There are several criteria that can be used to describe classic golf holes. We’re currently studying these criteria in Golf Course Design with PGA Professional Ed Ekis.
According to Robert Muir Graves and Geoffrey S. Cornish, authors of Classic Golf Hole Design, “Golf hole are different, with each offering is own unique challenge and diversity. Yet all holes can be grouped into a few broad categories: holes are straight or doglegged; uphill, downhill, or level; short, long, or medium in length.”
Graves and Cornish set out to present the “best possible study of the intriguing and important subject of adaptations of classic holes” and their list of a few dozen categories of classic golf holes or features quickly grew into a list of thousands. Only a handful can be true classics, meaning they have profoundly influenced the architecture of the playing fields of the game. Here is a review of their criteria:
True linksland, coastal bluffs, and other coastlines that are not truly links; open meadows; pastures; prairies; and foothills, both timbered and open, together with valley and parkland (land that is sparsely but not heavily wooded).
1, 9, or 18 holes are the standard for golf courses, although there were 3, 6, and 12 hole routings. Prestwick used to have 12 holes. The Old Course at St Andrews used to have 22 holes.
Consecutive Par 3s and Par 5s
It’s been a rule of thumb for several decades that the practice of back-to-back Par 3s or back-to-back Par 5s should be avoided, but on many occasions, course designers have proven they won’t hesitate to use the routing if it will result in superior holes.
Opening Par 3s
Players and architects have long condemned the use of a Par 3 as an opening hole because many feel that in slows play. While it often does, Par 3s aren’t the only holes susceptible to slow play. Short Par 4s and reachable Par 5s have a similar effect on the pace of play. A Par 3 may hold up play on the first tee, but architects have also observed that it can lead to a more even flow on subsequent holes.
Holes that cross on another are uncommon today but were once very common along the eastern seaboard of the United States and fairly common elsewhere. Such a design saved space and decreased the acreage of turfgrass that needed to be maintained. The arrival of the hard-core ball, more crowded courses, and an increasingly litigious society have all but made crossing holes obsolete.
The length of a golf hole has traditionally been a critically important factor and is the largest single factor in determining a hole’s difficulty. Prominent architects remain split. Some argue length is not the determining factor anymore and that elevation and wind are more important.
Extremes (other than length)
These are understandably controversial. Canadian architect Stanley Thompson felt that one controversial hole on each course adds to its overall interest. Controversial holes can verge on the ridiculous but can be destined for greatness if the public eventually accepts them.
Most early holes were generally straight, incorporating few if any profound bends. The practice of bending holes gradually became more common as ideal sites became less and less available. The 4th hole at Prestwick by Old Tom Morris probably introduced the principle of the dogleg.
Not long after the acceptance of dogleg holes, imaginative designers discovered double doglegs on Par 5s proved exceptionally interesting. Only a few doglegs are double. Generally, those holes are accepted unless the golfer is penalized for a long drive, meaning the second leg of the hole is too short for the player to use a club other than a short iron, a wasted shot.
Innumerable holes are blind from one position or another, whether these positions are reached intentionally or through wayward shots. The hole is legitimately blind only if a player anywhere on the tee or fairway cannot see where to properly advance the ball or a player cannot see the group ahead when it is within distance of the next shot.
These are holes with two separate fairways that offer the player alternate routes from tee to green.
Hogback (or Hogsback Holes)
Hogback greens are more common now than hogback fairways. Hogback fairways sit atop ridges rather than in valleys, and it’s not uncommon for architects to intentionally plan them. Hogback greens are mounded in the form of an inverted saucer.
Optical Illusion Holes
Alister Mackenzie was the father of wartime camouflage. He observed that camouflage and course design had aspects in common. One way he achieved an optical illusion was to place bunkers across the fairway 100 feet or more short of the green. This obscured the area between them and the putting surface. Donald Ross practiced the same technique.
These result from a tee or fairway elevated 75 feet or more above the green.
Water can be the most exciting and memorable hazard on the course. Holes with water are not necessarily classic themselves, and the island green doesn’t fit the definition. Wetlands are related to water holes.
Bottleneck or Bottle Holes
Any hole where the route is restricted by bunkers or other means. On many such holes, the restriction creates a bottle shape, often with the narrow end nearest the green.
These can be ideal sides for golf holes, and it’s only natural that many holes have been played in them from the earliest days of golf and across the entire history of golf architecture. Valley holes are popular among architects because a valley is conducive to golf. Steep sides can provide wonderful sites for spectators.
These do not provide alternate routes and can include water, wetlands, long grass, other vegetation, and sand. They are the epitome of penal design, the type of design that predominated until the Roaring Twenties.