From a Thousand Holes to Eighteen
Once upon a time, members of a disc golf club in Texas were working on the design of a new course. They asked if I would come up and take a look at their proposed layout, and I did. “We thought this would be a good place for the first tee,” they began. “And the first basket would be here. Then we put the second tee over here, and the second basket would go there.” And so it went, until we had toured all 18 of their hole ideas.
When it was over, they were eager for my opinion. I had spent most of the previous hour trying to come up with ways to be “constructive” in my criticism. “Well,” I started, “you have lots of solid holes, even if you can birdie about 14 of them with a 300 foot hyzer.” They hadn’t thought of that. “And there are no really great holes, even though this is a very nice piece of land, and it has lots of cool features you might have used.” They hadn’t really thought about that, either. “And even though you have lots of nice little hills, you don’t have a single basket on a slope -- you put them all on top.” This concept was entirely new to them. “And even though this hill here has one of the most spectacular views of any disc golf course in Texas, you didn’t even try to use it.” Wow.
As I tried to explain to them how they had taken a property with great character and made on it a very character-less course, they started to get it. Eventually they talked the city into hiring me to redesign it. About 50 hours of work later, it became one of my top 5 favorite courses in Texas.Not long after that, I went to another city to see a design the local promoter guys were working on. This was another tremendous park. “So,” they opened, “we thought this would be a good place for the #1 tee, with the basket over there.” Uh oh. “And then you walk over to the #2 tee, which plays to there.” Oh no. After the third hole, I had to speak up. “Did you guys ever think that if you teed off over here, to a basket up on that shelf overlooking the lake, that you would have one of the coolest holes in the world?” They hadn’t seen that, and I suddenly realized why.
In both cases, the designers were using a “connect the dots” method to lay out the course. When you design a course this way, you miss out on hundreds of possible holes -- literally. Here’s why (using round numbers): when you designed hole #1, you eliminated 4 other possible #1’s. Each of those potential holes you just eliminated lead to 5 potential #2’s, so you just eliminated 20 potential #2’s (without even looking at them!). And guesswhat? You just eliminated 100 potential #3’s without even looking at them, and so on.
When you work this way, there will be great holes that you’ll never see. Clearly this is not the way to design the best possible course on a particular property. I’m not going to say that it’s the only way, or even the best way, but here’s the way I do it: go out and find all the best holes, and then find a way to connect them. Instead of connecting the dots, this method is more like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that you don’t know what the puzzle is supposed to look like until you’re done. It’s much, much harder, but it yields a much better course.
First, you need to become totally familiar with the property. Walk it and walk it until you know all of it and have it memorized. I’m talking now about the whole thing, not just the boundaries. As you do this, you’ll start to see places that would make great tees or great pin locations, or both. (As we’ve discussed before, the course designer’s job, ultimately, is to decide where the tees and greens go.) You’ll also start to see fairways, and if you’re lucky, a few great holes will jump out at you. Keep walking and walking until you’re satisfied that you’ve seen every potential hole -- there will be hundreds.
Once you know what’s possible, it’s time to narrow down your hundreds of holes to eighteen (or nine). How? By using WHAT YOU WANT and WHAT YOU KNOW. Keeping in mind your favorite hole possibilities, start eliminating holes using any facts that apply. What you know usually takes the form of:
“If I use this hole going out to the corner, I’ll have to have another one coming back.”
“If I put two holes here, I’ll have to knock two off the other end.”
“If I use this hole, I won’t be able to use this other one (because they cross, or because they’re too similar, etc.)”
“I can get 3-4 holes on this section. None of it is going to be spectacular, so I’ll come back later and see how many holes I still need.”
“Depending on where I put the tee, this could be a great hyzer hole or a great anhyzer hole. When I’m done I’ll see which one I need it to be.”
“If I put the tee here, the previous basket will have to be nearby.”
“If people are going to park here, the #1 tee will have to be fairly close, and so will the #18 basket.”
“If I want to make a big downhill hole here, I’ll have to make at least two uphill holes to get there.”
So you keep on eliminating, and connecting, and trying to finalize certain holes, and then certain sections. As you go, you will constantly have to make tough decisions: “If I make this one long and the other short, is that better than making the first one short and the second long?” Or “The only way I can keep these two awesome holes is to make a mediocre hole connecting them. Is it worth it?”
Unfortunately, it seems that if your brain doesn’t start to hurt, you’re not doing it right. It also seems that, on every course I’ve ever been proud of, there came a time when I said, “There’s no way this is going to work.” But then it does, and you feel like you just got the first ace.
Once you think you’ve pretty much got it, you then have to evaluate your layout using the criteria we’ve discussed before: variety/balance, risk/reward/strategy, character, etc. Then you work on it some more. Then, if you really want to get it right, you look at it as though you were starting from scratch to see if there’s a better way to do it. There are a few tricks to use at that point, but we’ll get to those later. That’s enough for today.