Golf Course Setup: Aims and Methods

Nothing integrates the golfer to the golf course more than golf course setup. Two levels of setup exist that accomplish this end. The first and most complex level pertains to the mowing practices, bunker maintenance, and overall agronomic presentation of the golf course while the second involves the daily location of the holes on the putting surface, as well as the tee markers for the teeing areas. While both are integral and visible to the golfer, the second level binds the golfer to both the design of the golf course and the agronomic presentation.

Exploring the second level can show much about the limitations and advantages of certain methods of setup. As it applies to a specific golf course, honing tee and hole locations becomes a worthy exercise for understanding the challenges of the golf course.

Rote Methods

Six-Six-Six: A common practice with the purpose of achieving balance in setup. Six-Six-Six refers to the idea that one-third of the holes for the day should play relatively difficult, another one-third moderate and the final one-third relatively easy. In practice, this typically deals with hole locations as the tee markers are commonly moved based on another method to be discussed next. As a primary strength, moving the hole locations with this method will typically integrate a good variety to the setup. The weakness, however, is in the perception of difficulty. A hole “tucked” behind a bunker may appear difficult to some but may in fact make the hole play easier as it calls attention to the defenses around the green. The appearance of difficulty has the potential to scare golfers into a more defensive and sometimes wiser strategy for attack in an effort to take a large score out of the equation.

Distance Balancing: The USGA advocates this method in their Handicap Manual in order to preserve the integrity of  the Course Rating. The idea is to make sure the course plays as near to the card yardage as possible for any given round by balancing the location of tees relative to their measuring point with both the hole locations on the green relative to the center and the setup of other holes. The goal, while noble, has the drawback of making day-to-day play of the golf course monotonous. Especially with regard to placing the hole location relative to the tee location in order to preserve the card yardage. The obvious drawback here is that on any given day the golfer is likely to be presented with the same length to every hole location from the fairway.

Front-Middle-Back: A system that is frequently found on resort or public courses is the Front-Middle-Back system, or some variation therein. The advantage here is that the golfer is able to quickly determine the location of the hole relative to the center of the green based on an established pattern. Herein lies the disadvantage as well, as it is possible to determine all hole locations after playing to the second green. Saving the editorializing for another post, this system is by far the most limiting of any.

Combination: Combining the previous three methods is the most likely scenario for most golf courses. As an example a tee placed forward of the measuring point playing to a hole location in a relatively easy portion at the back of the putting green will preserve the card yardage while providing an easy hole for the six-six-six approach.

Is systematic the actual goal?

As with any system, the desired end is for a consistent presentation of the golf course with little variance to predictability from one day to the next. It is certainly acceptable that other variables of difficulty such as weather, time of day, and even daily changes to a golfer’s abilities provide sufficient interest each day. However, one of the underlying premises to the game’s appeal is that of the dynamic play field. In no other sport is the playing field so integral to the day to day enjoyment of participation and golf course setup should do everything to embrace this ideal.

The fourth hole at Huntingdon Valley Country Club offers a good case study in the effectiveness of a golf course-first approach to setup, while demonstrating the possible limitations of a rote system.

Huntingdon Valley Country Club - Fourth Hole

Here, the putting green is achievable in one shot by a well-shaped drive from a longer hitter. However, in a system where the card yardage is preserved by pairing a tee location in front of the measuring point with a hole location in the rear portion of the putting green the temptation to attempt the putting green in one shot is limited by the hole’s location well away from the fairway cut and on a direct line over the majority of the bunkers. Furthermore, golfers familiar with Huntingdon Valley are aware that a putt from the front portion of the putting green to the rear is one of the more difficult putts on the golf course – negating any benefit to achieving the green in one. In this case, the rote system has taken a possibly interesting early hole and made it into a standard drive and pitch hole. The wise player will drive to the larger portion of the fairway away from the bunkers and attack the hole with a full pitch from a level lie.

Consider, instead, a setup where a shorter tee is combined with a hole located in the front portion of the putting green. In this instance, a well-struck tee shot attempting to reach the green is  likely to find the front portion of the green near the hole if executed. This allows the temptation and possibility of scoring a two or easy three to become a more worthwhile strategy if the golfer dares – all at the expense of a potentially damning lie in one of the bunkers near the putting green. Additionally, golfers familiar with Huntingdon Valley know the front portion of this particular green is much more severe than the back portion, further increasing the benefit of reaching the green in one shot.

The idea here is that golf course setup is a much more cerebral exercise than it is rote. By understanding the particular questions posed by the golf course to the golfer, the superintendent will find a more effective and pleasurable method to setting up the golf course for daily play, all while increasing the enjoyment for golfers.

4 thoughts on “Golf Course Setup: Aims and Methods

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  1. Kyle,

    While I have only skimmed over this for now, all looks very well done and very cool. I will be back later to read more of it. Hope all is well. Take care.

    1. Brad,

      Thank you for the comment. I appreciate your input.

      I’ll be exploring the concepts in depth as there is much fertile ground for discussion. The first will probably touch on the concept I call “rigid flexibility” in golf design.

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