The Flow of Courses

The following is excerpted from Routing the Golf Course, by Forrest Richardson (©John Wiley & Sons, 2002)

Rhythm. Balance. Sequence. A routing plan must give careful attention to each. Without these qualities, the golf course might as well be an ordinary maze and the golfer a rat looking for cheese. The idea of rhythm, balance, and sequence was articulated by golf architect Desmond Muirhead while I was writing this book. Muirhead's distinguished career began in urban planning and migrated to golf course design, when out of necessity, he began having to solve golf course routing assignments.. Although many golf course architects are involved in site planning issues, none had the portfolio of Muirhead, who had designed entire towns in virtually every corner of the globe.

Rhythm, according to Muirhead, is the relationship between difficulty and surprise; it has to do with the pattern whereby these qualities are presented to the golfer. One way to capture the rhythm of a piece of land is through geomorphism. "Geomorphism is the art of lowering natural low points and raising the natural high points which already exist on the land," Muirhead explained. "Nature knows rhythm best. It's difficult to outdo nature when it comes to rhythm."

Balance is the relationship between nines and among the par 3s, 4s, and 5s. Muirhead pointed to Pebble Beach as a lesson in nearly perfect balance. "You have these great, thrilling, and fantastic holes along the ocean that occur up front and then at the end of the round. And then these rather mundane holes back away from the ocean. But you wouldn't want it any other way. It makes for perfect balance."

Sequence is the order of par, the speed at which the course unfolds as the round is underway. "Sequence is all about comfort," according to Muirhead. But sequence should not mean that surprise becomes calculated. "There has to be some spontaneous generation to design," he reminded us.

Muirhead lambasted a great many modern courses for their lack of spontaneity. "Ideas add up like crazy," he noted. Muirhead was passionate about this point, taking exception with the predictability that makes many modern courses look artificial instead of natural. "If you think of a river, the current creates effects on the banks and bottom. Now, if you take away the water, the effects are still there. A good routing appears natural like this. It has a natural flow." That all-important flow may be partly rigid in its structure, but it also must be partly left to chance in order to have an engaging sequence. Muirhead was not alone in his feeling that "the intellectual capacity of many golf courses is lacking." It is easy to find example after example of me-too designs that golfers can hardly tell apart.

Routings are made up of the opening, the turn, the heart, and finish. Coincidentally, this is the same flow established for the content of this book and its 19 chapters. The following sections discuss how these elements are handled in golf course design. As we make the turn, contributor Dr. Ed Sadalla adds many insightful thoughts on course psychology as he explores the journey from the human perspective. His chapter, following this one, expands on the thoughts expressed by those of us who are not trained in psychology but are licensed to practice it through our designs.

The Story Unfolds

Golf begins the night before a round, in anticipation of the day to come, and it may not end until many years later, when the golfer finally loses his memory of the experience, his companions, and the details of the round. The way that the routing actually begins is akin to opening the cover of the book and beginning to read.

There is debate on how best to start off a golf course. A majority of golf course architects feel that the relatively easy-going par 4 is best, and in fact, most courses do begin with a par 4. But this is not a rule, nor should it be. George Thomas subscribed to the idea that a par-5 first hole of shorter length was best. He then followed this with a long par 4. His feeling was that getting started required length to span out the golfers and give them plenty of room in which to whale away at the ball. The argument against the Thomas theory is that the shortish par 5 is bound to leave some groups waiting to reach the green with their second shots. The long par-4 second presents the same problem. Some golfers will reach it in two easily, while others will play it as if it were a short par 5. The best advice is to read the opinions and advice of Bill Yates, an expert in the pace of play. My money is with Yates, who has spent a lifetime studying these issues.

The beginning of a golf course should feel like a beginning. Think of music. There are all sorts of beginnings, but the best presents the beginning in a way that sets the mood and allows the listener to adjust and get comfortable.

Golf as a Story

A game of golf is a story written each day by those who seek recreation, companionship, and competition on a stage defined partially by the golf course routing and always by nature. It is the perfect improvisational theater. Although an actor can get to know the stage like the back of his hand, he cannot be quite sure what will be demanded of him next. His only choice is to take what is given and do his best to overcome the difficulty.

Golf has its introduction, characters, chapters, occasional chase scene, climax, and ending. Good stories have unpredictable twists, sometimes with surprising realizations or even humorous outcomes. Bad stories have not much of any of this. Bad golf courses are like bad stories.

Unpredictability

Often, the best way to call attention to an especially important thought is to give its own heading. So I did.

Interest & Variation

William Flynn, whose writings on golf course architecture are not nearly as well known as many more recognized golf architects, put it this way:

The principal consideration of the architect is to design his course in such a way as to hold the interest of the player from the first tee to the last green and to present the problems of the various holes in such a way that they register in the player's mind as he stands on the tee or the fairway for the shot to the green.

I would add to Flynn's concise and eloquent words only that the golf course architect must also consider, especially today, with our global emphasis on marketing, that a course should grab the attention before a golfer ever lays eyes on it, and that the measure of an excellent course is how long it stays with the golfer after play has finished. Does the golfer want to visit the course? After he plays, does he want to return? Far too often, I am in meetings where the discussion about attracting play is confined to how much people will be willing to pay, if there are enough people in the area to support golf, and similar topics. I am usually the one raising his hand to suggest once again that making the course exciting will act as a magnet that will attract play. The market analysis of golf courses is important. Interesting and varied design, however, cannot be overlooked, for it represents the lowest cost of all the commodities that go into a golf course.

Intermissions, Lulls & Interruptions

All stories need breaks. Lulls in golf courses are important because not every hole or area of a course should be so dramatic that no contrast is offered.

The turn is an opportune moment to give the golfer a short rest or break, or at least a point in time to judge the progression of the round. The sequential numbering of golf holes, while obvious, represents a golf clock that strikes nine when the round is half up. Regardless of whether a break or time-out is offered, the routing and landscape should uphold the idea of the turn and give every indication that it has arrived. A snack bar, a scenic overlook, or even a lone wooden bench set into a flower bed can signal that our golf clock has struck nine.

Interruptions are different in that they constitute a break in the chain of a routing. They are discussed here, as they are often confused with planned lulls and breaks. Examples of interruptions are road crossings, long distances between holes, and passages through debilitating areas of a course — below low-flying aircraft, between noisy freeways, and so on. Interruptions can be made to blend. Attractive tunnels can be used as passages from one place to the next. Landscaping can define a road crossing and make it interesting, at least more so than without. Covering a distance between holes can be a wonderful experience providing the trail is aesthetically pleasing and constitutes an adventure of its own. As for the low-flying aircraft, I have no advice.

Contour Map of Emotions

Dr. Ed Sadalla once asked me to think of a course I was completing as if a contour map of its emotions had been drawn. At first this did not register, and then it made perfect sense. Just like there are high and low points in the landforms, there are high and low points in the golfer's experience as he makes the journey around a course. High points might be beautiful views, picturesque holes, dramatic shots, and extraordinary water features. These areas are given high contour lines. Low points are easy to identify. Contour lines are simply connected as they would be for land elevations. The resulting picture-a contour map-is one of tremendous revelation. Sadalla's technique can point out how a course will unfold and where its story might conjure a particular emotion.

The Ending

The best endings leave some imagination flowing. They are definitely not downers. Very difficult golf holes can be downers. I once played a well-regarded golf course that ended on a green where I recall the only five-putt in my life when seriously trying to score well. Technically it was a 6-putt, as the first putt went sailing off the green, and my return was from at least 10 feet back into the fairway. I relate this story whenever the course comes up, and I am amazed at how many people have also experienced awful trouble at this green. The conversations, instead of being about the course, are about the horrible finishing hole experience. Is that how it should be? I think not. Endings are an opportunity — not to punish, but to encourage a return. After five or six putts, I am not sure I want to face such a fate again.

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