A New Principle of Golf Course Architecture

The Epic links of Cruden Bay - a remarkable example of pacing
The Epic links of Cruden Bay - a remarkable example of pacing

olf is a game, and thus a golf course is a landscape, that is experienced chronologically.  Unless one is playing in a large tournament off split tees or in a shotgun, the golfer’s journey always begins at the first tee box and ends at the eighteenth green.

This sequence of events sounds obvious.  But it’s remarkable how many course architects and how many design critics focus on individual holes, without taking into account where they fall in the sequence, and thus how they combine to create the experience of the round.

Little attention is paid by architects and critics to chronology and sequence in routing–a concept I define as “pacing.”

Even the best contemporary architects, such as Tom Doak and Coore + Crenshaw, seem to be more intent on creating the greatest number of individual holes rather than the greatest set.  The attention that they pay to their remarkable green complexes, bunkering, and scale is not matched by a focus on chronology and sequence of routing–a concept I define as pacing.

Perhaps that’s partly because even among members of the pantheon, so few designers of yesteryear showed a flair for this concept.  Doak’s architectural hero, Alister Mackenzie (Pasatiempo, Cypress Point), was downright terrible at it.  George Thomas (Riviera, Los Angeles North) was better at it than most architects of his era, but the best ones seemed to be amateurs or first-timers (Henry Fownes, Jack Neville).  It’s a concept Pete Dye seemed to grasp thoroughly at TPC Sawgrass, but like so many of his ideas became sadly formulaic over as many of his designs as possible.

A.W. Tillinghast famously uttered: “When I speak of a hole being inspiring, it is not intended to imply that the visitor is to be subject to attacks of hysteria on every teeing ground.”  While I agree 100% with Tillie’s assessment, even this quote betrays his hole-focused mentality. I would amend the first half of the statement to “When I speak of a course being inspiring….”

Most tournament golfers are familiar with the mantra “one shot at a time” or “one hole at a time.”  Well, if he is to design a golf course that is truly great, an architect simply cannot subscribe to this mantra.  To focus a shot-at-a-time or a hole-at-a-time is akin to designing a house one wall at a time or one room at a time without considering how an inhabitant moves from the entry to the living areas to the bedrooms.


Do the innate characteristics of the opener at Royal Aberdeen make it a “great hole”?  It’s one of the most thrilling starts to a round anywhere in the world, heading literally from the club’s grill room straight downhill to the North Sea, taking the golfer as quickly as possible into the world-class dunesland through which the rest of the front nine traverses.

By definition part of a hole’s greatness must depend partially on where it falls in the round, and the context of its surrounding holes.

Yet I doubt you’d find many architects or critics to vouch for its innate greatness–architecturally it’s pretty boring. Would it make for even a marginal 5th, or 17th hole? No. But considered in its context, it accomplishes the two goals to which every first hole should aspire.  It gets the player excited about his round (what golfer could look down at the North Sea and not want to rip a ball right towards it!), and gives him a few first tee jitters, no matter how many times he’s played the course (one’s friends are no doubt scrutinizing his swing over their Guinnesses mere feet away from the teeing area).

The reverse could be said of the 16th at Pasatiempo.  It’s architecturally one of the most intriguing holes you’ll ever play: a 400-yarder featuring a blind tee shot with a hazard running down the left-hand side of the fairway and across it about 100 yards from the green.  Upon reaching the crest of the hill, the fairway runs downhill and right to left.  But the closer one challenges the hazard on the left, the better angle he has into the enormous three-tiered green, one of the wildest of Mackenzie’s creations still in existence.  It’s truly an awesome hole.  But consider the holes that precede and follow it:

Pasatiempo’s fourteenth tee is the last time most golfers will pull out a driver; some may even use it for a final time at 13.  Sequentially, the sixteenth would have been much more intriguing sandwiched between longer, brawnier par fours, or even next to a par three that required a long iron or hybrid–but considering all of its neighbors also call exclusively for finesse, the finish at Pasatiempo is just not as exciting as it should be, and in my view the excellence of the 16th itself is diminished by this fact.

By definition part of a hole’s greatness must depend partially on where it falls in the round, and the context of its surrounding holes.


Mackenzie once said that a good golf course grows on you like a good piece of music.  I couldn’t agree more.  And as with music, tempo and rhythm are key to any truly great golf course.  A listener may have a preference for a fiery Tchaikovsky or Wagner piece, or a more stately composition like a Brahms or a Mendelsohn.  But regardless of the emotion created by the piece, the great operatic and symphonic composers had a way of tying their works together such that hearing the synthesis of their movements constitutes a more pleasurable experience together than does listening to any one of them alone.

It’s important to allow the golfer to establish his rhythm early in the round.  Any opener that takes driver out of the player’s hands on the first hole has not succeeded, nor has any opening set which relies exclusively on finesse.  The vast majority of golfers aren’t going to hit any balls before beginning their rounds, and to ask for a three-quarter shot off the first handful of tees is just as offensive as a forced carry early in the round.

Finishing a round off with an assortment of irons and fairway woods off the tee, or fiddly little wedge approaches, after a player has achieved a certain rhythm is equally unsatisfying.  It’s like ending a symphony with a minuet or a scherzo.

To illustrate, let’s compare the back nines at neighbors Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes.  Frankly I love both par threes at the start of Pacific’s back nine, and 17 might be my favorite par three in North America.  I readily admit that architecturally and strategically, the green complexes and bunkering at Pacific Dunes are far richer than those at Bandon.  But for the sheer pleasure of the experience, Bandon’s closing stretch beats Pacific’s in a landslide.

The hole types found within each are largely similar. Both sides contain a mid-length par three, a long par three, a reachable par four, a long par four, a reachable par five, and a three-shot par five. Both feature one of the world’s most thrilling tee shots (the 16th at Bandon and the 13th at Pacific).  But Kidd’s skillful arrangement and sequence of hole types at Bandon, and the stunning climax offered by the 16th green (compare its site to that of the 16th green at Pacific!) make it a far more enjoyable side to play.

The 17th is the only hole in the final five that doesn’t feature either a finicky tee shot (14, 16, 18) or awkward half-approach to the green (15, 16).  While I enjoy seeing two or three of these hole types in an 18-hole stretch, Pacific is downright laden with them (1, 6, 14, 15, 16, 18) and their heaviest concentration comes at the end of the round.

Given that Doak apprenticed under Pete Dye, he may enjoy creating a sense of discomfort or awkwardness among players (though he certainly doesn’t spell that out in Anatomy of a Golf Course).  It’s particularly disconcerting when the preponderance of these shots occur at the end of the round, leaving an unfulfilled taste in your mouth as you sip your Guinness at McKee’s Pub.

I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of discouraging a player from taking out his driver on a closing stretch; if anything, the player who is driving well towards the end of his round should be rewarded with birdie opportunities, or at the very least an advantage over the player who is not in control of his drive.

Which is exactly the case at Bandon Dunes.  Good drives on 13, 14, and 16 often lead directly to birdies if a player is putting well, while slight misses in the prevailing headwind at 11 or left-to-right wind at 18 can lead to a bogey very quickly.

Even the fairway at Pacific’s monumental 18th is set at an odd angle, with a jungle and chasm on both sides.  Although the 14-15-16 stretch would still be uncomfortable, my critique of the course’s pacing would be significantly diminished were the 18th tee box moved up +/- 40 yards and the underbrush cleared on the opposite side of the fairway and replaced with tall grass.  These changes would encourage a mighty lash with a driver, making the final exam a heroic risk/reward Cape hole, and combining with the remarkable Redan at 17 to create a thrilling finish.

There must be a concerted effort on the part of the architect to create a Gestalt, where the tempo and sequence of holes creates a golf experience that ascends to a higher level.

In contemporary architecture and contemporary architectural criticism, there is too much emphasis placed on variety for variety’s sake.  Like so many others, I loathe the indistinguishability of holes on a typical Nicklaus or Fazio or Jones course, but I find variety for variety’s sake almost as unpleasureable.  There must be a concerted effort on the part of the architect to create a Gestalt, where the tempo and sequence of holes creates a golf experience that ascends to a higher level than its individual components.


The climax of the course need not always come at number 18 (in fact it probably shouldn’t).  Not every course can have a finishing hole of the caliber of Oakmont or Pebble Beach, and trying to design around such a hole is going to create more problems than it’s worth.

As an aside, some of this sense of climax is obviously based on the positioning of the clubhouse, and while I understand the logic of Doak’s advice in Anatomy that clubhouse position shouldn’t be a determining factor in a routing, when I think of my favorite courses for pacing, the clubhouse seems to help serve as an anchor for these designs…see below…

At any point in the round, does a player feel like he’d rather walk in, or replay the same holes he’s already played, than finish?

Doak praises the routing of Lahinch, which demonstrates again that pacing is not a primary concern for him.  I’m well aware that this amounts to heresy given who laid out the back nine, but at Lahinch, I’d rather play the front nine twice than play any of the holes on the back!

The front at Lahinch is a rollercoaster of Epic intensity:

Compare that to the back nine, where holes 10, 14, 15, and 16 are virtually indistinguishable par fours (that feel more like South Carolina than Ireland), and the par five 12th and 18th have barely a sliver of the character found on Nos. 2 and 4.  Perhaps the par threes on the back are more interesting architecturally but, again, for sheer thrills I’ll take the Dell or “postage stamp” any time.

Yes, the topography of the back nine is not nearly as dramatic as the front.  But Royal Aberdeen, which in terms of its dunesland/flatland rotation is a carbon-copy of Lahinch, offers a far more compelling inward side.  There the least scenic holes are among the most clever architecturally.

Ohio State’s Scarlet Course is an interesting test case.  It features a wonderful front nine, as the par four 3rd, par five 4th, and par five 6th make for an excellent trio.  The 10th, 11th, and 12th holes may be the three best holes on the course, but the excitement fizzles quickly after climbing the hill to the 12th green, and given its proximity to the clubhouse, and even the 10th tee, one feels like the final six are a let-down.

While thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen were always good for my scorecard, the final six holes just didn’t seem to fit together as well as those on the front side.  A rather dull drop-shot at 13, short par five at 14, uninteresting tee shot at 15 (though the second was hands-down the neatest approach in the final stretch), a gimmicky green slammed up against Kenny Road on 16, a too-long-carry on the par three 17th, and an unsatisfying dogleg on 18 just tired me out more than anything else; I’d invariably rather play holes 10-12 in a continuous loop than experience anything that the remainder of the back had to offer.

In my view, this is a good Litmus test of a well-paced course: at any point in the round, does a player feel like he’d rather walk in, or replay the same holes he’s already played, than finish?

Many 0f the great courses return to the clubhouse mid-way through the back nine (Oakmont {14},  Ballybunion {16}, Carnoustie {15}, and Taconic {15}), and it’s entirely possible to create a sustained sense of excitement over the holes that head “back out.”  The quartet of aforementioned courses all offer plenty of thrills down the stretch to encourage golfers to carry on.

Case Study: Cruden Bay

At one of Doak’s favorite routings, Cruden Bay, the sophisticated pacing of the raw design is perhaps even more remarkable.  The golfer is given two birdie opportunities right off the bat prior to the delicate, semi-blind third, then put to the test with a heroic shot along an inlet at the fourth, and asked for powerful blows through the dunes on holes 5-8, including three half-pars at five, six, and eight.  This thrilling opening act is followed by an interlude of two more smashes off the tee on 9 and 10, and then turns to a slower, sophisticated stretch of six holes where finesse is rewarded more than power (11-16), before closing with two more brutes into the prevailing wind.

In Anatomy, Doak says that Cruden is “routed exactly the way you might be inclined to wander the property if there were no golf course there;” I’d argue that it’s paced exactly as you might be inclined to play the terrain as well.  You’d want to start out with a couple warmups, build to a mini-climax on the front nine in the dunes at number seven, execute a quiet (though exacting) shot into a dell at the 8th, Take a full-blooded rip with your driver on the two holes at the high point of the course, give your body a rest and your mind some exercise as you think your way around the next few holes back down at sea level, before giving yourself a couple of stern final exams as you forced yourself to say goodbye to the sea.

In my only trip to Cruden, I had such an enjoyable first round, that I couldn’t resist shelling out a few more quid for a second.  And such an enjoyable second round that I couldn’t resist asking the gentleman in the pro shop if I could possibly play a third.  (I was able to make it to the 8th green before turning inward on 17 and 18.)

The pacing of this ancient layout is a wonderful model; it’s a shame that architects analyze the course’s attributes more than the experience of playing it.

There are enough difficult holes (like the long par four 5th, half-par at the 8th–depending on how you play it*, and long par three 15th) that the breathers (like the short par five 6th and medium par five 13th) are more welcome than if they fell at a different place in the round.  And even these easier holes have double bogey potential (courtesy of a Bluidy Burn at 6 and an unnamed one at 13) to keep you from falling asleep. Architecturally, there are enough totally straightforward holes (like the 4th, 8th, and 9th) to appreciate finicky ones (like the 3rd, 14th, and 15th) that might seem horribly out of place if the entire course were filled with them.

The pacing of this ancient layout is a wonderful model; it’s a shame that architects analyze the course’s attributes more than the experience of playing it.

*thanks to reader Chris Burgard for pointing out that the 8th is actually listed as a par four on Cruden’s scorecard.

9 Responses

  1. This is a very good write-up of an aspect that is not mentioned enough in various golf course architecture websites. I’m certainly impressed by your frank assessment of the newest Gods in golf course architecture, Tom Doak and C+C. I don’t play enough great golf courses around the globe but have played Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes to help me understand your finer point about looking at the course routing and how it affects the experience of an entire round. Bravo

  2. This was an eye-opener for this young golfer. Have you played Merion? It fits into the quartet of courses returning to the club house mid-way through the back and evinces some spectacular pacing otherwise come to think of it. It breaks into thirds (1-6, tough scoring, 7-12, 13-18, return to the clubhouse side and the quarry); it’s a pure walking course; the clubhouse, ardmore avenue, and the quarry serve as landmarks throughout the round; 14, 15, 16, and 18 are solid driving holes.

    Thanks for articulating something I love about my home course and is always at the forefront of my personal golf criticism when I play.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Sophist. I have not had the fortune of playing Merion, but will certainly keep a keen eye on the television during the US Open. From your description it certainly sounds like it would be up my alley, and also falls into the category of amateur/first-time architects like Fownes and Neville having this innate sense of how to finish the course.

  4. Though I cannot say that I disagree with your thoughts on pacing, I truly believe that ideal pacing is something that is extremely rare to achieve on a golf course. With finite resources, one can only do so much. Sure the the holes in front of and after the 16th at pasatiempo may be lacking ideal qualities, but certainly the designer would have had to sacrifice the awesomeness that 16 is as we know it to make those holes only minutely more interesting…Where should one draw the line on this issue? The value of sixteen’s architecture I would think would outway the coueses lack of pacing…?

  5. Jordan,
    I would say given the awesomeness that is the 16th, I would have structured the pacing of the course considerably more around it. 11 is a great hole but would be even better as a 16th, late in the round. 17 could be the current 12th and have 18 play up the current 10th fairway back towards the clubhouse.

    So, even if Mackenzie was locked into the clubhouse position by real estate considerations (which I’m not even sure is true), surely he could have said “OK, I can visualize #11 and #16 as standout holes. Let’s figure out how to put in some better fabric holes to improve where the golfer encounters those holes in his round.”

  6. I find myself in a gap between deciding what is more important: pacing or hole design. I think your analysis of Pasatiempo is a very good one, and for that reason I feel the course would do itself wonders if it flipped the 9’s around, therefore ending with a narrow, mid/long, demanding par 3, and in my opinion, an absolutely world class par 5.

    However, there comes a conflict when looking even at the Epic School of design. Do you sacrifice a great hole location when the hole itself could become incredibly memorable for a weaker location to fit the pacing ideal. 16 at Pasatiempo is a prime example of this dilemma. Considering the plans for Pasatiempo, is it really worth sacrificing the memorability of the 16th? One of the things I wish MacKenzie did do, on the other hand, is turn 17 into a par 3, and 18 into another par 4, but then people would have complained at the striking similarities between the 16th and 18th holes. (my opinion is also changed because I believe 15 is a great hole, no different than the Postage Stamp or the 7th at Pebble Beach in terms of distance and what the )shot requires)

    In short, my argument is that pacing is a great design philosophy, something that I, too, have to say Cruden Bay does a fantastic job of, but in the long run, the memorability of a certain hole location has to take the priority. When one finds a site that allows for the perfect combination of the two (like Cruden Bay does) it becomes a fantastic golf course.

  7. Connor, thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure I entirely agree that Pasatiempo should flip its nines…after all the thrill of that first tee shot is pretty remarkable. But you’re right that on balance, the front nine contains more excellent, if not world-class, holes.

    I guess my overall point is that an architect should seek the standout holes, yes, but that I probably differ with a lot of golfers, and certainly architects, in looking back after a round of golf and saying “now that was a fun round,” rather than “can you believe how good that XXth hole was?” And certainly the subtleties of “fabric” holes become even more important on private courses, where members see them over and over again.

  8. David,
    Lovely article, and I’m curious if this summarizes what you are looking for in a course: “A hole for every club.”
    It seems that great variety reduce the blandness of a course, and that a mix of layouts combined with natural beauty create the better course.

  9. Alexander,
    Thanks for stopping by.

    Not quite. Although I definitely think that most great golf courses require every club in the bag, I’m more referring to the sequence of holes in combination with variety, rather than sheer variety.

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