Golfers often speak of “Good Shot Values,” but I have never heard a good, concise definition of this presumably important – and widely misunderstood – term. For example, the 1998 Cornish and Graves book “Golf Course Design” asked a few architects to define the term. The responses were maddingly vague, at best. Some samples:
“A reflection of what the hole demands of the golfer, and the relative reward or punishment it metes out for good and bad shots.” – Killian and Nugent
“The architect should get the most out of the land, while letting play take care of itself. Each hole must be designed to balance risk and reward.” – Tom Doak
“The value of a required shot as related to its difficulty or allowable margin of error.” – Mike Hurdzan
I worked for Killian and Nugent, and never got any more depth than that. Tom Doak has made a nice career over putting the land first, but I wonder if he really “let’s play take care of itself.” And, in his own 1996 book, “Golf Course Architecture,” Hurdzan expounds more on “shot value,” first noting it means a variety of required shots, lengths and targets, and defining the “allowable margin of error” as sizing greens by using USGA slope system research to allow 66 percent of average golfers to hit the green.
He vaguely suggests hazards can be designed so the punishment “matches the crime,” suggesting bunker depth be matched to expected recovery clubs, with fairway sand bunkers requiring mid to long irons to reach the green should be shallower than greenside bunkers where you can use a wedge. The possibility of clean escape is an inherently good shot value.
Even Golf Digest, which uses shot values as a double weighted component of its golf course rankings system defines it only as: “How well do the holes pose a variety of risks and rewards and equally test length, accuracy and finesse?” Golfweek has somewhat different criteria, emphasizing variety but notably leaving out resistance to scoring.
First, any course feature designed to “resist scoring” usually cost poor golfers several shots more than it might cost top players. Second, the Golden Age masters wrote they were trying to encourage, suggest or reward a variety of different types of golf shots over 18 holes for fun and challenge. They had little interest in punishing bad shots harshly. The “punishment” mentality was common around 1900 and later from 1950 onward, dating to the Robert Trent Jones remodel of Oakland Hills. The Golf Digest “Toughest 100 list” inadvertently influenced the tough is better mentality, and later, aesthetics (read: more sand bunkers) kept it going.
The difference between placing hazards to encourage different shots versus placing them to punish bad ones is a tough concept for many golfers and greens committees to grasp. Even when you believe in some punishment, we soon realize that for competitive matches, the architect only needs to differentiate golfers by one shot per round in medal play, and by as little as one hole in match play.
The masters knew that arranging hazards to suggest golfers hit a particular shot type – such as a low fade with a mid-iron to a tucked pin position has similar shot values whether the guarding bunker is two or 20 feet deep. The “one shot difference” theory suggests moderate depth bunkers allowing recovery with a good shot and staying in the bunker with a mediocre one.
“Balancing” risk and reward suggests par 4 holes with a maximum reward of birdie or one stroke to par, should typically limit punishment to bogey. On par 5 holes, where you might pick up two strokes, perhaps two-stroke hazards are appropriate.
I have never found previous definitions particularly useful as design tools, as I need to decide specifically how to arrange features to create good shot values, as they’re my primary goal. Thus, undaunted by those who believe shot values are too hard to define, and those who prefer to leave the definition vague, using the pornography test (I know good shot values when I see them…). I have cobbled together any definition of shot values from the thoughts above, and the amazingly consistent comments I have heard over 30 years from better players (in tidbit form) as to what they like, and expect to see.
But, as the psychologists are famous for saying, we are out of time this month…