The Rhythm of Strategy

By: Tripp Davis


Editor's Note: Tripp Davis, whose design credits include the Old Course at the Tribute (Colony, Tex.) and other notable renovations, will share his views on the principals of course design with regular installments in Cybergolf's Architect's Corner. Davis is currently working with Justin Leonard on the Tribute's second 18, the New Course, which takes its cues from the classic designs of the "Golden Age" of American golf architecture. Set to open in late summer 2009, the New Course will integrate elements from such tracks as Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links and Prairie Dunes into its site on the rolling hills beside Lake Lewisville. Here, Tripp explains the importance of hole-to-hole sequencing and strategic variety.

As with a musical composition, the strategy of a golf course will have its own sense of rhythm. There is no singular right way to develop this rhythm. But in the end, this rhythm should provide transitions and an overall balance that establishes an interesting identity - or a "beat" - to complete the musical analogy.

For a golf course to provide the highest level of interest and variety, the strategy of each hole should take on differing forms. These forms should also offer opportunities and challenges of differing levels - holes where a player's individual sense of par is more difficult to achieve and holes where the options might more easily allow for the player to achieve or better their sense of par. How these differing levels of opportunity and challenge are presented throughout the round is what establishes the strategic rhythm of a golf course.

Strategic rhythm is at its best when it creates the most excitement and interest. The golf architect should try to sequence the tougher and easier holes in such a way that the player always feels they are in the game, providing opportunities at times that will create the most drama, and offering challenges at times that test the player while providing opportunities to make up shots on a competitor.

I have seen golf courses that offered 18 unique and strategically interesting holes, but did so with a rhythm that was hard to enjoy or find interest in. I have seen golf courses with 18 holes that individually are not distinguished, but were sequenced in such a way that kept my interest throughout the round. Keep in mind that length and hazards are not always what define challenge, interest or drama.

With the right orientation, use of slopes and how it plays in the wind, a 350-yard hole can be as stern as a 450-yard hole, just as a 450-yard hole can be made to be as "playable" as a 350-yarder might typically be. Risk-reward holes are not always par-5s either - some of the best I have seen are par-3s, especially when positioned at a point in a round when you might need or want to be aggressive.

The strategic rhythm of a golf course has a lot to do with what psychological condition a player brings to the course, and what impact strategic rhythm might have on his mental state. A golfer who brings a strong sense of confidence into a round will feel a completely different rhythm than a player lacking confidence. The rhythm of the course can also change - positively or negatively - this level of confidence. The smart player will develop a "game plan," or set of objectives relative to his confidence level and the strategic rhythm of the course. He will begin the round knowing how to improve his confidence level, where to protect that confidence, and where a "game-time decision" must be made.

A player's perspective of a good score on a given course will will also affect that state of mind. When I was playing for the University of Oklahoma, we often played the city of Norman's course, Westwood, for qualifying rounds for tournaments. This was at a time when Oklahoma had players like Todd Hamilton, recent winner of the British Open; Grant Waite, a former winner on the PGA Tour; Craig Perks, a recent Players Champion; Glen Day, a former winner on tour; Doug Martin, a long-time PGA Tour player; in addition to numerous All-Americans who never made it as touring professionals.

Westwood is a golf course where most of the holes are what you would consider relatively easy. In other words, a course this talented group expected to shoot 4- or 5-under par on. Relative to rhythm, the first three holes - a short par-5, a wedge par-3 and a drivable par-4 - offered an easy start. But these were followed by a stretch where six of eight holes were not necessarily "birdie holes," offering enough danger to bring bogey or worse into the picture.

When a player didn't birdie one of the first three holes and, knowing that such a talented team would produce a fair share of low scores, the player began to press. It was not unusual to see a player, who was likely among the best in college golf, shoot over par on a course where the average score would be 4-under. This is an example of how a simple golf course with no individually distinguished holes can be difficult because of how its rhythm of the course upsets a player's focus. It proved that the perception of what a player should shoot can be affected by a tough stretch of holes situated at the right place in a round.

Most every golfer will go to the first tee with some perception of what is a good round and what's unacceptable. This perception will have an impact on how the player approaches each hole. It will be further modified by the player's position relative to their expectations at any point during the round. Even though today's mental coaches teach staying in the moment, it is human nature for a person to retain their expectations.

When a player is scoring above where he thinks he should be, he's likely to take more risks. A golf architect can create a rhythm that challenges a player's patience in such situations. At the same time, a player who is scoring below expectations may take a more conservative approach, which a good golf course can challenge by presenting dramatic opportunities to expose a player's greed, resulting in higher scores. Quite often a player will press to recover "lost" shots, creating a "domino effect" of poor decisions.

No matter how sophisticated a course is, the golf architect should develop the ebbs and flows to create its "rhythm." This should not begin with any set of rules but a commitment to work naturally with what you are given. The subtleties of features - angles, visibility and length - establish the types of holes, but they should be devised with a sense of their effect on the overall rhythm of the course.

At The New Course at The Tribute, Justin Leonard and I had a great property to work with, along with enough land and design freedom to mold each hole to create the type of overall rhythm we were seeking. Justin and I both have an affinity for match play, and in designing The New Course our sense of rhythm was geared toward creating a layout that would produce interesting and fun one-on-one matches.

As a result, the first three holes should challenge your sense of par, but they can be played quite comfortably if you avoid risk. They give the player the ability to lay back and let their opponent make an aggressive mistake, or they offer the ability to be the aggressor.

In match play it is not unusual - especially with the three starting holes we designed - for a match to be one-sided early, so the fourth through the seventh are all very different types of holes that can cause a match to completely flip-flop from one player to the other. This stretch includes: a short par-3 that has a demanding green where a potential birdie can turn into a quick bogey (the fourth); the fifth is a long par-4 is very challenging off the tee but a good drive can open the hole for a birdie; the sixth is a long and demanding par-3 that requires both accuracy and distance control, making it a tough par; and the seventh is the shortest par-5 on the course with an anxiety-producing approach to a very small green.

By this point in the round, confidence may have shifted from one player to the other and possibly back again with the rhythm we have created. While we discussed providing two holes that would allow the players to "settle down" to some extent, we concluded that would not be any fun. So the last two holes on the front side are the most enticing to try and get shots close, with the greatest possibility of a slight miss requiring a very creative recovery - in other words, the type of hole that is rarely halved.

Starting off the back nine, we wanted the player to feel as though par was a good score, where a particularly great shot has to be produced to win a hole. It includes: the 10th, a longish par-4 into the wind; the 11th, the longest par-4 on the course playing to a unique and perplexing green; and the 12th, our lengthiest par-3 with the longest and narrowest green on the course. These are all holes where solid shots will likely produce pars and/or halves, yet where a player who produces magic can begin to take control of the match, or begin a dramatic comeback.

This stretch is followed by a short par-4 and an option-oriented pa-5 - both holes where a player with good distance control should have a chance at birdie. These two were positioned to give the player who has found his confidence to establish a rhythm and finish well. Just for good measure, the par-4 15th presents a very stern challenge that will confirm - or threaten - that sense of confidence.

This leads to what we feel will be one of the more dramatic finishes in golf. The 16th is a par-4 that can be played many ways. Because it is the shortest par-4 on the course, it can be driven by longer players if they're accurate, or it can be played safely off the tee to leave a short-iron or wedge into a multi-level green. It is a hole where a player can make birdie quickly with an aggressive play or, with a slight misstep, can result in a bogey and likely loss of the hole.

The 17th is the shortest par-3 with one of its smallest greens. While it can't play much over 145 yards, this narrow green is tough to hit with a crossing wind. If the player finds the green, a short birdie putt is all that's left. But if you miss the target, a very challenging recovery awaits. On the 18th, we have provided the most reachable par-5 on the course, while the green is the most elevated with the severest slopes around the green. An aggressive play may produce another short birdie putt, but a miss, again, leaves a stern challenge.

These closing holes are where a player can find himself 3-down and still have a chance to halve the match, making for a dramatic finish.

Overall, the rhythm of The New Course at The Tribute can best be described as having a rock 'n roll beat with a drum roll at the finish.

Tripp Davis has been a golf course architect since 1991 and has over the last 17 years worked on both original designs and restoration/renovation projects around the United States. His first international projects are coming soon in Acapulco, Mexico and Devon, England. Tripp developed a passion for golf at an early age and went on to become a three-time AJGA Junior All-American, an NCAA All-American at the University of Oklahoma and, for the past 15 years, he has been ranked as one of the top mid-amateur golfers in the U.S.

After receiving a degree in Advertising/Marketing, Tripp studied in the Masters of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oklahoma, concluding his studies with his thesis on "The Environmental Impact of Golf Course Construction." Having surrounded himself with a highly qualified and experienced staff of golf architects and a golf course construction specialist, Tripp's award-winning original design and restoration/renovation projects have been praised highly for their substance, giving him the recognition as a "craftsman" of the most strategically interesting and enjoyable golf courses of our time. To learn more about his work, visit www.tdagolfarchitecture.com.


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