The Death of Peculiarity

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

As the routing of golf courses has evolved, there has been good change and not-so-good change. Change is, of course, all debatable. Opinions as to what is good will vary depending on who is doing the debating. The topic of peculiarity has been selected to close out this section. Consider it a segue to the nuts and bolts of routing and the nuances that have to be waded through in order to get golfers from A to B. It is good food for thought as we begin to talk about standards, guidelines, and rules.

The advancements in golf courses and routing have brought about one casualty. It is peculiarity. Another term for this quality is quirkiness, one of the few words for which Webster has been unable to trace an origin. Peculiar is especially pertinent; its origin relates to a characteristic of distinction, many times intended to define a particular feature of a land or area. Look in your thesaurus and you will see peculiar associated with such words as appropriate, intrinsic, and character.

On early golf courses, the variables that made up the routing were often quirky. The order of par and length of holes were not established to follow any idea of good formula, nor was any extreme effort taken to these variables seem perfect. The ideals of ensuring pattern, balance, and symmetry were not as important as allowing the land to unfold the routing. The routing was a product of the land and came to life as places were found to fit holes. Unlike modern times, where routings are very often contrived and purposefully balanced and symmetric, ancient and early designs were whatever they became. There being no concept of par most certainly influenced some of these layouts. Holes were short, long, or somewhere in between. Two examples of courses come to mind that, if routed and designed today, might, unfortunately, get people fired from their jobs.

The first, Bishop Auckland, is a charming 18-hole layout in Northern England. The Bishop, as it is known, sports a most unpredictable order of par. Beginning on the front side, golfers face holes of modern-day par 4, 5, 5, 5, 3, 4, 3, 3, 5 = 37, and, continuing on the back, par 3, 5, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4 = 35. There is simply nothing "usual" about how Bishop Auckland is routed, the order of the pars, or balance between the nines. Amazingly, in the club's centennial book (1894 to 1994), there is zilch about how in the world this design oddity came to be. The rationales, however, can be gleaned by inspecting The Bishop firsthand. Quite simply — and appropriately — this is a course where the land was used to its fullest. Short holes (par 3s) were obviously situated along a meandering creek, and because the creek refused to run uphill to the clubhouse site, these holes are largely bunched in one area, well away from the clubhouse. From there, the puzzle became one of getting away from the clubhouse and back again. The reason there are three par 5s in a row is that the most important thing was not answering to a developer or banker about what would make a good course or whether it would be laughed at by the critics. Rather, the only requirement was that the golf fit — and that it be good and challenging in the process. If you look at the scorecard, it might seem that The Bishop ends on a boring note. How can six par 4s possibly make for a good finish? Well, when you build a course on the sloping moorlands above a valley, you get uphill and downhill and sidehill holes and all sorts of combinations of each. The Bishop's architects realized this. The order of par and everything else unusual about this course is a product of what mattered most. Remember, too, that James Kay, the original designer, and those who followed were not encumbered by the whole idea of par. Bishop Auckland fits, but sadly it would be a difficult task to convince the modern-day developer of this.

The second poster child of quirkiness is Church Stretton. Founded in 1898 and designed by James Braid, this English course reaches new heights in more ways than one. First, it is essential to know that Church Stretton is built around a mountain. Well, a large hill anyway. When James Braid set foot on the land, he obviously knew that locating the clubhouse on the top would create all sorts of problems, including a congested site and lots of uphill walks. So what to do? Braid ingeniously began with three short holes, all par 3s. They elevate the golfer more than 350-feet to the top of the world, at least in terms of the usually calm land of the south of England. No. 1 is 181 yards, No. 2 is 110, and No. 3 is 165. From the vantage point of the fourth tee, one can see just about 360 degrees. And from here one can also see why Braid did this. How better to ascend the hill in a controlled manner? By using par 3s in succession, he managed to take the golfer from point to point, whereas longer holes would have burdened many a golfer by making the experience laborious and tiring. No matter that these are the opening holes. The balance of the course is almost entirely downgrade. How delightful! How quirky.

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