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Strategic Principles of Golf Design

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

All golfers have heard of "strategic," "penal" and "heroic" design, but may not fully understand it in actual practice. That might be because the language used by architects couldn't be more confusing if purposely trying to do so.

Some sound as if their design directives have come down from above, perhaps with Old Tom Morris carrying a tablet down from the mount. At the very least, most experts have used so many words to say so little. It may be because it's a somewhat difficult concept to pin down succinctly, or that most architects haven't really considered the subject to the degree that they should.

A working knowledge of strategic golf design is required if you are on a greens committee, so I will try to explain these both briefly, and yet in a bit more detail.

In short, serious golfers use advance planning of shots to maximize success. Identifying the smartest shots and the most "favorable positions" to aim for, in the context of your own ability and situation, is the essence of strategy.

When referring to strategy, we mostly speak in terms of the architectural features that distinguish one area as a more "favorable positions" to aim for. What is a "favorable position?" Well, for tee shots, it's really a three-part answer - the first job is to:

Find the fairway rather than hazards or rough,
Attain maximum distance to shorten the approach, without sacrificing Objective No. 1,
Finding a flat or gently uphill lie, which is always better than a hilly or down-sloped one.

The second part of the strategic equation is playing a tee shot with the next shot in mind, hoping to make it easier or advantageous to scoring. Approach shots have similar considerations to tee shots and golfers try to:

1. Avoid greenside hazards,
2. Hit the green,
3. If possible, hit the right part of the green, usually meaning: a) as near the flag as possible, or b) probably below the hole for an easier uphill putt.

Landing zones that make approach shots easier usually provide some combination of:

1. Better angle - Usually with a fairway opening to the green, without having to carry hazards in front
2. Green contours assisting the approach - An upslope facing one side of the fairway to help stop their shot
3. Better vision to green - Not as important given yardage books, but still providing psychological comfort
4. Ability to take major hazards out of play - Golfer's equivalent of investing in CD's, not stocks, to avoid potential disaster!

On all shots, golfers must also consider:

1. If capable - what shot pattern is best: Draw or Fade, High or Low, Spin or Low-Spin Combinations!

2. How the physics of wind, ground slope, lie and distance affect the shot.

3. The balance between the advantages of potentially lowering your score vs. the risk of possibly raising your score by finding a hazard. Or, basically deciding when to be bold and when to be cautious, calculating the percentages of success. (Many conclude that golf is like other sports, and playing good defense wins championships.)

The golf course architect cannot possibly know the status of any match, the strengths or confidence of any particular player, the particulars of any given shot, or even the daily wind, although prevailing winds are considered in the design. However, we typically design features to:

Encourage/reward certain shot skills over the course of a round. Some holes might favor those who have length, accuracy, or "touch" over other factors, but over 18 holes, we try to have holes that give advantage to each in about equal measure.

Create a "dilemma" in the golfer's mind, via balance of risk/reward that must be solved.

Create "temptation" to make a bold play, because . . . well, it's more fun.

The takeaway for understanding strategic golf is that hazards should be designed to encourage good shots, not punish bad ones. That is a difficult concept for many golfers and greens committees to grasp and implement.

Jeffrey D. Brauer began his career as an apprentice in the Chicago area in 1977. His first project was Kemper Lakes, which shortly after hosted the 1989 PGA Championship. He formed GolfScapes in Arlington, Texas, in 1984. In the last 29 years he has designed and consulted on a wide spectrum of projects, ranging from partial renovations to international resorts. His recent work includes teaming with the design team of Pascuzzo and Pate on a remodel of the world-famous La Costa Resort & Spa in California, and renovations at Superior National Golf Course in Lutsen, Minn., and Mesquite Municipal Golf Course in Mesquite, Texas.

He has been a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects since 1981, serving as President during its 50th Anniversary year in 1995-96. Jeff still studies the classic works - both old and new, and has played more than 75 of the best courses in the world.

Jeff gives many presentations and is a regular architecture columnist for many publications and websites, including Golf Course Industry and He has also been a strong advocate for the "Tee it Forward" campaign and strives to make his courses fit the description of "fun to play every day."

Jeff's work has been spotlighted in most of the world's major golf magazines. Golf World ranked him as one of the top-20 golf course architects and Golf Inc. ranked him as the world's fourth-best value in golf architecture in 2010. Jeff's portfolio and reputation keep him at the forefront of desired designers for new courses, reconstruction and renovation projects.

For more about Jeff, visit