach shots and putts. Their work is proof that time spent studying the site searching for the best natural holes is more valuable than time spent at a drafting table.

Accommodate All Skills

Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland; Harry Colt (1925); private

Muirfield is perhaps most famous for its routing: Harry Colt designed two concentric loops running in opposite directions, thus ensuring that the wind would be encountered on all sides and therefore would never come from the same direction for more than three holes. But the hidden genius of Muirfield is in how the bunkering scheme allows the course to adapt to players of varying skill levels. It is definitely a course that tests a player's ability off the tee—while everything is clearly visible, Muirfield demands careful placement to avoid trouble. What is marvelous in the design is that the landing areas for the average player are usually wide and lightly defended, but as the better player tries to take the tee shot farther down the fairway, the landing areas become tighter and better defended. This bunkering technique has made the course manageable for the members on a daily basis while frustrating the best players in the world during the Open Championship.


Tobacco Road
Sanford, NC; Mike Strantz (1998); public

While nearby Pinehurst quietly beats golfers with subtle challenges, Mike Strantz's Tobacco Road is in your face from the word "go." The first hole is a perfect hint of things to come, with its tee shot through a very tight opening between two massive hills followed by a blind carry over a dune to the second landing area. There are few opening holes in golf that are more frightening. Tobacco Road is one of the most intimidating and frustrating courses in the world to play for the first time. While it has more width and playability than initially appears to the eye, Strantz used blind shots and overwhelming hazards throughout to hide that fact. A fine example is the tee shot on sixteen, where the player is confronted with a massive display of sand and seemingly no fairway in sight, yet the hidden fairway is large and receptive beyond the bunkers. The player feels intense pressure to execute the shot in large part because the architect has emphasized the hazard rather than the target. Strantz offers plenty of opportunities to score, but he also tells you at every turn: Don't you dare miss!

Create Shot-Making Chances

Pacific Palisades, CA; George Thomas (1926); private

George Thomas combined strategy and beauty as well as any architect in the game's history. He rewarded positional play but insisted players shape their shots to get into those areas of the course. There is no course quite like Riviera, where golfers are constantly encouraged to hit either a draw or a fade off the tee. Thomas did this in a variety of ways, from careful placement of bunkers to the keen use of side slopes that require a tee shot to be shaped to remain on the fairway. The joy at Riviera is this constant flow back and forth between fade and draw, even alternating at times on the same hole, such as the par-four third. There aren't many shots in golf that take pros out of their comfort zone more than having to manufacture a draw from a fade lie, or vice versa, which makes Riviera one of the game's great Tour venues. The result is one of the few remaining courses where a clever shot maker still holds the advantage over the bomber.