The 'string theory' of golf course architecture

The 'string theory' of golf course architecture

Indirect approaches can often be the best - and most fun - way to play a shot.
The Creek Club at Reynolds Lake Oconee, designed by Jim Engh, features some extreme greenside gathering slopes that reward indirect play.

I could never pretend to have anything more than a fool's understanding of more than the most basic physics concepts, but as far as I understand it, string theory posits that the most efficient path between two points in space may not, in fact, be a straight line. (Physicists, feel free to correct me/add nuance in the comments!)

Believe it or not, that's also often true in golf course design, as Bill Coore suggested back in January at the PGA Merchandise Show.

During that whirlwind week, I had the opportunity to attend a lunchtime talk given by both Coore and David McLay Kidd, two of the best and best-known contemporary golf course architects. Both gentlemen have been busy - Coore and partner Ben Crenshaw are finishing up the new Ozarks National course at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri, and Kidd's Mammoth Dunes course at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Wisconsin fully opened this spring.

During the Q&A portion of the event, Coore told a story about a moment that awakened his interest in golf course architecture. He recalled a short par three at a course near his childhood home in the mountains of North Carolina with a green defended short, right and long by a stream. Left of the green was a mound that sloped onto the green. The young Coore would take on the flag directly, sometimes making birdies but also carding plenty of bogeys and doubles after ending up in the creek. Meanwhile, a neighbor with whom Coore often played the course would use a left-side slope to bounce his tee shot down onto the green for safe pars and occasional birdies. When the neighbor convinced Coore of the utility of this feature, an interest that sparked one of golf course design's most influential careers was born.

Here's where string theory comes in. On many great golf holes, the best route from Point A to Point B is emphatically not the direct one, try as many golfers might to make it so. A flat, arrow-straight hole where an arrow-straight tee shot and an arrow-straight approach are required makes for boring golf. Hazards and terrain features that break up this monotony help make the playing of the game compelling and addictive.

In The Spirit of St. Andrews, Alister Mackenzie wrote of The Old Course, "There is hardly a hole where the correct line is direct from the tee to green. We have pointed out before where [fellow architect] Max Behr says the direct line is the line of instinct and if we wish to make a hole interesting we must break up that line and create the line of charm." There is much to say about Behr's "line of charm," but one way it works its way into memorable holes and courses is on the ground. That's why links golf, with its humps and bumps and firm turf, is so much fun.

On that influential hole from Bill Coore's youth, repeated play and some overdue open-mindedness revealed the wisdom of using the terrain to answer the question posed by the architect. As a design duo, Coore and Crenshaw burst onto the scene with their seminal Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska opened in 1995. Sand Hills heralded a return to the classic ways of golf course design that had fallen by the wayside, particularly in America, in the decades since World War II. Since about 1940, new golf courses had tended to become straightforward in their strategic demands, with narrowing fairways, clearly visible bunkers and water features providing much of the challenge. As golf became a primarily aerial game, the existing terrain became less relevant as both a hazard and a helper.

Sand Hills, by sharp contrast, features firm and fast turf where the golfer is constantly encouraged - and indeed requires, sometimes - to use the ground to shepherd the ball around the course. It's one of the reasons why the course is hailed as the best built in modern times, and it has thus influenced countless latter-day architects, who recognize the value - both strategic and pleasurable - of the option of using clever angles and slopes to navigate a golf course in the lowest possible number of strokes. What's more, many classic courses, where this sort of golf was encouraged all along but whose brilliance was blunted as design and maintenance tastes changed during the latter 20th century, have been given new life by greens committees and architects who recognize just how much fun this sort of golf is.

Three great "string theory" golf holes

1. The Greenbrier (Old White TPC) | White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. | hole 8, par 3

The Redan, a classic golf hole "template" that appears on many courses, and not just those of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, has r long-iron tee shot demand combine to make a running, slope-riding shot the favorable alternative to a direct assault. It takes guts to take dead aim at a dangerous flag, but it takes true confidence to play away from the target, trusting that the ground will bring the ball to where it needs to be.

2. Caledonia Golf & Fish Club | Pawleys Island, S.C. | hole 16, par 4

Caledonia and its sister course, True Blue Golf Club, stand out as courses that really stoked my own interest in golf course design. A lot of their brilliance, courtesy of architect Mike Strantz, comes in the form of green contours that reward indirect play. At the 16th hole, a tough par 4, a right-hand hole location seems impossible to access, hanging out just past a pond as it does. But insiders know that a ball that lands as much as 25 feet long and left will make a slow descent back down toward the cup. It's a sort of drama that few courses offer.

3. Reynolds Lake Oconee (The Creek Club) | Greensboro, Ga. | various holes

I've had the opportunity to see some fun greens in my time, but no single set of 18 goes farther with this concept than those at The Creek Club. On several occasions, it is possible (and even advisable) to aim as much as 15 or 20 yards away from a pin in order to let the funnel effect bring it toward the hole. Massive punchbowl features surround many greens, leading to some pretty hysterical results. It's not uncommon to totally misplay a shot, only to see it wind up five feet from the hole. The Creek Club is one of those courses that I wouldn't want to be the only course I play regularly, but it's absolutely a must-see, unique golf experience. (Though the Creek Club is private, you will have the opportunity to play it this October if you attend a Golf Advisor Getaway to Reynolds Lake Oconee. Sign up here.) What are your favorite "string theory" golf holes? Be sure to share your nominations with us below!

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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The 'string theory' of golf course architecture