Common Golf Hole Designs:
Redan holes, Cape holes, the Biarritz, the Punchbowl—Seth Raynor and Charles Banks spent the 1920s reinterpreting a hit parade of classic British hole designs.
Modern architects are often criticized for repeating themselves, yet Charles Blair MacDonald, Seth Raynor and Charles Banks—design genius’—laid out all there courses according to a predictable formula. They repeated themselves continually.
Raynor and Banks’ mentor, Charles Blair Macdonald, were like composers turning out subtle variations on a musical theme. In designing their courses, they purposely replicated famous holes from cherished British layouts. “The courses in Great Britain abound in classic and notable holes,” wrote Macdonald a century ago. “One only has to study these and adopt their best and boldest features.”
And adopt these gentleman did, unabashedly reproducing versions of such classic holes as Redan, Biarritz, Eden and Alps. They weren’t building pure replicas, such as we find today at novelty courses like Tour 18 in Houston and Royal Links in Las Vegas—instead they were seizing on a concept and adapting it to the varying conditions and topographies of their sites.
Raynor took several of Macdonald’s favorites—including the Cape hole and the Double Plateau green—and installed them in his permanent repertoire. Raynor is not alone in his sincere flattery. Other architects have seen the value in adapting and reproducing the strategic building blocks of the classic holes. If not actively, they have done so unconsciously, falling in line with my firmly held belief that there are only 50 original golf holes in the world—the other 500,000 or so are mere variations on established themes.
So what makes a Redan, a Redan? Is it just an angled green fronted by a hazard? Egad, no! Like the other “Raynor standards,” versions of which he faithfully included in every course he laid out, the Redan begins with an idea. And that idea has to do with a particular shotmaking challenge and the emotions that challenge invokes. Indeed, these standards are good enough that contemporary architects and golfers would do well to continue learning from their examples. Let’s examine them one at a time:
While the word itself was coined to describe the 15th at North Berwick, Redan has come to mean a specific manner of green complex. Macdonald described it best: “Take a narrow tableland, tilt it a little from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally and you have a Redan.” Raynor and Macdonald generally outfitted their Redans with an exaggerated “kick-back” slope in the approach and front section of the green.
Part of the fun of a Redan is watching the ball kick onto the green and roll. You can try to fly a ball onto a Redan green, but they are usually quite shallow, framed by penal bunkers front and back. And because they can have a front-to-rear slope of up to five feet, best of luck playing dart-board golf on a Redan. The 4th at the National Golf Links of America and the 17th at Mid wonderful examples of the Redan.
It’s important to remember a couple of things about this MacDonald standard: Classic Redans play right to left—but they can also be oriented left to right. In those cases Tucker’s Points 11th is an example of a reverse Redan adaptations. Second, vintage Redans were in the range of 190 yards (a strong par 3 in the early days of golf) and work best as long holes where the greens receive lengthy approaches. The lower trajectory of such shots means the ball rolls more readily when it hits the ground and therefore responds to the Redan’s kick-back grading that is a key element to these golf holes.
Often modeled on Macdonald’s 5th Hole at Mid Ocean, the Cape hole is all about risk and reward. Generally playing around a large lateral hazard of some sort, players bite off what they dare. The more successful the bite, the bigger the reward. A variety of Cape types exist: The Big Daddy of Capes—the par-4 5th at Mid Ocean—allows for one of the great bite-off drives in all of golf.
Adapted from the “chasm” hole at the original Willie Dunn course in Biarritz, France, this par 3 was an eye-popper from the start. Raynor wasn’t deterred from repeating this standard despite the fact that, early on, it was referred to as “Macdonald’s Folly.” Why the nickname? Architects of the day were a tad skeptical of a putting surface fully 80 yards long and bisected by a chasm some five feet deep. Mid Ocean 13th Hole is a wonderful example of this albeit the green is only 50 yards long from its original design.
As with the Redan, the real fun of a Biarritz is watching the ball as it lands on the front portion, starts to roll and disappears into the swale, then reappears (one often hopes) on the back portion. Biarritz adaptations come in several varieties: The swale and front portion of the green have been grown in as fairway; at Yale and St. Louis, the approach and swale areas are appropriately maintained as putting surface. In most cases, bunkers flank either side of the lengthy green..
No mystery here: a putting surface shaped like a huge punchbowl—a not uncommon 19th-century design scheme whereby greens were positioned in existing depressions to capture and conserve as much moisture as possible. Bank’s variations on this theme hinge on the amount of approach or fairway area that’s incorporated into the punchbowl. The Tucker’s Point variety on No.3 feature Punchbowls that are basically green-only, while the National’s punchbowl 16th encompasses a good amount of fairway and approach.
Be forewarned: The Punchbowl giveth and it taketh away. Hitting one is easy; putting on one can be decidedly difficult. Which is certainly the case at Tucker’s Point.
Macdonald’s original inspiration for this standard was the 11th at St. Andrews: a shallow green with severe back-to-front pitch, fronted by fearsome pot bunkers and framed to the rear by the Eden River. Tucker’s Point example of the 5th Hole.
Because Banks and Raynor’s work exists today mainly at exclusive, low-profile clubs, it’s not easy to experience the standards and truly appreciate their exquisite variations. But, for those fortunate enough to familiarize themselves with the classic hole concepts of Macdonald, the rewards are numerous. Their hearts quicken as they arrive at a course they haven’t played before. Likely they will wonder, what’s the Redan like here? Or, which is the Punchbowl? And certainly, do you think the Biarritz is all green?
In Bermuda we are very lucky to actually have two wonderful examples of this type of course in Mid Ocean and Tucker’s Point. (Castle Harbour as it was in those days, is Charles Banks last course he built in 1932!)
Repetition, in the right hands, can be a beautiful thing.