K is for KNOLL
Royal North Devon is not the only notable “Westward Ho” in Britain. Although Scotscraig Golf Club doesn’t seem as excitable about its signature hole (unlike at Devon, there’s no “!”), it can lay claim to the origin of the “Knoll” template.
James Braid found success by taking a knoll—defined by Webster’s as “a small, round hill”—and placing a green atop. And, at its bare bones, this is the essence of a “Knoll”... a green requiring a lofted approach, where missing in any direction means finding a slope covered in second-cut... or worse. In Scotscraig’s case, the worst-case scenario is a large pot bunker at the front-right. Not only are you battling from this beast to get out of the sand, you must add additional power to get up to the green. But of course not all up-and-downs are created equal, even from the second cut. The plateaued nature of the green, with a higher level at the back and a lower level at the fore, means staying below the flag is the ideal putting scenario. Good luck getting home in two from top-to-bottom, especially if you need a chip to do it. Although not “crowned,” the edges of the green do fall away.
Scotscraig Golf Club 4th hole - image courtesy of Scotscraig Golf Club
This par four is not especially long, topping out at 366 yards, but getting on in regulation at No. 4 requires avoiding a trio of fairway bunkers, before adding at least one extra club of loft. Gauging the correct club for approach can be challenging; although more heathland than links in nature, Scotscraig is only 15 miles from St. Andrews. There is enough wind to muddle your mind.
C.B. Macdonald and his associates created several versions of the Knoll. Although the rendition at Lido has (for the time being) been lost to time, Piping Rock’s No. 13 is a recognizable twist on the Scotscraig version, and it’s also the course’s signature hole. A new challenge comes right off the tee, as players will be hitting blind over a fairway crest. Although the landing area is plenty wide, the downhill nature of the shot means anyone hitting farther than 275 yards will roll off the fairway and possibly end up in Piping Rock’s rendition of Scotscraig’s hillside bunker, which is centered and not off-right. And then, of course, the raised green. This is nearly identical to its forebearer, featuring upper-back and lower-front platforms. Seth Raynor handled construction, and his fingerprints are immediately recognizable at the back of the green. The slope falls steeply for 20 feet (nearly twice the altitude as the front of the green) into a bunker surrounding the hill’s rear. It is a poor idea to miss long at Scotscraig. It is Book-of-Job-scale tragedy to miss long at Piping Rock (remember, the green atop that 20-foot climb slants away from you).
Piping Rock Club 13th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
It’s worthwhile to give Stanley Thompson, the Canadian great, a chance to shine. His fourth "Heich O’Fash" at Cape Breton Highlands Links was once a tempting target for big hitters, as the original back tees were a mere 275 yards to the green. Obviously the elevated nature of the green required utmost perfection from ambitious drivers, and four bunkers—one front-left of the green and a trio front-right—make the ground approach a hazardous one. Unfortunately, the original tee has since been moved for safety purposes, lengthening the hole to 325 yards. The good news is that it still plays as a traditional Knoll.
Highlands Links 4th hole
The Knoll’s concept sets itself up very well for Par 3 play, and several great examples exist around the world. The headliner is “Het Girdle” the 5th at Gleneagles King’s course, where Braid one-upped his original, both in terms of challenge and aesthetics. Rather than one bunker, Braid placed three deep bunkers into the front of the hill. A fourth bunker out front serves a “Shelly” purpose for those truly spooked at the tee. The trick is not to be fooled into missing long. Although the second-cut will probably slow down a hot downhill chip before it rolls into a front bunker, players shouldn’t test the odds. Left and right are the places to miss...but they aren’t much better than the don’t-miss places. Coming away with a par without also achieving GIR is unlikely.
Gleneagles King's course 5th hole
One concept traditionally attached to Donald Ross is the “Volcano” idea, which is essentially a “Knoll” Par 3. Sometimes the Scot would use one of his signature crowned greens for particular challenge, but the “Pulpit” hole at the Country Club of Buffalo is more traditional. The course sits atop an old quarry, and Ross dealt with a large rock formation by covering it with soil and adding a green. Playing 186 yards, No. 6 features a bunker at the right, as with Scotscraig, as well as an apron of fairway. Although this last element sounds friendly, it also encourages tee shots just a touch short to roll back down the steep grade, potentially to the bottom of the hill. Those who go too far will find an even less gracious up-and-down waiting. The lumpy limestone base creates a curious mess of bumps and humps at the back, a virtual Plinko board for overlong shots. Where you end up is anyone’s guess.
Country Club of Buffalo 6th hole - image courtesy of the CC of Buffalo
MAYBE… MAYBE NOT
Defining a “Knoll” is simple. Defining what is not a “Knoll” is less so. We understand that the green must be on a hill, which slopes away in all directions. But in the “Golden Age” of golf course architecture, raised greens of this ilk were common. Where does one draw the line? We’re opting to draw the line in terms of height. Does the amount of elevation from fairway-to-green live up to the challenge set by Braid at Scotscraig?
Consider the “Knoll” No. 14 at Yale. This one takes some special explanation because it is not named after the “Knoll” template at all. The title hill is actually set on the left side of the fairway, providing any number of odd lies and sporadic bounces from the tee. That said, Charles Banks acknowledged Scotscraig’s “Westward Ho” was indeed the inspiration for the hole. The green is raised and slopes down from all sides, but we would contend its eventual height doesn’t quite pack the punch of Macdonald’s effort at Piping Rock.
Yale golf course 14th hole - image courtesy of John Sabino
Sleepy Hollow Country Club receives a similar rebuff, although it should be noted that its current “Knoll” hole No. 9 (“Katrina’s Glen”) was not a contribution from Macdonald, Raynor or Tillinghast. Rather, Gil Hanse recommended upon his renovation that the club be restored to a 100% Macdonald vision. Thus Hanse replaced Tillinghast’s contributions and built a hole on the south end of the property that was relatively similar to Yale’s “Knoll,” albeit with a wobbling green more in line with his own at Streamsong Black.
Sleepy Hollow Country Club 9th hole - image courtesy of Gil Hanse
And, finally, to continue Tillinghast’s bad luck, we’re also going to rule out his contribution at Baltimore Country Club, both in terms of the green’s height and also due to a curiosity off of the tee. Players must cross a fairway crest to reach the presumed landing area. “Presumed” because, at 235 yards from the back tee and 220 yards from the green, it’s not so bad a thought for a skilled player to lay up to the top of the crest and play downhill to the green, rather than make an uphill approach from down in the “presumed” area. Needless to say, a downhill approach takes “Knoll” off the table.