Since I began writing about golf back in 1981, it's been clear that there's a common misconception about golf course design. Most golfers mistakenly assume that a love of course architecture is somehow elitist, or reserved for a privileged few. But it's wrong to think you can only appreciate course design by playing the exclusive private clubs of the world like Cypress Point, Augusta National or Sand Hills.
Early on in my freelance writing career I found that too many magazine editors shared this assumption as well. They used that prejudice to justify voiding their pages of interesting features in which golfers could come to appreciate the ground upon which they played. It took a while for me to find a home where editors took the time and space needed to make architecture relevant to everyday golfers.
Golf Advisor is certainly on board with that sentiment. It's their way – our way — of taking golfers seriously and respecting their choices and the options available to them. So here's a basic guide to appreciating golf course design, one that's applicable at any layout you play, whether it's a $20 muni or a $600 resort.
1. It's the most diverse playing surface of any sport
Golf courses are the most underspecified and most varied of all sports fields. The rulebooks for football, baseball, basketball, hockey and tennis run on for pages about the measurements of the playing field. Golf limits itself to a single rule dictating that the hole to which you play has to measure exactly four and one-quarter inches in diameter. That's it. Everything else is up for grabs: length, width, texture, location and color. Small wonder there's so much differentiation among golf courses, whether on sandy links (Old Course in St. Andrews), rolling parkland (Oakland Hills South), open range land (Sutton Bay), desert (O'odham at Talking Stick Resort), municipal landfill (McCullough's Emerald Links) or mountain (The Cascades at Omni Homestead Resort).
In no other sport do players sit around and compare venues or dream at home about places they want to go.
2. Architecture starts when the ball hits the ground
It's all about bounce and roll. Some premier players dispute this, referring to the outcome as “unfair” since they are spoiled to expect the ball the stop where it lands. But firm, fast playing conditions and an interesting ground game provide a measure of unpredictability that can frustrate the careless player who does not think about what happens when the golf ball reacts with the earth.
3. Offense and defense
All sports contain an element of offense and defense. Golf is no different. PGA Tour players want to control the aerial game, which is the offensive side of the equation. It's up to architects and superintendents to provide natural-looking features that cause deflection and frustration and that require both skill and patience to negotiate. That's the defensive side of golf.
4. Read all landing areas as if they were greens
My experience is that the longer the shot, the less players look at the ground and the more they simply focus on their swing. But golf is really an extended chess game with yourself on a bigger, three-dimensional board. It helps to have an idea what's going to happen when the ball lands and rolls out. That means thinking strategically and reading the ground game from the very start. Start thinking about fairways as big greens and figure out which way it's sloped and position your shot accordingly.
5. The back tees are irrelevant
Too much discussion in golf concerns what happens off the back tee box. Yet less than 1 percent of all play is from those markers, and the vast majority of golfers using them aren't paying a green fee because they are "industry comps" like golf pros or competitive college players. Instead of worrying about a 6,900-yard layout being too short for championship play, golfers ought to focus on the tees better suited for their game, whether that is 6,200 yards or 5,200 yards. If a layout isn't fun, enjoyable and accessible from those tees, then 90 percent of all golfers will have a miserable time.
6. If you want to play it like the pros, finish out your two-foot putts
Way too many high handicappers think they're going to "play it like the pros do" when they tee off from the back markers. But pros don't hit driver, 4-wood, 7-iron, lob wedge to get to a 460-yard par-4. They hit driver and middle- or short-iron. So play that same hole from 370-380 yards and you'll get a better feel for how the hole was designed.
And if you really want to feel like a pro, then finish out those two-foot comebackers rather than automatically raking them in for a gimme.
7. Walk, don't ride
If you want to get the lay of the land, walk and take the time to look as you stroll. Riding a great golf course in a motorized cart is like watching other people have sex. You'll deprive yourself of the time and sensibility needed to appreciate the land if you breeze by at 10 mph.
8. Read all about it
There's fine tradition of writing about golf course architecture. A little background study can be a real eye opener to the craft and help you hone your eye for your next round. Of the hundreds of books out there, I'd start with two classic works and two modern ones: Alistair MacKenzie, Golf Architecture (1920); George C. Thomas Jr., Golf Architecture in America (1927); Tom Doak, The Anatomy of a Golf Course (1992); and Rough Meditations (2006) by Yours truly.