Today we’ll look at the design ‘theory’ behind many of the world’s best courses. I’m talking about the old classic courses. That includes all the old greats in Scotland and Ireland as well as notable US courses like Cyprus Point and Augusta National. The man behind many of these classics is Dr. Alister MacKenzie.
I highly recommend reading his 1920 book ‘Golf Architecture’. In my opinion no one should be allowed to design a course until they’ve read and understood this book. It’s as much about the game of golf and its role in society as it is about golf course design. If you read the book, you’ll see that these two concepts go hand in hand for MacKenzie.
Here’s what I remember from the book: A golf course should be designed so it’s challenging and fun for both the amateur and pro. Imagine that, a course that Tiger and I could both play and both enjoy in our own way. Not many US courses fit that description. If you closely watched the British Open at St. Andrews this year, I think you’ll see what the honorable doctor meant. Any of us could play that course and have a blast. Score becomes less important and enjoyment zooms off the charts.
Dr. MacKenzie thought most holes should have a number of ways they can be played – all various combinations of risk and reward. Many of the Scottish holes have more than one ‘fairway’ to the green. You might tee off on a hole and not see your playing partner until you get to the green. In MacKenzie’s book he mentions that Bobby Jones said it was a woman who best played number 15 at the Old Course. I apologize that I don’t remember her name and it might have been the 14th, but you get the idea. Imagine Tiger Woods saying that Jane Doe plays the 15th hole at Baltusrol better than anyone. I credit the woman and the golf course designer in the case of St. Andrews.
There have been a number of world class US pros who ‘didn’t get’ the Scottish courses the first few times they played. Then the light bulb went off and they fell in love with them. Tom Watson is a perfect example. The old course at St. Andrews being the classic case. Each hole has so many options on its own, then throw in all the variations of weather and you see how you could play that course every day and never get tired of it.
Dr. MacKenzie did his designing before the invention of all the big earth moving equipment. He had to fit the course into the natural lay of the land. He had to figure out where Mother Nature had already laid out the holes. And they didn’t try to flatten the fairways. They were left with every little ripple, roll and undulation. This in itself adds a whole new dimension to the game. You have to really learn how to hit the ball under any condition, not just off a manicured flat lawn.
And the early Scots didn’t believe in taking your golf ball away from you. They thought you should be able to play the round with the same ball. Sure they designed plenty of places on the course where you didn’t want to hit your ball, but the penalty is not a lost ball. Your penalty is having to climb down into ‘The Coffins’ and play out backwards.
Just looking at the names of the holes and their prominent features, you can see how much the Scots love this name. Who wouldn’t have fun playing Cartgate, Ginger Beer and Tom Morris. And who else names traps with gems like Admiral’s, The Beardies, and The Principal’s Nose. ‘Hey Joe, how’d you do today?’. ‘I had a right good round going until I put my drive into The Beardies’.
So the Scots have these easy walking courses, with hundreds of variables per hole, played under wildly changing weather conditions, where you can use a putter from 20 yards off the green, with bunkers you can get lost in, and holes that are fun for you as well as Tiger. Throw in the hospitality and the scotch and you have the perfect equation for fun on the golf course. I just don’t get why modern architects don’t have the smarts and/or guts to try this combination. Maybe it takes a whole different level of understanding to see where Mother Nature has already laid out the holes. Build it and we will come!