Talking drainage is not as sexy as consideration of short par-4s, Redans and other important design features. Yet, like a young chef learning about farming and ingredients, my appreciation for golf architecture evolved to another level of sophistication when I was educated about how architect's drain their designs.*
With the links season approaching at the Scottish, Open, Senior Open and Women's Open Championships, it's a perfect time to consider the importance of drainage for turfgrass conditions, but also in understanding why we respond to lay-of-the-land design versus man-made courses.
In a nutshell, the master architects who brought golf to inhospitable places recognized that drainage was essential to growing grass. As the art of golf architecture evolved, they also understood the importance of providing natural playing conditions for the golfer. In other words, they disguised function with form and made the walk seem natural.
Take Seth Raynor and Pete Dye. Two architects who presented very artificial, sometimes harsh and very engineered designs. Yet golfers respond to Raynor courses more in spite of all that man-made engineering because the walk in the park element is so much more enjoyable and seemingly natural in spots.
The single biggest difference between a great links or a masterful design and one that seems sound but feels engineered? How water is moved off of the playing surface. Raynor was a master of surface drainage. So was Billy Bell, the co-hort of George Thomas who had to build courses in odd environments.
The master architects camouflaged this important function via swales and crowned greens that influenced play, while also moving water so the superintendent could grow grass. The less-careful architect relies on catch basins to grab water and move it underground, leaving odd bowl-shaped areas with visible drains and surrounding divots.
That is the distinction I'm hoping to make in this latest installment of Eye On Design.**
*Dave Axland, Dan Proctor and Ben Crenshaw were my primary educators.
**This was taped prior to the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where I anticipated returning to the sea of catch basins installed during construction. I'm pleased to say that the course has seen many upgrades since those days, but especially in eliminating unsightly modern drainage methods in favor of more nature-inspired ones. Well done to all involved in improving this element of the course.