Recommended Reading: Course Knowledge
Ever redesign a golf hole in your mind? Pontificate to friends about how you would reposition some pesky bunkers? Or maybe think to yourself, ‘Man, what was (insert designer’s name) thinking here?’ Of course you have! Opinions on golf course designs tend to flow from golfer’s mouths faster than a downhill putt at Augusta National. But do you really know enough to step inside an architect’s mind?
Author Geoff Shackelford is here to help. Sink into your architect’s armchair and soak up the guidance he provides in the slim but engaging Golf Architecture for Normal People. The Southern California native and writer for multiple golf publications, including his own Substack newsletter (The Quadrilateral) and FORE, provides a handy framework for grasping and enjoying the art of course design.
Look, it’s no easy task to create 18 holes that flow together, test better players and also keep those less-skilled coming back for more. As Shackelford puts it, “The golf architect’s toughest task has always been in finding the yin and yang between forgiveness and intrigue.”
But in this visual medium, it helps to know what you’re looking at, and Shackleford provides an informative big picture. He sprinkles in history lessons about those who planted the game’s architectural roots, defines common terms and helps hone your eyes when it comes to identifying some of the tricks of the trade.
He does so without getting too deep into the rough, so to speak. To judge a course, he offers a straightforward, three-part evaluation system he has named R-E-D (the D is for dogs, and well, it makes great sense). It’s smart, concise and far more logical than the existing raft of argument-inducing, top-whatever rankings floating around the golf world. To be fair, Shackelford, a self-described recovering ranking panelist, does credit those with helping “facilitate the restoration of run-down and mangled classics and have brought respect and notoriety to under-appreciated gems designed by once-overlooked architects.” And the book’s appendix does include 11 brief course lists of his own.
But then he knows the art of course architecture better than most, having worked on numerous course projects (like co-designing Rustic Canyon GC in Moorpark and helping restore this year’s U.S. Open venue, the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club, both efforts with acclaimed architect Gil Hanse), and he’s penned numerous books on the topic, including one about his design hero, George C. Thomas.
Yet despite all his lofty credentials, Shackelford is looking for the same things we all are in a golf course, no matter our course architecture pedigree. As he writes, “The most engaging golf courses lure us in, feature plot twists and rarely seem desperate to make a first impression. This may explain why the obvious, straightforward design quickly grows stale while the ones with some bit of mystery endure. More importantly, the very best let us win.”