Almost all of us look at golf holes the exact same way. We want to know the par of the hole, distance to the flag, and if there are any obstacles we may encounter on the way. Very few of us realize there are distinct styles of golf hole design. While different sources get extremely nuanced in the description of golf hole designs, often naming over 20 different styles, there is a core of four classic golf hole design principles. Understanding these design standards can help you navigate individual holes with a better understanding of how the architect designed the hole to be played, often leading to better scoring. Let’s take a quick look at the four design styles for golf holes.
Perhaps one of the most widely used golf hole design styles, the Redan style comes from the 15th hole of Scotland’s North Berwick Golf Links. All Redan style holes share the same characteristics as this famous hole in Scotland. Redans’ are always a par three. Redan style greens slope from the front of the green to the back of the green, and the green is always wider than it is deep. The front of the Redan green is protected by a bunker or other hazard, and the green is tilted away from the tee box from right to left. A Redan style par three is traditionally very difficult for right-handed golfers and punishes the golfer for not getting enough loft on the shot.
Unlike Redan style holes, the next three are much more open-ended and can vary in length and style greatly.
Penal style golf holes are straight-forward in their design. There’s one way to play the hole and any variation off of that is going to penalize you, hence the name penal. Most penal holes require straight shots from tee to green. Miss your target left or right and you’ll typically encounter a hazard that’s going to rapidly increase your score. Hazards are not always sand or water, as well. Many good architects will incorporate existing obstacles such as large trees or berms to penalize errant shots.
Now we get into some more nuanced classifications in golf design. Heroic holes require a shot, or more, over some sort of hazard to reward the player. The simplest example of this is cutting off a dogleg hole. Depending on how brave you are, cutting off more of the dogleg can often set you up better than just cutting off a small bit. Often times, penal holes will have optional heroic shots included within their design but the two are not mutually exclusive. Heroic hole designs reward the player who can take the most aggressive line over the hazard.
Strategic hole design will, in a lot of cases, include elements of penal and heroic design types, and there’s an argument to be made that all golf holes are strategic in their design. Strategic golf holes present the player with multiple options to complete the hole. You can play strategic holes safe or take on the heroic shot, and only your own personal risk/reward tolerance can determine the correct play. Hazards are typically placed where errant heroic shots will fall, creating a tough decision for each golfer.
The next time you play at your home course, spend an extra couple seconds on the tee to determine what the architect had in mind for that specific hole. Thinking about navigating your course through the eyes of a golf course architect will help you attack each hole with a level of understanding most of us don’t play with. Determining whether a hole is penal, strategic, or heroic will help you make the correct decisions on the tee and as you make your approach, hopefully leading to lower scores.
About the Author: Brian Neufeld
Brian Neufeld’s background includes more than 15 years of experience in golf course management, specializing in agronomy. Brian uses his knowledge of the game and best practices in turf sustention to create informative pieces for GolfTourney.com’s readers.