The latest trend in golf course design, explained
WIDE OPEN IN WISCONSIN The extreme width of Mammoth Dunes’ first and 18th holes. Photograph by Brian Oar
Sheep Ranch, the Best New Course of 2020, is an embodiment of the old choreographies of links golf. It is also an expression of a new movement—a revival, actually—toward creating increased width and spaciousness. Though Sheep Ranch sits on a relatively small site—fewer than 150 acres—the playing fields are enormous, with fairways 60 to 100 yards wide.
One of the factors motivating the width movement of the past two decades—exemplified by places like Streamsong, the Bandon Dunes courses and Chambers Bay—is a renaissance of neoclassical design ideals and a renewed appreciation for the architectural elements that unite so many of the world’s great courses. Architects of the early 20th century, for instance, implemented much larger playing areas than their successors did because they believed the room was needed to incorporate diverse strategies and to set up multiple angles of play, important considerations given the pre-modern equipment of the era.
Properties now being developed for golf, often in sparsely populated destinations where space constraints are of lesser concern, offer that possibility again. Architects working on these relatively enormous pieces of land have more freedom than ever to utilize scale and create epic presentations. Places like The Prairie Club (Nebraska), Sutton Bay (South Dakota) and Erin Hills (Wisconsin) also happen to be intensely windy, requiring large, receptive turf areas and green surrounds. Seaside sites like Sheep Ranch, Tara Iti in New Zealand and the Plantation Course at Kapalua are even windier and might need fairways widths of 60 to 80 yards, if not more.
But perhaps the best explanation for why width is in vogue is because it allows for the greatest amount of fun and variety. A belief shared by many of the day’s most influential architects—and one the previous generation too often didn’t share—is that above all else, golf should be enjoyable. The game is intrinsically difficult, so the playing grounds needn’t make it more so. They should be encouraging instead of formidable, and designed for interest, variability and excitement.
No architect has been more vocal recently in advocating for courses that are fun and forgiving than David McLay Kidd. Two of his latest creations in particular exemplify the effectiveness of width on psychology and scoring. Gamble Sands, situated atop a high-desert plateau in central Washington, features extremely wide fairways and presents players diagonal carry options on the majority of tee shots. It’s a golf racetrack, one of the most exciting and daring driving courses in the world, yet there’s an almost infinite amount of space to accommodate the weary and the wild. Mammoth Dunes, at Sand Valley in Wisconsin, is possibly the largest course relative to scale that has been built, with boundless holes filling enormous pockets of land along high, wooded dunes. Though there are a number of diagonal carry options, driving at Mammoth Dunes is more about placing the ball in certain sub-sections of the fairway to gain tactical advantage on the approach.
This kind of design—and it’s the key to them being such fun to play—emphasizes being able to find your golf ball and play it, even from sub-optimal positions. In other words, wider courses allow you—encourage you—to recover from poor shots and to keep a decent round or match alive. The architectural trick, however, is to also make them a worthwhile challenge for scratch players and those who want to earn a good score.
At Gamble Sands that’s done on the tee, where the angles over arroyos, bunkers and sand washes incrementally taunt long drivers into taking aggressive, perhaps too-aggressive lines. Ambitious play gets a distance reward, but the relatively tame, open-front greens also allow all golfers to advance forward with a chance to hole putts. There’s much more movement around and within Mammoth Dunes’ greens, but despite the prodigious room off the tee, bombers who drive it thoughtlessly will end up in bunkers, with an awkward stance, a blind shot, a disadvantaged angle or some combination of each.
Even though these courses and their brethren appear to possess lateral limitlessness, they require analysis and strategic thinking to play well—in fact, the most thoughtfully designed wide courses, because of all the navigational options, actually require more strategic consideration than narrow courses. But they also promote feelings of freedom and opportunity that the majority of courses too often lack. In other words, they’re fun. And that’s a positive trend, far preferable than searching for lost golf balls.
A HISTORY OF WIDTH
CIRCA 1850 The Old Course at St. Andrews Allan Robertson mows and clears gorse to create the Old Course’s double-wide fairways.
1911 The National Golf Links of America C.B. Macdonald’s “ideal” holes explore a previously unseen scale of American golf.
1914 The Lido Golf Club (extinct) The National 2.0, this time on a flat, expansive shoreside site.
1926 Royal Melbourne Melbourne’s Sand Belt is the perfect medium for Alister MacKenzie’s exploration of width and strategy.
1926 Yale Golf Course A Leviathan golf site demands Leviathan architecture to match.
1933 Augusta National MacKenzie and Bobby Jones create one of the game’s greatest laboratories of width and contour.
1940-1990 The Age of Diminishing Fairways
1991 Kapalua (Plantation Course) A supersized property and holes to match are necessary for Maui’s coastal tradewinds.
1999 Tobacco Road Architectural post-modernism is expressed via exaggerated fairways that bulge and contract.
2001 Kinloch Club Extreme width is necessary to handle all of Lester George’s double fairways.
2006 Erin Hills Profound natural glacial formations are the ideal foundations for spacious, rollicking holes.
2007 Chambers Bay Upper and lower sections of fairway require a prodigious amount of lateral room.
2010 Old Macdonald When it opened, the rippled, rambling fairways were some of the largest in modern golf.
2014 Gamble Sands Wide-open spaces and tantalizing vistas encourage a go-for-broke mind-set.
2015 Tara Iti Writhing swaths of fairways form immense loops through fields of dunes and sand.
2018 Mammoth Dunes One of the largest courses ever created in terms of volume and scale.
2020 Payne’s Valley Tiger Woods’ first public design is geared toward playability, and thus massive playing space.
2020 Sheep Ranch 70- to 100-yard-wide holes are needed to handle one of the windiest golf sites in the United States.