Golf Architecture as Narrative Art

You think you can leave the past behind,
You must be out of your mind.
If you think you can simply press rewind,
You must be out of your mind, son
You must be out of your mind.
—Magnetic Fields “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind.” Realism.

I sometimes get asked just what the biggest difference is between the amateur and the professional games are, and about as often I want to say, “Amateurs always start on the first tee.” This is a smart-alecky remark, but it isn’t just smart-alecky. For over a century the United States Open sent every player off from the first tee the first two days of the tournament, a tradition that ended in 2002 at Bethpage in New York. Now, only the Masters and the Open Championship in the U.K. still start everyone on the first tee every day. Mostly nobody notices, in part because televised golf encourages a kind of schizoid viewing habit: we skip from hole to hole, shot to shot, seemingly at random, without order.

“Here’s Ernie at 11,” the announcer will say, never mind that the last thing we saw was the leaders hitting their approach shots into 7, and right before that we saw Player X finishing up at 18. All of this approaches the golf course like a deck of cards to be dealt at random: which is precisely the opposite of how the amateur player always sees a golf course, one hole at a time.

Pro golf, both on television and the way the players themselves experience it, is different. A golf course, like a book, is designed to be played in a certain order, which makes golf architecture different from other kinds of architecture or other kinds of art like painting or sculpture, as much as the brochures and the television announcers like to make mention of this week’s “breathtaking beauty.” Golf architecture though has just as much in common with temporal arts like music or narrative: what’s important isn’t just what’s happening now but what’s happened before.

Did the architect create the illusion that those bunkers weren’t a problem on the last hole, causing you to play safe on this one—or vice versa? Maybe two greens with similar-looking slopes will play differently because the grain runs differently on each. There’s a lot of games architects can play that take advantage of what we’ve learned—or thought we learned—on previous holes.

Mostly though the obvious tricks are easily discovered, or only work once. Courses like that are like murder mysteries spoiled after somebody tells you just how Mr. Green bought it from a rutabega poisoned by the maid, who turns out to be employed by and who the hell cares. What makes a course worth playing is one that continues to bewilder, even after you know the secret of it. Nobody gives a damn if you know “Rosebud” was the sled—Citizen Kane is still good. Good architecture, I would submit, tells a story.

Maybe the best example of what I mean is Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where the tour plays the L.A. Open every year. Widely acclaimed as an architect’s dream course, Riviera is also remarkably fun to play while still being one of the toughest tracks the professionals play every year. The first tee begins a few steps, quite literally, from the clubhouse, on a patch of grass high above the rest of the course. The tee shot drops out of the sky just as you do from the heights—Icarus (or Lucifer) plummeting, as Milton says, “toward the coast of Earth beneath,/Down from th’ Ecliptic, sped with hop’d success.” The first is the easiest hole on the course, a par five with the tee not only elevated, but a wide landing zone to receive the shot. The green is wide, and in general it’s a lullaby of a hole.

The second, however, turns the tables quickly. It’s a long dog-legged par four with out-of-bounds (the driving range) left and trees right: the tee shot is either to a narrow piece of fairway or the riskier shot over the neck of the dogleg on the right over the trees. Either way, the approach is to a very narrow green with deep bunkers left and a hillside with very tall rough on the right. The professionals regard a four here as dearly as a five is cheap on the first hole. Usually the second is the toughest hole on the course every year.

Whereas the first hole rewards the bomber, the second favors the straight-shooter. In other words, what worked on the first hole is exactly what’s penalized on the next, and vice versa. Riviera continues on like this all the way around the course, giving and taking away options throughout and always mixing it up: what worked on the last hole won’t necessarily work on the next; in fact, following the same strategy or style of play is exactly what leads to big numbers.

What’s really astonishing about Riviera is that it doesn’t matter whether you know what’s coming: just because you know the first hole is easy, and why, and the second is hard, and why, doesn’t change things. There isn’t any short-cut—such as is often found on the videogame Golden Tee for instance—that, once discovered, ends the problem the next hole presents. That ability to confound is something rare in a golf course. Most courses reward a particular style—Jack Nicklaus’ courses are notorious for rewarding high fades, the shot Nicklaus liked to hit in his prime.

The great courses, though, not only mix up styles, but also tell a story. As Rob says in High Fidelity, “You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don’t want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” Rob’s point owes something perhaps to Stanley Fish, the Miltonist, who argued in Surprised By Sin that the way Paradise Lost works is to ensnare the reader constantly, setting up one expectation after another, dashing each in turn.

At Riviera, for instance, the first two holes raise hopes and then dash them—or conceivably raise them to a higher pitch, should you somehow make a miraculous birdie on the second. The rest of the course continues to toy with a player’s mind. Two years ago Geoff Ogilvy, the Australian pro I’ve written about before, talked with Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest about the short 10th hole and how important that hole’s place in the routing is:

“The eighth and ninth holes are very hard, but you know that the 10th and 11th [a reachable par 5] offer a couple of birdie or even eagle chances. So [the 10th hole] sits in the round at the perfect time,” says Ogilvy. “It’s definitely a much better hole than it [would be] if you teed off there to start your round when the dynamics just aren’t nearly the same.”

Sequence matters in other words even if, as at Riviera, players are guaranteed to have to start at least one round on the 10th hole because the first two days use split tees.

Medinah, where I usually work, often takes a lot of crap from the big-name golf writers on just that point: Bradley Klein, for instance, who’s not only the architecture critic for Golfweek but was also PGA Tour caddie and a professor of political science, doesn’t think much of the course. In 1999, he said it was “stunningly mediocre.” Klein doesn’t convince me. Maybe it’s because I am—maybe more so than anyone on the planet—familiar with the course, but it might also be that Klein either isn’t aware of the role of narrative in architecture, or isn’t familiar enough with Medinah to understand its narrative.

There’s a stretch of holes, for instance, that I think illustrate what I’ll call the High Fidelity or Paradise Lost principle pretty well: the ninth through the eleventh. The first and the last hole of this stretch are both dogleg-left four pars, sandwiching a long five par that goes directly into the prevailing wind. The ninth and the eleventh are both similar-looking holes to the unwary: both require you to choose either to try to carry the dogleg with a driver off the tee or lay-up with some other club. But the tee shot on nine is into the prevailing wind and uphill, while the eleventh is with the prevailing wind and downhill. What worked on the first one won’t work on the other. In addition, the tenth is so long, and into the wind, that the player usually thinks more club is necessary on the eleventh tee—but that’s usually exactly the wrong choice.

Medinah just underwent a renovation last year—again—so I will see how the changes went and report back on them here. What I wanted to do here first though was to describe a bit about how I’m going to understand that change, which is to evaluate the golf course through the story it tells. Playing the course as the architect meant it to be played is one advantage the amateur has over the professional. The PGA Tour isn’t far removed from the shotgun starts that are a feature of your typical pro-am event, where it doesn’t matter what hole you start on. But enjoying the structure, the internal logic, of course design is not only one of the game’s pleasures, but also I think a means of improving your own golf: understanding what the architect wants is a big step towards lowering your score. “But to convince the proud what signs avail?” Milton says in Paradise Lost, “Or wonders move the obdurate to relent?” Reading the signs in order, I think, is the amateur’s one advantage over the professional—it is a pleasure not unlike the bite of a noted apple.


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