A look at routing

One of the transcendent skills of great golf course architects is the ability to route a golf course around the natural topography the property offers. This skill was particularly important in the early days of golf course design before the use of bulldozers and other land-moving machinery. For beginners in golf course architecture, this is an easy thing to pay attention to the next time you play golf. Simply survey the natural characteristics of a golf course’s land and rate how well the architect used those characteristics. 

I wanted to put together an example of OK routing and compare it to great routing. Recently, I had the privilege of playing golf at Lake Shore Country Club, an ultra-exclusive country club on Chicago’s North Shore. Lake Shore was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a landscape architect famous for his work with national parks who happened to design a few courses as well. Lake Shore’s property is mere yards from the shores of Lake Michigan, leading to phenomenal natural ravines. I couldn’t help but draw a natural comparison of land to Shoreacres, a top-50 course in America just a few miles north and similarly close to Lake Michigan. Shoreacres was designed by the legendary Seth Raynor who was able to beautifully navigate the ravines and use them to their fullest in his design with shots over, into and out of the ravines.

When I began to compare the two, Olmstead’s work at Lake Shore became a bit disappointing next to Raynor’s genius routing of Shoreacres. For context, let’s look at Lake Shore’s par-3 6th compared to Shoreacres’ 14th.

The 170 yard par 3 6th at Lake Shore Country Club

The 190 yard par 3, 14th at Shoreacres

Each hole has a ravine running down the left side and requires a player to hit a mid-iron. As you can see, Lake Shore’s green complex is simple, and the bunkering doesn’t ask a player to hit a particular shot (draw or fade). Meanwhile, Raynor employed a Redan-style green, angling the green back and to the left to bring the ravine into play. This is especially true with a back-left pin location, tempting a player to attempt to draw the ball in order to get it close and setting up the possibility of overdoing it and finding the ravine (I have done this a handful of times). In contrast, the ravine on Lake Shore’s 6th is merely ornamental, catching only very poor tee shots.

Next time you find yourself at your favorite golf course, pay close attention to the routing and see how your architect was or wasn’t able to maximize the property.