From the Golf Journal Archives - What Makes A Championship Course?

Jun 25, 2010

By Robert Trent Jones

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1965 issue of Golf Journal.)

The phrase “championship golf course” is so broadly used that one would expect a clean-cut knowledge of the meaning, but that is not the case.

Times without number I am asked “What is a championship golf course?” To say it is one on which a championship can be played is not enough. Championships have been played on both good and bad golf courses.

One could assume that a course of extreme length would be classified as a championship golf course, but this also is not the case. Extreme length alone does not make a championship golf course. One could also expect that large greens would be a requirement, but this is not necessarily so. One would naturally expect that a profusion of trapping would also be required in a championship course, but this, too, is not always the case.

When one analyzes the characteristics of some of the well-known and accepted-as-great championship golf courses of the country, the above points are easily proven.

Merion, near Philadelphia, is not a long golf course in the modern sense, only 6,700 yards. Augusta National, while having length, is not profusely trapped; there are only 23 traps on its full 18 holes.

Big greens alone do not make a great golf course. Merion’s greens are small, averaging only about 6,000 square feet, though some are smaller and some much larger, often being as large as 9,000 square feet. Pinehurst No. 2 has relatively small greens, as have famed Pebble Beach and the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Conversely, St. Andrews in Scotland, probably the most famous of all championship golf courses, has mammoth greens, almost acre-sized, primarily due to the fact that seven greens are in reality two greens each, being played with two pin settings, thus becoming different holes from the opposite directions.

Scenic beauty does not necessarily make a championship course, although it does add to the enjoyment and pleasure of playing the course. Consider the contrast between Pebble Beach along the blue Pacific, Augusta National in one of nature’s natural arboretum horticultural amphitheaters, or Pinehurst No. 2 in its pine tree-framed sand dunes. All of these courses have in common one basic quality: character.

Character in the golf course sense is similar to character in the individual sense in that character is attributed to those who have strong individual points making them stand out over and above others. While great golf courses should necessarily have beauty, they should, above all else, have great playing value.

Great shot value and playing value are linked arm in arm. The tee shot must be hit straight as well as long within the scope of well laid-down limitations. The perfect shot on a given hole can be considered as in the “white” area. When the shot takes on a degree of error, it goes into the “gray” area. If the shot becomes exaggerated in its degree of error, the color becomes a deeper tone of gray until the badly missed shot goes into the “black” area. The values of a hole should be emphasized so that the player can see at a glance what he must conquer to avoid penalty – traps, rough, out of bounds, water, trees or just plain lack of position.

Rough will be very much a part of the penalty for misplaced shots in the Open Championship; it is traditional with the Championship Committee of the United States Golf Association. The position of the trapping, the position of the ponds and creeks, the tilt or contour of the fairways, and the width as well as the narrowness of the fairways are all part of the formula making demands upon the player, rewarding for accuracy, and penalizing for lack of it.

The green, of course, is the ultimate target. What is more enjoyable than to play a shot to a well-placed, beautifully designed green where the guarding traps as well as the contours are in har-mony, and with a subtle pin position demanding from the golfer the greatest possible shot! The variety of green design is infinite. Elevated greens, terraced greens, tilted greens, mounded contours, flanked trapping on the sides, direct trapping in the front, creeks or water ponds to carry – these many varied green designs contribute to the joy of playing a great golf course and to the miseries of failing to meet the persistent demands.

To be host to the United States Open Championship is an honor to be cherished by both the club and the designer of the course, as it is only after great scrutiny by the USGA that the site for the Open Championship is determined. The one basic demand, above all others, is that the course itself must be a great golf course, and worthy of having the Open Championship played upon it and capable of bringing to the front a great champion.

Robert Trent Jones (USGA Museum)