Golf course design masterclass: David McLay Kidd on the importance of options

Optionality is everything in course design, especially at a place like Bandon Dunes.

Evan Schiller

What exactly makes a golf course great? Scores of weighty volumes and a zillion breezy blog posts have addressed this question, many of them settling on this answer: Great courses marry artistry and scenery with shot-making variety in a manner that blends seamlessly with their surroundings. That’s for starters. The consensus holds that great courses also make you think. They engage and entertain. Offer up any of these observations with your pals over a post-round drink and it’s unlikely anyone will argue. But they may come back with “How about some examples?”

To help you strike an authoritative stance without coming off as a windbag, we asked a quartet of premier architects — Tom Doak, Bill Coore, David McLay Kidd and Jim Wagner — to discuss their own work as illustrations of how their design ideas play out in the field.

Architect: David McLay Kidd

Course: Bandon Dunes

Design principle: Create shot options

Anytime you’re weighing the merits of a course, David McLay Kidd suggests you look at what it offers in the way of options. Options promote strategy, and strategy is central to great design. Check out how that works on Kidd’s oceanside par 3 at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort’s namesake course. Playing across a hollow to a green set on a ridge, the tee shot is demanding if you’re firing at the pin. You do so at your peril — there are falloffs back and right and a fearsome front-right bunker — but not by obligation. Kidd provides an outlet. 

“You can play short left all day and two-putt from there, regardless of where the hole is cut,” he says. 

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As a Scotsman who grew up on match play, Kidd conceived of the closing stretch at Bandon as a dramatic stage for just that format. He got his wish at the 2020 U.S. Amateur, where player after player in the final matches opted to take aim at the back flag on 15, propped in a narrow portion of the green. A few pulled it off. More often, they were punished. 

“I was there watching, unable to understand why they didn’t play for the fat of the green and take a near-certain par that would likely win the hole,” Kidd says. 

Then again, that’s what he was after: tough decisions, potential second-guessing. 

“Either way, I want you to be thinking about it later,” Kidd says. “Whether it’s the great shot you executed or the one you might imagine trying to play the next time around the course.”

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.