Creating outstanding greens is perhaps the most important factor in golf course design. It's the topic that golfers talk about most in the clubhouse and the reputations of golf courses can be made or broken on the quality of their greens. Greens are also where the business end of professional tournament golf takes place - where championships are decided - so they are regularly the focus for the television cameras and the viewing public.
From a practical perspective, ensuring that the greens are constructed to the highest quality is vitally important - but the greens themselves have to be designed to be both memorable while also blending seamlessly into their surroundings.
It's a tough job for the golf course architect, especially as 18 greens have to be created, each individual yet consistent with the others. However, as golf course architects we can often use the following guidelines to achieve the desired result:
1 The right green for the right location
Greens must aesthetically blend in with their natural surroundings - the contours of the land and the conditions of the site. A golf course architect can not go to every new site with the same formulated design for a green - forcing a green into a location can make it stick out like a sore thumb, even if the putting surface itself is excellent.
Some of the best greens in the world have developed completely naturally - just look at the many links courses in the UK. So, the designer should always use the natural contours of the land around the green to their advantage. A good example of this is the 6th green at Linna Golf in Finland, designed by Tim Lobb, principal of Thomson Perrett & Lobb - the site was more or less made for a natural green location, blending the original slopes of the land into the green. This meant the amount of construction work that went into creating the green was low and, to my eye, it fits seamlessly into its surroundings.
2 Suitable challenge for the approach shot
Greens are not just for putting on, of course. They also receive incoming shots, and taking this and the likely length of the approach shot into account is an important consideration when designing the slopes on the green.
From a design perspective, architects primarily use the size and severity of slope on the green to adjust its difficulty. Par 5s are especially interesting. I always consider them as three-shot holes, even though many professionals can often reach them in two. So, I have no problem with making the green smaller or harder to hit - that's fair for a third shot with a short iron, while increasing the challenge for the long, accurate hitter who wants to try and reach the green in two.
However, if it is a long par 4, say around 460 yards, it would be unfair to make the green small with a lot of slope since it would not fairly reward those with length and accuracy to reach it in two.
A good example is the par 5 13th green at Augusta National, home of the US Masters, where you get surprised at how small the green really is. It looks huge on television, but the players have to hit a long iron over Rae's Creek and land it on a relatively small, steeply sloping green. It's a significant test of strength and accuracy and makes great viewing both in real life and on television.
3 Variety of hole positions for all green speeds
Modern green cutting equipment and grass varieties has seen the speed of greens increase significantly, which means great care is required by the golf course architect in making sure that new greens are not excessively steep. The most common problem is when less experienced architects try to do too much with a green resulting in excess slopes.
When I design a green I am always looking to create at least five or six 'pinnable' areas. With a pinnable area I mean an area of the green with a radius of approximately three metres around the hole, with no more than 3% of slope (depending on grass types and future maintenance as well). I prefer using 1-2% slopes in the pinnable areas with steeper slopes, knobs, swales and hollows in other regions of the greens to add and maintain interest.
An extreme example of the dangers of having too much slope and too fast a green surface was the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. These are old steep greens that were designed for slower speeds - so when they were cut extremely short for the tournament and dried out, the number of pinnable areas was reduced. In fact, they became treacherously difficult and had to be watered during play, which proved controversial.
4 Sound technical design and quality construction
It's no good having a great green if water does not drain away or it is sited in the shade of trees - it has to be a working, functional green that can be effectively maintained by the green staff. Incredibly, there are still golf courses being built that suffer with water build-up on the putting surface. Personally, I am always looking to create three or four draining swales to allow efficient run-off and drainage from the green surface.
The site of the green is always essential - you do not want to put a green in the shade where grass growth cannot be optimised. This is particularly important in regions like Scandinavia where greens are in special need of morning light at the beginning and end of the season. Of course, the green also has to be constructed correctly, which is why many golf course architects recommend the USGA (United State Golf Association) method of putting green construction.
This tried and laboratory tested technique combines drainage pipes with USGA specified gravel, sand and rootzone mix to create predictable and high quality greens that can be well maintained, and kept open for play more often. Using this method does not mean your green will look like an 'American-style' course - that is all down to the design of the individual greens. Other more affordable greens, like the 'California method' greens or German FLL greens, can perform as well, or better, depending on many circumstances - and should always be considered as an alternative.
5 Variety of green surface contours and surrounding hazards
Designing 18 different greens for a new course, especially on a flat site where you are really 'manufacturing' the golf course, can be a major challenge - testing the imagination and creativity of the golf course architect. I try to avoid monotony at all costs which helps to keep the golfer interested - facing a variety of challenges. The key is to let nature play a guiding role in your inspiration.
I am always looking for peripheral features, such as ridges and natural height differences, which I can incorporate into the green design. A great inspiration for me is the Valley of Sin in front of the 18th green on the Old Course at St Andrews. It is a fantastic feature and, whichever way you look at this green - from down the fairway playing an approach shot, or trying to putt up its steep slope - it is the defining characteristic of the green and the otherwise flat hole. That is one green (and course) you will never forget playing.
About the author: Philip Christian Spogard is a Danish golf course architect working for the internationally recognised golf course designers, Thomson Perrett & Lobb in Surrey. Philip is currently working on a heathland inspired golf course in Turkey and has previously been involved with projects in Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For more information log on to www.tpl.eu.com