Feed on

Having just finished my first reading of Darwin’s Golf Courses of the British Isles, my interest in historic courses and architects has grown.   While I wait for the release of the TV series I’ve been passing the time by poking around the internet and happened to stumble upon a report entitled Golf Courses as Designed Landscapes of Historic Interest.   Authored by representatives of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects, the report was commissioned by English Heritage with the intent of providing a recommendation on the historical significance of pre-1975 English golf courses.  The final product is much more than a simple list – it’s a 70 page history lesson on the evolution of golf’s playing fields.  The growth of the game is traced, though course construction, from its Scottish origins all the way though the Golden Age of the 20′s and 30′s and into the post-war era.

I can’t claim to be anything more than an armchair architect.  It’s only since discovering and embracing traditional forms of golf that I’ve really been thinking much about course design at all.  I taught myself to play the game and nobody ever took me aside and explained to me how course aesthetics are intertwined with playing strategy.  Perhaps that’s why the section of this report which describes architectural philosophies was so helpful for me.  Here’s how the authors sort the various design “schools”:


  • The Penal School of Golf Course Design: “Golf up to the mid-19th century had normally been played by using the feathery ball (a feather filled, leather ball) and wooden clubs. Given the rather primitive playing equipment available, golf was in the main played as a ground game; only the most skilled players were able to consistently send the feathery ball through the air. Thus the poorly hit shot that scuttled along the ground defined the lack of ability of the majority of those playing the game. Regarding themselves as bastions of the game of golf, the golf professionals detested this low-running topped shot, and they set out to punish such poor shotmaking in the golf holes they helped create. In order to achieve this, the early designers placed the hazards directly across the line of play of the hole. Often rudimentary and crude in shape, scale and steepness of slope, these obstacles became barriers to the weaker players since they were placed at such a distance from the tee, or between the landing area for the tee shot and the green, that they would often fail to ‘carry’ the ball over them…”
  • The Strategic School of Golf Course Design: “Taking inspiration from the original example of a strategic course – the Old Course at St Andrews in its widened form – architects began to realise the advantages of offering alternative routes to the green which allowed the thinking golfer to avoid the need to ‘carry’ vast hazards and thereby play the course within his own level of ability. Alister MacKenzie recognised in particular the strategic qualities of the par-5 14th hole on the Old Course. During a week playing the course with some friends, he noted the four different routes that each took to get to the green.  The enlightened architects of the Golden Age concentrated on considered green and bunker placement that offered varied routes of play and strengthened the strategic nature of the game. Though the number of hazards had not been reduced, repositioning the hazards in thought-provoking positions no longer penalised only the poor topped shot of the weaker player. Hazards were located in places to catch the sliced or hooked shot, and to cover the shorter route to the green. Players of all abilities were now faced with a stiff, yet fair, challenge dependent upon how much they were willing to gamble from the tee…”
  • The Heroic School of Golf Course Design: “Further evolution in design thinking by the mid-20th century produced a third design philosophy – heroic design – that embodied the best principles of both the penal and strategic design schools. It had already existed to some extent on earlier golf courses where golf course architects utilised natural features such as ravines, ponds or natural coastline, but the advent of large-scale earth-movement machinery (and, later, man-made pond liners) allowed large lakes to be constructed to provide the ultimate man-made hazard for the creation of a heroic hole.  The basic tenet of heroic design is to challenge the golfer with penal hazards set on a diagonal to the normal line of play which allows the golfer to play according to his/her abilities – the more of the hazard risked, the greater the reward. As in strategic design, the weaker player can often avoid the hazard completely, although he/she is normally penalised on the next shot by a longer or more difficult angle of approach to the green. The stronger, more accomplished player who takes more risk from the tee is often rewarded with a much easier or shorter approach than the golfer who risked nothing. It can be argued that heroic design mirrors penal design in providing a disproportionate advantage to the best players…”


Some examples given for hole or course designs of the types listed above:

Penal Golf Design/Architecture

Westward Ho! Royal North Devon
Royal Lytham & St Annes
Royal St Georges

Strategic Golf Design/Architecture

Sunningdale Old Course
Walton Heath
Woking Hole No.4
Moortown (Gibraltar Hole)

Heroic Golf Design/Architecture

Brabazon Course at The Belfry, 1977 (holes 10 and 18 in particular)


Additionally, the seven site types are defined and discussed (there will surely be overlap and subjectivity within the descriptions and definitions but I consider it a worthwhile resource all the same):

  1. Links
  2. Parkland
  3. Heathland
  4. Moorland
  5. Woodland
  6. Common
  7. Downland

All these topics are covered in the first 30 of 70 pages so I encourage you to browse the entire document at your leisure.  To me, understanding golf course design is not about name dropping and talking down to other members of your club but simply about maximizing enjoyment of the game while respecting its history.  The better you understand the routes, hazards, and options that the course and its architect are presenting you, the more rewarding and dynamic the golfing experience becomes.  The more we understand the history of our great golf courses, the less likely we are to stand by idly like we did in the 80′s and 90′s while Jack Nicklaus and Rees Jones were exploring their visions of what modern golf should look like.




Photo Credit: David Cannon

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.