Geeked on Golf

ROUTING PERFECTION AT SAND HILLS

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A look at routing and the creation of Coore & Crenshaw’s modern masterpiece, Sand Hills Golf Club

Sand Hills Golf Club is generally considered to be a modern masterpiece. Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw’s design has been credited as the original spark that lit the fire of the minimalist movement in golf course architecture, and the club proved that players will travel to experience great golf in far flung locales. The combination of minimalism and destination golf has been nothing short of revolutionary for the game. There is a case to be made though that Sand Hills is more than just a great course—it is perfect. That perfection has at its core the routing that Coore & Crenshaw discovered through the Nebraska countryside, and the effect that it has on those fortunate enough to play it.

In a discussion with Dunlop White about what gives a golf course character, Bill Coore said, “The routing is how a golf course lays on the land; how it showcases the landscape and brings out interesting golf in terms of the individual holes and how they fit together as an entire course.” That description makes intuitive sense, but just how does one go from a raw piece of land to a brilliant course like Sand Hills? For the average geek, the process seems quite mysterious—equal parts method and magic, akin to alchemy. Although routing is complicated, to grasp what transpires conceptually does not require that one be an architect or an alchemist. Before returning to Mullen, let’s take a quick look.

Assembling the Pieces

The process of routing a golf course can be compared to putting together a puzzle. The first order of business is assembling the edges, which is the equivalent of determining design constraints. Typically, a good puzzle-building strategy is to next look for pieces that comprise standout elements of the picture. Landmarks, if you will. And finally comes the painstaking effort to fill in the remaining pieces around those landmarks to produce a cohesive whole.

The comparison to puzzle building is, of course, a dramatic oversimplification. The end puzzle picture is known at the outset, which is clearly not the case for the golf course architect. The analogy does hold true at a basic level—both activities are difficult, even painful at times, and ultimately reward the patient and persistent practitioner. It also hints at an issue inherent in the approach to routing by some architects, an issue that can be the difference between a good golf course and a great one. While incorporating special features or landmarks into a design is always a worthy aim, fixating on any single element of the site can have a deleterious cascade effect. The course may indeed have a “signature” hole, but incorporating that hole into the routing necessitates including weaker “connector” holes.

In some unfortunate instances, course designs relied so heavily on the signature hole or stretch of holes that the overall quality of the course was diminished. That would be like assembling the feature portions of the puzzle, and then dumping the rest of the pieces inside the border willy nilly and calling it finished. One does not get to a level of quality approaching that of Sand Hills by trading signature hole photo ops for the integrity of the whole. As Bill Coore implied, he is not willing to make that trade, “The routing…brings out interesting golf in terms of the individual holes AND how they fit together as an entire course.”

Tough Decisions

Bill Coore is regularly asked some form of the question, “Was it enjoyable to work with land as great as Dick Youngscap gave you for Sand Hills?” His answer is a consistent and unequivocal “No.” Outside of getting the chance to work on seaside linksland, Coore & Crenshaw could not have dreamt of a better site than the one they got in Mullen. The ideal nature of the ground for golf heaped pressure on the duo to produce a special golf course. They feared that if they did not capitalize on this opportunity, it might be a long time before another came along, if ever.

As illustrated in the example above, a site typically has distinct features off which the architect can play—a ridge, a creek, stands of specimen trees or a dune. Average land yields a finite number of high quality holes which can be incorporated into a cohesive routing. A site like Sand Hills has nearly infinite potential for such holes. What’s a designer to do when everywhere they look, there is another feature, contour, or vista that would make for great golf?

In their customary fashion, Coore & Crenshaw started with knowing the land intimately. While tales of Bill Coore camping out like a frontiersman might be exaggerated, they contain a kernel of truth. Using a helicopter, topo maps and their feet, the team explored the property and made note of more than 100 potential holes that could be incorporated into the design. Those explorations and notations have been memorialized in the constellation map.

The Constellation Map with Sand Hills overlay – Credit: Scott Griffith (@bottomgroove)

Having catalogued the possibilities, the time came for the final, difficult cut down to eighteen. At this point in the process the experience and instincts that Bill & Ben possess combined to yield an alchemical result—the foundation of a course that works perfectly and fits perfectly onto the land it occupies. Looking at the constellation map, is it possible that there exists a single hole that would have been better than any of the eighteen that were eventually incorporated into Sand Hills? It is indeed possible, but the question is moot. After walking off the 18th green, one realizes the wisdom in prioritizing the entirety over any single part. The course is perfectly satisfying, as is.

The Course

It is easy enough to assert that there are no weak holes at Sand Hills. To understand just how strong each and every hole is though, it is fun to play a little game with those who have seen the course. Ask them which hole is their favorite. Within a group, there is likely to be a very wide variety of answers. Poll enough people and every hole will ultimately get a vote. Next, inquire of those same players which hole is their least favorite. After qualifying their answer with a reminder that there are no weak holes, they will sheepishly offer up their pick. Once again, within a large group, answers vary greatly. When no consensus exists about favorites, the course must be exceptional.

We know from Mr. Coore’s routing thoughts above that a golf course is meant to be more than a batch of holes. Sand Hills exemplifies this ethos. The course works in two loops out from and back to Ben’s Porch. Each of those loops has holes that take players up, down and around the dunes, producing all manner of interesting and sometimes terrifying shots. It also touches the property edges at several points—a reminder of the vastness of the setting that produces a keen sense of awe.

The flow of the course is further enhanced for walkers by the proximity of greens to tees, and the paths connecting tees to fairways. The cohesiveness of components creates a connection to the land and nature as one walks along. This is a hike that would be nearly as enjoyable without clubs.

Superintendent Kyle Hegland and his team provide terrific playing conditions and Mother Nature adds the unpredictability. The wind blows, sometimes delivering dramatic squalls that give way to brilliant sunshine. As is the case with world’s great links courses, the elements are always a factor. Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and I have collaborated to attempt to convey the Sand Hills experience—colors, textures and shapes that stir the soul.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opener at Sand Hills is a par-5 that epitomizes strategic golf. A conservative route to a straightforward par is provided. Play away from the fairway bunker left, lay up to the middle short of the base of the hill and approach safely into the middle of the green set up in a dune-top saddle. Easy enough. But for players who desire to get out of the gate with a birdie, risk must be taken on by working angles and challenging the edges, which opens up myriad ways to make a bogey or worse. This conservative vs. aggressive choice is a consistent theme throughout the course that makes it so intriguing to play repeatedly.

The 2nd is a unique par-4 that plays over a gully to a partially blind fairway and then up to an infinity green that features a fantastic ripple contour running diagonally across. Sand Hills’s first one-shotter next plays downhill to a green with a severe slope created by a high left shoulder. Lag putting on the 3rd is a real challenge.

The story goes that the 4th green was a point of contention between Bill Coore and Dick Youngscap. Perhaps inspired by the Maxwells’ work at Prairie Dunes, Coore proposed to bench it into the hillside. Mr. Youngscap preferred to place it down in a bowl. After a lengthy discussion, both men thought they had won the argument and went off to attend to their business. Coming back to find the green where Bill wanted it, Mr. Youngscap was dumbfounded and has remained a bit salty ever since. With all due respect to the owner, we side with Bill Coore on this one—the 4th is a standout par-4, exactly as is.

The 5th turns back and heads slightly uphill past a center-left bunker to a green flanked by more bunkers left and right. The putting surface on this par-4 lays gently on the land with subtle internal contours. The par-3 6th plays slightly downhill over a large forebunker to an angled green that is canted, with pronounced ripples and rolls. Short grass surrounds provide recovery options—the deep bunker right, not so much.

The 7th and 8th are short fours that begin a stretch of six consecutive two-shotters. This anomalous sequence illustrates Coore & Crenshaw’s willingness to take the great golf that the land gives. The devilish 7th is drivable, but failed attempts can leave tough recoveries from the front left bunker or slope right. The 8th plays over rumpled ground to a lion’s mouth green in an amphitheater setting. Both holes burst at the seams with strategic options.

Each of the next three par-4s has a distinct feel. The 9th swings right and heads back up into the shadow of Ben’s Porch. The at-grade green falls subtly away on three sides and is one of the trickiest to putt on the course. The 10th runs downhill, snaking between bunkers to a putting surface that flows off a high left slope. The tee shot on the 11th must take on a massive blowout bunker left to get into position to approach the elevated green. All three holes require thoughtful positioning and creative shotmaking.

The final two-shotter of this stretch plays to a wide fairway with a single blowout marking the ideal line for approach into the green which is guarded front and right by one large bunker. The 13th is a stout par-3 that sits at an angle to the tee, causing alignment challenges when attacking the well-defended putting surface. The wind plays a significant role on both of the inward half’s three pars.

The 14th is one of Coore & Crenshaw’s all-time greatest par-5s. The key for success is to get left, as the tiny, severely sloped green is nearly impossible to hold from the right. Not surprisingly, a deathly blowout sits in the perfect spot for a layup. Players stand in the fairway and must decide if their drive was good enough to get beyond that hazard, or if they need to lay back of it. Seems simple enough, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way over the shot.

The par-4 15th plays straight along a high ridge. Cheating to the right from the tee opens up the angle into a green fronted left by an imposing bunker. The final three-shotter is a roller coaster ride downhill through sandy blowouts of all sizes. The day’s pin position relative to a fronting mound dictates positioning of a player’s approach on the 16th.

In his essay for Geoff Shackelford’s Masters of the Links, Ben Crenshaw wrote of the short par-3, “In this era of obscene power…why not strive to induce a little fun into the mix and at the same time present a true test of delicacy and accuracy?” In the spirit of the shorties built by the Golden Age greats, the 17th is the answer to Ben’s question. A hole this short presents a birdie opportunity, but only for tee shots struck perfectly after accounting for the wind. Bunkers and slopes that make for difficult recoveries await the indelicate or inaccurate.

The home hole at Sand Hills plays long uphill with huge blowouts running along the entire left. The large green sits in a bowl atop a dune, making it difficult to get the line and distance just right for a good birdie look. Players need to focus long enough for one last lag putt on the final C&C putting surface.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw routed a course through the hills that takes players on an adventure with moments both thrilling and sublime. Combined with their minimalist approach to construction, the collection of holes is intellectually and emotionally evocative. At the end of a Sand Hills journey, visitors are left with lasting memories of their exposure to perfection.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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