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Architecture Glossary - Cop

26 September, 2022
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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 ‘Cop’.

A frequent criticism among the most self-righteous of golf course critics is the perpetual pursuit of links-ificiation among non-links golf courses. There is some justification for their complaints…after all, very little of the world is made up of sandy soil, and therefore efforts to make it play as such are somewhat desperate (i.e. revetted bunkers in parkland terrain). That said, this is hardly a new battle, and many of the preeminent golf minds of yesteryear actively sought to make their inland clubs more links-like.

One of those minds was J.H. Taylor, a five-time winner of The Open, and one of the first minds to put significant effort into strategic golf course architecture. One of these forays occurred at Taylor’s home club, Royal Mid-Surrey’s Outer Course (now known as the “J.H. Taylor Course'').

This look backwards from the green at Royal Mid-Surrey's No. 13 shows Taylor's constructed mounds guarding the fairway. (Credit: Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club)

A frequent complaint, both then and now, is the club’s pancake-flat terrain. Taylor believed the club’s bunkers lacked challenge for championship-caliber players such as himself, and so he sought to bring greater challenge to the design by emulating the natural upward movement of the links. The solution, as he wrote in The Art of Golf:

“Quite recently there has sprang up a system that bids fare to oust [pot bunkers] from public favour,” he wrote. “This style of bunker, which I may claim without conceit was of my own initiating, takes the form of irregular hills and hollows, the idea being to copy Nature as closely as the hand of man admits.”

The result was a series of mounds (and dips, from where Taylor’s crew dug up soil to make said mounds) that line the fairways on many holes at Mid-Surrey. Taylor issued two complaints about bunkers in the heath, and these “cops'' addressed both. The first, as mentioned above, was the lack of challenge offered by the flat hazards dug out of clay soil. The cops he prepared at Mid-Surrey offer a challenge in that the player is not quite sure what lie awaits their second shot — uphill, downhill, sidehill…sitting up or buried deep.

The second complaint Taylor made within The Art of Golf was directed at the most popular hazard in the linksland, the pot bunker. Although the golfer drew no issue with the challenge of hitting out of one, he did have problems with their liberal distribution. He complained that too many course constructors were leaving pots where no golfer could see them, a penalty he deemed unfair. The concept of cops provided a solution: While bunkers, especially pots, were sunk into the earth and therefore difficult to see from the tee, the upward nature of cops was quite visible.

One particular highlight at the modern Mid-Surrey is Nos. 3 and 4, a parallel set of par fours, whose fairways are separated by a set of Taylor’s man-made moguls. On both holes, the common man’s miss, a slice to the right, will land amid this shared hazard. And, in both cases, the golfer will need to consider their lie before making a bold move at the green. Bunkers sit at the far right of both fairways, ready to further penalize the golfer who makes a second poor strike.

Taylor’s cops bring some linksland to the inland, in that they introduce an element of chance to mishit shots.

His rendition at least made an effort to maintain a natural aesthetic. Many course designers were less nuanced, and cops were often constructed as a steeplechase in the fairway…wide walls of turf, slowing running shots and often blinding players to the green. C.B. Macdonald, perhaps the first American golf course architecture “academic,” lashed out against the concept in his book, Scotland’s Gift.

“Cops are an abomination,” he wrote. “Glaring artificiality of any kind detracts from the fascination of the game.”

That sentiment came, interestingly, during 1928. His protege, Seth Raynor, had just constructed Yeamans Hall Country Club during 1925, which features some rather unnatural cops in the style that Macdonald railed against.

No. 5 is an example of the duo’s “Alps” template, which usually requires a hill of some size to obscure the green. Perhaps because of the flat nature of that portion of property, Raynor dug a series of bunkers to the right side of the fairway and used the backfill to create a series of cops on the left side.

Seth Raynor complicated the fairway of Yeamans Hall's "Alps" template by creating a series of cops down the left side. (Credit: Ryan Book) 

The version seen on this Raynor hole illustrates the evolving understanding of the term “cop,” from Taylor’s natural mounding to hazards less natural in appearance. There are many American “Golden Age” courses, however, which feature hazards that are much more in line with Taylor’s concept than the aforementioned Raynor hazard.

Many parkland courses required removing rocks strewn about the site. In some instances, architects would cover piles of these rocks with soil in order to create mounds in a similar fashion to what Taylor did at Mid-Surrey. Walter Travis was perhaps the most avid proponent of artificial mounding, and he sprinkled them about many of his designs. Consider No. 16 at Stamford Golf Club, where a series of mounds sit in the fairway to pinch the area where players will find the best approach angle.

Walter Travis's "chocolate drops" hazard are in fact a form of cop, if Taylor's definition is to be believed. This example occurs at Stamford Golf Club's No. 16 fairway. (Credit: The Walter Travis Society)

If you haven’t heard of “cops,” perhaps it’s because mounds like Travis’s are now better known as “chocolate drops,” using that designer’s parlance. It’s fair to say that “chocolate drops” are in fact a specific form of “cop.”

The commonality between all these examples is that they are man-made earth features intended to disrupt a level playing surface. It’s worth clarifying, however, that not all man-made earth features count as “cops.” Showcases such as Bayonne Golf Club and Chambers Bay Golf Club demonstrate how talented architects have become at constructing artificial dunescapes. Although there is no standard measure, common sense suggests that eventually a mound stops being a “cop” and starts being a proper “dune.”

At the bottom right, you can see an island of rough jutting up from the fairway, Robert Trent Jones II and Jay Blasi's more minimalist take on the "cop" concept. (Credit: Chambers Bay Club)

Shank one right off the tee at Chambers Bay No. 10, and you’ll know the difference. But, on the next tee, does the naturalistic island of native in the middle of the fairway merit the “cop” descriptor? By Taylor’s standard, we must vote yes.

My mother gave me this advice as a child…although she has little grasp on golf course architecture, it still rings true for players: You don’t need to like cops, but you must always respect them.

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