Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Appropriating the Scenery

Critics of golf course architecture frequently discount the value of off-site views and judge the merits of a design solely by the finished product found within the golf course property.  While mountain peaks, ocean vistas or a pleasant view into town predate the arrival of golf, the framing of those views are very likely no accident.

Golf architects strive to present a visually appealing landscape and try to incorporate those views into the golf experience.  A clever routing can take advantage of wonderful views by siting greens and tees in specific locations to ensure all golfers can take a moment to enjoy the scene.  Additionally, well thought-out tree clearing can reveal a stunning backdrop to a green site.  Conversely, off-site features that detract from the golf experience are screened by  a combination of earthworks and tree planting or avoided altogether if the land permits.  Whether we like to admit it or not, off-site features play a role in our overall enjoyment of a round of golf.  These features, both positive and negative are not limited to the visual arena.  Busy roads or landfills can respectively, wreck havoc on our auditory and olfactory senses, negatively impacting our perception of a golf course.

Stanley Thompson is rumoured to have cleared trees off-site to ensure players teeing off No. 6 at Capilano could see downtown Vancouver and the Lion's Gate Bridge (picture is of No. 1, showing similar view).
This photo is taken from the back tee at No. 4 at Sand Hills, added years after the golf course was built.  From here, the roof of the maintenance building is visible, detracting, albeit slightly, from the pristine natural surroundings (not even the clubhouse is in sight while on the course!).
It is important to remember that taking advantage of off-site views should not come at the expense of strategically sound golf holes.  Awkward and contrived holes are not salvaged by a spectacular view.  Well crafted holes however, do benefit from positive off-site features, enhancing the design and making the hole more memorable and unique.  Golf architects deserve more credit for appropriating the surrounding landscape into their designs and helping to create a more profound sensory experience.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Sand Hills Golf Club (Back Nine)

The approach on the long and right-to-left sloping tenth hole appears more difficult owing to the approach being hidden behind the shoulder of a ridge. 
The architects cleared a wide swath of native vegetation to provide a generous feeder slope into the green.
The eleventh features a gruesome bunker on the inside of the dogleg, however, its visibility has diminished over time due to the strong winds displacing the exposed sand.
The backdrop to the eleventh green is nothing but endless blue sky.
The fairway at No. 12 is 95 yards wide, however, overly aggressive drives flirt with a deep bowl in the fairway which makes the approach more complicated, especially to a right hand hole location.

Another subtle green, angled ever so slightly to the direct line of play.  The front right bunker guarding the green is set on a diagonal, demanding players know how far they can carry their approach shots.
Nothing but a crisp long iron will suffice at the par three thirteenth where the surrounds repel weak shots and the bunkers right are ominously deep.
The short par five offers some respite after the difficult preceding hole.  Drives hugging the left side bunkers can catch a speed slot that greatly reduces the length of the hole and provides a better angle.
The tiny fourteenth green is pitched back-to-front and provides a shallow target for approaches played from the right side of the fairway. 
The journey back home starts at the fifteenth tee, the furthest point west on the property.  The right hand bunker dominating the view is a short carry, but offers an ideal line to navigate the hole. 
Even from the right edge of the fairway, a left pin is hard to see, hiding behind a sprawling blowout bunker.
The par five sixteenth asks plays to carry the massive blowout bunker in order to catch a slope and gain some additional yards.  Less aggressive drives have lots of fairway to hit, but add pressure on subsequent shots.
Approach shots played into the 16th green from this angle have to successfully negotiate a diagonally set fairway bunker.  The bunkerless green moves left-to-right with the existing landscape.
The green on the short one-shot seventeenth gets narrower at the back and sits perilously close to a quartet of deep bunkers. 
Two massive blowout bunkers guard the left side of the eighteenth hole.
With a small gallery at Ben's Porch watching play finish, the final approach is long and plays substantially uphill. Thankfully, the closely mown surrounds of the home green gather approaches towards the hole.
The overall experience at Sand Hills Golf Club is unparalleled.  The staff were warm and hospitable and the food was phenomenal.  The clubhouse, cabins and atmosphere of the entire facility is understated, a logical extension of the down-to-earth nature of the Nebraskan population.  There is simply nothing stuffy about the place.  The development of this golf facility is sustainability at its finest and a testament to future generations on the benefits of selecting the right piece of land and not overextending yourself with unnecessary extras.

It is hard to imagine never getting the chance to revisit this masterpiece, but I will always cherish my day there.  The golf course provides ample room to play and swing aggressively from the tee, but is certainly no pushover.  While you may never lose a ball or incur any penalty strokes, the golf course can easily erode a good score by doling out long strings of bogies, especially in high winds.  The majestic beauty of the sand hills is awe inspiring, and Sand Hills Golf Club comes as close as any I've seen to weaving itself seamlessly into the native landscape.  

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Sand Hills Golf Club (Front Nine)

Last year I was fortunate to play Sand Hills Golf Club in the Nebraska Sandhills, a course designed by the talented team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw.  The golf course is remote, residing 515 kilometres from both Denver to the west, and Omaha to the east, meaning those venturing to the course by means other than private plane endure a long car ride full of great anticipation.  I had seen hundreds of photographs of the golf course beforehand, but once I turned onto Highway 97 in Valentine, Nebraska, I began to see the magical landscape of the Nebarska Sandhills unfold before me.

Sand Hills Golf Club is an important golf course in the evolution of golf course architecture.  When in opened in 1995, it ushered in a second Golden Age of golf course design, an era that has been described as 'the age of minimalism'.  The term is a bit misleading because while golf architects given the label minimalist strive to find rather than build golf holes, they are not shy about moving dirt when the landscape is not conducive to a less invasive approach.  The goal is to make that work melt into the existing landscape, so that golfers would be hard-pressed to pick out where the landscape had been manipulated.  Sand Hills was built for less than $1 million (including irrigation), an astonishing compliment to the perfect nature of the soil and terrain for golf.  In fact, a healthy majority of the greens were uncovered in the following manner; mow existing vegetation to ground level, till to a depth of 6 inches, complete minor finish grading with a small power rake, apply seed, fertilizer and water.  Average cost per green was approximately $300!  While every golf architect relishes a site such as Sand Hills, which comprised over 8,000 acres, the real difficulty lies not in finding golf holes, but finding a contiguous eighteen that flow together seamlessly and require little in terms of earthwork.  In fact, even with such a massive acreage at their disposal, Coore & Crenshaw had to ask Dick Youngscap for more land to complete their ideal routing.  A map that hangs in the clubhouse illustrates the 130 holes the architectural duo found while exploring the property around the current course.  While Coore & Crenshaw had to make many difficult decisions during the routing process that meant some brilliant holes were not included, that is were the skill of the golf architect lies, in finding the best eighteen and seeing the course as a single unit and not eighteen individual pieces.

The clubhouse and cabins are located in a valley along the Dismal River, while the golf course sits nearly a mile away on the other side of a high ridge, therefore, the only bit of civilization to be seen from the golf course is Ben's Porch, the halfway house at the turn.  The course features very wide fairways to accommodate play in the strong prairie winds that frequent this part of the country.  These strong winds have created some of the most unique and beautiful features on the course, the blowout bunkers, formed by wind erosion after the existing vegetation had been disturbed by cattle.  The greens are generally flatter than I would have imagined, especially after playing at neighbouring Dismal River (Nicklaus) previously, again, a design decision made in due consideration of the ever-present wind.  The surrounds are mow tight to allow players to option of running the ball along the ground, a necessity in strong winds and provide plenty of decisions for golfers attempting to recover from errant approaches.  The golf course is a very manageable walk, featuring short distances between greens and tees, adding to the peaceful nature of the experience.

The opening tee shot asks players to flirt with the left hand side fairway bunker if they want to try and reach the par five in two shots.
The first green sits in a saddle between dunes, protected by deep bunkers and a false front.
The tee shot at No. 2 is nearly blind to a fairway that pinches in at the landing area, an intimidating start.
The skyline second green is the most heavily contoured on the course, featuring a strong false front and high right side that demands deftly played approaches and exciting putts.
The long par three third features a bold shoulder that protrudes into the left side of the green, enabling running shots to funnel onto the green.
The long fourth plays downhill before playing up to a plateau green.  Note the roof of the maintenance building in the distance, a shame it couldn't have been moved to hid it from view.
The approach to No. 4 demands accuracy as this 30 foot deep blowout bunker guards the left side and short grass surrounds repel shots to the right of the green.
The very back tee on No. 5 plays over the preceding green.  Drives veering into the safer left side of the fairway (nearer the central bunker), face an angled and obscured approach.
The subtle nature of the fifth green is complicated by a spine running through it.
The fairway is hidden at the par three sixth, but plenty of room exists for a low running approach to be hit under the wind.
The sixth green is dominated by a bowl in the front left corner of the green.
The drivable par four seventh is tempting, although a more prudent play is nearer the fairway bunkers right, leaving a straight forward pitch up the length and slope of the green.
From left of No. 7 green, we can see how playing across the slope from either side is more complicated than an approach played into the slope, especially to a hole cut in the narrow back section.

Back-to-back short par fours provide for a few birdie chances, here the drive on No. 8 plays into a banked fairway for those laying back.
The preferred side of the fairway is best determined by the hole location, the above picture illustrating a tougher approach than one that hugged the right side fairway bunkers.
The front side ends with a dogleg right par four that in certain wind conditions asks you to carry further right than you may feel comfortable in order to shorten the approach shot.  
The fairway features some nice rolling terrain and generous width but is not as inspiring as the rest of the holes on the front nine, perhaps owing to the requisite to have two loops of nine holes.
The back nine and closing comments will be posted in the next few days.