U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Seth Raynor's Genius Embodies Country Club of Charleston May 27, 2019 | Charleston, S.C. By George Waters, USGA

Plateau greens, wide fairways and a healthy dose of bunkering are hallmarks of Seth Raynor’s designs. (Courtesy of Andy Johnson)

 

When the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open is played at the Country Club of Charleston, the golf world will have a wonderful opportunity to watch some of the world’s best players navigate the brilliant golf course architecture of Seth Raynor. Although his design portfolio includes some of the most highly regarded courses in the U.S., Raynor is not as well known as architectural contemporaries like Alister Mackenzie or Donald Ross. This is partly because fewer golfers get a chance to see or play Raynor’s courses, as they are mostly private and seldom host televised golf events. In fact, the 74th U.S. Women’s Open will be the first time that a major championship has been played on an original Seth Raynor design. The following are some of the guiding principles and design features that make Raynor courses so special.

Background

Raynor was an engineer by training, who was introduced to golf course architecture when he was hired by Charles Blair Macdonald to assist with surveying the property that would become the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. Raynor impressed Macdonald, and the two would work on more projects together before Raynor moved on to a successful design career of his own. Raynor was not an avid golfer, but he was a keen study and learned to understand and apply the principles of good golf course architecture from his mentor Macdonald.

The Template Holes

The foundation of Raynor’s work is his use of the so-called “template holes.” These are adaptations of famous golf holes in the United Kingdom and continental Europe that Macdonald utilized at the National Golf Links and in his subsequent designs. Macdonald wanted to bring the strategic qualities of these famous holes to American golf course architecture in the hope that their influence would help to elevate the game as it took root in the U.S. Examples of the holes he referenced include the 11th and 17th holes from the Old Course at St. Andrews, named Eden and Road, and the par-3 15th hole from North Berwick, known as the Redan. While the templates were based on existing holes, they were by no means copies. It was Macdonald’s goal to adapt the concepts from these holes to fit each unique site, and to improve upon the originals where possible. Raynor continued this approach in his own design work, making some very creative interpretations of the template concepts along the way.

The most dramatic template hole at the Country Club of Charleston is Raynor’s version of the Redan at the par-3 11th, which is listed at 177 yards for the Women’s Open. Standing on a tee built atop a former Civil War battery, the golfer is confronted by a stern rendition of what is arguably the most copied hole in golf. Typical of most Redans, the green sits on an abrupt plateau and the putting surface has a pronounced tilt from front to back, which forces golfers to account for bounce and roll after a shot reaches the green. There are also deep bunkers to the sides of the green. However, unlike traditional versions of the Redan, which are oriented with a right-to-left angle, this is a “Reverse Redan” that is oriented left to right. There is also an unusually large false front on the green that repels shots which do not fly or run far enough. While the key elements of a Redan are in place, Raynor’s version at Charleston is a good example of his willingness to adapt and alter the template concepts.

The Redan at the Country Club of Charleston demonstrates that the template holes were adaptations, not copies. (USGA/John Mummert)

At the next tee, we find an interesting interpretation of the Road Hole from the Old Course at St. Andrews. This version on the 356-yard, par-4 12th is shorter than many others done by Raynor and has a unique feature guarding the inside corner of the dogleg-right hole. To replicate the famous challenge of driving over the railway sheds in the original, Raynor routed this version to curve around a centuries-old live oak after the club insisted it be preserved. Tee shots that challenge the oak and find their way down the right side of the fairway are rewarded with a better angle into the green that makes it easier to avoid the fearsome pot bunker guarding the front left, a key feature of all Road Hole renditions.

As these two examples illustrate, Raynor adapted the template concepts to fit each individual course. No two versions of his template holes are the same. It is also important to note that while the template holes form the backbone of Raynor’s designs, he created many excellent holes that had little or no relationship to any template concept. These originals bring tremendous variety to Raynor’s courses and are often regarded as some of his finest work.

The Greens

One of the first things most golfers notice about a Raynor design are the large, abrupt plateaus of the putting greens. The scale of his greens is daunting, and their steep banks draw a hard line between a missed shot and one that finds safety. At the Country Club of Charleston, the average putting surface measures approximately 8,000 square feet, meaning you could fit two average greens from Pebble Beach within one green at Charleston and still have room to spare. Raynor oriented these plateaus at various angles to reward careful placement off the tee, using steep banks and deep bunkers to challenge approach shots coming from the incorrect angle. While most of these plateaus are squarish or rectangular, Raynor did utilize more creative shapes from time to time. The horseshoe-shaped green on the par-4 16th at Charleston, with a deep front bunker between two arms of the green, certainly earns the moniker “Lion’s Mouth.”

Hole No. 16, named “Lion’s Mouth,” features one of Raynor’s most creative green complexes. (Courtesy of Andy Johnson)

While the size of Raynor’s greens makes a dramatic impression, the real genius lies in how he divided these huge surfaces into smaller sections – placing a tremendous premium on precise approach shots. Distinct hole locations are created by ridges, hollows and shelves, rewarding golfers who study the green contours and plan their approach shots accordingly. At the Country Club of Charleston, golfers encounter ridges that run front to back on one green and side to side on the next, false fronts that range from a few feet to more than head high, and elaborate combinations of shelves and valleys – including one green with a deep depression in the middle that resembles a giant thumbprint. Hitting every green in regulation on a Raynor course could still make for a very long day of 80-foot putts over some interesting contours if your approach play is not on target.

Raynor used contouring to create distinct hole locations, placing a premium on precise approach play. (USGA/George Waters)

The Bunkers

Another signature feature of Raynor’s work is the bunkering. Raynor courses usually feature a heavy dose of bunkers from tee to green. The Country Club of Charleston has 99 bunkers, which is considerably more than a typical golf course but in no way unusual for Raynor’s work. Not only are Raynor’s bunkers abundant, they often present a formidable challenge. Flat bottoms and steep grass faces are the hallmarks of Raynor bunkering, and the fairway bunkers can be just as punishing as those around the greens. The engineered style of Raynor’s bunkering works especially well at Charleston, where interest and challenge had to be manufactured from the gentle terrain. Raynor simply created the mounds and green plateaus required to give the bunkers some serious teeth.

The size of Raynor bunkers varies widely, with huge expanses of sand found on the same hole as tiny pot bunkers. There is also great diversity in his bunker arrangements. Raynor placed bunkers to punish missed shots, but his bunkering was also highly strategic. Shots along the ideal line to any hole typically must carry or flirt with bunkers. In this way, Raynor’s huge fairways actually demand a surprising level of precision. To get the best results, hitting the fairway isn’t enough. The golfer needs to hit the proper part of the fairway, and that usually involves some risk.

Deep bunkers with steep grass faces are a common sight on Seth Raynor golf courses. (USGA/George Waters)

Room to Play

As we put the pieces together in our minds, it’s easy to develop an image of Seth Raynor’s architecture as being severe and unforgiving. It can certainly feel that way when you find yourself in a bunker with a steep grass face looming high over your head. However, the reason Raynor’s work has stood the test of time is because his courses are fundamentally strategic and allow golfers of different skill levels to make their way around as long as they play within their ability.

Raynor courses feature ample fairways – often 40 or 50 yards wide in areas. The bunkers that carve these fairways into strategic sections can usually be avoided if the golfer develops an appropriate plan for each hole and makes the necessary adjustments along the way. While most of Raynor’s greens are heavily defended by bunkers and steep grass banks, the approaches are typically open, allowing all types of shot trajectories to successfully reach the putting surface. Running approaches can be very effective on a Raynor course, but careful placement from tee to green is required to create the best opportunities for this strategy.

The Work of a Master

The golf course architecture of Seth Raynor provides plenty of surprises. His work is built around concepts from classic holes that he never saw in person. He never played much golf, yet managed to design some of the most highly regarded golf courses in the U.S. His designs contain elements that are harshly penal and extremely forgiving. Perhaps most importantly, Raynor managed to provide a great golf experience for the best players and for those with more modest abilities.

Raynor’s courses are visually striking, and it is often the boldest features that get the most attention. Yet careful study of his work reveals many subtleties that elevate his designs. For example, his routing for the Country Club of Charleston not only utilizes the best features of the property, the holes continually change direction – forcing players to contend with the wind from different angles throughout their round.

During the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, we’ll get to see Raynor’s flair for the dramatic and his attention to detail on full display. It will make for an enjoyable look into the work of an architect who is among the greats in the history of golf course design.

George Waters is the manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.

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