The 3 schools of golf architecture, explained
Welcome to A Beginner’s Guide to Golf Course Design, where we’ll dig into the history, design and meaning of golf course architecture terms you’ve probably heard before but might not fully understand. We’ll explain all of the above in an accessible Q&A format, and better yet, teach you how to identify these features and plan your attack for the next time you see one, saving you strokes along the way. In this installment, we’re breaking down the different schools of golf architecture.
So, what are these “schools?”
When discussing golf course architecture, you’ll often hear talk of “the schools.” While many experts and architects have expanded upon these ideas, there are three basic design schools worth knowing. They are known as penal, strategic and heroic.
Architects, courses, holes, hazards, and specific shots are often defined under these headers. In almost every instance, this is an over-simplification. Almost any hole can cause disagreement over which category it would fall in. Every course (arguably every hole) is a mixture of these ideas. No course is completely penal. If a course is categorized as penal, it likely just has many penal holes.
There is no perfect definition for any of these categories. Everyone defines them a little differently and there is also some meshing at the edges of each. Some holes might even fall under multiple categories.
What’s the deal with Penal design?
Golf holes with penal designs aren’t typically well-liked. There are usually fewer options for the player and therefore less thinking and strategy. These holes earn their name from their tendency to “penalize” the worst golfers without providing them with an avenue to escape.
A prime example of a penal hole is the island green 17th at TPC Sawgrass. There aren’t really any options here or safe ways to play the hole. A question is posed to the player. If the answer is yes, you find the green. If it’s no, your ball sinks to the bottom of the lake. The hallmark sign of a penal hole is a shot that must be hit correctly with no chance at recovery for a miss.
Part of the intrigue of a penal design is that it should make golf more “fair.” Some argue you should be penalized if you don’t hit a shot properly. But this can make golf, well, kind of boring. There is less thinking and less strategy. Part of what makes golf fun is that it isn’t always fair. Sometimes you get a lucky bounce.
But I love the island green. They can’t all be bad, right?
A few penal holes can bring excitement and intrigue to a round, too many can make it dull and boring. A course with too many penal holes leads to boredom, but not all are inherently bad. Penal holes are some of the most memorable in the world. They can still be dramatic, intimidating, and striking. Having success on a particularly penal hole can be a great thrill. A beloved penal hole in the golf community is the par-3 12th at Augusta National.
Of course, there’s some crossover between the different schools. A short par-3 over water is penal. You only have one choice and you are penalized for not pulling off the shot. But No. 12 at Augusta also has some heroic elements. There are safer shots to hit with less risk depending on the line you choose to take.
Now, what about strategic design?
Building courses with strategy in mind likely started during the golden age of golf architecture. Architects began looking at famous courses and holes that they enjoyed and tried to build holes with similar strategy. Strategy is all about options — providing players with multiple ways to attack the hole, but no clear best route. With strategic holes, there is often a safe way to play the hole, but this will usually be the longest or least likely path scoring well on the hole. Having a variety of different ways to play a hole means that repeated play will not dull with time. Holes and courses start to feel more like puzzles. Figuring out the best way to play the hole can depend on the day, and the player always has to keep thinking.
Great strategic design is all about the balance between risk and reward (which can also be said for heroic design). Because there are different paths to the hole, with some easier than others, these holes are more playable for the high handicap golfer. But even still, a strong strategic course should remain a challenging test for the low handicapper who is trying to fire a low score. The best strategic courses make it hard to score low, but easy to make it around the course without losing too many balls.
But doesn’t every hole sort of have some strategy?
No matter what a hole looks like, there is always some inherent strategy involved. But as an overall principle, holes, courses that fall into this pool place a large emphasis on making the player think. A common strategy is placing a hazard such as a bunker at or near the ideal spot for a shot. The closer you are willing to come to this hazard without missing your target and ending up in it, the better angle of attack you will have for your next shot.
One example is the par-4 17th hole at the Old Course, known as the road hole. Many holes have been designed with a similar strategy.
And what about heroic architecture?
Heroic architecture combines the two previous ideals into one. In a heroic hole, players are presented with the option to absorb risk for a greater reward. Imagine a hole that wraps around water. The further you are willing to carry the water, the shorter the yardage for your approach shot. You can try to carry a lot of water (be a hero!) and, or you can play it safe away from the water. Heroic holes often bait players into trying a challenging shot and then penalize them sharply, but there is still lots of strategy to these holes. There are different paths, all with different amounts of risk.
A heroic hole makes you think about risk and reward even more than a strategic hole because the penalty for missing is severe, but the reward for pulling off a great shot is prominent. On these holes, good players can take high-risk shots, while weaker players still have an easy path to the hole, just with less chance for a great score.
A prime example of a heroic hole is No. 13 at Augusta National. Going for the green in two can change your round for the better. But only if you can pull it off.