A few of the golf course architecture terms you'll hear thrown around the most are playability, width, strategy and options. These terms have become buzzwords in the industry and many of today's modern architects are using these principles to lead a renaissance in the art of golf course design. To understand why certain golf holes and courses are great, it's vital to have a firm grasp of these simple concepts, which are all interconnected to each other.
"The designer of a course should start off on his work in a sympathetic frame of mind for the weak, and at the same time be as severe as he likes with the first-class player."
Ninety-nine percent of golfers play the game as a recreational activity, meaning every course should be playable for all. Some key ways to accomplish that are by including:
Limited forced carries, which allow the beginner to duff their way around the course without being severely penalized for it.
Alternative paths for players that want to avoid a hazard.
Allowance for all shot shapes. It’s OK for a hole to prefer a cut or a draw, but it’s not OK for a hole to require a certain one.
"Narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game, and in causing a stilted and cramped style by destroying all freedom of play."
-Dr. Alister Mackenzie
Width is the playing corridor of a golf hole. Generally speaking, the wider the hole, the more playable it is. Proper width allows golfers to hit any type of shot, including a fade, draw, slice or hook without penalty. It keeps golfers in play and allows the architect to create strategy and different playing options on a hole. Without width, strategy and options are limited because the player’s only choice is to hit the ball dead straight.
Strategy & Options
"The strategy of the golf course is the soul of the game."
-George C. Thomas
If a hole contains substantial width, great architects are able to create a hole that is both playable and challenging by forcing great players to make decisions based on strategy.
While the beginner's focus is on merely finding the fairway, a hole with great strategy will force the more advanced player to make a series of decisions. When a great player doesn’t have to think, it's a very simple game. When they are forced to make decisions and choose from an array of potential shots, the game becomes much more difficult and interesting.
A hole that possesses great strategic interest will present the golfer with a series of different shot options, each with a varying amount of risk and reward. Typically, the safest option will lead to a tough following shot and the riskiest option, when executed, will reward a player with the easiest upcoming shot. Architects will often use angles, hazards and bunkers to dictate the strategy and create the risk and reward aspect of a certain shot or hole.
Principles in action
Example 1: How width affects strategy and options
To see how all of these factors work together, let’s take a look at an aerial shot of the 11th and 12th holes at the Golf Club of Houston, the annual host site for the Shell Houston Open.
At the Rees Jones design, we see two holes with great contrast to each other. On the right half of the above photo is the lengthy par-4 11th and on the left is the short par-4 12th. Let’s take a look at the options and strategy of each.
11th hole - 445 yards - Par 4
The 11th is one of the toughest on the course, and like many on the difficult track, it is dictated by its tee shot. Here a player is forced to drive it into a narrow fairway that's just 25 yards wide. For long-hitters, it narrows even more to about 15 yards across. While the flag position can create an ideal side of the fairway to aim for, the fairway is so narrow that the real goal is to simply hit the short grass.
If this fairway had more width, it would become much more playable for the average player and create more thought for the great player. Instead of making players focus on simply hitting the narrow fairway, the objective would turn into hitting a particular side of the fairway in order to gain the ideal approach angle to the pin. The lack of width Jones employs hinders the 11th hole – and much of the course itself – from being as fun as possible for the average player. It also diminishes the strategic interest for the better player, turning it into what I call "Robot Golf" (hit it straight and hit it close) on almost every hole.
12th hole - 335 yards - Par 4
One of the best holes at the Golf Club of Houston is the short par-4 12th. Coincidentally, it is also one of the widest holes. The short par 4 is filled with options that are generated by its substantial width. At one point the fairway is nearly 60 yards wide, but it could stand to be even wider. This width gives the average player plenty of room to the left to avoid the water hazard, while still finding the ample fairway.
Meanwhile, the great player has a number of choices to consider. The hole is drivable for the longest players, but the water hazard and angled green present advantages and disadvantages to different types of shots. I think that there are four distinct options for playing the hole, which I've labeled A, B, C and D below.
Option A: The safest of the four options is to play a layup shot with a long iron or hybrid down the left side. This shot is safe from the water but doesn’t leave the best angle to the green, especially if the pin is back left. However, if the pin is in the front right portion of the green this becomes a very solid play.
Option B: The more risky of the two layup options is to take the ball up the right side and challenge the water hazard. If the shot is pulled off, the reward is an unobstructed approach shot to the green and any flag position.
Option C: Another option on the hole is to pull out the driver and let it rip. A drive down the left side is safe from the hazard on the right and will leave a short wedge shot or pitch to the green, but its drawback is a poor angle to any pin other than the front-right location. The risk of getting a long, awkward bunker shot is high if your drive misses too far left.
Option D: The final and riskiest play is to pull driver and take on the water hazard up the right side. This play carries plenty of danger but can lead to big rewards as long hitters can find the green. Those who miss short and stay dry will be left with a short wedge shot and a perfect angle to any pin.
As you can see by the example, the main difference between the two holes is their width. The 11th, a long and narrow par 4 provides little strategic interest and is brutally challenging for the average player. Meanwhile, the wide fairway at No. 12 allows for all types of shots and forces more advanced players to make decisions.
Example 2: Streamsong Resort - Red Course - Hole 15 - 486-yard par 4
For our next example, we head to No. 15 at Streamsong Red Course, a golf hole that exemplifies width and strategic interest. This is a very memorable hole because of its dominant feature, a nearly 30-foot-deep fairway bunker that guards the left side of the fairway. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw paired the deep bunker with a green complex that breaks severely from right to left.
One of the trademarks of Coore and Crenshaw is their ability to defend “a golfer’s ideal line.” The 15th is a prime example of this. The preferred line, “Option A,” is up the left side of the fairway. This option significantly shortens the hole and also yields the best angle for approaching the green. The course's defense to that line is the possibility of a tee shot that misses left and finds the treacherous bunker, requiring a pitch out.
"Option B" is much safer, requiring a player to simply find the right side of the ultra-wide fairway. By creating such a wide landing area, Coore and Crenshaw make this hole very playable for the average player, who is unlikely to reach the green in two. The expert player that bails out with "Option B" faces a long approach shot to a green that runs away from them.
The 15th is a masterful example of how to generate a long par 4 that is packed with strategy and presents options without sacrificing its playability.
Example 3: Sweetens Cove Golf Club - Hole 5 - 290 yards - Par 4
Another spectacular example of an architect creating a strategic hole filled with options and width is the short par-4 fifth at King Collins’ Sweetens Cove. The playability factor of this hole is off the charts. At it’s widest point, the fairway stretches to 100 yards across, making it easy for the beginner to get an open look at the green from the short grass. Also, the lion’s mouth green complex funnels balls back to the middle of the green, allowing beginners to play away from the nasty pot bunker.
For the better player, the fifth presents a number of options from the tee, which are dictated by the small pot bunker and the pin location on any given day. For this exercise, we are going to use a front-left pin location.
Option A: Take a mid- to long-iron straight up the middle. From there, the approach will be a little longer and the direct line to the flag might be hindered by the deep greenside bunker. It's a very safe play that yields a full-wedge approach shot, but the angle leaves a little to be desired. This is a great playing option for someone who doesn’t believe they can reach the green.
Option B: Probably the safest tee option is to play to Point B, which is the widest part of the fairway. The tradeoff is a bad angle to the front-left flag, which requires taking on the bunker to hit it close. Another option for the approach is to play a low, running shot and let the green’s contour feed the ball to the flag if the player wants to avoid the risk of the bunker.
Option C: The layup option that yields the best angle to the front-left flag is Option C. As expected, this option carries more risk than A and B, as a waste area and a tree loom to obstruct shots that are hit too far left. If the player is successful with the layup, they are left with a short wedge shot that is unobstructed by the pot bunker.
Option D: For the longer hitter, the thrill of driving a short par 4 is often too much to pass up. At Sweetens Cove’s fifth, the player is faced with two aiming options to the front-left flag. Option D is the safer of the two because the opening of the green is significantly more friendly to running the ball up and the contours of the green will funnel the ball towards the flag. The penalty is large if the player is unable to pull off the shot. A right miss will leave an awkward long bunker shot over the deep pot bunker, which is where a left miss will find itself. A shot short will leave a delicate pitch over the pot bunker.
Option E: The final option is to pull out the big dog and fire right at the flag, which can yield the largest gains and a short eagle putt, but also has the thinnest margin for error. A right miss will likely find the pot bunker and a left miss will leave a near-impossible short-sided pitch.
The fifth is a thrilling short par 4 because while an eagle or birdie is easily attainable, its minimal but treacherous hazards can quickly lead to a double bogey or worse from even the best players.
As we see with the examples above, most of the world's great golf holes share the common theme of width, which fuels their playability and strategy at all levels.