Just as walking makes for a better golf experience, a walking-only course yields a better golf design.
Walking a course connects you to the land. You get to feel the movements up and down, side to side. Your point of view is from within the painting. The transition from one hole to the next is direct and compelling, and between shots you can talk with your playing partners. Walking is healthy – physically, mentally and socially.
Designers want to build courses for walkers. We want you to experience the course the same way we explore the site and find the holes. Imagine the experience at a museum: You want to flow naturally from one room to the next. If after each room you had to get in your car and drive down the street to get to the next room, you would see the same art but it wouldn’t make for the same experience.
Let’s examine three ways that carts and cart paths hurt the golf experience.
Aesthetics and playability
When a path is inserted into certain terrain, it almost always impacts the aesthetics.
“The visual of a cart path trail was the biggest single negative,” said Mike Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, on his decision to be a walking-only facility. “You had to see carts and the path, especially around the greens.”
Think of a hole that plays through a valley, one of the most compelling landforms around and one that naturally draws you in. A path breaks up that landscape, not only visually but from a playability standpoint that impacts shots and how things move within the valley. A ball hit slightly offline hits the path and heads to a worse fate.
One of the most important elements of any course routing is the connection from green to tee.
Green locations are often determined by interesting natural landforms. A designer will find a great natural spot and try to locate a green as close to the natural feature as possible. In many instances, a designer will try to locate multiple greens near one big feature. Alister MacKenzie was a master of such, with ample evidence at Cypress Point and the Valley Club of Montecito.
But when paths are required, it limits how these features can be used and how players can move from one hole to the next.
A more recent example of great connectivity between greens and tee boxes is Bill Coore’s routing at the newly opened Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes. Coore has been lauded for coming up with a routing that maximized the compact site. One spot that will garner attention is the 16th hole, a par 3 that plays along the cliff past a large dune to a double green – shared with No. 3 – set on a point above the Pacific Ocean.
About any architect on earth would put a green on that promontory. The original Sheep Ranch course designed by Tom Doak – a 13-hole predecessor to the recently opened 18-hole course – had a green in this spot as well.
Coore’s routing has skilled players walk to the back of the 16 green and play a tee shot over a 100-foot cliff to the 17th fairway. With a walking-only layout this works beautifully. The flow is ideal, and the walk is short.
Adding a path to that promontory would create multiple problems and contaminate the hole and the setting. If you tried to put the path on the outside of the dune, you run into the portion of the green used on No. 3. Walking eliminates those kinds of headaches.
Firm turf and ground-game options
Fescue turf has many wonderful qualities, but perhaps most appealing is its firm surface with lots of ball roll. This makes it the ideal turf for links-style golf played more along the ground.
But one thing fescue does not like is cart traffic – the grass just doesn’t flourish in high-traffic areas. Having carts would essentially eliminate fescue as a turf and the desired firm-and-fast conditions. This has a huge impact on the design of a course.
When designers know the turf will be firm, it places a great emphasis on the ground plane and all of the micro-contours within the playing field. Strategy changes, bunker locations shift, grassing lines change and more. Imagine playing the Old Course at St. Andrews and taking the ground contours out of the equation because you could fly your ball to the hole and stop it on soft turf – it’s a fine example of form following function.
Unfortunately, golf carts have become such a staple of American golf that course designers must factor them into a design.
When designers are asked to consider carts and cart paths, they have a playbook they pull out. Knowing the challenges of carts and paths, good designers go to great lengths to minimize the impact.
The first way designers try to minimize the aesthetic and playability impacts of the paths is to eliminate them all together. If that is not possible, we push for only green-to-tee paths.
When paths are required, we try to hide them. The first way is by location, finding a route you don’t see as you play the hole. When that isn’t possible, we try to hide them through earthworks or landscaping. And sometimes we try to hide them in plain sight by using materials that match the adjacent landscape.
I will never forget a meeting in 2005 on this subject. My colleagues and I made an impassioned plea for the new Chambers Bay course in Washington to be walking only. We explained in great detail how carts would prohibit us from utilizing natural features for the green sites at Nos. 6, 10, 12 and 16. We outlined how the aesthetics and playability would be compromised and that we couldn’t have firm-and-fast fescue if we used carts. We had image boards showing holes with paths and without. When we finished, the management team presented financial projections with and without cart revenues.
Ultimately it was Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg’s call to make. And while I was on the edge of my seat sweating bullets, Ladenburg got up and finished a meeting with the line: “We will call it Chambers Bay, and we will walk it in 2007.”
From my perspective, it was the single most important decision of the entire project. With that one sentence, Ladenburg set Pierce County on a path that would deliver the Pacific Northwest its first-ever U.S. Open.
Hopefully owners, operators and developers will think long and hard before adding paths in the future. Their decision will not only impact the golf experience, but course design as well. Gwk
– Jay Blasi is a course architect who also works with Golfweek’s rater program. This story originally appeared in Issue 4 – 2020 of Golfweek.
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