5 Secrets to Great Greens

Tim Lobb is a partner at Thomson Perrett & Lobb, the golf course design business of five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson.

With the attention of the golfing world on the greens at Augusta National this week for the U.S Masters, Tim reveals his 5 secrets to creating great greens.

Golf course design firm Thomson Perrett & Lobb
More than 75 years experience in golf course design at TPL (Author Tim Lobb centre)

Greens are top priority
Creating outstanding greens is the most important factor in golf course design.

It’s what golfers talk about most in the clubhouse and golf courses’ reputations can be made or broken on the quality of their greens.

Linna Golf in Finland
15th green Linna Golf Finland - design TPL

Greens are also where the business end of professional tournament golf takes place, where championships are decided, so they are regularly the focus for the television cameras and the viewing public.

From a practical perspective, ensuring that the greens are constructed to the highest quality is vitally important – but greens have to be designed to be both memorable while also blending into their surroundings.

It’s a tough job for the designer, especially as 18 greens have to be created, each individual yet consistent with the others. However, you can always tell what sets a great green and a great course apart:

1. The right green for the right location
Greens must blend in with their natural surroundings – the contours of the land, the conditions of the site and the aesthetics.

A designer can’t go to every new site with the same formulated design for a green – forcing a green into a location can make it stick out like a sore thumb, even if the putting surface itself is excellent.

Some of the best greens in the world have developed completely naturally.

So the designer should always use the natural contours of the land around the green to their advantage.

A good example of this is are the greens at Linna Golf near Helsinki, a TPL design and Finland’s #1 course – the site was more or less made for me and I simply blended the natural slopes of the land around into the green.

The amount of work that went into creating the greens was low and, to my eye, it fits seamless into its surroundings.

Linna Golf Finland 4th hole
Natural contours and land shapes made Linna Golf easy to design says Lobb

2. Suitable challenge for the approach shot
Greens aren’t just for putting on, of course.

They also receive incoming shots, and taking this and the likely length of the approach shot into account is an important consideration.

Par-5’s are an interesting case in point.

I always consider them as three-shot holes, even though many professionals can often reach them in two.

So I have no problem with making the green smaller or harder to hit – that’s fair for a third shot with a short iron, while increasing the challenge for the long, accurate hitter who wants to try and reach in two.

However, if it is a long par-4, say around 460 yards, it would be unfair to make the green small with a lot of slope since it would not fairly reward those with length and accuracy to reach in two.

I went to Augusta National to watch the Masters for the first time in 2007 and one of the things that surprised me was just how small the par-5 13th green is when you get up close.

It looks huge on television, but the players have to hit a long iron over Rae’s Creek and land it on a relatively small, steeply sloping green.

It’s a significant test of strength and accuracy and makes even better viewing in real life than it does on television.

Flowerbeds at Augusta National
Augusta National - where the 13th green is smaller than appears on TV

3. Variety of hole positions for all green speeds
Modern green cutting equipment and grass varieties has seen the speed of greens increase significantly, which means great care is required by the designer in deciding where holes are to be positioned.

The most common problem is when less experienced architects try to do too much with a green resulting in excess slopes.

When I design a green I am always looking to create six to eight ‘pinnable’ areas.

What do I mean by a ‘pinnable’ area?

Essentially, an area of the green with a radius of approximately three metres around the hole, with no more than 3% of slope.

I prefer 1-2% slopes in these areas with steeper slopes, knobs, swales and hollows in other regions of the greens to maintain interest.

An extreme example of the dangers of having too much slope and too fast a green was the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills.

These are old greens that were designed for slower speeds – so when they were cut short for the tournament and then they dried out, the number of pinnable areas was reduced.

In fact, they became treacherously difficult and had to be watered during play, which proved controversial.

4. Sound technical design and quality construction
It’s no good having a great green if water does not drain away or it is sited in the shade of trees – it has to be a working, functional green that can be effectively maintained by the green staff.

You’d be surprised, but there are still golf courses being built that suffer with water build-up on the putting surface.

Personally, I am always looking to create three or four draining swales to allow efficient run-off and drainage from the green surface.

The site of the green is always essential – you don’t want to put a green in the shade where grass growth cannot be optimised.

Of course, the green also has to be constructed correctly and I always use the USGA (United State Golf Association) method, which is a tried and tested technique combining drainage pipes covered with 10cm of pea-sized gravel, topped with 30cm of sand into which the grass seed is directly planted.

Using this method doesn’t mean your green will look like an American-style course – that is down to the design of the green – but this is a proven construction method that creates high quality greens that can be well maintained.

5. Variety of green surface contours and surrounding hazards
I’ll let you into a secret.

Designing 18 different greens for a new course, especially on a flat site where you are manufacturing the golf course, can be a major challenge, testing the designer’s imagination and creativity.

You have to avoid monotony at all costs and ensure you keep the player interested with a variety of challenges.

The key is to let nature play a guiding role in your inspiration.

I am always looking for peripheral features, such as ridges, which I can incorporate into the green’s design.

A great inspiration for me is the Valley of Sin in front of the 18th green on the Old Course at St Andrews.

18th hole at St Andrews Old Course
18th at St Andrews Old - The Valley of Sin fascinates Lobb

It’s a fantastic feature and, whichever way you look at this green – from down the fairway playing an approach shot, or trying to putt up its steep slope – it’s the defining characteristic of the green and the hole.

You have to take it into account even on the tee shot, which is why some professionals will hit their tee shots to the left of the green to play their approach shot from the side of the Valley of Sin.

That’s one green you will never forget playing.

For more about Thomson, Perrett & Lobb visit: www.tpl.eu.com

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