Can A Golf Course Be Too Natural?

By James A. Frank

Tara Iti, a Tom Doak design in New Zealand (Photo credit: L.C. Lambrecht)

 

Can a golf course be too natural? That question has been rattling around in my head for a while as I’ve been bouncing around looking at and playing courses new and old.

No one course prompted this thought. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a definitive answer. But the more I see swelling dunes and gigantic sand blow-outs, spidery bunkers and greens the size of helipads, the more I wonder if what we’re calling “natural” is anything but. And if those golfers lucky (or rich) enough to see these generally out-of-the-way, barely-touched-by-man wonders will quickly tire of terrain run rampant.

Grist was added to my pondering when, during a recent chat with a well-known golf course architect, he said something that stuck with me: “Architecture is about intervention.” He said that while he’s all for making the most of what nature provides, the architect’s job is to create something that makes good golf shots possible while allowing the eyes to “read” the property.

Around the world and throughout the U.S., incredibly beautiful courses are being laid upon the land. I’ve been privileged to see some of them and, almost without exception, been captivated. They’re big, bold, and dramatic, and are both challenging and, for the most part, fun. But I’m beginning to think of them a little like candy—a quick sugar rush of excitement and not very nourishing.

Tara Iti (Photo credit: L.C. Lambrecht)

 

I wonder if these are going to be courses that people will want to play day after day. Forget the cost and the difficulty of getting to them. Will we want to keep returning to courses that are built to be spectacles? That in many ways challenge what we think of as good golf? That are so visually overwhelming that they can be hard to read, and so idiosyncratic that playing well demands almost as much luck as talent?

These courses fit into a theory I’ve been espousing for a few years, about the difference between “visitor” and “everyday” golf. The everyday—usually private—course is for the player who returns every week if not more often, who gets to know every twist, turn, and break on the green, and whose joy comes from having repeated chances to play it properly and wring out the best score.

Visitor courses—resort and the best public—are largely a one-time experience. Since you may never come back, the course has to thrill, tease, and slap you in the face on every hole, sometimes every shot. You’ve paid your money and you want to be gob-smacked non-stop for four or more hours.

These requirements produce very different kinds of courses. Neither is right or wrong. They’re just different. My worry is that the new courses are doing way too much slapping around. And I wonder if they will stand the test of time.

Tara Iti (Photo credit: L.C. Lambrecht)

 

Of course, it isn’t simply because they are too natural. The Old Course at St. Andrews is pretty natural, as are many other courses around the world where the layout truly lays lightly upon the land and manages to enchant without taking you on a roller-coaster ride. And some of those great old courses have the occasional wacky feature, which over time comes to be regarded as “quaint” or “quirky” and is what we remember from our golf travels: Think of the Dell at Lahinch, the Church Pews at Oakmont, the tree in the middle of the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach.

But 18 holes of that?

Another problem with these “wow factor” courses, as we labeled them in the most recent issue of LINKS Magazine (Fall 2017), is that they, by necessity, cater to people who don’t mind spending big bucks to get to and play them. You could say the same about Pebble Beach, Sawgrass, and many other high-cost tracks, too. But right now, at a time when so few courses are being built (and too many are closing), this emphasis on “wow” seems to be pushing golf further and further from the average golfer and the new golfers the game needs.

I’m all for natural golf courses, for playing the game the way the land dictates. And these great new courses are a blast, worth playing, and show that there’s room for experimentation and variety in where we play. But I also agree that “intervention” is necessary—and some restraint, as well—so the golfer can have the best possible experience every time.

Something else my architect friend said was “Looking like it’s been there forever is not the same as natural.” Think about it.

38 thoughts on “Can A Golf Course Be Too Natural?

  1. I agree to an extent. Having played in Scotland, Ireland and places like Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits my enjoyment comes from playing courses that are different than what I play in Middle America. I like the challenge and adaptability that you must conjure up to get around these types of courses but I don’t know if I would like a steady diet of them. I will continue to make annual trips to these types of courses as they keep me interested in the game.

  2. Well said. As a 67 year old 19 handicap, I look at some of the wow courses and say I’ll pass, especially if they require walking on bad knees. Not sure I could climb in and out of the bunkers too. Unfortunately architects seem to be trying to build some wow factor into everyday courses too.

  3. As long as they have generous landing zones, minimal rough, easy to hit out of waste areas, and no elephants buried under the greens, I’m okay with these new style of courses.

  4. I agree but don’t really mind. Many of these newer natural courses are “manufactured natural” in that they mimic our idea of what is natural. That said, I plan to play Sand Valley next August and look forward to the trip.

  5. I think you’re spot-on with your observations. I (usually) like the “wow” of visitor courses, and have played some that stay as highlights in my memory due to the great visual experience (not necessarily in line with my actual play!). Some have been great, while some have been “over-done” (for my taste…might work for others), and many others are high on my “yet to do” list. Meanwhile, my home course is wonderfully nuanced and set up for me to chase my next low score. Both styles have a place in my enjoyment of golf.

  6. Very Interesting article. I belong to a wonderful country club and I have traveled to many places over the years to play at many special courses. I think these new style courses are not for me. They are artificially difficult and they are not visually interesting given that you have no trees and other vegetation that creates more of a “natural” setting. As we all get older it does become more difficult to walk and the fact that we are limited to walking only on some of these courses can detract from the experience. The links style that abounds in England, Scotland and Ireland are unique to the game and the history that those courses bring is unparalleled. To try and replicate those experiences and upping the difficulty factor in the process just makes it harder. Most of us are not scratch golfers. Playing courses like these are just painful.

  7. Some of the newer courses are quite extreme and, therefore, not as much fun to play.
    At the recent GolfWeek meeting at Streamsong, David Kidd emphasized both
    playability and giving the golfer a chance to recover. This combination is really magic.
    When Mr. Rhode goes to Sand Valley next year he’ll find two courses that share
    these concepts. I wish him a great time.

  8. I too have been privildged to play many of the new and many of the classic courses. The new courses are fun, but at 75 (index 11) and walking, become somewhat of a physical challenge. As for my everyday course, anyone one of hundreds in small towns in the Midwest (many in the 20′) that play around 6,000 yards and offer a variety of traditional challenges.

  9. The only thing I find frustrating with the natural courses is the condition and lies you get when you are in some of the sandy or blown out areas. Because they are not raked you can have your ball in a huge foot print, or a huge gash from someone slamming their club , or a worn path that has holes in it ,etc… Your round should not be penalized by these extreme unkempt areas of natural courses.

  10. The resort course has never been comparable to the daily driver. I think you’re making a false comparison. Sure, population centers need easy to access, walkable (perhaps walking only), and affordable courses to bring beginners into the game, but that’s a far cry from destination golf developed for golf pilgrims.

    I would appreciate if you would be courageous and name examples. Hard to decide if Doak’s Tara Iti is the subject of your piece, and WOW, the photos are phenomenal! If that’s course is a problem, I want to taste the Kool Aid.

  11. I have been to Scotland and Ireland once and Bandon Dunes twice – ten years apart and every ten years is about right for me – plus Cabot Links and Cliffs. I am an OK golfer (6.4 index at 65) but these courses are just too hard and combined with rainy cold windy weather, it is not the type of golf I want very often. I guess I want my golf to be more enjoyable and playability and warm weather are a big part of that enjoyment for me.

    PS For me, the Cabots were the best of this type of golf.

  12. When I looked at the Tara Iti photos, I thought, “Does Tom Doak really enjoy torturing golfers?” No way would I visit that course; when I think of one word to describe it, I would choose “uncomfortable. Yet I have played Kidnapper’s and Kauri Cliffs that I considered challenging, but not outrageous. They also embraced their topographies beautifully. I am an elderly, high handicap golfer and regularly play on two courses on the East End of Long Island, NY from tees that have ratings of 70.7 and slopes of 130. Both are challenging courses, and, as such, I do a little dance when I break 100, but I enjoy their challenges because they are not contrived and offer a fair risk-reward ratio. Many of the new courses of the past ten years are out of my reach as well many golfers, certainly those of my age.

  13. Having played the Scottish courses on the rota about six times each, plus all of the great links courses in Ireland, the natural beauty of the layouts is great. As a scratch golfer (.2 index) these would be unplayable if not for the wider fairways and large greens when the “natural” difficulty of the hole calls for it.

  14. When I arrived in the USA from Scotland in the early 90’s golf was a game I barely recognized. Almost every course I looked at was devoid of interest, was more garden than landscape, used fertilizer and water like a farmer. Every golfer used a cart and revealed in trajectory and spin. Grasses were lush and greens soft, golfers had no inclining of the fun contours can provide. In less than generation golf has returned to where it began, courses respect there environment, they have a sense of place. Tara iti is perfect where it sits as is Sand Valley or Streamsong, another site without sand will call for a different look. We have come so far in the right direction lets not hit reverse!

    1. I honestly don’t know that there is a simple answer to Mr. Frank’s question. As someone who has played almost 800 courses worldwide, I know what I like in golf course architecture, and what I like may not mesh with someone else. Regardless, holding a player’s interest is a huge piece of the puzzle, and if anyone is looking for evidence that golf is headed in the right direction, they need to look no further than Mr. Kidd’s Gamble Sands and some of the courses he mentioned.

  15. Through my life I was blessed, because of the company I worked for, to play great courses throughout the country. Retired now in Florida the courses we play are pretty mundane but they provide a great round for the group and give us all we want for a great day. I’m looking forward to making the trip to Streamsong. Luckily I can still walk. I expect to get beat up. So expectations will be tempered. And that’s the big point. If you go to these exotic “natural” layouts and think you’re going to score like you always do you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. Which may influence your appreciation for what has been created. I’ve played enough wanna be links courses to know. Balls end up in bad places and that’s, as we say, the rub of the green. Enjoy the views and the butt kicking and mostly enjoy the stories you get to tell when you get home.

    1. Stream song need not beat anyone up… if you play from the tees best suited to your game. Check the go at the clubhouse and tee it forward and Streamsong is a blast. Going back for trip #4 in March to give the Black a go. Personally, I love the faux links of Streamsong, Bandon and Cabot, but give me The Old Course, the New Course, Dornock, Portrush and Royal County Down. I could play any of them daily ‘ til I am called by the Grim Reaper. Have played the Old about 30 times and it just gets more and more interesting with each loop.

  16. I play at a good private club with two well-designed parkland courses and enjoy the variety of challenges presented every round, most of which I walk. Some of my most fond memories are of courses in Scotland and Ireland, both the classic old courses and the fantastic new ones (Kingsbarns, Renaissance, Old Head). I also enjoy the destination courses (Bandon, Streamsong, Kohler) for different reasons. I could never learn the nuances of these courses I play occasionally as I know my home courses. Therefore, I really try to take each shot as it comes, accept the unpredictable weather, and lower my expectations about scoring. Some days, the bounces are helpful and some days they are not and that has a lot to do with scoring; the important thing is score does not matter. I’m not sure “natural” is the right word to describe the courses referenced by most. St. Andrews Old feels natural to me, and Kingsbarns feels like it has been there nearly as long. Perhaps in time we will feel that way about the work of Messrs. Coore, Crenshaw, Doak, Hance and their brethren. The great thing is that every day on a new course is an opportunity to create memories that last a lifetime, even if I will never see it again.

  17. Agree with the want to play every day statement. As a 15 year member of Pinehurst, I must say the Augusta like conditions of #2 were a easy enjoyable walk, and a course you wanted to play every day. Today the #2 redesign is touted as a outstanding rebirth of a already wonderful track. I agree with all of the accolades, but its become a little penal for everyday play.

  18. While I appreciate the new natural courses, for me it is more the cost than anything. Last I checked, going to Bandon or Sand Valley is near as expensive as going to Pebble or Sawgrass when you include staying on property because there really isn’t any other option. If you could do ‘natural’ for a more reasonable cost, such as Sweetens, then great, but don’t give me $250 rounds.

    1. Golfers all: Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I wrote the article to spark exactly this kind of conversation. As I said in the piece, I don’t have the answer, but while I am so lucky to see so many new, beautiful courses, I also wonder where course architecture is going, can go. You’ve brought up many great ancillary points–cost, walkability, location–all of which figure into our individual appraisals of courses. As for not mentioning specific courses, that was deliberate, but you’ve hit on many that sparked my thinking (and still missed some). And we did not mean to single out Tara Iti, that was more about which photographs were available to us. This is a conversation that should, and will, continue. Golfers need to have it, since we/they are the ones paying the fees and making the trips; architects (like David McLay Kidd) need to have it for their own business interests but also to mold the future of the game; same with developers. What’s wonderful about golf is that we CAN, and ARE, having it. Please keep it up, and thank you for paying attention and chiming in. Happy Holidays to you all. Jim Frank

  19. I have played about 1750 courses worldwide; some of the best and some of the worst, including many that would be described as natural. Pine Valley is a classic where you can miss a fairway by only a few feet and be in a deep rut or footprint. You never hear anyone criticizing that course. I agree courses can be too tough for the average player. There was a great layout in Madison GA that had very tall “natural” fescue between the fairways. The average golfer would lose a half dozen balls every time they played the course and they would not come back. A good example of a course that was overdone.
    I have played about 80 % of the best courses in Great Britain and Ireland and most of these are natural without being too penal. Royal County Down is maybe one of the best in the world and can be a good example of being natural while still being fair. Keep in mind there is not much difference in a golfer’s score between hitting a shot off line into some unplayable lie in a sand pit and hitting the same type of shot onto someone’s back yard patio or swimming pool. Just looks different but each costs a couple of strokes.
    One final thought. In a couple of generations there will be less golfers so expecting to keep all courses open except the very best will be an issue and spending $75-100 dollar an hour for a half day of golf will be problematic moving forward for many average golfers.

  20. I love a good steak, but I don’t want to eat one everday! There is a place for all designs in our game. Not all “naturalist” courses are barren sand dunes; Cypress Point being a perfect model of variety in one round. A naturalist course may be wooded, it may be in the dunes, or the best, a combination (Cypress Pt.). A Disney-land with many different “lands” to visit during one visit, are my favorite layouts. I agree the fees have become outrageous! If a course is “more” minimally designed, in a remote place where real estate is valued less, shouldn’t it be more economical to build and therefore play? I would certainly go and play more often if more affordable. I love Bandon, (you can probably guess “the Trails” being my favorite!). I also worry about the “walking only” as I age, and will no longer be physically capable of playing these courses. While I despise having to ride in a cart, I would like to see the designs accomodate golf carts, selfishly for my future. Not the stereo-typical golf carts go everywhere scenarios, but howabout restricted down the middle of the fairway, taking a player from point A to point B; but not necessarily to each and every golf ball? (Just about everybody could benefit from walking some!) And don’t worry about the state of our game. Do you not think that all those junior golf programs are producing future golfers? Just because every kid does not play golf does not mean we have not done a good job in promoting the game! But I digress…The links and minimalist course have brought back the huge fairway landing areas and allowing (not restricting) play along the ground if needed or selected, bringing back strategies and options to the golfer! Steak today, maybe salmon or a little pasta tomorrow! And don’t forget your “greens”! Moderation anyone?

  21. So, I’m not sure what the point of the Tara Iti pictures are – are there no other courses that depict what the author is addressing? These pictures seem to intentionally make the course harder than it really is. We found the landing areas in the fairways to be quite playable. Yes, it is walking only, but designed as such with an excellent caddie program. I would love to play it every day.

  22. Fasinating. I wonder what ‘visitor’ courses will look like in 20 years. The design of today’s visitor course makes so much sense. It’s usually strategic, thought-provoking, and fun. And it typically requires considerably less water, fertilizer, etc than its predecessors.
    But we humans (golfers) are a fickle bunch, so I wonder if today’s ‘look’ will remain popular for long.
    I, for one, hope it does.

  23. I have played this course several times recently and I am not sure this article provides any useful information especially as it applies to Tara Iti. Tom Doak has designed a demanding, uniquely beautiful linkside course which forces you to make difficult strategic decisions while playing over incredibly beautiful land next to the blue green sea. There are no bunkers, only waste areas dotted with local vegetation. The course is conquerable if you are careful and if not it makes you want to come back and have another go at it. What more can you ask of a golf course ?

  24. Only have played on the West Coast, so my view is limited. In Washington state, we have Gamble Sands outside of Brewster. This would qualify as a destination course (it’s 5 hours NE of Seattle) and is $150/round. But, dang if it isn’t the most fun course I’ve played! Extremely walkable, stunning views, and just plain fun to play. Moral: it can be done. Merry Christmas

  25. At 76 I do not hit the ball a long way and have moved forward. I enjoy looking at the new courses but realize that I’m never going to play them. Walking is an issue and the lack of carts prohibits my play. I will not go back to Bandon Dunes because of the cart issue. I recently played Spyglass Hill from the red tees at 5400 yards and had a very enjoyable round of golf. I’ve played a short course, The Sea Ranch GL, for many years and have enjoyed every round. If the architects wish to keep us in game, we need challenges at 5400 yards or less and carts for me to be interested in paying exorbitant green fees.

  26. I feel that one critical design issue has been omitted in the previous comments. The ability to 1) find your golf ball and 2) play a shot, even one compromised from a particular lie is essential for most golfers on “almost” every shot. Having played many wonderfully designed golf courses in Florida that were scarred by water surrounding almost every single hole I can say with confidence that no one enjoys the baptism of 13 new PRO V1 nuggets during your walk in the park.

  27. I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Kidd. Do not go in reverse. If a modern “natural” course can survive on its own financially, then there’s no problem. However, in the spirit of the article, I might ask Doak/Coore/Kidd/Hanse why a clever new tree-lined parkland course, a la Winged Foot, with clearly defined targets and angles is never at the forefront of their inventions. And to go a step further, why not one that costs less than $100 to play (with cart and range included)? That’s how you would grow the game.

  28. Great article, Jim. Lots to think about. One thing that comes to my mind — try to play courses that fit this description twice. What may seem overly penal in round one may reveal a better strategic approach to playing it during your second round.

    1. David: Absolutely agree, and goes to my point about the difference between a “visitor” course and an “everyday” course. Almost any course can become everyday when you play it repeatedly. But most visitors won’t have that option when they’re at a fancy resort or otherwise traveling, and the courses, I feel, are designed to make a great impression on the one and only round. Playing the same course a few times and getting to learn and appreciate it more are the ideal, but not always possible. Jim

  29. One of the great and unique aspects of golf is the variety of styles of courses that anyone with a yearning to play, can play. I don’t think you can ever criticize a course for being “too natural”, same as you can’t have a course that’s too beautiful. They all required some degree of construction… so just enjoy what the architect created. (And by the way, those photos of Tara Iti have me absolutely salivating, as I look out my window at the gently falling snow.)

  30. I agree with most the comments…I am now 81 (index 10) Royal Dornoch was my favorite in Scotland (88)..and Old Head in Ireland (in the rain)….even though the New Course resulted in my best score (82). The courses I play in Arizona are ‘quite natural’ but I play them over and over so you learn how to play and score which removes most the pain and makes it enjoyable. In watching the last two U.S. Opens, I am not sure I wish to play those courses….although I might be jaded as they played from 7000+ yards. I love golf, but recognize the number of players has steadily declined and some courses have closed. The issue for the sport of Golf is getting more to play and the younger group of PGA players will likely make that happen. Then courses need to be challenging to keep their interest but with fair landing zones and green sizes so not to make it painful……if you want the player to come back.

  31. I have been lucky enough to play many of the “out of the way” courses and I really do not see myself getting bored with any of them.
    Target golf is just not for me, give me the wide fairways with all of the goofy bounces and the large greens, I love it!!

  32. I have a real affinity for the look of natural courses, ie true links. Having played in both Scotland and Ireland, I just love the wide open spaces of links courses. In North America, I have found the same feel at Cabot Links and Streamsong. Which is not to say that I would play some of them more than once. Enniscrone in Ireland was just too penal even for my son who typically shoots scores twenty strokes better than me. But give me a natural course any day over the typical parkland layout that most of us play.

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