In Depth: the evolution of a golf hole

LIKE most living things, golf courses change over time. Sometimes this can be slow, however, some changes can occur much faster.

LIKE most living things, golf courses change over time.  Sometimes this can be slow.

Trees grow, bunkers erode, even putting green levels can change with constant top dressing and bunker play, adding as much as 30cm over time.

Some changes occur much faster.  Clubs engage architects to suggest design changes, to add interest to the course, or restore areas to their former glory.

Or clubs themselves make changes.  Perhaps the captain or committee of the day sees a need to alter the design, rebuilding a green, filling a bunker or even adding a water hazard. 

Tournament directors have also had their fair share of influence over the years, especially at championship venues.  Tees and bunkers have been added and fairways narrowed in an effort to reduce the winning score, but rarely are these additions removed once play finishes Sunday evening.

Then there is the role of the course superintendent.  Whilst their brief is one of maintenance, this can also lead to change.

Perhaps the turf has always struggled in a particular area and needs to be reshaped, maybe a green needs to be rebuilt for agronomic reasons and at the same time a few ‘tweaks’ are made.  

Outside influences, such as war and financial stress, can also impact course design.  During World War II many courses were forced to close or reduce their costs by cutting down on the amount of fairway turf.  The war was also responsible for one the more dramatic transformations when Turnberry, on the west coast of Scotland, was converted to a RAF training ground. 

Turnberry Co Uk

Another change on many classic courses came with the introduction of the irrigation system. The typically wide fairways were literally halved due to the limited coverage of the single row sprinklers and in the process, the strategy of playing to the corners of the fairways to gain the best angle to the green, disappeared.

To make matters worse, in lots of instances trees were planted in areas of newly formed rough, further narrowing the playing corridors.

To illustrate these points I’ve included a time-lapse of aerial photos from a course close to my heart – Kingston Heath.  Most would assume that this classic sandbelt layout has more or less remained the same since it was first laid out by Dan Soutar in the 1920's, but this is not the case.  Take, for instance, the 12th hole:

1926: Sadly we don’t have an aerial from prior to this time, as it would be interesting to see the course without any bunkers.  The main purpose of Alister Mackenzie's commission at Kingston Heath (while in town designing Royal Melbourne as part of whirlwind three month tour of Australia) was to design the bunkering scheme for the course (pictured below).

It was quite common practice for early courses to be opened without hazards and then, after monitoring play over a period, decide where they are best positioned. 

1931: This aerial shows the result of Mackenzie’s bunker plan for the course.  Mick Morcom (Mackenzie's local constructor and superintendent at Royal Melbourne) took certain license to deviate from the plan where he felt necessary which is clear in the aerial – with a much larger hazard on the left of the second shot and no bunkers in play down the right.

The plan also shows a split in the fairway with a long section of rough adjacent to the left hand bunker, quite a common feature on the par 5s on the course around this time.  


1945: Probably the closest of any of the photos to the hole we see today.  Vern Morcom (course superintendent for four decades and son of Mick Morcom) altered the bunkering scheme, converting the large waste into a series of smaller hazards down the left, splitting the central bunker in two and adding a greenside bunker left.

You will also notice the short bunkers on the 13th disappear around this time.

1956 and 1964: The hole remains largely in tact but the vegetation growth down both sides of the fairway is clearly evident. 

1978: Perhaps the greatest distortion occurs around this time.  Vegetation has encroached to the point where the bunkers down the left have shrunken and curiously the fairway has been almost halved in width – a huge loss to the strategy of the hole.

2016:  The hole we see today.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s course superintendent Graeme Grant undertook major restoration – reclaiming the ‘lost’ bunkers down the left, reinstating fairway edges and removing a significant number of trees.

A drain was also created down the left to assist with drainage and act as a hazard and fairways were converted to couch.  Later in the 90s the central bunkers were rebuilt further down the hole to become more relevant hazards and the hole was lengthened with tees rebuilt and pushed back.

A final recent change has seen the tee carry reshaped and vegetated with heathland plants and grasses and the fairway widened on the left short of the green to better reward the ideal second shot. 

So however it occurs, courses change.  In recent times there has been a trend to restore classic courses around the world in order to bring back their original designs.

Most often this has resulted in a better outcome but then there are some instances, such as Kingston Heath, which really are the product of years of refinement, which has resulted in a better course today than at any other time in its history.


Mike Cocking

Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website

Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.

After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.

Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship.  Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses. 

His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer.  Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.

Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website. 

Mike can be followed on Twitter: @OCCMGolf and @MikeCocking 


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