The Library

Golf By Design:

How to Lower Your Score by Reading the Features of a Course
by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.

Chapter 1: The Playing Field

Design Styles: Strategic, Penal, and Heroic

The terms “strategic,” “penal,” and “heroic” frequently are applied to shots, features, holes, and even entire courses. Because these shorthand references appear in various places in this book, it is important for you to understand how I will be using them. It is equally important to understand that these categories are not totally clear-cut in every case, and experts may disagree regarding which term best describes a specific hole, or feature.

For me, a “strategic” hole is one that has at least one reasonable route for reaching the green in regulation with very little risk of incurring a severe penalty because of a misplayed shot. In addition, if there are several alternative routes, the route having the greatest distance generally has the least risk of incurring a severe penalty for a misplayed shot.

A hole is “penal” if the only way to reach the green in regulation involves successfully executing at least one shot that will incur a severe penalty if misplayed. Often the severe penalty involves a ball lost in an escape-proof hazard like water, a ravine, or out-of-bounds.

A “heroic” hole has at least two distinctly different alternatives for reaching the green in regulation. One lacks a severe penalty for a misplayed shot. With the second, however, a misplay incurs a severe penalty, but, if successfully negotiated, it will reward the player with a far superior position and/or distance advantage. Thus, the player faces a truly heroic decision. This shot itself also can be called heroic.

Accomplished designers often blend strategic, penal, and heroic holes to create a golf course with a pleasing balance and rhythm, much in the same way that a composer constructs a symphony. Although well-versed players may vehemently disagree over which of the three categories a particular hole belongs to, it would be rare indeed to classify all holes on a given course as a strategic, penal, or heroic. Therefore, when an entire course is given one of these labels, it likely means that it has a relatively large number of holes of that particular type.

Last, hazards are frequently referred to as being penal. This appellation simply indicate that the hazard is one from which escape is extremely difficult or impossible. Additionally, hazards can be classified as strategic. This label is usually applied to hazards that are well positioned and from which a full recovery shot is possible. You will never hear hazards being called heroic.

I am sure that you have recognized that, in many ways, a heroic shot decision can be by far the most complex and nerve-racking. It represents the essence of great mental golf: a clear choice offering obvious but very different risks and rewards.

Now that you have an idea of what a hole needs to have to be strategic, penal, or heroic, let’s look at examples of each type. The holes I have selected can clearly be placed in one of these three categories.


The par-4 eighth hole at Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland is a classic example of a strategic hole. (Click for larger image.)
The 444-yard par-4 eighth hole at Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland is a classic strategic hole. As the sketch shows, it is a dogleg right with a series of fairway bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway. Long hitters can reduce the yardage by cutting the corner but must contend with the bunkers. Short hitters or intermediate players can play to the left side of the fairway the entire length of the hole and avoid sand, but this strategy results in a longer second shot to reach the green.

An excellent example of a penal hole is the 132-yard par-3 seventeenth hole at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra, Florida, a demanding layout designed by Pete Dye, that plays host to the Players Championship. As the drawing shows, a successful shot on this par-3 must avoid water everywhere. Any stroke that is short, long, or off line will end up in Davy Jones’s locker. The hole and the shot are clearly penal because no other route exists to reach the green.
Penal holes such as the par-3 seventeenth at the Tournament Players Club Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, Florida, have no options. (Click for larger image.)

Heroic holes like the par-5 eighteenth at Pebble Beach Golf Links offers a distinct advantage for those willing to gamble. (Click for larger image.)
The 540-yard par-5 eighteenth hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California is universally regarded as one of golf’s truly heroic holes. It features not one but a pair of heroic choices generated by the presence of the Pacific Ocean down the entire left-hand side. As you can see from the sketch, the tee shot can be played over as much water as you dare to improve your angle and shorten the distance to the green. Your second shot also can take the brave line over another corner of the ocean, with considerable distance and angle reward if successful. Alternatively, you can follow a safer route along the right side of the hole, at the expense of having to cover a greater distance.

In conclusion, the designer orchestrates the hazards and other features into mental and physical playing challenges whose product is holes that are strategic, penal, or heroic.


Go To Part Three: Golf Course Settings

Back to: The Playing Field - Part One

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