Since the earliest reports about the game of golf, dating back to the 15th century, until far into the 19th century, golf courses had not been built but discovered. In Scotland, the cradle of golf, the so-called links land - which is the unarable belt of sand dunes between the ocean or river estuaries and the fruitful hinterland - proved to be ideal as golfing grounds. The golfers looked for areas where the grass grew as close and even as possible, called them greens and put a hole into them. In the early days, tees did not yet exist: according to rule 1 of the 13 rules of 1745 the tee-shot had to be played from within one club-length of the previous hole.
At first there was also no ruling about the number of holes of a golf course – it varied between 5 and 25. St. Andrews initially had 11 holes running behind each other along the coast (out), and in order to come back to the starting point (home), the same holes were played in the opposite direction so that the course at first had 22 holes. Until the end of the 18th century, this counterplay was held on the same fairways and to the same holes on the greens until the increasing number of players urged to create parallel fairways and the famous double greens
In 1764, the Society of St. Andrews (the future Royal & Ancient Golf Club) decided to combine the first 4 holes (and consequently the last 4 ones) to 2 new starting and finishing holes, thus reducing the number of holes to 18. When The R&A took the leadership of the game of golf in the early 19th century, this purely coincidental number became a universally accepted rule.
Until the late 19th century, golf holes were simply laid out by reasonable routing, there was basically no construction work involved. So the game of golf was played over completely natural terrain. For this purpose the well-drained links with its fine, crisp grasses offered optimal conditions.
When the game of golf spread in the 19th century, more and more terrains with less suitable soils were used as golf course sites. For their construction sometimes some earth movement was necessary although it was normally kept to a minimum because of low budgets and inadequate equipment.
At that time the supervision of golf course construction had generally been executed by a golf professional or top amateur who believed that the topped shot was the worst shot. The ball of those days, the Featherie, was rather difficult to fly high and long, and topped shots were often running the same distance as an accurate shot was flying through the air. In order to punish such inaccurate shots, these first golf course “designers” ordered the construction of steep, ugly looking earth walls and huge bunkers that blocked the line of play for all shots except the most perfect. This penal design principle remained predominant until the first decades of the 20th century. Even the introduction of the Guttie ball (around 1850) and of the first wound ball, the Haskell ball (in 1902), which blessed the game with better playability and larger ball flight distances, did not turn away from penal design for the time being. Only the hazards were placed in farther distances.
Around 1900 a lot of new golf courses emerged in Great Britain, America and on the European continent, and along with them grew the demand for professional golf course architects. Some of them, under the leadership of the Englishman Harry S. Colt, felt that the traditional form of penal design was too severe. They softened it by taking the hazards out of the direct line of play, and by moving them to the sides of the fairways. However, it was still penal design because the bunkers had the purpose to punish slices and hooks, but at least they gave a chance to the average golfer to reach the green unhindered with short but straight shots.
Although penal design was gradually replaced by other design styles in the following decades, until today many famous and notorious golf holes were built in penal style. Simply because penal holes are often particularly spectacular and dramatic as a result of their extreme contrast between success and failure. However, such holes have the disadvantages that small target areas or forced carries make them frustrating, or virtually unplayable for too many golfers, and that they dictate only one possible way to play the hole.
In the years between 1911 and 1937, the Golden Age of Golf Design, more and more golf course architects began to apply a different design philosophy. This they derived from the intense study of the most famous of all golf courses, the Old Course of St. Andrews. Here there is not one hole which dictates only one possible line of play or playing strategy. Instead there are always many alternative routes to get from tee to green successfully. Along the way, there are countless hazards of different degrees of difficulty to overcome that demand a conscious decision about the best playing strategy on each shot. The essential attraction of the game lies in the courage to carry hazards or to pass them as closely as one dares, in order to have the next shot shorter and easier. The freedom of choice to weigh up between risk and reward epitomizes the strategic design philosophy, which gradually superseded the penal design.
The architects that postulated the strategic design philosophy recognized that it was against the target of gaining a broader popularity for the game of golf, when inaccurate shots were punished too severely by deep bunkers that allowed only short recovery shots. Therefore, they developed the guideline that it had to be the supreme target of golf course architecture to make the course a stern test, and an interesting challenge for good players, without being exceedingly demanding and discouraging for the weaker players – a guideline which is still valid today. From it they derived that the hazards, following the principle of risk and reward, should be placed in the vicinity of the landing area of the tee shot which offered the best angle of play for the following shot. Thereby, the player should be encouraged to play “on position”, similar to a billiard player. The architects realized that strategic design could be executed in a more striking way by angular-shaped holes, by placing hazards into the inner angle of the landing area of such a so-called dogleg hole.
Along with the growing popularity of water hazards, a new design style emerged which stood in between the severe penal design and the moderate strategic design: the heroic design. It confronts the player with a penal hazard, but this does not have to be crossed for better or worse. The player can either take a safe but longer route around it, or he can bite off as much as he dares from a diagonal hazard. That is why this classic variant is known as bite-off-design.
Heroic design is spectacular. It provokes especially the better players to evaluate the reward of a successful shot higher than the risk of failure. So it offers risk and reward to a stronger extent than strategic design, the higher the risk, the higher the reward. Since heroic design is both an extraordinary challenge for better players and fair to circumvent for weaker players, it is very popular among both players and architects. There is hardly any new great championship course which has been built for many years that doesn’t have at least two or three heroic holes.
Both the strategic and the heroic design demand from the player of a conscious evaluation as to how close he dares to pass the hazards in the landing zone of the tee-shot in order to reach the best position for the consecutive shot. Thus he must plan his strategy from the green backwards, basing on an honest estimation of his own capability. Strategic design builds a sharp contrast to penal design, which gives the player no real alternatives, apart from passing the penal hazard with the shot at hand or to lay up first before crossing the hazard. In any way he can’t avoid the consequences in case of failure.
When discussing penal design, you have to distinguish between penal holes and penal hazards, which are often regarded as identical. A deep pot bunker in the middle of a broad fairway is a penal hazard within a strategic hole, whereas shallow bunkers at both sides of a straight fairway make a penal hole.
Difficult hazards, which a player may regard as penal are the essence of the game of golf, especially at strategic holes that offer sufficient room to play around them. To say it in an exaggerated fashion: holes with strategic design may well have penal hazards, in contrast to holes with penal design if they shall be reasonably fair to cope with for an average player.
Some holes cannot be assigned to a certain design style because they contain elements of two or even three styles. A good example is the notorious 17th hole of the Old Course of St. Andrews, where the drive offers a heroic abbreviation across the diagonal out-of-bounds at the Old Course Hotel, while the shot to the green demands strategic play to avoid the extremely difficult penal pot bunker at the left edge of the green and the road and wall behind it.
The vast majority of the golf holes that had been built during the last three decades show strategic design. However, the best courses don’t have 18 strategic holes but contain some holes of the other design styles, too. A well-known example is Amen Corner at Augusta National GC: No. 11 is a strategic hole, No. 12 is a penal hole, and No. 13 is a heroic hole.
Under the influence of the architectural avant-gardist Pete Dye, the penal hole has regained some popularity. In particular his 17th hole of the TPC Course at Ponte Vedra, Florida, with its nerve-racking island green which became notorious worldwide and inspired hundreds of other architects to imitations of all kind. Although such holes normally are beyond the capability of most amateurs, their spectacular look quickly gains them a high degree of fame, and they have a good marketing value as signature holes.
Penal holes of the extreme kind, which punish each shot except the perfect one with the maximum penalty of stroke and distance, are very questionable. They only offer two possible results: successful or totally unsuccessful. Fairer, and strategically more varied, are holes that force the player to judge how close he dares to pass the hazard. The higher the risk, the higher should be the reward: that is the essence of strategic design and, even more, of heroic design. On a well-designed golf course, most of the holes should be equipped with sound and fair strategic and heroic features, because they characterize how much a course is both challenging and fair.