Design Influences

As a golf course designer one of the first questions I find myself being asked, (after the classic “So, do you play golf?”) is “What’s your favourite course?”, and I never quite know how to answer. In all honesty I’m not sure I have one favorite course. There are plenty which I’ve been inspired by, and not always through playing. Sometimes it might be from visiting the course, but just as often it will be through seeing it on TV, or even just a photograph of a hole in a book or magazine. Quite often the inspiration comes from a detail rather than a whole course, maybe a bunker style, or a bump on a fairway, perhaps the depressions at the back of a green.

Most golf course architects will have their favorite courses and preferences for design style, but it is the poor architect who tries to submit his own design style on a property without consideration of the surroundings. Ideally the designer’s eclectic experiences should be combined with the physical elements of the site to create an individual style for each new golf course. As a designer I am influenced, even if only sub-consciously, by almost every golf course I visit, of whatever standard. Very often you can learn more from what’s bad as what’s good.

The holes that have influenced me? Well, somewhat obviously, the par 5, 13th at Augusta would make the list. A great strategic hole which asks so many questions of the golfer, from the tee to the last putt. It has what all great golf holes need; superb design, a beautiful setting, drama and excitement in equal measure. There are two other par 5’s that have always had an influence for as long as I can remember. The 14th or Long on the Old Course is another hole which sets tasks for each stroke and seems to provide countless options as to how it might be played. It was identified by Alister MacKenzie as one of his ‘Ideal Holes’, the great man noting that, despite the fact that the hole was 530 yards in length, “the tilt of the green has a considerable influence on the tee shot”. The other par 5 is the 7th, or ‘Westlin’ Wyne’ on the Queens Course at Gleneagles. To be honest, at only 490 yards, and much of it played downhill, it is barely a par 5 by today’s standards and the fairway bunkering perhaps doesn’t challenge the best players as it might, but there are two reasons why I include it on this list. Firstly the bunkers themselves make such a fantastic statement with their deep, grass faces rising from the fairway, their great half moon shapes seeming to perfectly reflect the natural humps and bumps formed when ice moved through this valley thousands of years previously. What keeps this hole as a proper par 5 though is the severe slope at the front of the green – which is not particularly evident from the fairway – and will sweep any slightly under-hit approach into the greenside bunkers.

The par 4’s I like are all strong strategic holes where the golfer is asked to make decisions from the tee in order to set up the best way to get close to the pin with his second shot. Such holes would be the 3rd at Royal Lytham, the 14th holes at Royal Dornoch and also on the Kings Course, Gleneagles, the 13th holes at both Elie and the Dukes Course, Woburn, the 12th at Sunningdale Old and the 15th at Carnoustie.

As for par 3’s well there are too many to mention. The bunkering at the 13th at Muirfield and 10th at Winged Foot stand out, there’s the glorious 13th hole at Worplesdon, the bumps and hollows around the 7th green at Rye and the 5th green on Sunningdale New. I’d include the Redan (15th) at North Berwick and then the water on the 12th at Augusta and finally the long 3rd at Elie.

Current vogues in golf course design are towards more natural looking golf courses with a natural, rugged appearance. There has been a move away from the very architectural sculpting of the 1980’s and 90’s where artificial mounds and shapes perhaps sat at odds with the landscape setting. Ragged-edged bunkers are all the rage and there is a perceptible move towards less manicured courses. This retro design style is possibly also as a response to the growing awareness amongst today’s designers of the importance of environmental protection and the need to make golf courses more sustainable in the way they are both constructed and maintained.

Looking to the future this approach is likely to continue as pressure increases for new golf courses to use less irrigation, fertilizer and chemicals and for the size of intensively maintained areas to be reduced, a task made more difficult as golf courses are tending to get longer to combat the improvements in equipment technology and player fitness.

Examples of these new trends in golf course architecture are typified by courses such as Sand Hills and the quartet of courses at Bandon Dunes in the US. In Scotland, Castle Stuart follows the trend set by Kingsbarns and The Castle Course, which are all very ‘links’ like in nature although not all created from typical ‘links’ land. More inland courses are reflecting seaside courses in the way they are laid out. The Faldo Course at Sporting Club Berlin in Germany and The Montgomerie Course at Carton House, Ireland, both designed by these greats of the game with my colleague at European Golf Design, Stan Eby, are two fine examples of what can be achieved by taking the character of a traditional links and transposing them inland.

Similarly at The Dutch, a new Montgomerie Course in The Netherlands, Colin and I were very keen to build something not only unique for Holland but a course which delivered a certain ‘wow’ factor by taking inspiration from the more rugged elements of seaside golf and transforming a completely flat, inland site into a thrilling visual landscape in its own right.

This article first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Golf World