Sunday, 2 January 2011

Routing a Course

Trust the Land

Crystal Downs 5th - unusual greatness
Routing a golf course is a very subjective skill.

Most architects have their own preferences to what they think makes a great hole and in turn the composition of holes that make a great routing. No two architects think alike. No two players appreciate the same routing either.

The architect’s job of routing usually revolves around the natural features available on the property. Architects, or at least this architect, are always looking for natural undulation since it produces the best “natural” holes. Great use of undulation has more effect on the quality of a hole than the careful placement of hazards. This is so important I’m going to repeat it; great use of undulation has more effect on the quality of a hole than the careful placement of hazards. The architect’s job is to use all the available topography to get the best collection of holes possible. Occasionally one exceptional hole must be abandoned to get a series of better holes or to find the best flow for the golf course. Why, because one great hole does not make a great golf course.

Crystal Downs 17th - letting the land dictate the hole
An architect starts out by identifying the best sites available for “natural” holes. The best sites for greens such as plateaus, natural bowls, or locations natural framed by features found are immediately identified on the site walk. Ideally the architect can find a string of holes that they can follow in a logical sequence, and this usually helps to start the process. The rest is an exercise in laying out holes, testing a sequence and laying out more holes till a natural progression finally appears on the routing plan. The routing plan is massaged through many options which are tested until the architect finds the best routing. Immediately the architect heads out into the field to test the routing and the process begins again. This continues until the architect walks a routing where they know they have the best collection of holes. The next walk is to plan the strategies and feature work to make the best individual holes. The

What many don’t see or understand in the process is the small things that make a big difference. The long vistas off site that can be “borrowed” or a stunning view found right on the property is easily taken for granted by the player. These are identified early and planned for by the architect. Unless the property is exceptional, the architect will have to use connector holes between the natural holes to find the best routing. Almost every course has a connector or series of connectors, even Pacific Dunes and Friar’s Head has them. Anyone can design a hole that sits naturally in the landscape waiting to be discovered, the great architects are the ones that can hide the connectors within the routing so that you can’t find them.

Adding Difficulty

How do you make holes easy by routing, very simple, route the holes through valleys because it contains the ball and propels the shot to the flattest area. They happen to be very attractive and very popular holes because of the natural framing. This is why a lot of architects use containment mounding; it creates artificial valleys along all holes. This is also why so many big budget architects cut all the holes into the land and create to make valleys where they don’t have them. I really hope by now this blog has established that a popular approach, like above, does not lead to greatness, it only ensures comfort to the player.

I wanted to discuss four (possibly more) different ways to make a hole more difficult by routing alone, so that you may understand the value of using the land in creating difficult situations. Once you see the techniques, you will understand more of what goes into creating a great hole in the routing stage.

The easiest shot is hitting into a bowl, the most difficult shot is hitting onto a crown. When a crown is used as a landing in a fairway, it places a premium on the ability of a player to hit a shot. This unpopular technique is one of the best to place accuracy at a premium above distance.

The 13th at Pine Valley shows us that the crown defines the landing area and the difficulty just fine without bunkers. The actual amount of fairway we have to try and hit is quite small, since anything on the edges will be propelled of into the rough. While the corridor for the hole is as bigger than most of the other holes, this is by far the toughest and tightest landing area to find on the course.

The 5th at Crystal Downs goes one step further on the idea. The player has to decide whether to try leaving it on the diagonal ridge for a clear shot, but most likely from an awkward lie; or to try and take it blindly over the ridge to a flat plateau and risk having it roll into the rough in the lower right bowl. The landform dictates every part of this hole since even the green slopes hard right away from the ridge making placement a key from the tee, and going for the green a pipe dream. All this difficulty at 335 yards.

The second method is using the natural cross slope against the player. When the land falls hard to the right, it sets up a natural fade for the golfer. If the green also falls the same way we get have the difficulty of having to hit a draw from a fade lie. Now only a simple cross slope is dictating the shot making of the player.

The first example is so simple and so effective. The 15th at Garden City slopes hard right from tee to green, with fescue on either side. The player must hit a light draw to hold the ball on the fairway and then hit a draw from a fade lie to find the green. Both require shaping shots on a hole with no bunkers in play, just the slopes of the ground dictating the play of the hole. I can’t believe we don’t see this one a lot more, its so simple and so effective.

William Flynn took this one step further when he used a more aggressive version of this technique at the 16th at Huntingdon Valley. The slope of the hole falls very hard to the right, but Flynn chose to bend the hole around the trees to the left. You end up with a hole falling to the right and doglegging to the left. You have no choice but to draw the ball into the slope to hold the fairway, and you must hit a perfect tee shot to do it. Then you face an uphill approach from a heavy fade lie into a green that requires a draw, because he angled it to only accept that shot. This is the most difficult type of hole to play, and a very unpopular hole with modern players because they must manufacture a shot under pressure. Very few architects will build this style of hole due to the difficulty it creates.

In routing to add difficulty I wanted to discuss four (possibly more) different ways to make a hole more difficult by the way you place holes on the land. So far I have touched on using crowns and using cross-slopes to add difficulty in a routing. The lesson at Garden City is one of the best and easiest to use because the situation exists on almost every property right down to the gently sloping ones. The rest usually require natural undulation to exist.

The third method is the placement of strong topography right in the landing zone, so that the landing zone is in fact much tighter and much more challenging than the fairway width. I have two different examples of this, one is using a valley style hole that has the placement of the rolls of the hills make the tee shot tough to negotiate, the other uses huge bowls eating into a huge plateau to make placement important.

The first example is the 11th hole at Oakland Hills. The large roll on the left extends right across the fairway and deflects any tee shots to the right side of the hole. What makes this extra tough is the right side roll is where the bunkers are cut. The difficulty lies in trying to thread the tee shot by the bunkers by playing a draw, having to try take it down the left and risk a downhill lie in the rough, or having to lay short of them and having a brutally long approach into an elevated green. Convention would have had the fairway go further right creating a natural bowl shaped fairway, but when Ross kept the fairway left he made one of the better driving holes in golf.

The second example is the 16th at the National Golf Links of America. The tee shot is played to a huge plateau starting 180 yards out. What makes the shot fun is that three 30 foot deep bowls that eat into the plateau. The first one on the front right has a large bunker cut into it and it frames the tee shot. The one on the left is 240 yards from the tee and collects a tentative tee shot. The last one on the right behind the first one is 300 yards and collects the longest player playing too aggressive. The fairway runs the ball all the way to the bottom into the left bowl and far bowl and the player is left with a difficult and very blind approach to the punchbowl green. The alternating bowls make accuracy off the tee important on this hole.

The second type of hole is the use of the plateau. My examples involve green sites, but landing areas can also be a plateau and usually involve an elevated tee shot over a valley played to a plateau on the other side. But it is the plateau green that adds the most difficulty when used in a routing. The plateau green can come in two styles, the green that is set above the grade but is still visible to the player on the approach, or it can be much higher and not visible from the landing area. When there are no trees immediately behind these are often called skyline greens, because that is all you can see. The difficulty comes first from gauging the club required and then from having the ball repelled away from the green if the green is missed. If you take the extreme case at Pinehurst, sometimes the ball is repelled off the green even when you the hit green itself, but now we are heading more into the detailing than the routing of a hole.

The first example is sometimes called the volcano green site, because of its appearance. The 2nd at Pine Valley involves an uphill approach to a green that falls off in all directions. The green is fronted by deep and intimidating front hazards putting pressure on the approach, but missing wide or long leaves the ball well down a slope with the green running severely away. This is not a long hole, but is still one of the toughest in golf.

The second example is the finest par four I know, the 14th at Royal Dornock called Foxy. The green is about 10 feet above the fairway. The difficulty is in finding this green with your approach. In this instance the approach and sides are all cut short which means only a great approach will stay on the green, the rest are left to run off the slope and stay down in the valley leaving a touch chip back up the slope to try save par. The front and side slopes work to create almost a crown effect with the front of the green adding further difficulty to the approach, this is an extremely challenging hole with no bunkers.

There are others, like leaving uneven or rumpled land in the landing areas, and running greens with the natural slope which is away from play, but I think many of these examples cross over into detailed design. 

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