Study of Seth Raynor and Classic Golf Course Architecture

Each winter, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) has a national conference, the Golf Industry Show (GIS). Nearly 20,000 turf professionals from all around the world gather, along with leading university researchers and a trade show with more than 500 exhibitors, highlighting the newest technology and education used to maintain golf courses as efficiently as possible. The conference rotates among three cities, Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio. This year’s GIS was in Orlando.

Several years ago, a group of superintendents who are also golf-course- architecture enthusiasts decided to augment the agenda by playing golf at some classic golf courses before or after the GIS–instead of just reading about classic architecture in a book or seeing  pictures on a website. My goal, from the first trip on, has been to see and experience great architecture, and to understand the tendencies of the architects. Over the years, I’ve seen fantastic classic courses from some of the greatest architects: Alister MacKenzie, George C. Thomas, Jack Neville & Douglas Grant, and most recently Seth Raynor. I’ve also been extremely lucky to have taken leisure trips to study and play courses for their architecture: courses designed by C.B. Macdonald, Donald Ross, Hugh Wilson, and A.W. Tillinghast–courses such as Cypress Point GC, Los Angeles CC, Pebble Beach Golf Links, Merion, Aronomink GC, Winged Foot GC, Quaker Ridge GC, Pinehurst No.2, Augusta National GC, Augusta CC, Chicago GC, Shoreacres GC, Monterey Peninsula CC, National Golf Links of America, The Everglades Club and Mountain Lake GC.

Now before you claim that I’m bragging about the golf courses I’ve played, understand that this is my body of work and my pleasure: studying the greatest classic golf course architects and some of their greatest works of art. My wife would argue that I need a better hobby than one so closely connected to my actual career, but I feel lucky and fortunate. Golf brings fantastic people and fantastic experiences into your life, and I feel extremely lucky to have had both. To take care of a classic golf course designed by Seth Raynor, such as Midland Hills, is something I also feel lucky to do.

Having seen many classic architects and their work, I can honestly say that Seth Raynor is my favorite. The main reasons: how boldly he designed holes; how he fit his Template holes on most of his courses, regardless of the terrain; the fun and variety of his courses, with very wide fairways, great vistas, interesting routings-making the most of the land, as well as the unmistakable geometric shaping of bunkers and greens. Golfers who have played multiple original or properly restored Raynor courses, know standing on the first tee, what they’re about to experience. Those who lack that experience might have no idea, because they’re never seen such unique architecture. Raynor is my favorite architect because his work stands out so uniquely from his “Golden Age” peers, and his designs offer such a variety of ways to play them–leading to endless fun, enjoyment and strategy.

Seth Raynor designed 100 courses in 20 years. He died at the age of 51 in West Palm Beach. Compare that to Donald Ross’ 400 courses in 48 years, and you realize that playing a Raynor design (and being a member of one) is a rare treat. This also means that there are far fewer Raynor-expert architects who have seen his work and understand his tendencies.

On my recent trip a few weeks ago, I had a chance to play two Raynors: The Everglades Club in Palm Beach and Mountain Lake in Lake Wales, Florida. The Everglades Club was established in 1919. It’s designed on a peninsula on the island of Palm Beach in a true oasis setting. Raynor designed three courses in Florida, and only Everglades and Mountain Lake remain today.

The most interesting aspect of The Everglades Club design is how Raynor routed the course to interact with the natural water features, as well as to create interest on a completely flat piece of land. The fairway bunkering (which created hesitation off the tee), the large and bold bunkering, the Template holes and, of course, the par 3s were all very interesting, strategic and fun. This is no boring golf course and credit goes to Raynor for creating that interest without moving a lot of dirt to design it. It was designed on a fairly small piece of property, so at times the playing corridors are very tight; it lacks the scale that a property like Midland has.

Fairway Bunkering

On most par-4s and par-5s, Raynor placed strategic fairway bunkers. Some of them don’t come into play–but they weren’t designed to. Collectively, they create a challenge for players to feel comfortable with placing their shots in landing zones. Raynor was well known for this style of bunkering. Unfortunately, a lot of his courses either never constructed the fairway bunkers from the original design or removed most of them during efforts to reduce maintenance costs during World War II. Unfortunately, Midland Hills did both. You will also see a significant difference in the size of Midland’s bunkers, both fairway and green-side, compared to what Everglades and Mountain Lake have today. The bunker’s original size was restored by Brian Silva at Everglades in 2003 when he undertook a complete restoration.

Notice, in the picture below, how narrow the landing zone seems to be. However, the first bunker is only 150 yards off the tee and not in play. The second bunker is what’s actually in play, and the third bunker is out of reach for all players. This depth perception technique was mastered by Golden Age architects, Raynor being one of the best.

Below you have water all the way down the left side and bunkering on the right. Again, the first fairway bunker stares you right in the face and creates an uneasy feeling and messes with your confidence; however, it’s only 125 yards off the tee. The second bunker is the bunker in play, but notice how large the landing zone is in that yardage. If you push your ball far enough off-line, you’ll reach the bunker. The third bunker on the right actually comes into play with your second shot.

Below is where Raynor decided to really challenge you off the tee. The water on the left is easy to carry, but OB runs all the way down the left side. The first bunker is not a threat, but your eye is drawn to it, and the second bunker is definitely in play at 260 yards. It’s also where the fairway landing zone is pinched. Now you really have to make a decision and commit to: Challenge the two further bunkers with a smaller landing zone, or lay up and have a lengthy 195-215 yard second shot into a par-4 green. This is a strong hole because of the strategic fairway bunkering. Interesting to note that the landing zone before the fairway bunkers is almost 100 yards wide, but you perceive it to be extremely tight.

Notice in the pictures below the rectangular shaping of the fairway bunkering, a Seth Raynor signature trait. Raynor used very straight lines with bunker edging and did not use the soil dug up to make mounds surrounding bunkers and greens. Unfortunately, Midland has these mounds around most greens and bunkers. Instead, Raynor spread it out, mostly on the face side of the bunker to create a higher lip, creating intimidation from the tee and fairway.

 

Greenside Bunkering

Seth Raynor’s greenside bunkering is unmistakable. He was very bold with bunkering around greens, creating a “pushed-up” infinity look. More often than not, his green edges sloped into those bunkers. His original bunker designs had very steep and sharp-angled faces, again with no mounding on the back sides or green surrounds. Below is a great example of a sharp-looking bunker with no surround mounding around the green complex. This creates a sense of infinity that makes the green look harder to hit with your approach shot.

Notice below the lack of rough preventing balls from rolling into bunkers, either from a wayward shot, a misjudged chip, or even a poor putt.

Imagine a pin position on the left side of the green in the picture below. That would demand your full attention!

Brian Silva restored the very steep and intimidating bunker faces. Usually the turf grows flat down to the edge of the sand, The Everglades has modified that look slightly to create a unique style.

 

 

Template Holes

I’ll stick to the Template Holes that Everglades shares with Midland to give you reference. Not surprising, their best hole, in my opinion, was their Punchbowl/Short. It was the first par 3 Punchbowl I’ve played and maybe one of the most entertaining holes I’ve ever seen. The pin is just left of the edge of the bunker.

Everglades Club’s Double Plateau is a great dogleg par-5. The fairway bunker on the inside of the dogleg is massive, with a menacing look from the tee. Raynor designed Double Plateaus as par-4s and par-5s. I’m going to call Midland’s first hole a Double Plateau. It’s known that our first hole is not an original hole, as it originally played from the 12th tee. That original green looked like a Double Plateau so I’m thinking they attempted to re-create the Template hole in 1991 when it was reconstructed. Unfortunately, it comes up short for several reasons: first because its quadrants are too small, and the surrounding slopes are too severe; secondly, because they mounded the dug-out soil in miniature hills behind and around the green; third, because the bunker was never reconstructed, so it doesn’t often come into play. Below is the fairway bunker on Everglades’ Double Plateau, with the pin over the left-side corner.

Notice the large quadrants of the green, creating two distinct plateaus to place pins on. Again, the green has an infinity look, with no surround mounding, and there’s no rough blocking balls from tumbling into the bunkers.  Overall, it gives the sense that everything flows and falls away from the middle of the green into the surrounds–again to create doubt in a player’s mind even with a short iron in hand.

Closer up, you can see a front right plateau and an area across the back of the green flat enough to pin. The scale is correct, giving you multiple locations on each plateau to distribute wear patterns, as well as proper surface drainage; two key aspects to a successful green complex. Also, plenty of sun and air movement!

Below is a picture of Midland’s 1st green taken sometime in the early 1950s. Remember that the green played from across the driving range so you played over the fronting bunker. Notice the two distinct large plateaus; one in the front where the pin is and one in the back. It’s very similar to The Everglades Template!

The Everglades’ Redan is fantastic. Nestled right up against an inlet of the intercostal water-way. The theme of infinity continues with this hole and you can the see the gentle slope tilted from right to left. The key to this Redan, and what Midland’s 16th is currently lacking, is the green surface extending as far up the right side as possible, to keep balls rolling and following the contour back towards the pin positions to the left.

Traditional Redans have a bunker on the left side which you hit over some portion of. Raynor used water in place of the bunker here, as it creates an intimidating scenario in which you could chip into it if you were to hit your shot over the back of the green and were playing back onto the green.

The Eden at The Everglades again uses the water as a hazard in place of bunkers. Midland’s 7th hole Eden has two of the three bunkers, modeled after the original Eden hole at St. Andrews. At The Everglades, the typical “Strath” pot bunker found front right of Eden greens is replaced by water that juts inward. The bunker on the left, called “Hill,” creates a back-to-front slope behind it on a green that overall slopes from back to front.

Another interesting feature of this Eden is the “thumb print” right in the middle. This green is very large–I estimate 30% larger than Midland’s. Putting through this depression to a pin position on any part of the green is no easy task.

The Everglades Club’s Biarritz is another great Template hole. Differing from Midland’s 12th, their swale is in the middle of the green instead of the approach. Again, Raynor used the water only as a distraction, adding another aspect the player has to contend with mentally. In the picture below, the pin is in the middle of the green.

The picture below shows how perilous a pin position like this can be!

Overall, The Everglades Club was a great experience, on a relatively flat piece of property, with plenty of strategy and boldness. Raynor got the most out of a tight piece of land by using the water in his design, but not over powering players and creating over-the-top difficulty. With its recent restoration, Everglades reintroduced Raynor’s bold bunkering, fairway bunkers that challenged all levels of players, lost Raynor attributes, difficulty around greens as Raynor intended them (removing rough between greens and bunkers) and the overall feel of a more classically designed golf course.

 

 

 

The next stop on the trip was Mountain Lake. I had heard that this Seth Raynor design is a must-see, and I anticipated a great experience. I was blown away! Of the Raynors I’ve experienced, I would say it’s second to only National Golf Links of America, on par with Chicago Golf Club, ahead of Shoreacres and Monterey Peninsula CC in terms of strategy, fun and old-school charm. Again, on a relatively flat piece of land (although considered hilly for Florida), Raynor used the natural land forms brilliantly in affecting shots of all lengths and creating an environment for players to learn how to play the holes in several different ways. He didn’t need to move much dirt, and he had 600 acres to route it around some houses on the property. Like Midland, it’s fortunate that not many houses are seen from the course, causing undesirable distractions from your round of golf. The variety of play at Mountain Lake is what I enjoyed most, it wasn’t overly difficult but provided excellent strategy for all levels of players. You’d be hard-pressed to become bored with what the course had to offer.

First tee at Mountain Lake

 

Fairway Bunkering 

As at The Everglades Club, the fairway bunkering at Mountain Lake comes into play on almost every hole. Raynor challenged you off the tee, but gave you large landing zones for safer play– something architect Brian Silva restored in 2002. Silva restored many lost bunkers and brought the greens all the way back out to the edges of the green pads, spilling into bunkers and surrounds, as Raynor originally designed.

Notice below the symmetrical shape, the straight grass lines and the large scale, offering a very wide landing area off the tee. Also notice how the bunker juts out into the fairway, as well as the lack of rough in between the fairway and bunker– not keeping off-line shots from rolling into the hazard.

Do the bunkers flanking the fairway below look familiar? They instantly reminded me of Midland’s 14th–except that these come into play off the tee. Raynor pushed the soil he used to dig out the bunkers to create deep faces with sharp angles. They create intimidation off the tee–but if you striped it down the middle of the fairway, the slope on the far side was tipped toward the green, creating a catapult effect–very similar to the left side of Midland’s 10th fairway.

Below, Raynor pulled the fairway bunker halfway across the fairway, challenging you to decide if you wanted to fly the hazard.

If you found yourself in this fairway bunker, you’d be left with a 70-yard shot to an infinity green that looked like a sliver of turf. A serious consequence for challenging this hole.

Below you’ll see the two fairway bunkers staring at you from the tee. If you decided to play out to the right side of the fairway, the two bunkers on that side messed with your sight lines to the green. Again, a very wide corridor to play, but the perception is the opposite–something Raynor did very well.

Greenside Bunkering 

The green complexes at Mountain Lake are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Pictures can’t do them justice, but the movement in them–creating numerous ways to get your ball to pin locations created so much variety, it would take years to hit “all” the shots to certain pins.

Again notice, below, how the green extends all the way to the edge of the “pad.” Not only does this create many more pin positions for variety, it brings the bunkers more into play for poorly struck shots.

 

Template Holes 

Standing on the first tee at Mountain Lake, you already notice the large scale, the extremely wide playing corridor and that the trees that are left (three on this hole) are the only trees needed for strategy. The first hole is Mountain Lake’s Double Plateau, which is a short par 4. If you look closely, you can see the small fairway bunker inside of the fairway. This was common in Raynor’s designs on par-4 Double Plateaus.

My playing partner found his ball in this fairway bunker and was left with a stern test to make par from here. The pin is just past where his ball lies, but given the Double Plateau’s nature, you cannot see the bottom of the pin–Raynor’s intention.

Below you can see the distinct plateaus of the green complex, the sufficient area to use multiple pin locations, as well as the difficulty navigating through the green if you find yourself on the opposite side.

You’d never know there was a bunker behind the green. Raynor hid bunkers throughout Mountain Lake brilliantly. After a few rounds, you’d know where they stood and the consequence of going long through the green.

 

Biarritz

Mountain Lake’s Biarritz was similar to Everglades in that the swale is inside the green proper. Mountain Lake’s Biarritz was a littler large in scale, with proper bunkering on both sides of the green. Unfortunately, and similar to Midland’s 12th, it butted up against the property line, so it was surrounded by trees and shrubbery.

Any off-line shot was sure to end up in any one of the four bunkers surrounding the hole. There’s not shortage of strategy and fun on this Biarritz.

Short

Mountain Lake’s Short wasn’t a great Template. The bunkering didn’t wrap around the entire green complex, as most properly restored Shorts do. It felt very similar to what we sometimes consider our Short at Midland, No. 4. I don’t know the history of Mountain Lake’s Short, but it did have some Raynor traits on the putting surface.

Below you can see a “thumb print” very similar to The Everglades Club’s. Raynor didn’t put it on the same Template every time, but most often you find in on the Short.

Below you can see the severity of the depression and the fun you could have playing through it to different pins.

Redan

Mountain Lake’s Redan was the best I’ve experienced. The halfway house sits right off the tee–and it’s traditional for your peers to watch shots as they grab a quick bite or beverage. The shot is down hill into a bowl-like amphitheater. Watching your ball find the slope on the right side and slide left down the hill is a blast. Silva created this green complex from scratch, as Mountain Lake lacked a Redan. Notice the approach to the right side, giving players a runway to hit low shots into the green.

 

Punchbowl 

Mountain Lake’s Punchbowl Template is very exciting, as you can easily see its shape from the tee. The anticipation builds as you approach your second shot. Your best side of approach is from the right, to avoid the fairway bunker left and to use the high slope of the left side of the Punchbowl as a kick board to funnel balls toward pin positions.

Below you can see the slope of the left side of the green, Raynor designed a lot of “fun-factor” into this complex.

Here’s a look at the green from the next tee. It’s tough to see, but in the lower right corner, you can see a small pond that connects to a larger estuary behind the green. Raynor created a real bowl-green–but if you missed the complex, it kicked your ball into a bunker, away from the green, or into water. He covered all of the defense-bases with this green complex.

Eden

The Eden Template is eerily similar to Midland’s 7th, in regards to aesthetics and difficulty. Water left, the Strath bunker front right, with an infinity look to the complex.

Looking at the picture below, from behind the green, The Eden at Mountain Lake has the bunker that was removed from Midland’s 7th.

Overall, Mountain Lake was much better than I was expecting. The boldness of the green complexes, the contouring of the bunkers, the ball management needed off the tee, and the flow of the property were better than most classic golf courses I’ve experienced. There are not a lot of golf courses that embrace and exude the old-school classic feel, and conditioning, from the 1st tee to the 18th green like Mountain Lake. The course wasn’t maintained to “perfection.” It’s what I call maintenance down the middle. The further away from the middle of the hole your ball traveled, the consistency of you lie was reduced. The only other course I’ve played where I’ve seen this and it’s been embraced by the club in National Golf Links of America. The conditions were firm and fast and didn’t focus on having every blade of grass in order, or making sure there were no weeds in sight. It focused on playability and playing your ball where it lied–if you hit your ball further into the rough, you could find yourself on bare dirt, in a patch of grassy weeds, and most likely, something inconsistent. In my opinion, it makes you a better player dealing with the adversity of not given a short, fluffy, consistent lie every time. Those conditions are rare, maybe because of golfer expectations, maybe because of Golf Course Superintendent’s abilities with better resources (a discussion for another blog post!) There were no extravagant course accessories at Mountain Lake, no flashy aspects that took away from thinking about only the golf course and your game. That environment kept your concentration sharp and uninterrupted. (I was distracted by the architecture and trying to document it!) Mountain Lake didn’t even have bunker rakes to block balls from their intended landing spots or to take away from the natural settings. If you took a cart, you carried your rake in the back. If you carried your bag, you sneaked a rake in there as well. Mountain Lake is all about golf and nothing more. It’s a true Seth Raynor gem that is unmistakable.

 

Now that you’ve seen a few different Seth Raynor courses and highlighted restored design aspects, come this spring when we open the course, make some comparisons to what you see at Midland. Hopefully you’ll notice things you’ve never thought about before; maybe you’ll notice what’s original and what’s not. My hope is that you’ll appreciate how unique a Raynor design is, and that you’ll support the continual improvement and preservation of Midland.

 




12 thoughts on “Study of Seth Raynor and Classic Golf Course Architecture

  1. Great report, Mike. You made me terribly jealous!

    I had never seen that picture of what preceded our current No. 1 green. Looks like a Double Plateau, for sure. Was that hole (original No. 16) about the same length as the current No. 1?

    Loved seeing those sharp bunker edges and no rough gobbling up shots headed for them.

    Loved seeing greens all the way out to the edges of the green pads.

    Thanks.

    • Dan,

      The old 16th green looks like it was slightly closer to the area of the current 1st approach. If you look at the Oak behind the green, which is still there, it gives a good perspective.

      Yes, both courses have nice, sharp, clean lines, with pronounced faces, throughout. Very original!

      Glad you enjoyed,
      Mike

      • But what was the length of the original 16? Was it similar to the current No. 1? In other words: Was it a short-iron approach over that fronting bunker onto the Double Plateau green?

        • Dan,
          333 yards, so yes very similar!

          My take: The fronting bunker was more than likely to test your mental aptitude, not physical skill, no different than many fairway bunkers Raynor used.

  2. Another nice blog, Mike! Thanks for more analysis of Raynor courses. MHCC looks so much more fun to play than the ones mentioned here!

  3. We have a number of areas where long fringe/rough stops a ball from entering the bunker,contrary to the mowing techniques you describe for the two Florida courses. Has any consideration been given to eliminating some of those areas at MHCC?
    Partially inconsistent with what I just said ,has any consideration been given to a strip of rough halfway down the green approach hill on eight to cut in half the 60 yard penalty for being 3 feet short on the approach to that hole. ? That severe penalty is both excessively disheartening from below and also slows down play when a chip or putt from the back half of the green is hit too hard to a middle or front pin.

    • Dave,

      Great questions.

      Yes, we have been considering making changes to design aspects, but we want to do it the correct way and use a Seth Raynor-expert architect to get the work true correct. We’ve made decisions in the past without one, which is how we got to our position. Hopefully more on that topic in the near future…

      In regards to #8, the fairway has always gone all the way up to the green, Seth Raynor’s intent to put a premium on shot accuracy during that part of your round. We have, however, looked at the green surround. Originally, there was fairway-height turf all the way around the back of the green that followed the contours. This was Raynor’s way of giving players the ability to go long and still have the ball roll back off the slope and end up on the green surface. It also provided a big fun factor as well as strategy!

      All of these projects are not easy fixes as they take construction and re-gradding work. What’s needed first is a Master Plan for the entire golf course so that we could restore all of Raynor’s original design, so there’s consistency throughout all 18 holes. Hopefully more on that in the future…

      Thanks for the questions!
      Mike

      • That idea for short grass the back of 8 is a great one! I never would have thought of it. THe rough cut back fringe is a source of many mis hit chips, some of which wind up 60 yards away! EVen though we could not watch the fun of the roll from down below as we can on 16, just the idea of a possible roll- back on 8 would engender much wishful thinking, a dominant element of our game .. Moreover, the putt option from short finge on the back would facilitate recovery.I am hitting sand wedge to 8 iron into that green ,and often am disappointed to see the ball stuck in the back fringe when I thought a good shot was hit .Due to the penalty for a short shot, a little extra safety is warranted in the length of the second shot into the green.

        • Dave,

          Agreed. Raynor wanted to give you options; options for teeing up from the appropriate yardage (as well as creating day-to-day variety, as well as recovery options from shots that just missed the mark. Classic GC Architecture wasn’t all about tree-lined fairways and thick/long rough; it was about promoting imagination, ball management and mental toughness! This is one of the reasons architects during the Golden Age of Design are so highly respected and revered, they knew how to balance all of those aspects. Unfortunately, golf courses are living/breathing things that evolve over time, and many of those aspects were lost when trees are planted and playing surfaces (greens/tees/fairways) shrink, alter into things they weren’t originally intended into.

          We don’t realize what we had because we’re used to what we have!

          Thanks for the interest.
          Mike

  4. Greetings Mike,

    I really enjoyed this article as I’ve become interested in Raynor’s works. Have you ever reviewed Bluemound CC outside of Milwaukee, or have any information on that design?

    Much appreciated. Continued success and best wishes!
    Dan

    wisconsinhickorygolfers.com

    • Thanks Dan. Blue Mound is a great golf course, and I believe the only Raynor course to hold a Major, the 1933 PGA Championship, won by Gene Sarazen.
      M.

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