How you can be a golf course architecture junkie

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

Royal Dornoch's 2nd hole repels errant shots with vicious bunkers and runoffs.

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

Chambers Bay was set up to play nearly 7,700 yards from the championship tees during the 2015 U.S. Open.

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

Walking a golf course is the best way to get a feel for the architecture.

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.

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
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Good luck on your new adventures, Brad! I am anxious to keep in touch and see where this next chapter of your career takes you!!!

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Brad, We met a few times in the years I was active with the Ross Society. Nice memories! This is a fine piece, and I hope just an appetitive-whetter for those of us who think of Golf aesthetically as much as competitively. I might disagree that points 5, 6, and 7 doenough justice to the notion or architectural appeal (though I fully agree with them). I look forward to future articles of yours which address course aspects like hole variety, strategic set-up, the blending of natural elements (water, trees, elevations, rocky outcroppings) with design features like bunkers, tiered greens, elevated tees. The aesthetic side of Golf cannot be underestimated, the shaping and undulations like a beautiful woman’s body can reside in my memory for years, even if I played the course only once. So, write on!!

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Great first article with your new position! Your expertise will really help the millions of viewers of the Golf Channel learn substantially about Golf Course Architecture. I hope you are featured often!
Best Regards,
Tom Schneider
St. Louis, MO

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Wonderful,concise, well written article by an extremely bright guy. I continue to learn from you and to enjoy your knowledge. I hope golfers heed your advice regarding playing from the correct tees and finishing out their putting. All the Best to you going forward in your new position

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Truer words were never spoken. I play the 100 year old antique hickory clubs that my grandfather made. He was sent to America in 1897 by Old Tom Morris to be a pro/greenkeeper/club maker. I play at our home Club from tees that are 5300-5500 yards because the old stix don't hit the ball as far and are much less forgiving than modern clubs. Most everything in this article can be said about playing antique hickory as well.

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Excellent analysis of why most golfers don't enjoy the game from the tees they choose. Unless you can carry your drive over 250 yards,don't play a.course longer than 6500 yards. If you carry 225 yards, play at 6000 to 6250 That way you can " replicate the second shot of the average " pro

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Bradley -- Greetings! from beautiful Western NC. I found your article here very informative and refreshing.
Re: point no. 7 "Walk, don't ride" -- I have a tag on my golf bag which is likely 10 years old. It says 'USGA
Walking Golfer'. So just yesterday my golf buddies I were only able to walk after asking in the pro shop. (Broadmoor GC, Public Course, and highest rating for walkability).
The response was a polite " OK this time because it's not very busy, but our policy is walking only after 3 PM. Can you help point me in the right direction for support so that we can approach management and suggest that expanding their waking policy can be a win-win for management and players alike? I recollect years ago GOLF DIGEST championed a 3 part series advocating 'Your Right to Walk', but no help with a strategy for players to effectively approach management. I also recollect somebody referring to a National Golf Foundation report debunking the myth that walking slows down play. I'd love to have access to that article or something (credible, evidence-based) like it. An on-line "Society of Walking Golfers seems to be of little help with more than rhetoric about the benefits.

Thanks much, Bradley!

Jim Reed
age 73, USGA hndcp. 14

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I'm a Caddy in SW PA at a private club. At 73 (I'm a 72 yo looper) with a 14 Hndcp I'll take your loop any day of the week, walking that is !!! It's the walk that you truly enjoy the environment and the eye of Architect what He envisioned. Where to put your tee shot, approach to the green in relation to pin, part of placement plus what your strategy is in talking to your Caddy. It's the total package of enjoying you round. Takecare. Mr. Reed and hope ya shoot your age !!!!

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Great insights. Thank you. Wish more players would abide ~ they’d definitely have more fun and isn’t that what it’s all about!!

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Glad to see you are still active. You and The Forecaddie are the reasons I continuously re-subbed to Golfweek. I wonder if I'll ever get to all the architecture books I've purchased.

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I have severe vertigo and cant walk either uphill or downhill but still love Pebble or Ballybunion or Old Head in a cart

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How you can be a golf course architecture junkie