By Gil Hanse
I am a dinosaur when it comes to computer-aided design, still clinging to pencils (and usually golf pencils, at that), erasers, and sheets of tracing paper when sketching out a golf course. I wear out erasers, and when working directly on a topographical map I sometimes wear out the map. The first stage of course routing is not an easy or exact science, but rather a lot of stopping and starting, heading in one direction, hitting a dead end, and coming back to try again. Sometimes frustrating, often exhilarating, the process of discovery that starts in the field is just as much fun when it comes to putting it on paper.
But where to start? On most golf courses, it’s at the clubhouse. We are often tasked with determining this central location, where the course most naturally begins and reaches a fitting conclusion. However, sometimes this spot is already chosen for us by the client, meaning the routing process is immediately saddled with limitations.
We’d rather not be told where the clubhouse must go, instead allowing us to “find” the best golf course on the land and slot the clubhouse into the routing. Other directives can affect the decisions that go into creating the layout, among them returning nines, returning sixes (ideal for offering alternate, less time-consuming options for play, but difficult to accomplish because of the amount of land needed around the clubhouse), even the quality of the practice facilities. And we need to factor in how this course will be used: public vs. municipal, tournament or resort play, what kind of private club it will be. All impact the length and layout of the holes.
Let’s say we have no restrictions on where to go and what the course needs to be. We find what we feel to be good golf holes, identifying them on the plan, then work to connect them in an order that makes overall sense. We do not start with a plan to create a par-72, 7,500-yard golf course or any other form of standardization. When we have 18 holes, I put together a chart on the side that adds up the yardage, identifies the shapes of the holes (dogleg left or right), and then the refinement begins. Are we overloaded with one type of hole or one range of length? Do we need more variety? Is there enough change of direction in the routing—managing, in the language of the earliest course architects, to “box the compass”? Muirfield in Scotland is the course that is most frequently noted as the first to successfully tackle the change of direction in routing, as most courses of this era followed the out-and-back routing of the Old Course in St. Andrews.
As in life, variety is the spice of golf courses. I freely admit that as much as I would like to say that routing is a completely organic, find-the-best-holes-and-damn-the-rest exercise, we keep a mental checklist while plotting a layout. We may need to find a short par four, get the par threes to play in different directions, avoid making the second hole a par three (it slows play considerably), build a stunning finishing hole, etc. But while I come at the layout with my personal biases, it’s never with a set program or predetermined order of holes, as that would sap the energy and unique character of every piece of land we work with.
Think of each course as a giant jigsaw puzzle where if a piece doesn’t fit we move it aside and try another until we get what we feel is the best possible collection of holes on the property. Of the golden age courses, I believe that Merion East and Southern Hills are wonderful examples of how a routing accomplishes this goal of maximizing the potential and natural advantages of a property. Do we always get it right? That’s not for us to say. Each architect has different opinions, which is what makes any design process fascinating. What we do know is that by maximizing the site, creating interesting holes that hug the land, allowing the course to be walked easily, and emphasizing variety in the routing, we will always create something we can be proud of.