What does difficult look like in golf?

The second excerpt in a three-part series from golf course architect Richard Mandell's newly published 'Principles of Golf Architecture' examines the role of difficulty in architecture

Editor's note: Richard Mandell is a golf course architect based in Pinehurst, North Carolina. His firm, Richard Mandell Golf Architecture, has designed more than 75 golf course projects in 15 states and China, and his work has earned 31 different awards and accolades. "Principles of Golf Architecture" is Mandell's fourth book. 

PART ONE: What does par actually mean?



Difficulty: Something that is hard to accomplish, deal with, or understand.
Difficult: Needing much effort or skill to achieve.

The literal definition of the Principle of Playability (suitable for playing on) leaves scant room for debate. Yet lengthy deliberation often occurs when regarding the figurative meaning of playability: Difficulty. The definition of difficulty is “Something that is hard to accomplish, deal with, or understand,” which differs from playability because the “something” (the golf course) may be designed in such a way as to make it hard to “accomplish” a low score or have an enjoyable experience. The course is still playable, but it requires extra effort or skill to achieve success.

Design features that can make a course difficult are bunkers that are too deep, greens with few flat spots, and forced carries. Design tools that can alleviate that difficulty comprise a short but powerful list as well: Additional tees to assure “Tee Shot Distance Equity,” wide fairways, manageable carries, and putting surfaces that have at least some square footage for manageable cup locations.

Because playability is more akin to conditioning and course setup, many golfers confuse the terms playability and difficulty. Decisions made about deepening rough, narrowing fairways, and speeding up greens can cross the line from difficult to unplayable regardless of design intent. I prefer that features themselves derive difficulty for the golfer rather than maintenance adjustments, which are often made independent of a feature’s design and usually without input from the course architect.

Oakmont 2018
Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is considered one of the most difficult courses on the planet — even by professionals — characterized by numerous bunkers as well as deep rough. Shown is the 18th hole at the 2016 U.S. Open.

Putting surface design is one area where a golf architect can go over the line of difficulty with just a few inches of elevation change, especially if a club’s membership is left to its own devices to chase green speed. That said, the design of greens complexes is a focal point where the golf architect can introduce the Principle of Difficulty without creating the perception of being unplayable. Detailed shaping of features that require a raised level of concentration will create that difficulty. With added details, the architect increases the level of difficulty for shots by asking the golfer to hit to specific spots along the target line.

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Merely creating a continuous uphill slope from the front of a putting surface to the back allows golfers to chip or putt along that slope with little concern other than how much force to put into the shot. It requires some level of skill, but not as much as there would be if a mound was coming out of the slope between the golfer and the target. For example, one may have to land the ball on the opposite side of the mound for any chance to get on the green. Without the mound, the golfer only has to determine how much of a stroke should be made to get the ball rolling. The Principle of Difficulty incorporates the golfer’s need to aim at a specific spot and correlate that aiming point with the proper amount of stroke.

One reason I am fond of creating tiers in putting surfaces, and why I think Donald Ross put such a premium on the same, was to place value on the short game to increase the golfer’s concentration. It’s much more challenging to chip, pitch, or putt to a specific quadrant on a green than it is to one with a continuously facing slope. It requires more focus from the golfer to successfully execute the shot.

Country Club of Asheville
Hole No. 12 at the Country Club of Asheville in Asheville, North Carolina. Without any original Donald Ross drawings to reference, we adapted a four-quadrant green from a similar Ross hole for this 321-yard, uphill par-four.

Utilizing the Principle of Difficulty around greens doesn’t require fast putting speeds or adjusting grass heights. Deep rough will simply quell any detailed roll of the ground and minimize club selection as well, forcing only black or white decisions. Rather, the strategic gray area of a hole is a fulcrum for the Principle of Difficulty, creating just enough doubt in the golfer’s mind as to the best shot choice. A narrow fairway with deep rough and sand down both sides has absolutely no gray area for consideration. A black and white strategic choice such as this leans toward penal, pulling the golfer to the wrong end of the difficulty fulcrum and away from strategic.

Par fives are my favorite hole to design because of the complexities of stringing three shots in a row. I particularly enjoy placing value on the second shot so there is some consideration beyond simply advancing the ball. For instance, placing a mound in the second landing area can be enough to create consideration for failing to hit the mark. My goal isn’t to over penalize but to increase concentration and demand beyond just a gratuitous whack at the ball with few ramifications for lack of execution.

Arlington Red 4-Clean Up.jpg
Hole No. 4 on the Red course at Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia. The bunker set 50 yards short and right of the green complex lingers in the golfer’s mind just enough to demand a precise second shot.

One par five with such an incentive is the fourth hole on the Red Nine at Army Navy Country Club’s Arlington, Virginia course. Because I added what I call a “lingering hazard” short of the green (in this case a bunker), most golfers need to note the yardage and play accordingly. They can’t just let loose in an attempt to get as close to the green as possible. Both full shots or lay-ups on this downhill hole may equally find that lingering hazard on the right side. The penalty for a lack of homework and/or focus will be one of the tougher shots in golf: a sand shot from fifty yards.

There are many courses that have built their reputation on the Principle of Difficulty. Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania and Muirfield in Scotland come to mind. These courses, and a good number of others, are considered extremely difficult to play for even the best golfers in the world. The memberships at both facilities (as well as many others) espouse this notoriety as their identity. Other clubs identify themselves as a major championship venue and constantly re-invent it for the next one. Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania, Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, and countless others have consistently added yardage to keep up with the pros at the expense of their lesser- skilled members.

The Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island hosted its first major championship in 2002. Owned by the State of New York, it was completely revamped by Rees Jones in preparation for its first foray onto the major stage. Prior to that, the Black had undergone very few changes since A. W. Tillinghast’s 1936 effort. One of my favorite courses of all time, it’s also one of the most difficult. Even so, its topography is so good that as a youth in the 1980’s I was willing to leave my house on countless summer Monday mornings, sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for three hours, linger for another three hours before teeing off, and then spend an additional six hours losing ten balls and shooting ten shots over my average. Yet I enjoyed every minute of the experience. By the time we crossed Round Swamp Road heading for the last four holes, we morphed into a seven- or eight-some to, ironically, speed up play.

For me, the extreme difficulty of Bethpage Black was secondary to the tremendous routing of its holes. For others it was the cost to play. Regardless, as course architect George Thomas once remarked, we were all “astounded by the fury of the battle.” Since its inception as an Open venue, however, Bethpage’s mission has been to replicate the conditions of a major. Along with that shift came extreme green fees and extreme conditions as well. Gone are the wide fairways draped over the great rolls of the property, replaced with 25-yard-wide ribbons disconnected from the very topography that attracted golfers there in the first place. The artfully restored bunkering is disconnected from the ground, buried deep in the rough. The shame of the modern Bethpage is that the State of New York has banked its marketability on the Principle of Difficulty rather than its great routing. The strategic charm of the layout gets lost among the narrow fairways and persistent length. And yet, it’s harder than ever to get a tee time. The danger of embracing the Principle of Difficulty at Bethpage is what those who play there may take away from the experience – that difficulty may be the barometer for greatness.

Bethpage Black Aerial 2018
The disconnect between the bunkers and fairways of the 10th and 11th holes on the Black course at Bethpage State Park in New York.

The USGA’s interpretation of difficulty can be inferred through its Course Rating and Slope Rating, two calculations developed to help establish golfer handicaps. A USGA Course Rating “represents the score a scratch player, with a Handicap Index of 0.0, should achieve on a golf course under normal course and weather conditions.” For example, when a scratch plays a layout with a Course Rating of 73.0 they would expect to shoot a 73 under normal conditions. A Course Rating is established from each set of tees taking into account how roll, wind, elevation change, altitude, severity of dog-legs (which can impact the effective yardage of a hole), and forced carries impact the length of each hole.

To determine the Course Rating, the USGA utilizes ten specific “obstacle factors” to evaluate every hole for both the scratch (zero handicap) and bogey player (classified as a 20 handicap for men and 24 for women). These are “topography, fairway, green target, recoverability and rough, bunkers, crossing obstacles, lateral obstacles, trees, green surface, and psychology.” An assessment of these factors from the bogey player’s viewpoint determines an intermediate value called the “Bogey Rating.” The numerical difference between the Bogey Rating and the Course Rating becomes a course’s Slope Rating, which provides a variable handicap based on each course’s difficulty instead of using the same handicap everywhere.

Considering Course Rating is mostly derived from the yardage quotient of a golf course, the USGA clearly considers length a major factor in a course’s difficulty for the scratch golfer. I tend to agree because, for instance, it’s more difficult to hit a green from 190 yards than it is from 140 yards. The USGA’s Slope Rating, though, places much more value on their “obstacle factors” for the bogey golfer (by a factor of 2.5 times compared to Course Rating).

In other words, the USGA recognizes that many more challenges besides length affect the lesser-skilled golfers. Topography, fairway width, green size, the ability to recover from rough, number and depth of sand bunkers, forced carries (crossing obstacles), hazards along fairway edges (lateral obstacles), trees, putting surface contours, and the psychological ability to keep it all together from tee to green are much more challenging for the bogey golfer.

The Easton Club
Holes No. 6 (foreground) and No. 3 at The Easton Club in Easton, Maryland. Balancing playability and difficulty can be accomplished by offsetting surrounding water features with large putting surfaces and manageable slopes.

Because length is a common attribute of better players, their attraction to long courses is what drives much of their perception of what makes a golf course great. Usually blessed with more accuracy as well, most better players believe that long, narrow golf holes are the winning formula for great golf courses, squarely equating difficulty with quality. Add the aesthetic sizzle from hazards bordering each hole and there is little wonder what type of golf course dominates the mind and attention of the better golfers. As a result, new golf course development and a lot of renovation work - often led by golfers who are more scratch than bogey - almost always trends toward difficult more so than enjoyment. It’s fair to say that better golfers are not as affected by rolling contours, target width and size, hazards, trees, and extreme green surfaces as much as the bogey golfer. Therefore, they forget about the genuine difficulty of the game that the lesser-skilled experience.

So it should come as no surprise that golf courses designed by professional golfers are inherently more difficult than those designed by professional golf architects. Quite often those courses are then marketed to the masses as a quality “golf” experience. Whether the clientele is physically capable of enjoying these “must-play” venues is another matter – a matter of consequence when so many players turn away from the game as a result.

The Principle of Difficulty should be sparingly utilized because of the exponential increase in difficulty from the scratch player’s perspective to the bogey player’s viewpoint. Courses should specifically mitigate difficulty by ensuring that length is not the sole basis behind strategic intent. Design sense is what divides the lines between enjoyable, difficult, and unplayable. By integrating Difficulty with other principles of design, such as Playability and Challenge, the golf course architect can effectively balance those lines.