Are course architects up to the challenge?

The third excerpt in a three-part series from golf course architect Richard Mandell's newly published 'Principles of Golf Architecture' examines the role of challenge 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?
PART TWO: What does difficult look like in golf?



Challenge: A stimulating task or problem that tests a person’s ability; a call or summons to engage in battle, contest, special effort, etc.

In golf, the Principle of Challenge is often mistaken for the Principle of Difficulty. The terms are practically interchangeable because better golfers consider a difficult shot or hole challenging when their physical ability offers them an opportunity to succeed. The lesser skilled, on the other hand, see difficulty as a bit less desirable.

Just as the level of managing difficulty expands with an increase in proficiency, the same is true for challenge as well. The simple challenge of not topping the ball is plenty for beginning golfers. Yet as their skill increases, the challenge of carrying a water feature from a particular tee, making birdie on a particular hole or breaking one-hundred, ninety, eighty, etc. replaces the challenge of keeping one’s head down.

The fundamental difference between the Principle of Challenge and the Principle of Difficulty is also the fundamental difference between the Strategic and Penal Schools of Design. Penal Design requires all golfers to overcome the same obstacle(s) one specific way regardless of ability. If one lacks the skills to overcome the obstacle, any attempt to do so is pure difficulty. It does not stimulate one’s mind to solve a task or problem, especially if one is buried in a pot bunker five feet below the surface of a fairway and lacks the skill to get out.

The 16th hole at the Cypress Point Club is a difficult challenge, even when played as a par-4 from the front tees, as viewed from above.

The Strategic School, by contrast, is more thought-provoking, allowing golfers of varying skill sets to overcome the same obstacle through alternative routes. The Principle of Challenge involves the testing of not just one’s physical ability but intellectual prowess as well. Designers who try to ensure that the majority of golfers have options based on varying abilities structure their whole strategic approach around the Principle of Challenge. It’s called upon when the architect’s motivation is to provide reward for a good choice rather than simply surviving to the next shot. That’s just difficulty.

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Challenge is a vital principle for golf architects who seek out opportunities for gain rather than roadblocks to success. Looking at a split fairway, wondering if one should go left, right, short, or long, is a challenge to embrace. “Which is my best route to take to get to the green in the least number of strokes?” is always more stimulating than “I don’t have a shot for that.”

ANCC Arlington #6W-Clean Up.JPG
Army Navy Country Club White's sixth hole in Arlington, Virginia. Fairway bunkers offer a choice of playing an approach from either side of the fairway, hitting driver as close to the green as possible or laying back from the trouble for a full short iron.

The very definition of strategy is to challenge the golfer and one way to do that is to provide options for a choice that may or may not work that day. If the golfer chooses an option that doesn’t work, the chances are good they will choose a different option the next time. One may not realize it in the moment, but if the desire to choose another option is equally strong, the course architect may have succeeded in incorporating the Principle of Challenge. Without it, golfers lack options to choose from and have no reason to return to that particular golf course. As designers, that’s what we want from the golfer, the realization that there was more than one solution and the desire to try again.

The architect’s placement of hazards through penal or strategic design will directly affect that desire one way or another. If success or failure is only based on physical ability (penal design), there isn’t an opportunity to play a course differently and there is no desire to return. Yet if the test is multiple choice (strategic options), the golfer can choose a different answer on subsequent visits, learning the subtleties of the site along the way. A golf course that repeatedly applies the Principle of Difficulty through only one skill set, such as length, will attract only one type of golfer and minimize repeat play. Even those that have the requisite ability will often find such a layout redundant if the Principle of Challenge does not address any other elements of their golf games.

What complicates matters is when strategy is lost on the player who routinely hits driver/wedge on holes where most golfers will be hitting approach shots with four-irons to seven-irons. At some point, all the strategic options in the world cease to challenge the longest hitters. A hole with a wide fairway, for example, whose strategy favors one side off the tee to avoid a bunker protecting the green, will not affect the bombers. For players that routinely drive it so long and precise, strategic angles don’t matter. The bomber’s skill set allows them to hit a shot as high as they want, knowing they can drop it over a bunker to a tight pin and stop it quickly. Whereas the lesser- skilled may be content with avoiding the sand and reaching the green in regulation, a more appropriate challenge for the longer players may be to hit their approach within a five-foot circle of the flagstick.

Monroe Country Club
The 16th hole at Monroe Country Club in Monroe, North Carolina. The less-skilled golfer may be content by simply avoiding the front bunker. The better golfer will find it challenging to drop an approach over the bunker to a front pin placement.

Rather than completely change a hole to combat length (adversely affecting everyone else in the process), golf architects should focus on general hazard placement for the majority and turn to the little details of design to challenge those who regularly hit driver/wedge within a five-foot circle. A smart architect will utilize the Principle of Challenge to place a mound or a ridge in a particular location or create a swale running through the green to make it more challenging to get a ball inside that circle.

The Principle of Difficulty, on the other hand, does not always apply to brute strength. Golf courses with eighteen roller-coaster greens are difficult for everyone other than the expert putter. Placing such a premium on putting not only neutralizes the long hitter, it minimizes the effectiveness of golfers who hit expert approach shots as well. That’s because it doesn’t matter how good one’s iron game is or how smartly one can decipher strategy if one doesn’t ever have a reasonable putt. On a course where every green should have a windmill, playing approaches from whichever side of a fairway doesn’t mean much.

A challenge is “something that by its nature or character serves as a call to battle, contest, or special effort.” The best golf architects embrace this call to incorporate the Principle of Challenge every chance they get, whether it’s from tee to green or simply from the front edge of a putting surface to a back pin placement. The architect transforms the ground and its landforms into tools (hazards) to summon players to engage in a battle of wits between the course and themselves.

The 15th hole at Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Principle of Challenge can simply be found in a chip or pitch over a grass hollow to a back pin placement.

For the Principle of Challenge to be most effective, there must be some assessment of risk. Standing on a tee box with the opportunity to swing out of my shoes happens only when I lack any fear of reprisal. If there are never any ramifications for one’s shot choice, there’s no skin in the game. Golfers must be willing to live with the consequences of their actions to truly be challenged.

The Principle of Difficulty demands the question: “Will I be able to overcome this physical test?” But the Principle of Challenge asks a more thoughtful question: “What options do I have to overcome this test?” Challenge allows golfers to assess their own abilities and determine their own risk from shot to shot, a process that allows different skill-sets to overcome the same obstacle. All of the great courses of the world — from the Old Course to Pebble Beach — incorporate challenge in this way.