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The Loop

Three architects explain how to make a course like Chambers Bay playable for you, while still challenging the pros

June 16, 2015

It's not an accident that majors are rarely played on public courses: The pros are way better at golf than you and I are. We shouldn't be playing on the same courses, because they'd tear the local muny apart. It wouldn't even be fun to watch. But the USGA thinks that Chambers Bay can handle the pros. It's exciting, but it made me ask the question: How? How can a course be kind to recreational players while still challenging the pros? To find the answer, I spoke with our architecture editor, Ron Whitten. We chatted about how we all want visually exciting courses, but usually with exciting visuals comes difficulty. How is that balance achieved where a course is fun to look at yet still playable? And when you have a playable golf course, how do you make sure it's still challenging?

We needed to get some professional opinions to answer these questions. To give the architects a focal point to start the conversation, I gave them a hole at Chambers Bay to think about. The 8th hole at Chambers Bay is the No. 1 handicap hole on the course. When you look at it, it's a decent-length par 5, but it's straight and has no bunkers. It defends itself by being so narrow, sloped and by having changes in elevation. [#image: /photos/55ad7dcfb01eefe207f724e8]|||blog-chambers-8th-0616.jpg|||

I asked a selection of leading architects to look at this piece of land as a canvass, and to answer the question,"'If you were to design a par 5 on this plot of land, and had to design it so average players had a chance and pro players would still be challenged, what would that par 5 look like?" This is not to say that the 8th hole in its current design won't be able to achieve this. The goal of this is not to critique the existing course design; The 8th hole is being used as a starting point to focus the bigger conversation of golf course playability.   The architects came up with some pretty cool designs. Each of their designs is accompanied by their explanation of how to make a course playable for a huge range of ability. Check out their designs and the reasons behind each decision below. Dr. Michael J Hurdzan of Hurdzan Design says that he would first focus on tee position. "The more perpendicular to a slope that a golf ball lands, the less effect the slope will have on the ball's eventual fate via roll. Since the slope on this hole is left to right, the championship tee will be placed furthest left, enhancing the effect of the slope on the golf ball (read: making the hole much harder). But on the second and third shots, with widened landing areas, it would increasingly be up to the competitor just how much or how little they utilize the slope."

As for the higher handicappers, Hurdzan would install "a series of right side tees to give them the best chance of hitting (and holding) the fairway." Around the green, Hurdzan would make a large chipping area on the right side. This would cause approach shots that land there to run out. "But to add more suspense, I would install a series of pronounced grassy hollows in this area to reduce the fear of the right side miss and encourage aggressive play by slowing down these running shots and shortening the return pitch." Overall, Hurdzan's design is to create room necessary for someone to pick an aggressive line, while still having the option to bail out with a little penalty.


(Hurdzan's sketch)*

* Ty Butler of Brio Golf looks at distance. "A hole playing 420 yards from the back tee should require a player with a swing speed of 100 mph to hit a driver and an eight iron for the approach. In order to provide a similar experience and shot value for a player with a swing speed of 75 mph the distance should be roughly 250 yards." Butler would make a par 5 like this as long as possible from the tips. If he could get those tees to 570 yards, he's put tee boxes at 550, 520, 485, 440, and 340 for higher-handicap players. "With these varied distances all players have the chance to reach the putting surface with two well struck shots."

To make players think a little more, Butler said he'd add bunkers on the left. "Players A-D must negotiate the first carry bunker and players E & F must content with the second bunker further along the left side." He also added greenside bunkers. "All players choosing not to challenge the bunkers off the tee and favor the right side will have to contend with these newly added greenside hazards on their approach." To help approach shots funnel toward the green, Butler sloped the front left side of the green.


(Butler's sketch)

Beau Welling of Beau Welling Design looked at the fairway, and inserted bunkers where elite players would likely be trying to put their drives. "We placed a left fairway bunker roughly 300 yards off the tee, as well as a small left-to-right green, protected by a bunker on the right, to create a premium for approaching from the left."  The greenside bunker protects right side pins, while left side pins are protected by "roll off the green into a swale between the green surface and the large dune, making recovery shots more demanding." "For higher handicappers, the real danger is losing the ball over the steep slope all along the right side of the hole. To counteract measures that protect par for advanced players, we would suggest features to encourage higher handicappers to play more to the left so that they can utilize the containing slope to redirect their balls back towards the center of the hole."

To do that, Welling said he'd, "add a short bunker on the right side of the first landing area to 'steer' their shots to the left off the tee" and by widening the fairway where possible for an easier second shot. For the approach, "the right greenside bunker will already direct higher handicappers to the left, but the smaller green will also allow more containing play space around the green to help with errant shots."


(Welling's sketch)

With these designs, each designer hopes to achieve the same goal Chambers Bay will achieve this week:  Make a visually interesting hole that requires strategy from elite players, while still being playable for the rest of us.