It’s All in the Mind
How the best courses always require you to think and play strategically.
The British course architect once said, “a great golf hole is one that puts a question mark into the player’s mind when he arrives on the tee to play it.” Taking that a step further, I think a great hole should allow a player to contemplate what is in front of him and plan his way ahead. Golf is a mind game. It is a game of careful strategy, every bit as much as a game of physical skill.
A common ingredient of the finest layouts in the world is the quality and often individual character of the hazards, both natural and man-made. I mean this not just in terms of the quality of hazard placement (which, of course, is key) but also the visual strength. Hazards that stand out and hit you between the eyes affect and sometimes determine your strategy, never mind your enjoyment of the course.
Consider, for example, Pine Valley and Royal County Down – undoubtedly two of the greatest courses in the world. Look in most textbooks and you will find them both described as ’penal’ in nature, and yet in my opinion they both encourage golfers to play extremely strategically. You are constantly being asked whether to lay up or to take on an imposing hazard.
Ask anyone about the hazards on their course and they will usually tell you about its bunkers, trees and/or water features. But fairway and greenside contouring, again both natural and man-made, can play just as significant a role as hazards. It’s on links courses that the best examples of this can be seen. And, of course, those courses with the most intricate green complexes invariably challenge the golfer to play the most interesting array of approach shots.
I’m not a fan of thick rough, in general, but particularly when it nestles close to a putting surface. The best types of rough for me are those that provide definition through variety of colour and texture.
Bunkers are different animals altogether. Indeed, there aren’t too many great courses that have only modest bunkering. Imaginative bunkering is a passion of mine, and I’m sure it’s the reason I’m enamoured by Riviera and the sand belt courses of Australia. I’m also fond of links style pot bunkers – and not just around the greens. When I hear golfers describing a fairway bunker as ‘unfair’ because its depth affords little or no possibility of reaching the green, I think they have forgotten the rationale behind bunkers, namely that they are intended to be hazards. What’s wrong with having to pitch and putt for a par if you go into one? Intelligent (e.g. cleverly angled) and impressive bunkering can spark such a range of emotions, from inspiration to intimidation, and this in turn encourages strategic play and helps to make golf so fascinating.
Not too many courses nowadays – at least in the US – are built without water hazards. Water is a death or glory hazard. Traditionalists aren’t too fond of it because you can rarely play a shot from water, and penalty shots are contrary to the spirit of ‘play it as it lies’. I would certainly concede that if there is no element of strategy involved, an inordinate amount of water on a golf course can be tedious.
I believe golf’s oldest type of water hazard, the Scottish burn (or its American cousin, the wandering creek) has become something of an under-utilised hazard on today’s courses. As in the case of intelligently angled bunkering, a mischievously routed burns or creek can impart enormous strategy into a golf hole. What was the feature that made the climax to the Carnoustie Open so thrilling? The Barry Burn, of course. And where would the Masters be without Amen Corner and Rae’s Creek?
— Sir Nick Faldo