Common Golf Hole Designs

Redan holes, Cape holes, the Biarritz, the Punchbowl—Seth Raynor spent the 1920s reinterpreting a hit parade of classic British hole designs. A contemporary course architect tells us why.

By: Brian Silva

Modern architects are often criticized for repeating themselves, yet Seth Raynor—a design genius and the man responsible for such renowned layouts as Fishers Island, Fox Chapel, Camargo and Shoreacres—laid out all his courses according to a predictable formula. He repeated himself continually.


Raynor and his mentor, Charles Blair Macdonald, were like composers turning out subtle variations on a musical theme. In designing their courses, they purposely replicated famous holes from cherished British layouts. “The courses in Great Britain abound in classic and notable holes,” wrote Macdonald a century ago. “One only has to study these and adopt their best and boldest features.”


And adopt these gentleman did, unabashedly reproducing versions of such classic holes as Redan, Biarritz, Eden and Alps. They weren’t building pure replicas, such as we find today at novelty courses like Tour 18 in Houston and Royal Links in Las Vegas—instead they were seizing on a concept and adapting it to the varying conditions and topographies of their sites.


Raynor took several of Macdonald’s favorites—including the Cape hole and the Double Plateau green—and installed them in his permanent repertoire. Raynor is not alone in his sincere flattery. Other architects have seen the value in adapting and reproducing the strategic building blocks of the classic holes. If not actively, they have done so unconsciously, falling in line with my firmly held belief that there are only 50 original golf holes in the world—the other 500,000 or so are mere variations on established themes.


Over the past decade, I have included my own versions of Raynor-Macdonald classics at courses like Cape Cod National and Red Tail Golf Club in Massachusetts, and especially at Black Creek, a new course near Chattanooga, Tennessee. By name, these oft-copied template holes, if you will, aren’t so widely known (save perhaps the famous 15th at North Berwick, better known as the Redan). Further, when they are known, their design concepts are often misunderstood.


So what makes a Redan a Redan? Is it just an angled green fronted by a hazard? Egad, no! Like the other “Raynor standards,” versions of which he faithfully included in every course he laid out, the Redan begins with an idea. And that idea has to do with a particular shotmaking challenge and the emotions that challenge invokes. Indeed, these standards are good enough that contemporary architects and golfers would do well to continue learning from their examples. Let’s examine them one at a time:



While the word itself was coined to describe the 15th at North Berwick, Redan has come to mean a specific manner of green complex. Macdonald described it best: “Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.” Raynor and Macdonald generally outfitted their Redans with an exaggerated “kick-back” slope in the approach and front section of the green. This Indy 500-type turn encourages players to bump and run their approach shots into this embankment and onto the green.


Part of the fun of a Redan is watching the ball kick onto the green and roll. You can try to fly a ball onto a Redan green, but they are usually quite shallow, framed by penal bunkers front and back. And because they can have a front-to-rear slope of up to five feet, best of luck playing dart-board golf on a Redan. The 4th at the National Golf Links of America and the 5th at Yeamans Hall are wonderful examples of the Redan. Some clubs went back for seconds: Fishers Island with the par-3 2nd and par-5 8th, Fox Chapel with its par-4 1st and par-3 6th. At Black Creek, the par-3 7th and 11th holes, plus too many non-par-3 greens to mention, are all Redan adaptations.


It’s important to remember a couple of things about this Raynor standard: Classic Redans play right to left—but they can also be oriented left to right. In those cases (both at Fox Chapel and at Black Creek’s No. 7) they become reverse or mirror Redans. Second, vintage Redans were in the range of 190 yards (a strong par 3 in the early days of golf) and work best as long holes where the greens receive lengthy approaches. The lower trajectory of such shots means the ball rolls more readily when it hits the ground and therefore responds to the Redan’s kick-back grading that is a key element to these golf holes.



Often modeled on Macdonald’s 14th at NGLA, the Cape hole is all about risk and reward. Generally playing around a large lateral hazard of some sort, players bite off what they dare. The more successful the bite, the bigger the reward. A variety of Cape types exist: The 14th at NGLA features a green that juts into a sea of sand, while the Big Daddy of Capes—the par-4 5th at Mid Ocean—allows for one of the great bite-off drives in all of golf. Just as the Cape 14th at Fishers Island rewards a drive hit close to the marsh down the left side of the drive zone, so does the 15th at Black Creek. Indeed, this downhill par 4 is drivable if a player manages his risk boldly and successfully (conversely, if the player bails out too far right with his drive, his angle of approach to the green becomes inordinately difficult).



This doesn’t require much explanation. Raynor’s Short holes generally require a mere pitch, often dramatically downhill, to a plateau green that drops off sharply on all sides, typically into seas of sand. The putting surfaces themselves tend to feature a horseshoe contour or rounded depression. Fine examples of the Short range from the 10th at Chicago Golf Club (with its not one but two rounded green depressions) to the ultra-Short 6th at Lookout Mountain. The Short hole at Black Creek, doughnut depression and all, is the downhill 3rd.



Adapted from the “chasm” hole at the original Willie Dunn course in Biarritz, France, this par 3 was an eye-popper from the start. Raynor wasn’t deterred from repeating this standard despite the fact that, early on, it was referred to as “Macdonald’s Folly.” Why the nickname? Architects of the day were a tad skeptical of a putting surface fully 80 yards long and bisected by a chasm some five feet deep.


As with the Redan, the real fun of a Biarritz is watching the ball as it lands on the front portion, starts to roll and disappears into the swale, then reappears (one often hopes) on the back portion. Biarritz adaptations come in several varieties: At Fishers Island and Lookout Mountain, where the front portion and swale of the Biarritzs were designed as fairway; at Fox Chapel, the swale and front portion of the green have been grown in as fairway; at Yale and St. Louis, the approach and swale areas are appropriately maintained as putting surface. In most cases, bunkers flank either side of the lengthy green, as they do at Black Creek’s Biarritz 17th.



No mystery here: a putting surface shaped like a huge punchbowl—a not uncommon 19th-century design scheme whereby greens were positioned in existing depressions to capture and conserve as much moisture as possible. Raynor’s variations on this theme hinge on the amount of approach or fairway area that’s incorporated into the punchbowl. The Fox Chapel and Westhampton varieties feature Punchbowls that are basically green-only, while the National’s punchbowl 16th encompasses a good amount of fairway and approach.


The 4th at Fishers Island falls in between, while the Black Creek Punchbowl (at the par-5 6th) includes the green, green surrounds and 50 yards of approach. It also plays completely blind, taking full advantage of the punchbowl effect: Balls hit well left or right of the directional pole (another lift from 19th-century golf—see Carnoustie, North Berwick, Fox Chapel and Lookout Mountain, among others) are invariably gathered in by the forgiving, concave approach and green complex. Be forewarned: The Punchbowl giveth and it taketh away. Hitting one is easy; putting on one can be decidedly difficult.



Macdonald’s original inspiration for this standard was the 11th at St. Andrews: a shallow green with severe back-to-front pitch, fronted by fearsome pot bunkers and framed to the rear by the Eden River. Raynor’s version at Fishers Island (the 11th) may be one of the best and is surely the most photogenic, with Long Island Sound in the background.



The original Alps—the 17th at Prestwick—is aptly named: A huge dune makes the green blind from the fairway; said dune must be carried on the approach, likewise the deep cross-bunker fronting the green. Macdonald first adapted the Alps for his wondrous 3rd at NGLA. Raynor’s subsequent Alps homages, while less spectacular, all featured some sort of blind approach.


Double Plateau

Inspired by Macdonald, this Raynor standard features a specific green design. Imagine a three-level putting surface shaped like an “L”: The short leg of the “L” is one level, which descends to a separate lower level running through the middle of the green. The rear section of the green—the narrowest part of the putting surface—rises to form the third level. It’s three greens in one and players need to be keenly aware of hole location when placing their tee shots. The 9th at Fishers Island is as scenic (with Long Island Sound in the background) and exacting (with a nasty front bunker) as any Double Plateau in existence. The ingenious 17th at Lookout Mountain places premium value on tee-shot placement. The opening hole at Black Creek presents that course’s version of the Double Plateau. It is there to alert golfers they are in for a course and a round that is out of the ordinary.


Because Raynor’s work exists today mainly at exclusive, low-profile clubs, it’s not easy to experience the Raynor standards and truly appreciate their exquisite variations. But, for those fortunate enough to familiarize themselves with the classic hole concepts of Raynor and Macdonald, the rewards are numerous. Their hearts quicken as they arrive at a Raynor course they haven’t played before. Likely they will wonder, what’s the Redan like here? Or, which is the Punchbowl? And certainly, do you think the Biarritz is all green?


Repetition, in the right hands, can be a beautiful thing.


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