Dirt Diaries: When building golf courses, some changes must be made on the fly

Overton Park in Memphis.

A side view of the 6th green at Overton Park in Memphis.

Desi Isaacson

Ed note: GOLF contributor and architecture nut Desi Isaacson is cutting his design teeth as an intern for King-Collins Golf on their redesign of Overton Park, a nine-hole muni in Memphis, Tenn. How are courses actually built? What moves are made behind the scenes? Here, in Dirt Diaries, we’ll pull back the curtain on how design decisions come to life.

Previous installments: How drainage pipes are installed | What’s a bury pit? | The genius device that helps position greens

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I’m standing on the edge of the 6th green at Overton Park with course architect Rob Collins, half of the King-Collins design team. I’m not sure he realizes it yet, but I’m trying to get him to give me the nitty gritty details of building the course. I don’t want to hear simply that they are trying to instill variety or that changes get made in the field as they see fit. I want to know what those changes are, and why they were made.

“I’d say most of the time there’s little edits,” Collins said. “You look at something and say, Well, let’s tone this down or let’s tweak this or that. I mean, each green so far has had a few edits.”

Ah, edits! I’m getting closer to my answer. I follow Collins around the edge of the green as he puts in orange flags to mark the perimeter of the putting surface.

The front of the 6th green at Overton Park.

Desi Isaacson

“Is there an example of an edit on 6?” I ask him. We both turn a bit to face the green. The slightly down-sloped fairway rolls into the beginning of the green, which continues to slope from front to back. It’s titled at a slight left-to-right angle, making a fade that lands short of the green the ideal approach. Collins says it’s kind of like a reverse Redan. There is a larger bump in the middle of the green, designed for spitting balls into different quadrants. The back of the green begins to slope up, as does mounding on each side to keep good shots on the surface.

This green won’t jump out in photographs — especially since 4 and 5 are a large sideways Biarritz-type green and a Punchbowl — but the more I talked to Collins and studied the 6th, I was beginning to think it might be my favorite.

Here was the problem, though: Because the green slopes from front-left to back-right, and the easiest escape for water is back-right, much of the water would run across the entire green before falling off. But it’s best to get water off as fast as possible for ideal conditions.

So shaper Marc Burger added another little roll or bump in the green — an edit! — three quarters of the way back on the right side. It has a high point on the edge of the putting surface and moves in toward the middle. The undulation stays a bit higher all the way to the edge of the green, meaning some water that makes it over will spill out the original location, but other water will fall off the low point before it gets back that far.

The great part about this edit is that it makes the green more fun to play, too. Whether the pin is front- or back-right, the new roll adds a level of strategy and intrigue to approach or chip shots around the green. You can use it to keep balls from getting too far back or play it off the downslope to feed it to the back.

KingCollins is tackling its first municipal course: Overton Park in Memphis, Tenn.

KingCollins

“That adjustment made that back pin interesting where, if you want to go at it from the front-right, you’ve got to have enough on it to get through this right-hand turn, or you can use this back bank to funnel it around,” Collins said, moving his body to face it sideways, as if he were envisioning himself putting. “So, this little adjustment that [Marc] wanted to make, I think made it a more dynamic and interesting green. That wasn’t something that I noticed; it was just something we saw going through it together.”

Finally, I was getting what I had been searching for. There are dozens of these little spots and conversations on each hole, each green. You always hear architects say nothing on the course was an accident, but when you walk around that seems impossible.

“It’s like a term paper,” Collins said. “Everything is subject to editing.”

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