Golf Courses Design - Left-brain vs. Right-brain architecture
Here's a theory on how all of us subconsciously judge golf courses. It explains why you may applaud that Pine Valley is America's No. 1 course, while others grumble about the ranking. Why you really like Pete Dye's designs, but your buddies prefer Rees Jones. Why each of us has love affairs with certain courses but won't return to others.
It has to do with which side of your brain is dominant.
Ever since the ancient Egyptians discovered that the brain has two hemispheres, scientists have studied the competing functions of each side of the mind. The left side is the analytical one, processing sequentially in a step-by-step manner. The right side is the perceptive one, synthesizing information into big pictures. Both sides function together in everyone's mind, but one side usually dominates. If you like set routines and are highly organized, you're left-brain dominant. If you like spontaneity and seem artistic, you're right-brain dominant.
This concept has been applied to golf. If you have a matched set of clubs, love to practice and swear by golf-cart GPS systems for distances, you're probably a left-brain golfer and are taught accordingly, with repetitive drills. But if you've had the same putter for decades, hate beating buckets of balls and play by feel, you're probably a right-brainer. The great teacher Harvey Penick developed both left-brain Tom Kite and right-brain Ben Crenshaw but discouraged the two from practicing together.
Moving from the practice tee to the golf course, we've come up with this theory: If you're a left-brain dominant golfer, you're more likely to feel comfortable on left-brain courses, those designed by left-brainers. Conversely, right-brain dominant golfers prefer right-brain courses and architects.
Certainly, all golf architects use both sides of their brains, but each has a dominant side, and it shows in their architecture. Dye, a right-brainer, used quirky fairways, bunkers and greens at No. 67-ranked TPC at Sawgrass in Florida, but Dick Wilson followed a more accepted formula at No. 60 Cog Hill near Chicago.
Left-brain architects prefer conventional rules of design, courses of par 72 with four par 3s and four par 5s sprinkled through an 18. They strive for two nine-hole loops so each nine starts and finishes at the clubhouse. Right-brain architects, on the other hand, relish the unconventional. Most of them don't even use blueprints.
Left-brain architects talk about signature holes, prefer gently flowing features, and design for popularity. Right-brain architects talk about novel concepts, favor harsh-edged features, and often are acquired tastes.
Both sides offer options for play, but left-brainers like to dictate ideal routes, treating each hole as an examination that golfers must solve by executing the correct shots. Great left-brain designers change their strategies from hole to hole. Right-brainers like to create holes that can be played all sorts of ways and don't mind hiding hazards or targets from time to time. Right-brain holes are often wider, but much more penal if you stray from the fairway.
Left-brainers feel golf is an aerial game these days. Right-brainers think golfers still enjoy rolling the ball along the ground, too. Left-brain designers take pride in efficiency and juggle dozens of projects. Right-brainers insist on more personal involvement and take fewer jobs but more chances.
Left-brain architects engineer courses with great irrigation and drainage to achieve maximum playing conditions throughout the season. Right-brain architects don't mind scruffy edges and firmly believe in rub of the green.
Left-brainers today build nearly flat greens because they fear green speeds are getting out of control. Right-brainers still build heavily undulating greens that mimic nature, and tell superintendents to raise the cut of their mowers.
The more left-brained a designer, the more each bunker serves a particular purpose. Left-brain bunkers can be stylish, but are first and foremost designed for visibility and ease of maintenance. The more right-brained a designer, the more random is the bunkering. Right-brain bunkers can be steep and deep and often pose maintenance headaches.
Those are the extremes, of course. To be marketable, all architects find themselves adapting their proclivities to the situation. Ground-game right-brainers must nowadays build some forced carries to deal with environmentally protected streams and wetlands. Full-disclosure left-brainers must live with some blind drives and obscured targets to fit holes onto the rocky slopes and mountainous terrain they're given these days.
Most courses reflect both left- and right-brain thinking, but almost every course tends to favor one side. For course rankings, right-brain courses are more visual and make more memorable first impressions. Left-brain courses take many more rounds to truly appreciate. The exception is the Old Course at St. Andrews, the world's oldest right-brain course, which usually leaves first-timers bewildered and reveals itself only after repeated play.
No. 1 Pine Valley is the quintessential right-brain course, with its lay-of-the-land routing, fairways interrupted by nasty sand, its revolutionary use of alternate greens and some over-the-top par 3s. Granted, it offers few options, unless lay ups and pitch-outs are options, and its recent raking of sandy areas is decidedly left-brained. But on the whole, Pine Valley is right-brained.
No. 5 Pebble Beach also is right-brained, stretched along a marvelous piece of Pacific coastline, to maximize ocean frontage, then looped inland before returning to finish on the rocks. Like Pine Valley, a round at Pebble Beach is an emotional experience, with Pebble offering perhaps even more thrills and spills.
Pebble's neighbor, No. 3 Cypress Point, is another right-brainer. Its unconventional designer, Alister Mackenzie, incorporated back-to-back par 5s and par 3s to best fit the property. The course mixes themes, from woods to sand dunes to ocean cliffs, and its 18th hole is a wonder of right-brain whimsy, a par 4 lacking a fairway, offering instead narrow paths of mowed grass between scattered cypress trees.
No. 2 Augusta National, another Mackenzie design, began life as a right-brain course but has been modified so much over the decades by a succession of left-brain architects that it now falls firmly in the left-brain camp--Amen Corner notwithstanding.
No. 4 Oakmont Country Club is the epitome of a left-brain dominant course. Its architecture is primarily functional, with steep greens to drain water and a pattern of ditches to move water off the property. Think its nearly 200 bunkers are randomly placed? Far from it. Most have specific purposes, because designer Henry Fownes built them at spots where club members routinely hit balls. And is there a more regimented left-brain bunker in America than the Church PewsThe best golf courses feature outstanding conditioning with great putting surfaces.