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Architecture Glossary - Sitwell

24 August, 2022
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 ‘Sitwell’.

Imagine the most topsy-turvy, fantastic green that you have ever putted upon. Now, consider how smooth that putting surface was, compared to the original Sitwell Green.

Photos of the No. 12 green at Sitwell Golf Club are almost as shocking today as the green itself was to golfers nearly a century ago. (Photo Credit: European Institute of Golf Course Architects)

The term “Sitwell” traces its name back to a par three that led a decade-long reign of awe and controversy from 1913-’25. The architect was one who many still consider to be the greatest green designer of all time, Alister MacKenzie. Yet even with his acknowledged pedigree, the audacity of the Sitwell is shocking to the 21st Century viewer.

There are several important pieces of context to understand why MacKenzie attempted this bold feature. The first is geographical.

The land on which the Sitwell Park Golf Club clubhouse sits is atop a relatively high ridge. This called for several high carries to greens atop the slope, which MacKenzie didn’t care for. At the same time, that hill was too steep to create a realistic putting surface on its side. MacKenzie, who had already used dynamite to create bunkers at the club, wasn’t hesitant to warp the hillside to his needs. Putts with so much altitude change, either uphill or downhill, posed a significant threat of impossible pins, so MacKenzie created a series of punchbowl pockets across the enormous green by using equally enormous contours, with the day’s flag housed in one of the pockets.

Much like how players shooting at a plateaued green must find the correct tier to find a makeable putt, the members at Sitwell needed to find the correct bowl. And, by all accounts, many aces were had for those that did. Those who did not — the majority of golfers — found themselves trying to save bogey while putting across the world’s most extreme green. For reference, the newspapers of the time claimed that the bowls were at least as deep as a horse’s height.

The most famous green at Sitwell was the par three No. 12, but No. 18 — which also returned to the clubhouse hill — featured a similar style of green. Some sources suggest that Nos. 4 and 15 also featured such flatstick extremities. The Life and Times of Alister MacKenzie — a book by James Scott, Ray Haddock, and Tom Doak — implies that the architect took such liberties because it was his first single-client gig...he didn’t need to impress an entire committee.

If you were struck by the image of the putting green above, imagine how the first players felt when tackling Sitwell’s infamous greens. The press was unkind, as were the members. Eventually they pushed Mr. Sitwell to remove the putting surface entirely, replacing it with a more conservative green that sat (and still sits) atop the hill.

Due to its iconic nature, the term “Sitwell” has become synonymous with the world’s most seasick putting surfaces. It’s important, therefore, to note that not every terrifying green merits the “Sitwell” descriptor. Consider No. 9 at Streamsong Black, an enormous punchbowl where the “punch” sloshes across many internal mounds. An intimidating, well-contoured green? Absolutely. A “Sitwell”? No.

The key indicator of a proper “Sitwell,” if one chooses to use the term, is the use of bold contours to create a compartmentalized putting surface that rewards precision with the approach shot. The size of the green is inherently large, for it takes significant space to fit so many bowls.

The 21st Century has ushered in a new appreciation for the designs of old (see the multiple Lido Golf Club recreations in motion). Accordingly, several attempts to capture the spirit of the Sitwell have occurred.

The guy who literally wrote the book on MacKenzie, Tom Doak, was among the first. He and Mike Clayton created Barnbougle Dunes Golf Club, which features a denoted Sitwell tribute at No. 13. This journey from tee to green is actually downhill, playing just more than 200 yards. The green itself, however, slopes from front-bottom up to a higher back. Shots missed to the back-left pocket likely create fearsome recoveries back down to lower levels. Although there is a ring of protective bunkers that circle the putting area at a distance, most shots in the vicinity will funnel down to the green.

Tom Doak is perhaps the most knowledgeable architect when it comes to the work of Alister MacKenzie, so it's no surprise he worked a tribute to the Sitwell into Barnbougle Dunes." (Photo Cred: Barnbougle Dunes)

Another tribute came when ownership of Lac La Belle completed an ambitious redesign of its existing course for its 2020 reopening. The No. 4 green is a 170-yard par three, the largest putting surface at a course full of large putting surfaces. Its green, which features an intimidating false front, is dominated by a large collection area at the center of the green, plus a series of smaller target areas toward the top of the slope. Ownership recognized the potential for aces at these higher areas, and therefore implemented a policy that those who managed to get home in one would receive an 1896 British one-penny piece.

Craig Haltom provided a number of bold greens at The Club at Lac La Belle, none more so than the Sitwell tribute at No. 4." (Photo Cred: Ryan Book)

This terminology post coincides with the debut of a new course that is stirring the pot almost as much as MacKenzie’s original Sitwell greens.

Landmand Golf Club, the heralded 18-hole debut design for the King-Collins group, has already made a splash with the size of its putting surfaces. Four holes will feature greens of more than 25,000 square feet, and the No. 17 putting area pushes the needle at an eye-watering 3,250 square meters (35,000 sq. ft). The design duo has openly proclaimed the hole to be a Sitwell tribute.

No. 17 at Landmand Golf Club is almost as bold as the original Sitwell, a massive putting surface covering more than 3,250 sq. ft. (Photo Credit: Landmand Golf Club)

It will be an interesting litmus test for the golf community to argue how proper a “Sitwell” this green truly is. There is no doubt that the putting surface includes a number of separate gathering areas, however due to the grand nature of this green, these gathering areas are also rather large. Photos of the original No. 12 at Sitwell show a green that appears almost pock-marked with obvious gathering areas; does the size of the gathering areas on the Landmand version equate to the original Sitwell’s intent? We encourage you to let us know as soon as you’ve had a chance to try it.

We can say that it shares one thing with MacKenzie’s “Sitwell”: unprecedented ambition.

It’s worth noting that the Landmand version is a par four, which separates it from the other examples we’ve focused on so far. This does not prevent it from being a true “Sitwell,” however. Although the term “Sitwell” most often refers to the No. 12 par three at the original course, MacKenzie of course built similar putting features onto other non-short holes at the club. “Sitwell” is a style of a green, versus a template hole. The use of such a green on a longer hole does not cancel comparisons to MacKenzie’s original(s).

That’s the simple summary of the “Sitwell.” The discussion of whether such an ambitious green fits in at a great golf course? That’s a conversation that can stretch much longer. There’s only one thing more complex than discussing the merits of such a green…and that’s actually putting on it.


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