There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.
Allister MacKenzie, The Spirit of St. Andrews
I’ve been playing lots of golf lately and it’s reinforced my long-held opinion that the design of most golf courses is just awful. That got me to thinking: what would go into my ideal golf course?
Easy first hole
The first tee is no time to ask a player to hit a great tee shot. No one is really warmed up at that point and the point of golf is to be fun — the way to make a round fun is not to require a 270 bomb with the first swing. That hole has its place, but it’s later in the round once you’re in a rhythm. Making a hole difficult because it’s first is like making it difficult by shouting during someone’s backswing; it’s certain to add strokes, but mostly unrelated to skill or quality of execution.
The first hole should be playable with a fairway wood or long iron from the tee and it shouldn’t have any water hazards. It should also be a par 4. Par 3′s will slow down play too much at the beginning of the round and should also require more accurate distance control than can be expected on the first hole. Par 5′s easy enough to qualify for a good first hole are just a waste of a potentially fun birdie hole later in the round.
No fescue (or other pseudo-hazards)
Three foot tall fescue looks great in the photo gallery on a golf course’s website, but is absolutely useless almost every time it’s planted on a golf course. Fescue is the worst kind of pseudo-hazard because you’re very likely to lose your ball in it and the rules of golf afford you only one solution: re-hit. Fescue tends to come into play in two places: not-so-great shots and really awful shots. Both are bad uses.
The “not-so-great shot” fescue is usually 5-10 yards off the fairway, after a relatively narrow line of normal rough. In this case you’ve hit a bad drive, but not one that would give you any trouble in approaching the green or at least laying up on most other holes. But the architect decided to drop some knee-high grass here, so now you’re searching for a lost ball after being 10 yards from a perfect approach. The “really awful shot” fescue is usually on parts of the coure that don’t even seem like they should be in play, those spots where it’s just filling the gap between the border of the property and the designed hole. In this case you’re usually in pretty bad shape and don’t have any shot to the green, so I’m not sure what the point is of punishing you with fescue here.
The result is that fescue usually feels like random punishment — maybe you’ll find it, maybe you won’t. That’s bad, lazy design.
My first two points shouldn’t imply that I want to put bumpers on any hazardous part of a golf course. I am all for punishing bad shots, but yet-another-hazard is not the only way to do it. Instead of filling courses with ponds and fairway bunkers (and fescue) to combat any wayward shot, architects should use more interesting tactics. One of my favorites is slopes and blocked views. Give me a side hill lie to a hidden green when I hit a bad shot. It makes the course just as difficult if you’d plopped down another fairway bunker, but much more interesting.
Fewer tee boxes
When I started playing golf every course I knew of had the same three options for tees: blue, white, and red. Then came gold tees. Now choosing a tee box to play from can feel like shopping for laundry detergent. Fix or six tee boxes on a course is no longer uncommon, and it results in far too much artificial development. Building that many tee boxes means often half a hole is unnaturally-manufactured, and the rest of the hole is dulled down to accomodate shots from every conceivable distance. Three tee boxes means minimal disruption of the hole, and if a couple people play from tees that are slightly longer or shorter than they’re used to the game will be that much more interesting.
Mark every sprinkler head
There are few things more frustrating than walking in circles trying to find a marker when your ball is right in the middle of the fairway. Doubly so when you come across many unmarked sprinklers on the way. It baffles me when this happens because markings on the course are so useful and so easy to produce that the only thing that makes sense is marking everything out there.
This extends to sprinklers that are over 200 yards, by the way. I once saw a sprinkler marked “Don’t even think about it”. While this was cute and did make me laugh, it was still annoying because even distances I can’t reach are useful to measure. No one’s going for the green from 300 yards away, but knowing that it’s 300 and not 350 means I will hit a different club to layup. Measuring the distance costs almost nothing, so just do it and make it easy to find for the people playing your course.
“Good” places to miss
A sufficiently-hard golf hole should often give you very difficult shots. That’s great as long as you give me an option to hit an easier shot in exchange for lost (portions of) strokes. Your green tucked behind a row of bunkers is just lazy if you don’t give me a bailout area to aim for when I can’t make the approach, maybe because I’m in the rough.
Usually when this is done it’s right in front of the green, where the fairway extends right up to the fringe. That’s boring and often pointless, as architects try to squeeze that area as much as possible between the green-side hazards. A great bailout area can still require a carry over hazards, but give me a more forgiving place to land to the side of the green. A very underused design feature is bailout areas behind greens, which I wish I saw more of. These make the player commit to going long and not missing short to be safe. Whatever you decide, just give the player more than one way to play the hole.
Every time I stand on a tee and wonder where I’m supposed to hit it, a golf course architect has failed miserably. There are so many ways to give players a visual clue about where to play, that not doing it is unforgivable. The boring way to do it is the classic barber pole in the fairway on your target line. More creative architects use natural features of the land — a large tree in the distance, a boulder, a bunker you have to carry, etc. On any tee shot you should be able to tell me in a few words what to aim at so that I don’t have to wonder. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood on a tee, unsure, hit it exactly where I was aiming and though, “I hope that’s good”. If you can’t give me an indication of where to hit it, you’re not allowed to make tee shots with obstructed views.