V is for Valley
Everyone knows that the National Golf Links of America is the holy land for template golf architecture, as C.B. Macdonald set out almost all of these holes based on UK precedents, which he would continue to refresh and recycle at courses to come. You need to wait until the second hole for that reality to set in, however, as the opener at NGLA is a Macdonald original.
National Golf Links of America 1st hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
“Valley” is nearly driveable with modern technology, at 330 yards, but Macdonald’s creative design has maintained its challenge. From the tee, players hit down into the title valley, and the friendly slopes help the first shot of the day back down into the fairway. Bolder individuals can choose to go over the bunker-laden hilltop along the left (mind you, there are more bunkers than you can see. If you don’t see a ball roll up the fairway on the other side, be concerned). Even the resulting short pitch back up to the perched green guarantees nothing. The first hole features what many consider the club’s most turbulent green. Although not quite crowned, poorly-struck putts will still feed off the edges of the green, potentially into the bunkers along the right.
Those who take a less-daring route to the right side of the fairway will probably have a blind approach to this roller coaster green. A bunker set in the fairway features a tall backing mound that obscures the uphill approach.
“Valley” is not nearly as prevalent as other templates in the MacRaynor library and—considering that it’s a Macdonald original and not based on European originals—some may consider whether it merits the “template” status at all. Fortunately for our side of the argument, Macdonald named one other hole “Valley.” No. 8 at the Mid Ocean Club follows a similar formula, but reverses the sides of the fairway. This time the safe route is to go left of a hillside that rolls in from the right, which results in a partially obscured look and a less favorable angle to a green that angles front-right to back-left. The tiger may try to take advantage of a (Mid)ocean breeze to carry the hillside and get the perfect angle to the green, but those who come up short will be provided an awkward lie on the hill, aiming at a daunting green. Although not as topsy-turvy as NGLA’s, the green slants aggressively downhill from back to front...staying below the pin is essential. Two bunkers lurk on the left, very deep as Macdonald and Raynor built the green up using soil from an irrigation pond nearby.
Mid Ocean Club 8th hole - image courtesy of John Sabino
Subtler, the “Valley” at Seth Raynor’s Blue Mound Golf and Country Club is more akin to NGLA’s standard than many realize. For one, No. 6. is named “Strategy”... and to further confuse matters, the course has a hole named “Valley” at No. 14 (which is not linked to any template). Finally, the geography is not nearly as dramatic as the examples at NGLA and Mid Ocean (but the downward tee shot and upward approach remains). The ideal tee shot is less risky, but the player must have their distance measured. There are three bunkers, evenly distributed, that jut in from the left fairway. The player’s goal is to choose a landing area between two of these (or aim to drive the full 335 yards to the green), which will provide the best angle of approach. The first fairway hazard on the right appears about 200 yards out. Those who truly muff their tee shot and land in the right of this bunker will be fully blind to the green. Those who land in the fairway or in the left portion of the hazard will not be fully blinded, but another deep bunker at the green’s front-right will block their view to certain sections of the green (which is contoured to mimic its inspiration at NGLA). Playing to the right will always create some challenge during your approach; how much challenge is determined by your execution. The green is more geometric in a classic Raynor style, and is surrounded by “moat” bunkers at the rear, left and right.
Blue Mound Golf & Country Club 6th hole - image courtesy of Jerry Rossi
As “Valley” is not a popular template per se, it is not replicated frequently and—when it is—the architects may simply be following the lay of the land. One example is at a more modern Long Island classic. Like at NGLA, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw open Friar’s Head with a drive down into a valley and back up to a green on a plateau. In this case, a drive down the left risks running into the treeline protecting the driveway. Although the angle is not necessarily better than that from the right, it will involve less of a forced carry than the approach from the other side. The waste area on the right of the hole continues up the hill and almost touches the green, creating a muddling effect that confuses the player where the hazard ends and the green begins. Those approaching from the left will not need to be as nervous about the approach, as they have very little sand to carry.
Friar's Head 1st hole - image courtesy of Fergal O'Leary
MAYBE... MAYBE NOT
There is another template that could easily be misconstrued for a “Valley.” The “Knoll” concept is built around playing up to a green perched at the top of a hill, and many examples of this template also involve driving down into a valley before playing up to that green (although a downward tee shot is not necessary for a true Knoll). Consider, for example, No. 13 at Piping Rock Club. This hole features a play down into a valley, and then back up the green atop the Knoll. Unlike a “Valley,” however, there is not necessarily strategy from the tee box when considering a Knoll. Almost all emphasis is on the player’s trusting their distance during the uphill approach, whereas Valleys put at least equal emphasis on placement of the tee shot to determine the difficulty of the approach shot. Of course, sometimes a gut check can be just as telling. How high is the green perched, and how steep is the rise? A Knoll typically rises higher at a more aggressive slope to the green than a “Valley.”
Piping Rock Club 13th hole - image courtesy of Jon Cavalier @LinksGems
The “gut check” test comes into play with at least one Seth Raynor entry as well. No. 13 at the Country Club of Charleston shows some similar features to a “Valley,” including a drive down from a ridge and an arc of bunkers along the right (which appears like it might have a blinding intent). However, does the green really rise high enough to satisfy the “Valley” requirement? Do the fairway bunkers truly muddle the approach? As we say, “maybe, maybe not.” More damningly, the strategy from the tee is different from a true “Valley.” In this case, the ideal approach angle is from the right, actually encouraging players to hit toward the “blinding” bunkers. Within a typical “Valley,” shooting toward these blinding bunkers would result in a less ideal angle of approach, while a different set of hazards would serve to threaten more aggressive tee shots down the left.