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Architecture Glossary - Bottleneck

27 January, 2023
Ryan Book

The message of great, strategic golf course architecture is clear. The actual words used to describe those golf courses, however, are many. The Architecture Glossary column will examine more precise terms and concepts that one will find when exploring golf course architecture. Hopefully understanding these terms, and why certain architects employed them, will help you to better understand the golf courses you play…and maybe even improve your scores!

Today’s term is ‘Bottleneck’.

As golfers around the world become more and more interested in golf course architecture, a few designers have emerged as touchpoints for understanding. One designer experiencing such appreciation is C.B. Macdonald, whose “template” hole approach to course design has both exemplified strategy and embedded a certain number of hole types in the minds of eager course enthusiasts.

This has, however, occasionally resulted in confusion. One example is the concept of the “bottleneck,” a concept that many automatically assume is the same as Macdonald’s “Bottle” template. The concept of the bottleneck, which far predates Macdonald’s design days, is only questionably present at National Golf Links of America’s No. 8 hole (we’ll look more closely at this soon).

This graphic illustrates the "bottleneck" version of No. 12 that existed at Sunningdale's Old Course when C.B. Macdonald made his visit. (Photo credit: DuCam Marketing)

The confusion likely stems from George Bahto’s The Evangelist of Golf, which cites No. 12 at Sunningdale Golf Club’s Old Course as the basis for the “Bottle” hole. Other sources, such as Robert Muir Graves and Geoffrey Cornish’s Classic Golf Hole Design, suggest that Sunningdale’s hole was actually an influence for No. 1 at NGLA. Neither of the American club’s holes really replicates what the original hole at Sunningdale featured, however the illustration of the Surrey version (prior to Harry Colt’s renovation) adds some clarity. At about 80 yards out from the green, the fairway narrows dramatically, to just a sliver.

This is a proper “bottleneck,” as understood in golf course architecture.

The reasoning for this feature on the course is not well understood, largely as this version of the hole disappeared soon after Macdonald’s visit to Sunningdale; Harry Colt led a renovation of Willie Park Jr.’s original design.

The bottleneck concept likely traces its origins to one of necessity, out in the rolling dunesland of golf’s homeland. The undulating sandscapes in many locations meant finding ways to connect tees-to-greens that weren’t always so clear cut. Consider No. 14 at Lahinch Golf Club’s Old Course, one of the world’s most dunes-defined clubs. The hole is a lengthy par four, playing downhill across the bouncing terrain between two rows of dunes. Eventually, about 50 yards out from the green, the fairway is pinched by two larger dunes.

The tight entrance to the green is evident from far up the fairway at Lahinch's No. 14 hole. (Photo credit: Lahinch Golf Club) 

Old Tom Morris could have placed the green ahead of the dunes, but he incorporated this bottleneck to strategic effect. Players have the option of trying to thread the two dunes with a ground shot, more intimidating because of the surrounding natural features. A safer move is to play the ball through the air, where it has room to bounce in for the final 20 yards. This is manageable if the player began with a strong tee shot. If they haven’t, players may consider laying up short of the bottleneck. This makes the longer par four a strategic “par four-and-a-half.”

The past 25 years, which have re-emphasized the use of landforms as part of golf course strategy, means that bottlenecks have come back in a big way, especially considering the desire for dunes-based sites. Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club, one of Tom Doak’s premier designs, features several instances across its 18 holes. The one most similar to that at Lahinch may be No. 16.

Looking back from the green at the bottleneck that divides the dogleg at Ballyneal's No. 12 par five. (Photo credit: P.J. Koenig)

This par five is fairly open from the tee. It doglegs left after some distance, with the second half of the hole connected by a stretch of shortgrass well-suited for walking through, if not much else. Based on the tee shot, a player must decide whether they want to lay up at the front of the bottleneck, or play blind across the dune ridge at the inside of the dogleg, which will reward them with a much nearer third shot. One option that won’t be on the table after the tee shot: running a ball through the dogleg’s bend.

Tobacco Road Golf Course’s first hole is notorious for the tight channel created by two large sand rises, just 200 yards out from the opening tee. This is technically a bottleneck, as it has fairway ahead of it, however it serves mostly to unnerve golfers rather than dissuade them from pulling a driver. Less renowned, but more strategically sound, is the hole’s second bottleneck. Players will debate laying up, or trying to maximize yardage on the second shot, depending on how they feel about the tight channel leading to the green.

The first bottleneck on Tobacco Road's opening hole may be less strategic than the second, however it's become a notorious landmark off the tee. (Photo credit: P.J. Koenig)

Many associate the middle and latter portion of the 20th Century, the “penal era,” as one where golf course architects limited the options available to golfers. This is largely true, however “bottlenecks” also became more playable during this era…if you had the guts to take them on. No. 16 at Doral Resort’s Blue Monster course is an example. The first occurs about 250 yards from the tee, where a fairway bunker to the right temporarily tightens the fairway against the enormous waste bunker to the left of the hole. In the previous examples cited, the bottleneck makes ground passage unlikely, even with superb shots. Dick Wilson, however, is offering a risk-reward scenario: If the player believes they are powerful enough to cross the hazards, or accurate enough to thread the bunkers, they’ll receive a shorter approach. Granted, the strategic element of this hole received a boost when Gil Hanse made a renovative effort during 2014.

It looks more gettable when looking back, but the fairway bunker to the right of the hole squeezes players along with the waster hazard along the left of the hole on this short par four at Doral's Blue Monster. (Photo credit: Trump National Doral)

Interpreting this last instance as a “bottleneck” introduces a question, however: At what point does the width of the fairway go from being a true “bottleneck” and start being just a “less wide area of fairway?” There’s no way to provide a good answer.

All we’ll say is that the narrowing of the fairway along the right side of National Golf Links No. 8 is still plenty wide for someone to get a shot through without raising their blood pressure.


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