Tim Beard, Editor of Golfat55plus.com asks the questions ……………
Meet Jonathan Gaunt…he designs golf courses for a living. Now, most of us just like to get out there on the course and pit our wits against its challenges, whether they be sand, water, trees or long grass.
Jonathan Gaunt always does his design work at a drawing board with pencil and scale ruler in hand. People like Jonathan decide what and where those hazards will be – and with the many advances in golf club and ball technology these days, it’s Jonathan and his fellow designers who are at the forefront of changes in the way we play the game.
Tim Beard is asking the questions…
1 Which type of golf course do you find it easier/more pleasurable to design and why – a blank canvas where earth is moved and contours are man-made or taking a piece of land and making the most of what nature has already created?
JG – I think you already know the answer to this one – the latter, of course. I’d rather work a design around the natural features – it takes more thought and experience to come up with a successful solution.
An open, featureless site is not easy to work with, though, because you also need imagination, however, there are fewer restrictions and in this respect you could approach it in a more formulaic manner, like so many other architects have in the past, sadly. In terms of the production of the design work (which I always do by hand – with pencil and scale ruler – at a drawing board), it’s always more satisfying making a good course out of a difficult site.
Making the contours work in relation to strategy, weather conditions, playability, maintainability, drainage and of course, aesthetics – is the key to the success of the project.
2 As golf club and ball research means we are hitting shots further than ever, is distance the only defence the golf course architect has left or are there other methods?
JG – It seems that the easy answer is distance and, I, too, am responsible for designing ever-longer courses, too, but this is in relation to demand (of the client). Every golfer wants to hit the ball further – especially further than his playing partners. To be able to hit a drive and an iron into a par-5 hole makes it that much more birdie-able and enjoyable.
But there are features/hazards which an architect can use that will make the golfer think a little more deeply when standing on the tee and surveying the hole in front of him. Bunker positioning is really the most important weapon in the course’s armoury – one well-placed fairway or pot-bunker can make a 30-metre wide fairway seem much less. The principle should be that the further a golfer is able to hit the ball then the straighter he should be able to hit it.
There is, therefore, a great deal of sense in creating a “funnelling” effect on the fairway at, say, 240 to 280 metres from the back tee, using strategically placed bunkers, and/or water hazards. This will make the low handicap and longer-hitting golfers think twice about using a driver if they have a tendency to be wayward with it.
There should be a premium placed upon hitting a long, straight ball. The golfer that can achieve this will find the best position on the landing area and then be set up for the best approach into the green.
3 What are the parameters used when designing a greenside bunker as opposed to a fairway bunker? What should the purpose of these types of traditional hazards be?
JG – This depends upon the kind of landscape your working with – a links site would mean you’d tend to build deeper bunkers than you would if your were working on a parkland or woodland site. The most important thing to me is that you can identify the bunker from the point at which you are viewing – fairway bunkers on a fairway from a tee, greenside bunkers from the fairway, etc…
This means the bunkers have to be set up to be in view and on a new course this is pretty critical. Sometimes, though, the landform prevents you from seeing the sand, but you just get to see a shadow of a hollow (links courses often have this as a feature). Links courses have deep bunkers to keep the sand in and often the revetted bunkers prevent the sand from being in view. That’s OK with me.
Parkland and woodland courses tend to have shallower bunkers and are designed for the sand to be in view. Heathland bunkers are a little bit in-between – not too deep, not too shallow. In any case, the bunkers should get steadily deeper as you get closer to the green. And, in general terms, the hazard should be most difficult to play out of in direct view of the fairway of green – what I mean by this is that when you stand in the bunker the easiest point of egress should be to the sides – which may be onto the fairway or into the rough, or if by the green, to the approach of the green or to the surrounds.
This puts a premium on playing a bunker good shot on line. In a fairway bunker you should expect to lose between ¼ and ½ shot – greenside between ½ and ¾ shot – the deeper the bunker to more chance there is of you staying in there. But, remember, there should always be a way out of the bunker that is not backwards.
4 Many people believe that the game of golf has become too slow, with five-hour rounds not unusual. Can golf course designers help to speed things up?
JG – this is a really big issue in the golf design industry – as the courses get longer so do the rounds of golf. As a youngster I regularly played 18 holes in 3 hours or less. Nowadays on a 7,000-yard course it can take in excess of 5 hours, and more if you’re obliged to use a golf cart and you have to keep to the cart paths.
I’m a member of a course that plays 5,800 yards, par 68 from the back tees. The following tees are generally not more than 100 metres from the previous green. I carry my bag and I get around in 3 hours or so. This course was designed by Alister MacKenzie in 1926 and it still remains an excellent challenge. Admittedly, the greens are sloping and trickily undulating, which does add time onto your round in windy conditions.
There are many things to be learnt from this. I think there is a move back towards the more natural golf course – every American I know really enjoys carrying his bag and playing the traditional British golf courses, but when you go to USA it’s difficult to find courses like this – many are set up for golf carts and 5 hour rounds. The same can be said for resort courses throughout the world.
Golf architects can make things move more swiftly – they could, for example, make greens flatter and place fewer bunkers. The fairways could be wider and the roughs could be reduced to a minimum. Trees and water could be designed to be in play for only the wayward shots. But, this would make golf courses dull and it would probably involve having to purchase twice as much land to get in the same number of holes.
Certainly, I think golf courses should be designed to be strategic and not penal (so many new courses are designed to be the “toughest” or the “longest”, rather than the most “thought-provoking” or the even “complimentary”. What I mean by this is creating a course that actually helps the golfers to play better than they normally would – this can be done with careful tee placement, thoughtful green design and the limited use of hazards and obstructions.
Finally, there’s always the option of making the hole bigger. This would really speed up play.
5 Where are the top 3 courses you have played and why are they your favourites?
JG – I’ve always enjoyed the “man against nature” approach to golf course design and I think this is summed up by these three courses:
Morfontaine north of Paris, France – beautiful heathland course set in a private forested estate with hardly anyone playing the course – it’s got beautiful greens shaping (designed by Tom Simpson in 1927), dramatic sweeping bunkers and undulating fairways
Southerness, Dumfriesshire, Scotland – exposed links course overlooking the Solway Firth, with greens located on the edge of the links surrounded by marram grass and heather – a classic design by Philip MacKenzie Ross in 1947
Cavendish, Derbyshire, England – moorland course with exciting undulating greens, fescue-covered fairways in the coldest town in England, but with lovely views of the Derbyshire Peak District and designed in 1926 by Alister MacKenzie and hardly changed since.
6 Who are the top 3 golf course designers you most admire, and why?
JG – having worked on numerous golf courses over the past 23 years or so in the industry, the work I admire the most is done by the folowwing three architects from the “Golden Age” of golf course architecture:
Alister MacKenzie – because we’re both from the same town – Leeds – actually I didn’t move there with my parents until I was 2 years old in 1966, but I played all my golf on the courses he designed around Leeds and the north of England – it couldn’t be possible for me not to be influenced by his work – he’s an inspirational genius, but he was given some stunning sites to work with!
Harry S Colt – because he is what made golf course architecture the profession it is today, rather than a hobby or pastime – he was the true scholar and an imaginative and innovative designer of the top courses in the world.
Willie Park Jnr – an inspirational architect and golfer, who was able to travel overseas with his talent, and still remain true to his beliefs.