Are we having fun yet?

Some of today’s leading golf course architects discuss the topic of fun and how their designs can inject more of it into the game

Everywhere you look, there are products aimed at making golf more fun.

Want to enjoy your own personal soundtrack as you chase birdies? There’s a slew of Bluetooth-powered speakers that allow you to take your playlist out onto the course.

Want to hit the ball higher and straighter? The evolution of golf club technology has made it easier for high-handicap players to hit redeeming shots. (The latest equipment has also been engineered to minimize cringe-worthy slices and scorecard-damaging duck hooks.)

Golf apparel is changing, too. Styles now deemed appropriate for the course are more relaxed and comfortable than ever before.

Some golf carts are even outfitted with high-definition touch screens that not only provide GPS-aided yardages, but can broadcast live sporting events and stream music.

In theory, all of these product evolutions are intended to enhance the enjoyment of the game, but the single most impactful variable that truly makes golf fun is the course on which the game is played. You might be listening to your favorite song, wearing a sleek and comfortable hoodie, and swinging an iron with a sweet spot almost as big as the clubhead itself, but if you’re playing a fatally flawed golf course, your enjoyment of the game will be short-lived.

With that in mind, we checked in with a dozen golf architects to better understand how course designers can inject more fun into the game. Here’s what they had to say:

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The Bear's Club, Jupiter, Florida.

Jack Nicklaus (Nicklaus Design): I used to have a lot of forced carries [in my designs], and I think forced carries are really difficult. A lot of my courses still have them because I designed them a long time ago. But I’ve found that having a golf course where people can run the ball in [to the green] and have a bail out — a place they can play from where they don’t lose a golf ball — it’s a lot of the things that I just did at [the redesign of] The Bear’s Club [in Jupiter, Florida]. I watched for 23 years where people lost their golf balls. So I put in shallow bunkers to keep the ball from getting into those areas and then made them look nice artistically so they framed the golf course. If they [golfers] can have an enjoyable day with their friends on an aesthetically pleasing golf course, that’s really what we’re trying to do.

Notable Designs: Muirfield Village Golf Club, Valhalla Golf Club, Punta Espada Golf Club.

David McLay Kidd (DMK Golf Design): I spent some time trying to figure out what it is that makes golf fun and how we, as golf course designers, can influence that. The thing that’s fun for the average golfer is to hit the ball, easily find it and hit it again. That’s the number one thing, even before you talk about whether they made par or triple [bogey]. If you hit it and don’t find it, the fun is gone. And if there’s little opportunity to succeed, then you’re playing with trepidation and fear, and no one likes that. The opportunity for success is complex, but if I were to simplify it, I would say that for the average golfer the only opportunity that they have for success is when there’s some opportunity for recovery.

The chances of the average golfer hitting four shots in a row exactly as they intended is extremely slim. [At least] one of those shots is going to be a little off-kilter, a little wayward; and if we, as golf course architects, put them in jail for every infraction with no opportunity for mercy, then they have little opportunity for success and that sucks the fun out of the game really fast. If you look at Pete Dye’s most dastardly work, any infraction is met with extreme penalty. And if you look at the Old Course at St Andrews, any infraction is met with modest penalty. There’s a very good possibility that on any hole on the Old Course, you will relatively easily find that ball and you will have some opportunity to recover. That recovery may not be to birdie. Hell, it might not even be back to par. But it’s recovery. It’s the same ball, and there’s a chance. And so for me, as a golf course designer, those are the things that I start with.  Because if players can’t find their ball and hit it again, you’ve failed from the very beginning as a golf course architect.

Notable Designs: Bandon Dunes, Gamble Sands, Mammoth Dunes, Tetherow.

Bill Coore (Coore & Crenshaw): The more we can imitate the interesting sites that inherently feel like golf, the more we can imitate their randomness and uniqueness, the more enjoyable golf is going to become. It was a game born in nature and laid out on natural landforms, and [early courses] were so random and so unpredictable and so mesmerizing in so many ways, that’s where the fascination of golf began. We need to find sites that are interesting and then don’t do too much to them. And if you can’t find an interesting site, find someone who will give you the freedom to work with an uninteresting site by trying to think outside the box and doing different things. We have to be careful not to keep repeating ourselves over and over and over. The more variety there is [within the golf courses] the better golf is going to be. Different types of courses that don’t quite fit someone’s preconceived notion or some formula are the most fun. What’s fun is to do something that you’ve never done. And while there’s nothing new in golf architecture — there truly isn’t — it’s the way the composition [of the course] is that puts you in a position to say, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I’ve ever quite seen this before or I’ve ever quite had to deal with this as a player before.’ It’s that fascination that makes golf so appealing.

Notable Designs (with Ben Crenshaw): Kapalua Plantation Course, Cabot Cliffs, Friar’s Head, Sand Hills, Ozarks National, Streamsong Red.

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Stillwater Golf and Country Club, St. Johns, Florida.

Bobby Weed (Bobby Weed Golf Design): I’ll point to the course that we just built in St Johns, Florida — Stillwater. From a playability standpoint, most all of the greens are down on the ground; they’re not really elevated, so you can run the ball, you can use the ground game. Frankly, 90 percent of the people who play the game of golf play it on the ground, hitting shots that can bounce and roll up. We used revetted-style pot bunkers that look hard but they’re not overly deep so they’re easy to get in and out of. We’re not putting hazards in front of every green and we’re using more short-cut turf around the entire golf course. And the interesting thing about this particular golf course is we’ve designed it in loops of three, where you can play three, six, nine, 12, 15 holes. You can choose what you want depending on the amount of time that you have.

Notable Designs: Amelia Island Plantation (Ocean Links), Stillwater Golf & Country Club, TPC Sawgrass (Dye Valley), TPC Las Vegas.

Rees Jones (Rees Jones, Inc.): Too many golf courses are designed to earn a reputation in the ratings, so they have to be difficult in order to make the list in some degree. But you have to design a golf course so that it plays in multiple fashions. That’s what I’ve been doing with all my Florida golf courses — I’ve been designing them so you can play the ground game, you can play the aerial game, and I’m positioning my bunkers not in the same spot on every hole. I’m positioning them in different locations, so they really sort of outline a strategy. You may go to the left side of the bunker or the right side of the bunker depending on where the pin is. Another thing is to have various elevations of greens. A short hole can have an elevated green, while a longer hole may have a low-profile green. You want to try to have some way to get on the green from the ground.

Notable Designs: Atlantic Golf Club, TPC Danzante Bay, Pinehurst No. 7, Ocean Forest Golf Club.

Tom Lehman (Lehman Design Group): For starters, it has to look good. Good designers are really artistic, so the shots look fun — the shot is framed just right and the bunkers are in just the right places so the hole has balance. Maybe it’s a cool look or a really scary look, but it’s not that difficult. So you can create a great aesthetic and a great visual, which is a big part of it becoming fun. A boring-looking shot is no fun, but something that has drama and beauty creates fun. Greens that are too bland are no fun, but you don’t want to create greens that have buried elephants, either. To have a hollow next to a green that’s 15 feet deep is not fun. To have a pushed-up green that’s five feet above everything else is not fun. But if a green is elevated by only a foot and a half or maybe three feet — and the swales are only two feet to four feet max — then you can putt it, you can chip it, you can do whatever you want. Those are all things that make it fun, where you give people variety. It’s finding just the right balance. 

Notable Designs: The Prairie Club (Dunes Course), Omni Tucson National (Sonoran Course), Arizona Biltmore (Estates Course), Windsong Farms.

Greg Norman (Greg Norman Golf Course Design): Any time you can incorporate features that are inherent to the site it allows you to create a much more authentic golf experience — we’ve done this with everything from temples and rice paddies in Asia to cenotes in Mexico and archeological artifacts in Spain. Every golfer also loves a course that appears as if it’s been there for centuries, so we try to route the course so that the natural contours and surrounding flora and fauna are incorporated into the design of each hole. And having your feet on the ground while experiencing nature is one of the most rewarding and therapeutic things about golf, so we always try to design a walking course whenever possible.

Notable Designs: Mayakoba Resort (El Camaleon), TPC Sugarloaf, Medalist Golf Club, Doonbeg Golf Club.

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PGA Frisco, Fields Ranch East, Frisco, Texas.

Gil Hanse (Hanse Golf Design): To me, fun has always been about the ground game. It’s about visualization and the ability to hit creative shots, and that almost always involves the ground game, whether it’s feeder slopes that kick balls onto the green or backboards that you can use to have shots come back in — whether it’s intentional or not, based on your skill level. I find it fun — and I love — to know that to get from A to B, the best route is to go through C. I think that can only happen when the ground game is alive, and I think that’s why most people love links golf. When you’re playing links golf, the game doesn’t really begin until the ball hits the ground, and then you see what the outcome is. I think that’s hugely fun. The architect provides you with options to use your creativity, use the ground … it gives you the opportunity to be creative, but if you’re an average golfer, it gives you opportunities to be successful, too. Nobody likes getting beat up for 18 holes. That’s not fun for anybody. So I think if the ground game provides options and different ways to play the holes, and if the architecture provides lively creative options, that’s what we can do from a fun perspective.

Notable Designs: Streamsong Black, Pinehurst No. 4, Boston Golf Club, Fields Ranch East, Ohoopee Match Club.

Mike Nuzzo (Nuzzo Course Design): I love things that are different. The more different and unusual that things can be, the more interesting they are for me. Things that are different or unusual have more flavor to them, they have more of a style. So when I’m making golf holes, I’m looking to have holes be unusual, things that you wouldn’t have seen before. My inspiration for what makes holes great is to be completely different because the land that I’m working with is different. That’s what made minimalism work — whatever you had to work with is different from everywhere else, so if you make a golf hole work with what you’ve got, it’s going to be a cool, unusual golf hole.

Notable Designs: Cabot Citrus Farms (The Squeeze), WolfPoint Club.

Phil Smith (Phil Smith Design): What we’re doing more lately is breaking out of the mold of thinking that a course has to be 18 holes and par 72. We’re doing a lot more short courses — I’m doing a 10-hole, par three course up near Big Sky, Montana that’s called Tom’s 10. It takes the best design principles that Tom [Weiskopf] and I did throughout the years and puts it in these 10 holes. The reason it’s 10 holes is that Tom, before he passed away, wanted to even it out to make a front five and a back five. It’s doing more of these fun layouts where you can maybe go play in an hour or an hour and a half after work. That’s what I think is going to continue to create more fun.

Notable Designs (with Tom Weiskopf): Seven Canyons, The Ocean Club, The Yellowstone Club, Troon North Golf Club.

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Cabot Citrus Farms, Karoo. Brooksville, Florida.

Kyle Franz (Kyle Franz Golf Course Design): To create great width in architecture, to have a huge canvas out there. Keeping it wide and giving players a lot of space so they never lose a golf ball. And even if they get into the sand, create a lot of places to hit it out to. But overall, just giving players a nice big target out there — that’s what St Andrews has excelled at for hundreds of years. But while the second green is big there, if you hit in the wrong section of that second green, good luck. It’s really easy to design a really hard golf course, but it’s really easy to design one that’s almost too wide, as well. So it’s key to get that balance. Also, one of the things that’s washed over me quite effectively from all my years living in Pinehurst is that you can have a bunch of tightly mowed areas around greens where you have some cool contours to fight with to get up and down, but it’s something you can handle with a putter or a seven iron if players want to putt, chip, hit bump-and-runs and be creative. You’re not just hacking out of bunkers or long rough all day long.

Notable Designs: Cabot Citrus Farms (Karoo and The Roost).

Jason Straka (Fry Straka Global Golf Course Design): It’s about not losing a lot of golf balls, but basically celebrating all sorts of different types of shots. You want a 15 or 20 handicapper to be able to get around and enjoy themselves and not lose many golf balls and say at the end of the round, “I didn’t get beat up.” I grew up playing core golf courses that had holes on top of holes, so you could spray the ball. You might have a really challenging recovery shot, but I could still go find the ball and play it. One of the best examples is Pinehurst No. 2. It is impossible to lose a golf ball on Pinehurst No. 2. Go talk to an average player after their round there and they’ll say it was really interesting and challenging and that they had all kinds of unique shots. If you ask them if they lost any golf balls, their answer is “No.” But was it easy? No.

Notable Designs (with Dana Fry): Erin Hills Golf Course, Olde Stonewall Golf Club, Shelter Harbor Golf Club, Arcadia Bluffs (South Course).