Weighing 'Feel' in Golf Course Design

By: Tripp Davis

Editor's Note: Tripp Davis, whose design credits include the Old Course at the Tribute (Colony, Texas) and other notable renovations, will share his views on the principals of course design with regular installments in Cybergolf's Architect's Corner. Davis is currently working with Justin Leonard on the Tribute's second 18, the New Course, which takes its cues from the classic designs of the "Golden Age" of American golf architecture. Set to open in late summer 2009, the New Course will integrate elements from such tracks as Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links and Prairie Dunes into its site on the rolling hills beside Lake Lewisville. Here, Tripp discusses the vital role of feel in playing and designing courses.

In the execution of individual shots, the most important ability in golf is creating a sense of "balance" between what a player knows to physically lie in front of him, internal factors such confidence and/or adrenaline, and external factors such as wind or temperature. It is impossible to execute consistently unless the player can adjust to the shot at hand and then mentally commit.

This connection between the physical and the mental is the player's sense of feel.

In my opinion, the most subtle impact a golf architect can have on a course's strategic nature is to continually challenge the player's ability to "get a feel" for shots. The architect who understands the feel of playing certain shots can make it difficult to develop this feel at will.

I agree with Jack Nicklaus that a golf architect should be a player who knows the factors that influence shot selection. However, we differ in that I believe the architect's input, relative to the impact of feel, must be continual and consistent during design and construction - not just occasionally through periodic site visits.

This is a subtle element of design that can have multiple variations on every shot, and it is necessary during construction to make minor changes in the field to perfect the impact. Feel is not a principle you can pass to staff members with a written statement or series of lessons in the field. It must be experienced.

So, where does feel exist? Somewhere between your past experiences, your current state of mind, and your perception of the facts you know. For the golfer, feel must confront two different but interrelated factors - distance and shot patterns. While both can be evaluated in a tangible sense, the ability to execute confidently comes from being committed to what is seen and eventually felt.

Gaining a Feel for Distance

A golfer is allowed 14 clubs, each producing shots of different distances. Although varied in precision, most reasonably accomplished golfers know how far they can hit each club under normal conditions with a typical swing.

Let's assume the golfer has developed a thorough understanding of how far they can hit each club, within some margin for error. To be specific, say my buddy Luke Anderson has figured out he is comfortable his 8-iron will go 145 yards with a margin of error of 3 yards either way with a typical swing under normal conditions - a flat lie and shot, the ball lying cleanly, no wind, an 80-degree day, average humidity, good night's sleep and not too much breakfast.

While players today rely largely on yardage markers and pin sheets to get exact (true) distances, they still must judge elevation, wind, their lie, how far the ball will run or if it will stop quickly, whether long or short is a better miss, and their confidence (subtle but probably most important). Plus they must visually and mentally agree with the true distance - all to dial in on the "feel distance" that integrates all these factors. Depending on conditions, Luke's 8-iron distance could vary as much as 25 yards in either direction of his 145-yard norm.

Gaining a Feel for Shot Patterns

Good iron players are also very good at "seeing," or feeling, the shot pattern that best fits the situation, such as a high or low shot, a fade or draw, a spinning shot or one that runs out, or some combination of these. The best shot pattern is the one the player can hit with the greatest confidence to the distance needed, while reducing risk to the desirable degree. In some cases, this shot pattern is immediately evident, even with the best of design, while other times the player must go through a process to make the selection.

Most of this consideration happens in the player's mind relatively quickly, especially if he is mentally prepared for the round. If a player is regularly seeing a shot he is uncomfortable with, the more challenging it is to mentally commit. There need not be any dramatic penalty for a misplayed shot to create this challenge, as it can simply be subtle visual clues that suggest something different from what makes sense to the player.

With tee shots, feeling the best pattern is more about "seeing" the shot, assuming distance is less of a factor. When distance enters the picture, the element of feel becomes more important. If a golf course rarely challenges distance control off the tee, it is vital to vary how the player will see the shot pattern to prevent him from getting into a groove and becoming automatic. A mix of looks and distance variables makes a golf course more interesting from the tee.

A golfer can do two things to best prepare for the shot patterns faced in a round. The first is to simply have a broad arsenal of shots. The second is to get to know the shot patterns you will likely face on a given course, then work on those shots and manage your game accordingly. For instance, if the best shot in your bag is a little fade with your 7-iron, try to position yourself off the tee to have this shot as often as possible.

Eliminating doubt is a key to playing well. Introducing doubt is one of the strongest tools a golf architect can use - if they know what physical, visual and mental elements are best at inducing it.

Next: Designing to "Combat" Feel

Tripp Davis has been a golf course architect since 1991 and has over the last 17 years worked on both original designs and restoration/renovation projects around the United States. His first international projects are coming soon in Acapulco, Mexico and Devon, England. Tripp developed a passion for golf at an early age and went on to become a three-time AJGA Junior All-American, an NCAA All-American at the University of Oklahoma and, for the past 15 years, he has been ranked as one of the top mid-amateur golfers in the U.S.

After receiving a degree in Advertising/Marketing, Tripp studied in the Masters of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oklahoma, concluding his studies with his thesis on "The Environmental Impact of Golf Course Construction." Having surrounded himself with a highly qualified and experienced staff of golf architects and a golf course construction specialist, Tripp's award-winning original design and restoration/renovation projects have been praised highly for their substance, giving him the recognition as a "craftsman" of the most strategically interesting and enjoyable golf courses of our time. To learn more about his work, visit www.tdagolfarchitecture.com.