The flow of a course’s holes and how they sit together has a huge influence on golfing enjoyment
The sequencing of golf holes and how they are laid out on the ground – their length, orientation, direction and relationship to other holes – affects the golfer’s perceptions and memorability of the golf experience. In Forest Richardson’s book ‘Routing the Golf Course’, the author talks about this in a section devoted to the Psychology of the Golf Journey. He discusses how the arrangement of golf holes can influence golfers’ emotions, aesthetic responses, the tempo of play, their sense of space and orientation. – Ben Davey
Recently we have had the opportunity to work on two very different projects on opposite sides of the equator – one in Beijing, China; the other in Perth, Australia – but both demonstrate how course routing can influence the quality of the golf experience and how, when poorly executed, course routing can have a negative impact on the golfing experience.
The Double Eagle Golf Club is located in the southern suburbs of Beijing about 40 kilometres from the city centre. It is located in a very wide and dry river valley, dominated by deep river sands and is susceptible to summer flooding. The Club consists of two golf courses, the North and South courses, both of which were constructed around 2005. The courses are a very good example of extremely poor construction, and misguided golf course design that attempted to create courses that were exceedingly difficult, but offered no variety, no variation and certainly no fun for any level of golfer. The very fact that the course was unplayable for many golfers, and that the drainage and irrigation systems were both beyond repair, on a golf course less than 10 years old, illustrates how poorly the original courses were designed and built.
Besides the forced water carries, the ridiculous length of many holes, and the scatterings of seemingly randomly located and appallingly built bunkers, probably the most visually offensive design element was the ‘separation mounding’ between holes. Placed there obviously in an ill-informed attempt to visually and physically separate golf holes from each other, on what is a very small site, no attempt had been made to tie the mounding back into the shaping of the fairways. In 2012 we were invited to prepare a masterplan for the ‘redesign’ of all 36 holes and the same year, we commenced reconstruction of the South Course.
The design brief from our client complicated matters considerably! The front nine of the South Course is located adjacent to Beijing’s 6th Ring Road, which is an elevated highway that circles the city – similar to London’s M25. Given the sensitivities associated with golf courses – even existing ones – in Beijing, the last thing our client wanted was a huge dusty construction site, and especially tree removal, which could be seen from the elevated highway, perhaps by a passing black Audi hiding away an opportunistic Government Official. So with no tree removal permitted (except late at night!) and with the local flood authority also closely watching what was going on, those separation mounds which we so despised had to remain, and on the front nine at least, rerouting the holes was not really possible.
Fortunately, the most offensive holes were on the back nine, further from the highway so no prying eyes – especially holes 12-16, which were squeezed into a tight corner of the site. Those five narrow holes were all about 350 metres in length and went back and forth, all perfectly parallel, and separated by mounds around four metres high. As described so succinctly in ‘Routing the Golf Course’, the total lack of imagination in the routing of this part of the course left the golfer bored and confused, as the similarity of this stretch of holes was relentless. Fortunately, we were able to convince our client of the need to dramatically change this atrocious part of the course.
More than 8,000 kilometres away, Rottnest Island is located 18 kilometres off the coast of Perth, in the Indian Ocean. Whilst the dramas at Double Eagle were playing out for us, in the relentless heat and constant grey haze of the northern hemisphere summer of 2012, at the same time, so too were dramatically different problems being solved at Rottnest Island’s nine-hole golf course, in a mild and always crisply clear and bright, Western Australian winter. The contrast between the two project sites, simultaneously in construction, was always a shock to the senses!
The Rottnest Island Golf Course was founded in 1961 and designed and built by the then Islands manager, Des Sullivan, with the help of local golf professional Neville Johnston. Due to the Mediterranean climate (very dry, hot summers and mild, wet winters) and almost total lack of fresh water on the island, the course was only playable in winter when a thin cover of seasonal winter grass would return to the otherwise dry and dusty fairways. The ‘greens’ were of the sand variety – sand scrapes as they are known – and the tees consisted of synthetic turf on elevated brick boxes. The course is located near the main town on the island, and has been laid out in a bowl between sand dunes on the north and west, and hyper saline lakes to the south. These lakes are actually slightly below sea level, so most of the fairways and old greens were no more than a few centimetres above sea level, with a very salty water table just below. Most of the course is very flat, but the flatness gives way to sudden rises in to the sand dunes on two sides. Several of the tees are located up in the dunes and play down to the flat fairways, and only two greens (the 2nd and the 4th) were naturally elevated.
In 2012 after many years of pestering by several determined souls led by long-time Club member John Birkett, it was finally decided that the course would get its long-overdue irrigation system. The water source would be the treated effluent water generated by the small town on the island, produced from the town’s desalinated water supply. This water, which was being treated, then released back into the Indian Ocean, would be stored and reused on the golf course. The peak production of effluent was the summer holiday period, and this would coincide with the peak water demand for the newly turfed golf course.
As part of the irrigation works, this was an opportunity to construct (and possibly relocate) nine new ‘real’ putting greens, nine new sets of tees, and in doing so, examine other opportunities to reroute the course to make better use of the land. In a similar fashion to Double Eagle, the biggest negative of the routing was the rather bland back-and-forth character of consecutive holes – namely holes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. But in stark contrast, no dirt had been moved during the original construction, and other than some unnecessary tree planting, no attempt had been made to physically separate them. We prepared a masterplan for the golf course, but very early on in the process discovered that environmental issues to do with native tree removal and the native marsupial known as a ‘quokka’, and the construction budget – 80 per cent of which would go on the irrigation system – were going to limit what could be done to re-route the course. And of course, there was the historical and emotional significance of the old layout that we needed to respect as well, so unlike at Double Eagle, we retained the routing, but built new tees and greens that gave the holes individual character. In addition, by removing some of the non-indigenous planted trees between holes, joining fairways together and thereby removing their obvious boundaries, we created a greater sense of openness, and space.
The nine new greens we built each have a very different character and we made a concerted effort to ensure there was variety, contrast, flexibility and fun to be had. After all, golf on Rottnest is usually played as a casual holiday affair, so why not do something a bit wild and different? Because the cut-and-fill method of construction was not an option, we had to import sand from a nearby quarry to build up the new greens. The logistics of trucking in the sand, on an island where there are no private vehicles permitted and where the main form of transportation is bicycle, and where all machines and supplies had to be put on a daily barge from Fremantle, made construction even more complex – and expensive. The construction and maintenance budget didn’t allow for bunkers, so all the interest and variety had to be in the greens. It is fair to say that those parallel holes, that used to have sameness about them when played to their old circular, flat, sand scrapes, now have individual character and complexity, and most importantly, the new seashore paspalum greens and surrounds are loads of fun to play.
The overall masterplan for Rottnest Island includes far more than just the greens and tees. We also proposed the introduction of sandy waste areas – low maintenance, natural, sandy ground that would act as a natural hazard. In addition there is a dry ‘creek’ that crosses the course, connecting a small pond (Lockeys Lake) to one of the hyper saline lakes near the 2nd tee. We suggested this could be partially converted into a Scottish-style ‘burn’ where it crosses the 3rd, 4th and 5th fairways! The intention is to use the railway sleepers from an old train line on the island to construct the walls of the burn and the several bridges that would cross it. It would remain dry most of the year, but be an interesting and strategically located hazard for golfers. For several reasons – most of them to do with the budget – these works remain just a vision for now.
The solution meanwhile back in Beijing required far more drastic action. Whilst on the front nine we redesigned and rebuilt all the tees, greens and bunkers to add a strategic dimension to the play of the holes and produce greens that were far more interesting – but which retained the same routing – the back nine was essentially a ‘start-again’. Fortunately the budget here was not an issue!
The old 10th hole, which was a tediously long, narrow and boring 580-metre (640 yard) par-5, provided the key to enabling other changes, because by effectively splitting it into two holes – a shorter par-5 of 480 metres (530 yards), followed by a par-3 of 145 metres (160 yards), it freed up space on the remainder of the nine so that holes 17 and 18 could remain in their same configuration but holes 12-16 had more space available to be rerouted into.
The most obvious contrast (refer to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings) is the change in direction, angle, length and width of the new holes. No longer is there that sense of simply playing back and forth in one direction, and the new holes have sometimes subtle and other times quite obvious doglegs where there is a bail-out side away from trouble, but from where the approach shot is longer and more difficult. New holes 13, 14 and 16 are examples of this. By removing most of the separation mounding, we were also able to give the holes more width, and thereby have holes with more options from the tee or for the approach. For example the approach to the short par-5 10th can be laid up short of greenside bunkers, or can be played down the more dangerous left side, making the green reachable or leaving a simple pitch. The 15th hole (see inset) and also the 18th are now much wider and there are a variety of ways of playing each hole.
‘How course routing affects a golfer’s emotions, perceptions of space and orientation and the degree to which they have to think, strongly influences the satisfaction the player derives from the game.’
The most pleasing aspect of the redesign however, is that it is difficult to believe that the new holes occupy basically the same land as the old. By removing the mounding, introducing angles, change of direction and complexity to the routing, there is suddenly a sense of space and openness that was sorely missing. And whilst the old 12th through 16th holes were all so similar and bland that they could be confused with one another, the new holes – as reported by the members and visitors who play them – are distinctly memorable.
The psychology of the golf journey – how course routing affects a golfer’s emotions, perceptions of space and orientation, and the degree to which a golfer has to think, weigh up options and solve problems, strongly influences the enjoyment, the memorability and satisfaction the player derives from a game. If done very well, the way a course has been routed should not be even apparent to the majority of golfers, or those not well versed in golf course design. When done badly however, even the novice is able to see something is wrong.
The original routing of Double Eagle South Course, was an abomination that has been partially fixed. Other problems remain, and the need to retain trees planted on those mounds will always irritate me, but the course is now a far more enjoyable, aesthetically pleasing golf course for all levels of player.
There was nothing in particular wrong with the routing of Rottnest Island; perhaps the most obvious criticism is that instead of simply using the ‘bowl’ between the sand dunes for siting the fairways and greens, and having the tees up in the dunes, it would have been great to have had some greens in the dunes as well. I’m sure Des Sullivan had his reasons, perhaps because level ground was required to build the sand-scrape greens? Perhaps also one day the course will be extended to 18 holes to the west, with a new clubhouse site – as we have prepared plans for! But then again it took 20 years to just get an irrigation system from the Government’s Rottnest Island Authority. Likewise the North course at Double Eagle remains as it was: An ugly duckling next to its revamped sister. It will no doubt remain so until the politics regarding golf in China are resolved. I’m not holding my breath on either happening very soon…