Grounds for Golf: The History and Fundamentals of Golf Course Design / Edition 1

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Advance Praise for Grounds for Golf

“Geoff's book is great. In fact, Grounds for Golf explains the basics of course architecture better than any other book—ever. But this is no snooze—Shackelford remembers to entertain while he informs.”—Curt Sampson, author of Chasing Tiger and Hogan

“Geoff Shackelford’s primer on the fascinating world of course design will help golfers understand and appreciate why some courses succeed in holding their interest while others fail to do so. His work is both insightful and approachable. Readers will never look at a course the same way again.”—Lorne Rubenstein, author of A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands.

“I don’t know anyone more knowledgeableæor passionateæabout golf course architecture than Geoff Shackelford. His Grounds for Golf is a terrific primer for those who want to know why architecture is an important, but misunderstood, part of the game. And if it helps them play better, well, that’s just a nice bonus.”—James A. Frank, editor of Golf Magazine

“Geoff Shackelford’s dedicated enthusiasm for the study of golf course architecture comes across beautifully in this lovely book. I highly recommend the book to all golf enthusiasts.”—Peter Oosterhuis, CBS commentator, six-time Ryder Cup player, and former director of golf at the Riviera Country Club

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
It goes without saying that every golfer comes in contact with golf architecture-there is simply no other way to play the game. In his latest book on the sport, Shackelford (The Art of Golf Design) provides a basic understanding of golf course architecture for the average duffer in lay reader's terms. Mixing architectural knowledge and golfing anecdote, this book fills the gap between technical treatises on landscape and golf course architecture (e.g., Michael Hurdzan's Golf Course Architecture) and coffee-table books with spectacular photography. Shackelford does a creditable job of presenting holes, both in words and illustration, to illustrate the points that he is trying to make. One of his valuable tips is to talk to the course superintendent, who will know if sand has been added to the bunkers, if new tee positions will be added, and other peculiarities of the course. Understanding the architect's concept can lead to a more enjoyable game and, in turn, better scores, and this book can help. Strongly recommended for sports collections.-Steven Silkunas, North Wales, PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312278083
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.68 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Geoff Shackelford is the author of several golf books, and his writing has appeared in Golf Magazine, Links, Golf World, the Los Angeles Times, and Golfdom magazine. While writing Grounds for Golf, Shackelford codesigned Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark, California, with Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. Golf Digest recently named Rustic Canyon the Best New Affordable Public Course in America. Geoff lives in Santa Monica, California.

Gil Hanse has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Cornell and is the architect of several acclaimed courses, including Craighead Golf Links in Scotland, Applebrooke Golf Club near Philadelphia, and Rustic Canyon. Hanse has overseen restoration work at classic courses originally designed by Donald Ross, A. W. Tillinghast, and William Flynn. Gil and his wife, Tracey, live in Malvern, Pennsylvania, with their three children Chelsea, Tyler, and Caley.

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Read an Excerpt

GROUNDS FOR GOLF (Chapter One)The First Hole

What Is Golf Architecture?

The Fundamentals of Course Design

A pleasurable golf course is not necessarily one that appeals at first sight, but rather one that grows on the player like good music, good painting, or good anything else. I also venture to suggest that a pleasurable course is synonymous with a good one. No course can give lasting pleasure unless it is a good test of golf. I also submit that no course can be really first rate unless it appeals to all classes of players.

--Alister MacKenzie, golf architect

If you fused the words of master architect Tom Simpson and golfing great Bobby Jones, you might assume that golf courses are "infallible tribunals" where we become the "dogged victims of inexorable fate."

Not exactly the most inviting or enchanting words to describe the fascinating, sometimes magical landscapes where golf is played. Yet Simpson and Jones did not intend to put golf courses in a negative light. Nor were they complaining about the peculiar disasters that take place on the links. They accepted that minor catastrophes came with the territory and even celebrated the role of "inexorable fate." As with many golfers, they learned that the most memorable on-course moments are created by design elements, which only fueled their desire to discover the fascinating complexities of golf architecture.

Golfers have always been attracted to the romance, humor and tragedy found on a golf course. Whether aware of it or not, they appreciate an architect's ability to create thought-provoking situations that foster dramatic moments. The most successful players accept that bizarre, sometimes unjust events take place on the golf course. They also know that golf courses are the most beautiful, enchanting and awe-inspiring venues in all of sport.

In golf we see in its profoundest aspect that profound problem of the relation of mind to matter. Nowhere in the sum-total of the activities of life is this puzzle presented to us in acuter shape than on the links.

--Arnold Haultain, The Mystery of Golf

Non-golfers often question why people pursue this sport with such passion. Is it, as most of them believe, merely to exercise or do business in a beautiful setting with friendly competition? Or is it "to shoot the lowest score," as one particularly self-important fellow recently insisted while disputing all other possibilities?

After all, golf may be the most difficult of recreational pursuits. And it certainly has become one of the most expensive. Yet like another demanding and expensive pastime, skiing, golf seems to addict participants despite a long list of potentially discouraging factors.

Skiing and golf share the same appealing qualities: the variety, beauty and character of their venues.

In skiing, no two runs are alike. The thrill of experiencing the obstacles of a new mountain creates genuine passion and vigorous discussion among ski buffs. The different types of runs provoke fervent debate over the merits of various mountains, and the strategic challenge of overcoming a tough run poses similar questions that other sports ask of their competitors. Skiers spend vast amounts of money on equipment and travel just to arrive at arctic, hard-to-reach locations. To non-skiers, their perseverance often seems silly no matter how crisp the mountain air may be.

The same peculiar passion applies to golf. Despite the cost and the effort required to play, golfers still find themselves addicted to the game. The variety of venues, and the interesting golfing situations they foster, encourages this devotion. How else can you explain the popularity of such a difficult, time-consuming sport?

No two golf courses are alike (although some rather unimaginative architects infringe on this notion from time to time!). Nearly every golf course has at least one hole worthy of discussion. And more than any ski run or other venues for sport, golf courses take on an individual character in the eyes of every player. The opportunity to experience new courses or to latch on to one that enamors your senses separates golf from all sports, including skiing.

Do people travel the world in search of fresh new bowling alleys? Or drive cross-country to experience newly resurfaced tennis courts?

The only other time sports and architecture are as closely intertwined is in baseball. Fans of our national pastime love to study the quirky features of different ballparks. They passionately discuss the merits of various stadiums and how their home team should be built around the style of baseball their ballpark promotes. Still, you can only experience the baseball stadium as a spectator looking in. Your participation is limited to standing in line for beer and a hot dog, catching the occasional foul ball or debating how a hitter can take advantage of the outfield dimensions. With a golf course, you can be both an interested observer and a fully engaged participant.

Some might argue that fishing and hunting provide a similar, but more exhilarating, experience than golf. Golf always has attracted those who swear by the merits of fishing and hunting, but few of us have ever fully understood why. Perhaps it's the golf courses themselves. They provide the uncertain thrills and opportunities for success that hunting provides. Yet golf does it in a controlled environment, with an intricately conceived design that requires physical precision and mental control. A round of golf will always lead to a result of some sort, albeit usually not the result we hoped for. Nonetheless there is the chance to come away with something from every round of golf. And unlike hunting or fishing, when you hit a few great shots or post your first round under 90 or simply enjoyed the artistry of a beautiful design, you've done it without having killed a harmless animal.

Foxhunting: the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.

--Oscar Wilde

When you visit a museum and study a Claude Monet painting, it is just you and a security guard and fifteen other tourists trying to enjoy the painting. But say you get that rare moment alone with a masterpiece and you understand what the artist was trying to portray, there is still something that you are unable to experience. You cannot step into the garden Monet used for his painting and smell the flowers.

With a golf course you can enjoy the garden from afar and recount memories of playing the course years after you've left the grounds, because you were able to step into the landscape and experience its architecture. You were given the opportunity to tackle what the designer presented and study the design in different lights and varying conditions.

For the interactive side of golf course design to work the architect has to put forth hazards and greens that stir your mind to envision interesting shots. Or the designer must give the shrewd player a chance to outsmart his opponent by knowing, as Kenny Rogers wrote, "when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em." This is the tempting side of course design, also known as strategy. And no matter what the sport is, whether it's football, baseball, basketball, cricket or auto racing, the strategic side is what keeps us fascinated after we've come to appreciate the role of power and physical prowess.

In golf architecture, the player also gets to discuss the design with their peers. Before playing it, you can read something about how the layout was created. If you are lucky enough to have reliable golfing friends, then you can contest an affable match over this work of art. Afterwards, you can share a laugh over how you handled the do-or-die situations that fostered memorable, exciting on-course scenarios.

Some view a golf course as a piece of landscape architecture where creating a beautiful, mystical walk is the sole job of the architect. Any feature seemingly "unfair" or thought-provoking indicates design malpractice in the eyes of some. However, creating a beautiful environment, or better yet, preserving the existing one in an interesting way for golf, is just one of many design tasks.

Others view the work of a golf course designer as some sort of a highly technical confluence of behind-the-scenes associates working to create something so intricate that ten master's degrees and a truckload of blueprints are needed to understand the design. Thus, most golfers ignore their instinctual desire to learn about the design side of golf, and instead, focus on their swing mechanics and score. And we all know how dangerous that can be.

Excessive golfing dwarfs the intellect. Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that the more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play.... Next to the idiotic, the dull unimaginative mind is the best for golf.

--Sir Walter Simpson, The Art of Golf, 1887

Early Scottish golfers enjoyed the game for different reasons than most golfers do today. The Scots absorbed the nuances of their local golf course and enjoyed a friendly match. Swing analysis and posting scores came a distant second, if they were ever factors at all. Sure they worked to improve their games, but the spirit of earlier golfers allowed them to enjoy all facets of the game without ever taking their misfortunes too seriously.

The climate of early golf prompted players to debate other aspects besides the swing. Perhaps they did not have driving ranges where such swing surgery could take place on a daily basis. Or maybe the old golf publications provided a lighter take on course design and lore, elements of the game that are rarely covered in print today.

The modern game places an emphasis on handicaps, score and stifling swing mechanics. We all fight the urge to overdose on technicalities, as evidenced by the overwhelming popularity of Harvey Penick's simple, sweet instruction books.

The natural tendency of most golfers is to paralyze the mind with swing thoughts to overcome the architecture, as opposed to a "big picture" approach that places less pressure on the swing by emphasizing a more complete course management approach. Instead of visualizing shots and various scenarios for attacking the hole, the golfer envisions his left arm staying straight or keeping his swing "on plane" to overcome the challenges presented by the architect.

In short, a well-designed golf course is actually a simple thing to understand. With a little time and effort, the course will reveal its secrets if you are willing to listen.

In defense of modern golfers, many courses fail to provide enough opportunities for "strategic" decisions that ultimately affect the outcome of matches. This lack of strategy explains why some golfers become obsessed with older courses that reward thinking and local knowledge. And why some just never warm up to newer courses built to only be aesthetically pleasing. There is something special found in the "classic" courses built before the Great Depression. They were constructed slowly and carefully, with their features often shaped by hand. The architects worked diligently to conceive holes that would hold up over time. And their willingness to let the land dictate the golf created interesting playing situations.

Even the most apathetic designer will throw in a few interesting architectural touches, if nothing else by accident. Thus, understanding the elements of golf course design not only makes it enjoyable to analyze courses, but also can help your game. Studying golf courses also helps distract those who overanalyze the swing. More importantly, knowing a little something about design helps refine your management of a course, improves your ability to control negative thoughts and even helps you decide how to play shots based on the maintenance style of a course.

A good golf course makes you want to play so badly you hardly have time to change your shoes.

--Ben Crenshaw, golfer and architect

Have you ever wondered what compels diehard golfers to travel the country and seek out new places to play, even if the courses are in remote lands? Or have you ever considered what causes them to bore you with the risk-reward intricacies of the latest Flynn and Toomey classic they just played?

The addiction usually starts after experiencing golf architecture that is unique. A golf course created by passionate architects with a genuine love for the game will always find a way to excite players. Certain layouts inspire golfers to discuss their design characteristics like a timeless novel or an exceptional film. Just as you are likely to track down the books of certain authors, the music of certain composers or wine of certain vintages, the more you learn about what goes into designing a course, the more likely you are to seek out the work of certain architects.

The fascination that some have with golf architecture has little to do with, as some believe, being able to say you played Pine Valley or Cypress Point. Yes, there are those folks in golf who do play these courses just to say they did and God bless them for finding enjoyment in being able to talk about their latest trip for the sake of letting you know they are well-connected and among our nation's social elite.

No golfer has ever been forced to say to himself with tears, "there are no more links to conquer."

--John Low, Concerning Golf, 1903

Before delving into some of the interesting design principles and courses, it is helpful to break a golf course down in basic terms. You may be surprised to learn as you read this book that the more you can simplify design elements, the better your chances are of managing your game, no matter your ability. Sure, architects throw in their share of subtle and intricate touches that require numerous rounds to figure out, but most golf architecture is simple. Here are the key elements that drive golf course design.


It is impossible in considering types of holes for a course to suggest any positive sequence of alignment, for each layout should be designed to fit the particular ground on which it lies...

--William Flynn, golf architect

Routing describes the sequencing of the holes. It is the infrastructure to any golf course. Routing is the architect's way of creating variety and a mixture of looks. It is also how the architect initially takes advantage of the canvas he is given and is the most important step in the design process.

Some architects approach the routing like a writer who systematically takes a traditional three-act storytelling structure and applies it to any idea, regardless of characters who might add new dimensions to the story. In golf, the features of the ground are similar to unique characters, and the best architects work those fascinating characters in, even if it forces them to drift from what is perceived as a "normal" or "traditional" routing of a course.

Traditional to some people means that the architect has his trademark way of designing regardless of unique site features. Perhaps the architect likes to end his designs with a par-5, a par-3 and a long par-4, thus, the routing is driven by that principle. Or maybe the architect has to have both nines return to the clubhouse, or more commonly in modern design, he has been ordered to reach 7,000 yards from the back tees so the course is deemed one of "championship" quality. Such prerequisites affect how he routes the course and, ultimately, the character of the design. Often, quirks and nuances have to be ignored to achieve "traditional" expectations.

Such standards might explain why some courses feel forced, just as a film would seem dull because the screenwriter was paid to reach a set number of pages instead of simply telling a story at the best possible pace. And we all have seen the effect on a sports team when a coach is forced to insert a high-paid player because his stats and legacy are dramatic, when we all sense there is another player on the bench who does "the little things" that help the team win. The team ultimately suffers.

The best routings show hints that an architect decided to take a few chances, to use the features that others might not have thought of using. Something about the way the designer fits the sequence of holes together feels good, as if you don't quite know what to expect from hole to hole, but you can't wait to see what is next. And like a great album of music, the routing builds until you reach the climactic finish.


That simple number, 4, is part of what fools many players. Par-4 theoretically means a tee shot, an approach, and two putts; therefore "reaching in regulation" requires being on the green with your second shot. That's what par-4 signifies to the golfer who isn't thinking.

--Robert Brown, The Way of Golf

Par may have more influence on a golfer's mental well-being than any trick an architect could produce. Coping with this sensitive issue comes later in The Tenth Hole, Mind Games. First, however, there is the question of what exactly par is and why it is so perplexing.

Several golf writers took the art of describing and analyzing the game to another level. Bernard Darwin, Herbert Warren Wind, Henry Longhurst, Peter Dobereiner, Dan Jenkins and Charles Price all managed to bring a unique perspective to golf. Price's account of par is still the best description ever presented on this mysterious topic:

What is par? What does the word stand for? Those may seem curious questions to ask, for par is one of the very first words we come upon when we learn to speak in the vocabulary peculiar to golf.

But what is par, exactly? You can be above it, below it, up to it, under it, or over it. But nobody ever got next to par. You can shoot it, break it, save it, waste it, make it, add or subtract it. On the other hand, you can't mend it, spend it, or undo it, and nobody ever multiplies or divides par. Tell somebody on the golf course you are under par and he will envy you. Tell somebody off the golf course you are under par and he will feel sorry for you. Is it any wonder that golf is the game where the lowest score is the best score?

Although there are a lot of things you can do with par, there are also a lot of things you can't do with it, among which is understand it. You need only try to explain the word to someone who doesn't play golf to find yourself stumbling over thoughts you had long taken for granted. It's not unlike trying to explain sex to a ten-year-old. You don't know where to begin. And once you have begun you wish you knew how to stop.

Par comes from the Latin of the same spelling, meaning "one that is equal." With that in mind, try explaining to a non-golfer that a five on one hole is just as good as a four on another, or a three on still another.

Worse still, try to explain that par for a hole is determined primarily by its length. That's why the one-hundred-twenty-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach is only a par-three. Then why is the two-hundred-twenty-yard fifth hole at Pine Valley also a par-three? It should be pointed out, though, that the configuration of the ground can play a part in determining par. If a hole goes downhill, for example, it will play shorter and easier. If it goes uphill, it will play longer and harder. The one-hundred-twenty-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach, to illustrate, goes downhill, whereas the two-hundred-twenty-yard fifth at Pine Valley goes uphill. That's why they are both par threes. You understand?

Par for each hole is determined by a length and severity nobody pays any attention to. By adding these pars together, you arrive at a par for the course that is actually meaningless. The real, honest-to-God par is the course's numerical rating, which more often than not works out to be some score that is patently impossible to play; nobody ever played a course in 75.6 for example. To add insult to injury, all these falsehoods are printed on a scorecard that you are supposed to regard as gospel. If you don't believe so, make a mistake on one during a tournament and see what happens.

There is no easy answer to what par is, and as Price explains so beautifully, it is meaningless and yet all-powerful in determining how golfers manage or view a hole.


The merit of any hole is not judged by its length but rather by its interest and its variety as elective play is apparent. It isn't how far but how good!

--A. W. Tillinghast, golf architect

Similar to par, length is overrated in golf architecture. Just as the size of a meal indicates little about the quality of the food, the mandate to reach 7,000 yards strips some of the most interesting short holes from an architect's repertoire. To attain what are considered normal or standard lengths, architects are forced to ignore interesting natural holes and simply plow through features to reach certain distances. The result is no different than if a baseball manager stocked his lineup with long-ball hitters. There would be no one around to set the table, to get on base and distract the pitcher. You need variety in all pursuits, and golf course design is no different.

Long holes do pose interesting challenges and are part of the designer's palette. But length and the actual yardage of a hole are mere components of design. As architect C. B. Macdonald wrote, "No real lover of golf with artistic understanding would undertake to measure the quality or fascination of a golf hole by a yard-stick, any more than a critic of poetry would attempt to measure the supreme sentiment expressed in a poem by the same method. One can understand the meter, but one cannot measure the soul expressed. It is absolutely inconceivable."


If the average golfer considers the points of strategy which have been worked out in advance for a properly designed hole, he will undoubtedly improve his game in his play of such a problem.

--George C. Thomas Jr., golf architect

Strategy is the element of thought in golf. It is the designer's way of asking the player to figure out the best way to the hole, and then allowing that player room to take their chosen route. If the architect has done his job, the avenue to the hole that leads to a lower scoring possibility should be more dangerous than the longer, safer route. Otherwise, without having to take a risk, there is little decision-making required and, thus, no strategy.

Strategy is the soul of any great activity. In golf, strategy has more possibilities than in most other sports. Some of golf's strategic interest, as in baseball, has to do with amount of time you have to consider your options. In auto racing or basketball, strategic decisions are splitsecond matters and thus less interesting for players and fans. Whereas in golf, you have time between the tee shot and approaching your ball, or while waiting for the group in front to clear the green before deciding whether to play over the water and at the hole.

Also, design strategy is dictated by other elements such as your opponent, the weather, the condition of the course or something as simple as your mood. Having some consciousness of design strategy and the risks involved with certain decisions will immediately make you a wiser player. But the basis for interesting strategic situations comes from the foundation laid by the architect.


Most golfers have an entirely erroneous view in regard to the real object of hazards. The majority of them simply look upon hazards as a means of punishing a bad shot, when their real object is to make the game interesting.

--Alister MacKenzie, golf architect

While the land is the architect's canvas, hazards are his paints. Bunkers, water, "waste" areas, ground contours, trees, boundaries and all other assorted golf course features foster interesting designs. The manner in which the architect uses his hazards determines how the design is both perceived and enjoyed.

Many golfers view any hazard in the direct line of play as unfair, but for the architect to eliminate such hazards is a recipe for dull design. Wise golfers are able to acknowledge the hazards before them, then do their best to maneuver around or over the hazards. The less-than-wise golfer curses the architect when they hit their shot into a hazard. But if the obstacle is visible and room to play around the hazard is provided, whose fault is it that a ball ended up in trouble?

The look and placement of hazards determines the architect's style. Some designers like their hazards clean and simple, while others try to make them fit the natural landscape. Some architects only place hazards to the sides of play to catch wayward shots, while some subscribe to the strategic school of thought by placing hazards in locations that force the golfer to maneuver their way around the course. And some architects place their designs around the existing natural features like trees or old stone walls, even if the use of such features seems peculiar at first sight.


...greens to a golf course are what the face is to a portrait.

--C. B. Macdonald, golf architect

The putting surface is the final tool the architect has to inject each hole with individuality. Both the green and hazard placement have to work together or else the hole will not function.

Greens are like fingerprints in that no two are alike, and interesting green design will always provide golf architects the opportunity for original design ideas. Size, shape and contouring have limitless possibilities, though at times the modern architect has found himself restricted by the emphasis on small, fast greens. The slicker the surfaces are going to get, the less opportunity the designer has to create interesting contour because no one has the time or desire to play a course with unputtable greens. Also, fewer hole locations are possible when small greens reach certain speeds, forcing a domino effect that leads to less interesting golf. Many of the best strategic holes are dictated by fascinating "pin placement" possibilities, so when these areas are lost due to green speeds and the strategy no longer works, the design becomes less interesting.

What is more engaging than to see how golf infuriates some big brute who can thrash anybody, ride bucking horses, shoot deer on the run and birds on the wing! What is so delectable as to see him in a nervous tremor as he stands on the tee, glaring fiercely at that still, white, little ball! How the game torments the adventurous soul...

--H. N. Wethered and Tom Simpson,
The Architectural Side of Golf, 1927

The aforementioned elements produce the basics that every golfer sees when assessing the character of a golf course. Refining your awareness of design, particularly the style of the architecture, can also make a difference in the outcome of a round or match. And perhaps, enjoying architectural features will ease just some of the torment that golf inflicts on the adventurous soul.

GROUNDS FOR GOLF Copyright © 2003 by Geoff Shackelford.

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Table of Contents

What Is Golf Architecture? 1
The Spirit of St. Andrews 14
Schools of Design 29
Constantly Evolving 46
Comic Relief 59
Temptation 73
The Great Holes 87
Classic Designs 111
The Architect 145
Mind Games 172
Training and Daydreaming 186
Design Talk 200
Understanding Maintenance 211
Rustic Canyon 230
Armchair Design 250
Random Thoughts 258
The Future 274
Appendix and Acknowledgments 285
Index 293
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