The Hypocrisy of Unusual Golf Course Designs

Today I'd like to address hypocrisy I encounter all the time.

Well, my instinct is to call it hypocrisy, but I'll wait to hear your take on it.

I'm talking about some of the more unusual golf course design features out there.

Two great examples are the Biarritz green (photo at right) and greens with "buried elephants," or a horseshoe in the case of the above photo of Forsgate CC in New Jersey.

There are plenty of other examples, too. You know, the ones that, if designed today, would raise eyebrows in a disapproving way.

And that's my point:

When these features are created by Golden Age architects such as C.B. Macdonald, Seth Raynor, and Charles Banks, they're considered "genius," but when a modern architect does something even approaching this kind of thing, it gets labeled, "tricked up."

It's as if these "quirky-but-classic" features get a pass because they were made before the advent of modern earthmoving equipment.

Don't get me wrong; I love all this unusual stuff.

But to me, a golf course design feature is either good or it's not, regardless of whether it was made by C.B. Macdonald or Ronald McDonald.

Do you agree? And, would a modern-day architect be able to get away with features as "drastic" as these, or would he/she be committing career suicide?

Let me know what you think or read what others are saying below.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine,, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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I agree with Pablo above the 16th at North Berwick is a crazy green but its alot of fun to play, I would love to see more green like that on golf courses. If you live in North America I would definitely recommend a trip to Ireland and Scotland it will change your entire outlook on golf. Golf has gotten so boring in north america especially around the greens - the majority of courses offer on type of shot for recover whereas the UK you can pretty much play any shot. There's just not alot of imagination around the greens or run-ups to greens here.

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Many of the classic course quirks were incorporated natural elements - earthmoving equipment was man and beast, which didn't allow the flexibility one has today. Having said that, reasonable, tasteful incoporation still works (Sawgrass #17). An example of what is ludicrous is many of the holes at Dismal River in Mullen, NE. #10 has a scrub sand bunker in the middle of the green - absurd. And if it is an attempt at Riviera #6, it fails miserably. The entire course is the most poorly designed course I've ever played.

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I like a Biarritz green once in a while. Have played them with the swale running horizontally, like at Saucon Valley, and others that run vertically. Don't like the tricked-up horseshoe pictured, but an elephant green is OK if not too severe. One at the Cascades (No. 15 if I recall correctly) is pretty tough but I found it a thrill to play. Really enjoyed Tobacco Road. A lot of visual intimidation but the greens were fine, as I recall. It's hard to keep hole design out of the picture but the key is will a portion of the green accept the well-struck shot from the usual distance required by the hole.

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I don't think anyone can realy comment with authority until they've experienced these features firsthand.

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A few greens that make a player cry,cuss,laugh and remember would be a big improvement over some of the pro-proofed 7,500 yard garbage that seems to be all the rage in modern golf course architecture.

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usually in the "tricked up" greens a feature segments the green into two, three or four target areas. If you're in the wrong area you're in trouble. If the architect matches the size of the target to the club being used then I'm all for fun, challenging greens. Take 17 at sawgrass. That green is huge! The hole only plays 120 to 140 yards so if it was a basic par 3, players would say it's an easy, boring hole. But make it an island and now it's gimmicky. I like a challenging hole but, like many people have stated, I don't want 18 of them.

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When the 'Classics' were designed, there was very little, if any, watering or irrigation of the course. And the site was usually sand based with a firm surface. Add this to the equipment then versus now and the type of shots that produced success are very different.
The classic designs were great for low running shots (Biarritz, for example) but seem very peculiar when the surface is watered and soft and the approach shot is with a lofted club that struck a Pro V1.

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Ed, I agree with you about Prestwick and Lahinch but then you have Doonbeg which has a bunker in the middle of one green and a stone wall in front of another and they do not work at all.
I guess you need the right architect and venue to make these things work.

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I know that I started as a hypocrite, but I’m trying hard to be more objective. It might not be that I give the benefit of the doubt to older designs; it may just be that you better appreciate the craziness of the older courses, knowing that it’s been played that way (by all the greats) for the past 90+ years.
When I first started to appreciate (and evaluate) golf course architecture, my golf was limited to public and some private courses in NJ/PA, which struck me as traditional at the time. I would see newer, more unusual designs that were occasionally more penal on vacations (e.g. target golf). I simply labeled them "tricked up", played them and had some fun. "Tricked up" had a bit of a negative connotation, in my mind.
When I was exposed to St. Andrews, Lahinch, Yale, Fischer's Island, Augusta and the like, you begin to question what you called tricked up. After that, you have to change your negative outlook on "tricked up" and change your definition of it. What I used to think was radical sloping for a green has changed over time (think of all the slope on #6 at Augusta). What I once labeled as tricked up, has shifted over time and I have embraced the quirkiness in the classics. And, tricked up can be pretty darn fun. I do believe that if the course is 90+ years old, I am far more apt to celebrate what is presented to me and if the course is newer be a bit more critical. Objectivity is only an objective.

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Nothing as MAD as 16th green at North Berwick (and just after the famous and original Redan 15th) ... but I LOVE IT!!!
Definitley it would be impossible to play 18 holes like that one... but one or two -for a change- provides us not only a great challenge but also adds a refreshing sense for golf & life.

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