The Construction of the Golf Course at Giants Ridge - Part 6

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

Editor's Note: In this sixth installment of golf course architect Jeffrey D. Brauer's ongoing journal about construction of a second course at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn., he discusses the rules for routing.

Once, I played with two golf architects and a stranger. After learning our profession, the stranger tossed out some architectural philosophy/lingo, including, "an architect finds natural green sites first, and connects the holes from there." The architects laughed so hard, we let three groups go through before composing ourselves and resuming play!

In fact, architects lay out golf holes in the same order you play them - from tee to green. We usually start with the holes by the proposed clubhouse. If we can't find suitable holes for 1, 9, 10 and 18 - along with a practice area - we usually need to find a better clubhouse location on the next routing attempt.

The next order of business is finding golf holes along perimeter boundaries, to use land efficiently to fit in 18 holes. We fill in the middle by testing how the remaining holes may fit. Fairway corridors are 250 to 300 feet wide, so where property is 1,000 to 1,200 feet wide, we can fit in four holes; if it is 500 to 600 feet wide, just two holes, etc.

I hate to divulge how architects find natural holes. I wonder about the fate of that magician who gave away magic secrets on television. Is he still alive? Golf architects won't like me giving away "secrets of natural golf design," especially when we talk as if our designs are handed down from a golf deity. Our lingo conceals a simple truth about routing golf holes: Play downhill.

A downhill hole brings features into view from the tee, which is both aesthetic and strategic. The best way to do this is to locate the tee on a small rise - although a large one works even better. From there, the hole "lays out in front of you like a road map," according to Jim Colbert.

With the tee on a hill, we lay out the centerline to the dogleg point, considering potential features. The centerline is the intended line of play, running from championship tee to dogleg (generally 800 feet), and then a variable distance to the center of the proposed green. One hundred years ago, 200-yard doglegs were typical. As shot length gradually increased, that moved to 250 yards, and now 266 yards. With so many players of Tiger-like length, turning points at 850, 900, or even 950 feet (about 317 yards) cannot be far away. Mountain courses, where the ball goes farther, have already used 900 feet as typical dogleg points. We rarely vary the dogleg length from hole to hole, except for the occasional lay-up hole.

We then scout 360 degrees for possible hole alignments, looking for a dogleg point with the following qualities:

On perimeter holes, one at least the minimum distance from property lines - generally 150 to 175 feet.

On middle holes, a location 250 to 300 feet from parallel fairways (distance between fairway centerlines and adjacent greens and tees has also grown).

A point that is level or below the tee, or a maximum of 25 feet above the tee for vision. Golf holes can play downhill, level, or even slightly uphill, but blind shots result from steep uphill holes. Architects differ, but I usually opt for the highest tees and lowest/most visible greens, accepting uphill walks to the next tee, knowing that cart usage is 55 percent nationwide and on the rise.

Centerlines should parallel contour lines, not cross them. Study highways and railroads on topographical maps, and you will see they parallel contour lines and usually follow valleys. Fairways also fit naturally in valleys. When prime landing areas are located on hilltops, the hole plays fine for experts, but creates blind spots for tee shots that land in valleys short of the ideal zone. Valley holes eliminate this, providing relatively level holes, natural containment and separation from adjacent fairways.

Cresting hills with fairway centerlines usually means more excavation, more cost, and an unnatural look. When railroads go through hills, they use tunnels. In golf, this option is open only to miniature golf designers! Cresting hills causes blind landing areas, reduces strategy and aesthetics, means less walkability and may be dangerous to players in the fairway. Who wants to hear: "This is my ball; maybe that's your Maxfli over by the guy writhing in pain"?

Fairways can traverse gently rolling topography of less than 10 percent. Constant cross slopes should be 9 percent maximum, and as little as 5 percent if the general flow of topography is also downhill. Otherwise, shots will roll off the fairway far too often.

Contours must be higher on the outside of doglegs, to provide both visibility and containment. While many holes should dogleg gently to introduce strategy, they can be overdone. Doglegs of 10 to 30 degrees are graceful, but bends exceeding 45 degrees often are not.

I avoid sharp doglegs in only two situations: where there are trees bordering the fairway, and where there aren't! Why? In wooded areas, they are difficult for duffers whose tee shots are short of the corner. In open areas they are easy for accomplished players to shortcut, causing safety problems and wasting valuable land.

Streams should parallel fairways, not cross them. Cross hazards are difficult for average players, and will force unpopular lay-up shots for some players, regardless of location. If they must cross fairways, the best locations are:

just in front of the green as a key hazard for all;
just in front of the tee, where it doesn't usually affect play; or
at 300 to 325 yards, forcing lay-ups for long players, but between shots for most.

Of course, we always look to use natural features. Within parameters of safety, reasonable doglegs, and vision, we look at all points that offer natural features adjacent to the fairway, like streams, trees, or landforms that might become (naturally or with a little help) hazards. A gentle rise on the perimeter of the fairway facing the tee allows a natural-looking fairway bunker.

We are careful to save trees in the right locations. Once, an owner was looking at the green center pole through some trees. "They frame it perfectly. We'll keep them," he said, obviously not considering the size of the final green complex. Many owners end up with extremely narrow fairways because of their love of trees. Trees cause agronomic problems and experience tells us only to save trees where they won't.

Grow some grass or grow trees? Goodbye, Mr. Tree! We rarely alter our safety standards just to save a tree. Save a tree or save a future lawsuit? Goodbye, Mr. Tree!

After setting the landing area, we begin a 90-degree search for green locations, allowing doglegs of about 45 degrees on either side. Green center points must be spaced about 175 to 200 feet apart, a bit closer than fairways.

Because greens are usually higher in back than front (to help vision and hold shots), we locate them on gentle uphill slopes, just below the top of a ridge. This minimizes cuts and fills, and looks most natural. I like greens with natural backdrops to frame them and provide a visual end point. Locating the green in front of a beautiful vista, a nice backdrop of trees, or with ridges just behind provides this setting. Like fairways, any natural feature adjacent to the green is incorporated, if possible.

The routing process resembles putting together a jigsaw puzzle, constantly testing options. One disappointment to office visitors is our reliance on scale-plastic golf holes to test routing options. We do at least a dozen routings and sometimes as many as 30. We change them again in the field to save specimen trees, provide better vistas, or for other field conditions to improve from the paper version.

The routing at Giants Ridge followed this pattern. In the next installment, we will present the routing and hole-by-hole description, along with some notes as to what we were thinking - some might say "What the hell were we thinking!" - when we found that particular "natural golf hole."