I could have been a golf course architect; I certainly had an early start. I took up the game of golf in 1959 at the age of twelve. Soon thereafter, I developed an interest in designing a golf course itself. That’s surprising, I guess, because the only courses I ever played in that time were the two municipal ones in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. The Rea Park and Memorial Stadium golf courses were not particularly inspiring in their layouts; both were constructed on level terrain with few trees. Neither was irrigated either so the grass was usually dormant by late summer and the fairways became like concrete. A childhood friend of mine once recalled: “I never learned to take divots with my shots on those municipal courses in Terre Haute back then. It would have broken my club on that hard ground!”
Most of the holes on the municipal courses in Terre Haute were straight from tee to green, there was only one slight “dogleg” hole, the 16th at Rea Park. That must have been enough inspiration for me because the “dogleg” hole has since become my favorite design of all.
Sometime when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I made a drawing of an imaginary nine-hole golf course that would fit into a portion of my grandmother’s farm along the East Fork of the White River in southern Indiana. I made a sketch from memory of the farm’s landscape and then I designed a layout of holes that I considered interesting and challenging from a golfer’s perspective. That drawing hasn’t survived, and unfortunately I don’t remember specifics about it now except that I made use of the farm’s natural terrain and features as much as possible. I doubt that any of the holes on my imaginary course were doglegs then; that design concept was still foreign to me. However, if I were to design that course today, it would include doglegs—lots of them—and this personal essay tells why.
The dogleg hole design takes its name from the shape of a dog’s rear legs. In other words, a dogleg hole has a pronounced bend or turn in its fairway somewhere between the tee area and the green. There’s no precise definition of a dogleg, but one golf architect asserts that the angle of inflection at the turning point of the hole should be between 10 and 90 degrees.
The concept of curved fairways is ancient, although the term “dogleg” is more recent. There are no doglegs on the oldest course in the world at St. Andrews, Scotland, but there is one hole with a slight bend in its fairway, which may have been a forerunner of the idea. Most holes on the early Scottish “links” courses were straight, but as the game and courses developed over time the bending of golf holes by design became more common. For example, the Prestwick Golf Club, established in 1851, has several distinct dogleg holes. After the game of golf came to America in the 1880s, Scottish course design elements such as the dogleg came along with it. The term “dogleg” probably traces to 1902 from an article in a golfing periodical where it was written: “This hole has been criticized by some on the ground that the player cannot play straight for the hole, the line for which is rather like a dog’s hind leg.”
One of the renowned early golf architects in the U. S. was Donald Ross, a Scottish immigrant. He used dogleg holes in a number of his course designs, but to a lesser extent than some later architects. An example of a Donald Ross dogleg is the eighth hole on the 1917 “Hill Course” at French Lick, Indiana. However, that hole is the only dogleg on the course.
Despite the soaring popularity of golf in the U. S. during the 1920s and early ‘30s (and the proliferation of public courses during that time) the dogleg design was used with less frequency. Both the Rea Park and the Memorial Stadium golf courses in Terre Haute were built during this period, which may help explain why they had so few dogleg holes. Doglegs were unpopular with many golfers then because they sometimes required a “wasted” second shot for recreational players to align their balls for the approach to the greens. Sharp dogleg holes also slowed play and created a bottleneck, which was frowned upon by the course managers since their goal was to accommodate rapidly increasing numbers of players. The dogleg design persisted through this lean period though—and it has A. W. Tillinghast to thank for that.
The first half of the 20th Century saw the emergence of the prolific golf course architect, Albert Warren Tillinghast. He had a hand in designing at least 265 golf courses, some of which became the sites for a large number of prestigious tournaments like the U. S. Open and the PGA. For example, Tillinghast designed the Bethpage State Park Black course (Long Island), the Baltusrol Golf Club course (New Jersey) and Winged Foot Golf Club course (New York), each of which is iconic in the history of American championship golf.
Tillinghast liked to use the dogleg design for some of the holes on his courses. He felt that the bend in the fairway of a dogleg hole usually obligated players to hit at least two-shots to reach a green, which was his goal for a par-4 hole. Tillinghast also favored dogleg holes because he felt they made golfers think more. A good dogleg requires a player to have a predetermined plan before hitting from the tee even if she or he is already familiar with the hole. Other types of holes seldom demand such advance thinking. I also think dogleg holes appealed to Tillinghast for other, less pragmatic reasons. He once said:
A round of golf should present eighteen inspirations, not necessarily eighteen thrills.
I agree with Tillinghast about this and I’ve found that my most memorable courses and holes have been both challenging and inspirational. The element of inspiration comes for me mostly through their natural and aesthetic beauty. Tillinghast believed that since straight lines are seldom found in nature, the design of a good golf hole should also not be linear either. This conviction caused him to favor contoured and curved fairways, which sure sounds like a fine dogleg to me.
Probably fifteen years ago, I originated the double dogleg for a plan of a three shot hole. —A. W. Tillinghast (1926)
A double-dogleg hole is one where there are two bends in the fairway. The points of inflection can move in the same direction or they may go in opposite directions. Whichever is the case, the double-dogleg usually requires a golfer to hit at least three shots between the tee and the green, which is desirable for a par 5 hole. Tillinghast’s claim to have invented the idea of a double-dogleg is open to dispute (there is, for example, a double-dogleg hole on the 19th Century Prestwick golf course in Scotland), but there’s no denying that he increased the popularity of this unique design. For example, his famous double-dogleg on the par-5 fourth hole at the Bethpage Black course is considered by some to be among his finest creations.
I’ve played the game of golf for fifty years, but I can only remember encountering two double-dogleg holes—and both of those are in Minnesota. There may have been others but I just don’t recall them. The two holes I do recollect are both par 5’s—the 7th hole at the University of Minnesota course and the 8th hole at the Red Wing Country Club. Both make it into my life list of inspirational holes because of their uniqueness, as well as their beauty and compatibility with the natural contours and lines of their native landscapes.
A third well-known American architect who favored the dogleg hole concept was Robert Trent Jones Sr. He had a productive career designing about 500 courses worldwide. In the late 1940s, he even helped re-design two of the holes on the famous Augusta National course that hosts the Masters Tournament each year. It’s been asserted: The sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course. In a piece Jones once wrote about the dogleg hole idea, he stated:
Dogleg holes…offer the architect a grand opportunity to practice deception.
By this I think he meant that a well-designed dogleg hole should be capable of deceiving a player into making ill-advised shots. For example, she or he might think that playing a shot close to the corner of the dogleg, or even drawing or fading the ball around the bend, might be an advantage when, in fact, a shot down the middle of the fairway or even to the side opposite the bend would be better for positioning one’s ball to approach the green. Modern technologies such as range finders have taken some of the innate skill out of playing dogleg holes, but there’s still a mystique that comes from hitting from the tee and not being able to see one’s destination, the green. I choose not to use range-finding technologies in my golf game so the deceptive qualities of dogleg holes about which Jones wrote are still in full force with me.
Then there is the matter of risk. Dogleg holes that trace around a body of water, a wooded area or deep rough sometimes tempt golfers to try to cut the corner or, as it is sometimes expressed, “carry the dogleg.” Usually it’s better for ordinary golfers like me to resist this temptation, although the thought of shortening the hole and gaining an easier approach to the green is tantalizing.
One such temptation for me occurred on the fourth hole at the Riverside Golf Club in Chehalis, Washington, which I played last year. Its fairway bends around a body of water and it tempts golfers to try to hit their drives across the water and land on the fairway much closer to the green than if they played the dogleg fairway around the bend. The distance across the water seemed well within the reach of my typical drive so, with the encouragement of my playing partners, I decided to go for it. I hit my drive well, but the ball caught the branch of a tall tree on the opposite bank and dropped into the water. After taking my penalty strokes, I got a high score on the hole. One of my partners chose not to go over the water and instead followed the dogleg fairway. He got a much better score than me. Although his adrenalin rush on the hole was probably less than mine, he taught me—once again—an important lesson: steady and cautious usually carries the day on a dogleg.
Almost every golf course I’ve played as an adult has at least one dogleg hole. Among these, however, a few stand out from the rest. Take the second hole at the municipal golf course in Hemingford, Nebraska, for instance. I’d traveled to tiny Hemingford to experience the course because I wanted to know what it was like to play on sand greens. Many courses in the U.S. in the first part of the 20th Century initially had them because they were easier to install and maintain when the courses were first established. Eventually most courses upgraded from sand greens to grass although a few, like the course at Hemingford, persisted with sand greens.
Before I arrived at the Hemingford course, I also wondered whether it might have a dogleg. It had been established in 1938 during the hard years of the Depression in the Great Plains so I expected it to be a layout with simple, straight holes, much like the 1930s-era Stadium golf course I had known in my younger years at Terre Haute. It’s fair to say that the Hemingford Golf Course has passed its prime. Few golfers play it anymore, and it exists because a few benevolent residents still volunteer their time to maintain it and keep it open. I guess as an isolated community in sparsely-populated western Nebraska, these residents see their golf course as important for retaining the town’s identity—just like its schools and post office.
The course is located next to the County Fairgrounds. There’s no pro shop and the starter shed has ceased to be used and was locked when I arrived. Following instructions posted on a sign by the first tee, I put the three-dollar greens fee into an envelope and stuffed it into a slot in a steel box nearby; I was the only golfer playing the course that afternoon.
As I approached the tee of the second hole, I saw a handmade sign constructed from a plate of steel mounted on a pole. It identified the hole and showed its par as 4. More importantly to me, it had a simple stick-figure outline of the hole indicating that it was a dogleg! The diagram showed that there was a left turn in the fairway, although a slight hill blocked my view of the dogleg from the tee. Never having played the course before I was flying blind, but thanks to that sign I knew that a dogleg-left was out there somewhere.
There was deep rough along the left side of the fairway, which I took as an omen not to try to carry this dogleg. I teed my ball and hit a good drive over the hill and out of sight in the direction of where I presumed the fairway was. As I crested the hill, I could see for the first time the dogleg as well as the distant sand green. It was a thing of beauty to my eye. The remainder of the holes at Hemingford that day weren’t particularly memorable, but I’ll never forget that sweeping dogleg hole #2. It was a true gem in the rough.
Although the municipal courses I played in Terre Haute as a boy only had one dogleg hole between them, my preferred municipal course now in my town of St. Paul, Minnesota, has many. It is the Phalen Park Golf Course and is located a couple of miles from my home. I’ve lived in Minnesota almost forty years, but I only started playing the Phalen Park course two years ago. Since then I’ve grown especially fond of it, and part of the reason is its plethora of doglegs. Of the eighteen holes on the course, eleven are dogleg designs. But that was not always the case.
The City of St. Paul planned to construct a golf course at its Phalen Park as early as 1910, but a nine-hole, sand-green course wasn’t established there until 1917. It was an immediate hit with the public and was expanded to 18 holes within a few years. However, the course continued to have sand greens through the 1920s, and it was also only about 4900 yards long with a par of 66. By the 1970s the city had decided to redesign the course and an architect was retained to create a new layout. His name? Donald “Dogleg” Herfort.
Don Herfort had been an accountant for the 3M Company in St. Paul. He had a talent for golf course architecture and was tapped by 3M to design its Tartan Park course layout in Lake Elmo. Herfort later left 3M and established his own course design firm. During his subsequent 40-year golf architect career he designed more than 140 courses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and the Dakotas. Besides the Tartan Park and Phalen Park courses, he also created the highly-regarded Superior National course in Lutsen, Minnesota. However, Herfort was never considered an architect of national prominence possibly because, as one critic expressed it, “As an architect, Herfort played to the masses.” I think this means he created courses that appealed to and were accessible to recreational golfers, not just to professionals or golf elitists. I see nothing wrong with that as a legacy, and from my perspective his inclusion of so many doglegs in his designs not only gave him his nickname, but also caused the courses to be more interesting, challenging and endearing to golfers like me.
Doglegs get more out of the yardage available to an architect. The Phalen course, for example, is only a bit more than 6000 yards long, which is short by today’s standards. Yet it plays longer because of its dogleg holes, and I’m sure that’s a principle architect Herfort understood well.
The hole doglegs left sharp enough to break your back. –Sam Snead
Of the dogleg holes at Phalen Park Golf Course, one rises above the others for me—the fifteenth. It is a 363-yard dogleg-left with par of 4. It is the sharpest dogleg on the course with nearly a 90-degree bend in the fairway. In my years of playing golf, I recall only encountering one other dogleg with such a sharp turn. From the tee box, the green is not visible and mature trees, a hill and a water hazard guard the dogleg; there’s no chance of carrying this one. The hole is also an example of a dogleg where one’s drive is best played to the side of the fairway opposite the bend. Cutting the corner too closely can result in a tangle with the trees or an obstructed approach to the green on one’s second shot.
There are bunkers on both the left and right sides of the green and one’s approach shot, which for me is usually about 150 yards long, must be accurately played. The green is long and narrow and offers a number of difficult pin placement options for the greenskeeper. One can readily score a par on this hole—or even a birdie on occasion—but it takes quality golf shots to do so. That’s the mark of a good golf hole in my book.
I regret to say that at this point in time, no one else within my immediate family plays golf. I do have aspirations for my grandson Samuel, however, and so far he seems open to the idea. Of course he’s only four years old, but one has to begin somewhere.
During a recent visit by Sam to my home, I introduced him to the game of miniature golf—one has to begin somewhere. We played nine holes the first day, and although he improvised his own kind of “reverse” grip on the putter, he soon got the idea. I used various golfing terms during our game—words like putter, tee, stroke, hole-in-one—and DOGLEG. Anyone who has played miniature golf knows that dogleg holes (i.e. bent fairways) are the norm, not the exception. I kept the score during our match, and as we came to the final hole I informed Sam that we were all even. I explained to him that whoever got the lowest number of strokes on this last hole—which was a dogleg, of course—would win. I could see his competitive instincts kick in and he bore down as he prepared to hit his first shot on the hole. By this point in the round, he had the gist of stroking the ball with his putter and he banked his shot around the bend in the fairway; it rolled directly into the hole! He and I cheered and then I played my first shot—not even close. I took a two on the hole and Sam had won the match with his hole-in-one. He was ecstatic!
Later that week, as I drove Sam and his mother to the airport to catch their flight back to their home, we talked about the various activities we had experienced during their visit—picking strawberries, swimming in a lake—and playing miniature golf. When the topic of golf came up, he turned to his mother and exclaimed, “And you know, Mom, I won over Grandad—and I hit a hole-in-one—on a DOGLEG! I smiled. “He’s got it!” I thought to myself.
Another favorable aspect of the Phalen Park Golf Course for me is a particular bench located near the tee for the eighteenth hole. The bench is permanently fixed and old, so I assume it may have been placed there when “Dogleg” Herfort designed the course in 1977. Whether he intended for that bench to be there, it’s clear that whoever placed it is my kindred spirit. When I sit on the bench I can view three fairways at once (holes #10, #17 and #18)–and each of them is a fine dogleg. I don’t think there’s another spot on the course where one can obtain a similar perspective on Herfort’s dogleg holes. It’s become for me a space for contemplation and inspiration. Since I discovered it, I’ve gone to this bench on a number of occasions to think and gain insights that might not come anywhere else. Here’s a sample of what’s come to me so far:
I have much to learn about life itself from dogleg golf holes. First there is the matter of perception and illusion. When I stand on the tee of a well-designed dogleg hole for the first time, there is so much about the hole I cannot see—and even what I do see may be a distortion of reality. Nevertheless I make a plan for playing the hole based on the best information I have and filtered through my past experiences of playing other dogleg holes. I now know it’s usually not best to take inordinate risks, such as attempting to carry the dogleg, without prior experience with and information about the hole. Trying to diminish risk is a principle of life too.
Successfully negotiating a dogleg hole also demands advance planning and strategy, just as does life. There certainly are places where intuition, hunches and even snap judgments come into play, but they aren’t the norm. Plus every golfer knows that playing a dogleg seldom follows one’s plan exactly; it’s usually necessary to adapt and problem-solve along the way. Take the dogleg-left, par-5 eleventh hole at Phalen Park Golf Course for instance. I’ve played that hole enough by now to have an established “game plan” for playing it, which begins by trying to position my drive along the right side of the fairway. If I’m successful in this, it gives me a better opportunity to hit a fairway wood for my second shot and to place the ball in good position for my third shot into the green. When I recently played hole #11, my drive went according to the script and my ball lay just where I wanted it on the right side of the fairway. As I lined up my fairway wood second shot, I was already thinking of how I could play my next iron shot into the green. Not so fast. My 3-wood shot duck-hooked to the left and flew off the fairway into a grove of large trees. I immediately knew my “game plan” for playing this hole was now null and void. I was in uncharted waters and knew I would need to improvise each subsequent shot until I reached the green. I did not achieve a good score on hole #11 that day.
Life is like this too and we need to learn to improvise whenever we experience those unexpected “duck hooks” that alter or destroy our original plans and intentions. My assignment to F. E. Warren Air Force Base as a missile launch officer right after college was one of those “duck hooks” for me. When I had agreed to enroll in the Air Force ROTC program during college, it never crossed my mind that I might receive such an active-duty assignment; it didn’t fit my “plan.” I certainly did a lot of improvising during those four years with the Air Force, both personally and professionally.
As I walked down the 11th hole fairway towards the grove of trees where my ball had gone after hitting my errant fairway wood, I began to recognize that this dogleg was one of the most aesthetically-pleasing places on the course–and it was also one of the finest days for weather of the entire year. Hole #11 bends left along a ridge above the shoreline of nearby Phalen Lake, one of the most picturesque lakes in the area. Also several of the oldest bur oaks and other mature trees on the course grow long this fairway, some of which have been there for over a hundred years. I was disappointed that my original plan for scoring a par on this hole was probably gone, but I became resolved to not let that deter me from appreciating this place for its beauty and significance in this moment.
Life is like this too. I did need to adapt and change my plans during those difficult four years of duty at the Air Force base in Wyoming, but it was also a time to experience some incredibly beautiful places in the mountains of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. Those years also provided the opportunity to form some of the deepest and longest-lasting friendships of my life, and chief among those is the relationship I formed then with my wife, Mary Ann, whom I met then.
By the time I found my ball nestled in the rough beneath those trees alongside the #11 fairway, my game that day had assumed a new level of meaning for me. I realized that, figuratively speaking, those words of my grandson Sam after his miniature golf experience applied to me too–I had hit a hole-in-one–on a DOGLEG! And I’m finally getting it.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.