It’s easy to make a golf course play hard. Bad architects can employ all kinds of tired tricks to create exceptionally difficult layouts. But who wants to play like that? A measure of great architecture lies in finding ways to bridge the skill gap between low- and high-handicap golfers. Building a hole that befuddles great players and remains accessible for average ones is a true challenge.
One great way to thread this design needle is with rolled-over green edges. More commonly known as false fronts and crowned greens, these complexes shrink the skill gap by giving low- and high-handicappers different options to play the hole. These areas of the green are usually unpinnable, but they add a tremendous amount of interest to the approach and shots around the green. These edges get the ball rolling, which is typically a welcome sight for a high-handicapper because the ball is moving forward toward the hole. For the low-handicapper it can be terrifying, oftentimes signalling a loss of control.
To illustrate the effect of rolled-over edges, let’s head to No. 15 on the Red Course at Forest Dunes Golf Club in Michigan. Better known as The Loop because of its remarkable reversible routing, Tom Doak’s creation features several greens with this design technique. Doak explained that the reversible layout demanded even more research and planning than usual on the greens. “I’d thought about the greens a lot,” he told Golfweek, “and what sorts of greens would work well for this. A crowned green works from all directions.”
The 15th on the Red Course (No. 4 on the Black) works especially well. From the scorecard, the modest, 390-yard par 4 won’t scare anyone. That’s where its ingenious green comes in: The hole presents challenges and options for players of every skill level.
At first glance, the approach at No. 15 is simple. The perched green is surrounded by short grass and protected by a small bunker in front and back. It’s a mere 20 yards deep, but for a strong player with a wedge in hand, it’s nothing intimidating. The 15th appears to be a great birdie opportunity.
A closer look reveals the green is much smaller because of Doak’s crafty rolled-over edges. The crowning forces players hitting wedge shots to have perfect distance and spin control. A miss tumbles down the slope far away from the target, leading to a difficult up-and-down and bringing bogey—or worse—into play.
Even for those who have already experienced the 15th and understand the shot, it’s no less of a psychological test. Strategy questions creep in: Hit a full wedge and risk spinning it off an edge? Try a three-quarter swing and risk not flying it the right number? At that point it doesn’t matter the level of player because pre-swing doubt can lead to poor shots for all of us. All of this created by the simple act of rolling over the edges of the green.
So how does this setup help a less-skilled player? For shorter players with mid-irons in hand, these edges can actually make the green bigger. A lower shot that lands into the hill on the front of the green will take a softer first bounce forward, thus creating a better chance of holding the green. And there’s always the option of taking the ball out of the air completely and running it up the front. There are plenty of ways to skin this cat.
As it often happens in golf, putting the work in early can lead to success down the line. Doak’s thoughtful approach to the greens at The Loop, especially No. 15, provides a repeatable template where any level of player can roll the dice and have a good time.
Andy Johnson is a Chicago-based golf writer and competitive amateur golfer. His website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf course architecture, golf courses, professional golf and amateur golf.