I think most golfers judge a green primarily from its hazard choice and placement. Those are seen from the landing zone, and often even from the tee, giving golfers their first impression of the challenge ahead. Indeed, hazard arrangement can make a green hard, beautiful and/or unique, or “same old, same old.”
Since I was a 12-year-old golfer and aspiring architect, I asked myself why so many greens I saw, in person or on TV, featured sand bunkers on both right and left? I had read many golf course design articles and all stressed strategy was more important than penalty, but similar bunkers on both sides suggested it was the other way around for most architects of the day.
In my college landscape architecture courses, I was taught to design using the natural qualities of a site to give each a unique sense of place, not found elsewhere. Yet the trend in golf architecture was to make all courses conform to a style, moving as much earth as required to make each hole look similar to the next. I was upset and perplexed at losing nice commissions for stressing variety over sameness to a committee who believed in “style consistency.” “Shouldn’t they all be of the same style?” they asked.
Not necessarily, if you want them all to be unique…
However, I found it was easy to get in some of those same repetitive human thought patterns, like brushing your teeth after the shower, never before, etc. And, I found my bunker patterns would get similar. I usually placed them for aesthetics, slightly favoring the look over strategy, difficulty and balance.
I first design the greens that have a solid natural feature and “sense of place,” and then fill in the rest that by necessity required more “hand of man” to be good. Green sites without a pond, mature trees or some interesting contour to be the design keynote usually use sand bunkers for challenge. Notice I don’t say “defense,” a subtle theoretical difference that leads to … bunker left, bunker right. Sand bunkers are traditional, attractive and visually dominant, so much so that they are really “stop signs” telling golfers should NOT play, rather than guiding play intelligently.
If you can avoid repetitive thinking, there really is an infinite number of ways to place them around greens. Eventually, I reasoned, somewhat counter intuitively, that the best way to bunker each green uniquely was to start with a variety pre-determined “hip pocket” ideas and find sites and to suit them considering all facets of design. Topography typically suggests a variety of natural bunker locations, usually defined as locations a natural up slope facing golfers for visibility. It’s possible to build big earth forms for bunker placement, but you can fall into those repetitive patterns more easily.
While following nature as much as possible, I seek differentiation by varying the number and type of greenside bunkers at each hole. I strive for some greens with no bunkers up to those with seven or eight. The most bunkers I ever put on a green was 11, on a par 3, which created a dramatic “sea of sand” effect, which can be overused.”
If two greens have the same number of bunkers, they get totally different arrangements, mixing large, medium, small or pot bunkers. Some sizing rules usually apply – open areas tend to get bigger bunkers because of available room and “scale.” However, sand bunkers provide visual scale and are good distance markers. They can be purposely over- or under-sized to fool the eye. Greens with no bunker can be the most difficult to judge the approach shot.
I like subtle and strategic interplay between different hazards. Placing them in varying locations – staggering them to front, back, either side, close to the green, far from the green, above it, below it or both on one side.
Knowing golfers instinctively play away from higher penalty and visually dominant sand or water hazards, I mix hard hazards with benign one (or none at all) on the other side. This creates both the temptation of par vs. the dilemma of possible double bogey, and that makes golf entertaining.
I also like the aesthetics and variety of other hazard types, and use mounds, grass hollows and grass bunkers, steep grass banks and fairway height “chipping areas.” I start designing with my “hip pocket” list of those, too.
To further accentuate this variety, I pay attention to the sequence of the bunkering for both fairways and greens, striving to follow a multiple bunker hole with a simpler one. As with every other aspect of design, I go ‘round and ‘round, seeking the best design for each green, but tweaking for variety and balance.