The Complexity of Walter’s Greens

Building new greens to Walter’s Drawings at Penn Hills in Bradford Pa.

by Ian Andrew

I’m often asked who do you think built the best greens and I believe the answer is Walter Travis. Lots of great Golden Age architects built great greens, but I can’t think of anyone who built as many one-off, never-seen-that-before, jaw dropping greens as Walter. It’s the unusual combinations of features in unexpected direction, comfortable going high, low, wide and really narrow. What’s left behind is some of the greatest compartments and pin locations the game has seen. If you’ve seen the throne pin (7th) at Penn Hills, you know were talking about something singular in the game.

I had a very unique opportunity a few years ago. I was asked to build three new greens at Penn Hills using his original drawings. Walter had planned for the second nine, but had passed away before the course was expanded to eighteen. In the end Dick Wilson was asked to add nine. The contrast between Walter’s undulating greens (holes 2 through 10) and the new ones is a little jarring. I was asked if I could turn three of them into Travis greens to begin to blend the nines.

When I looked at the original green drawing for the 13th I recognized the basic concept well. It was one of the more common greens Walter liked to use, the crease green, and there was a dandy on the 6th hole at Lookout Point. The crease is set on a diagonal to play falling with grade and the back plateau is slightly higher than the front to emphasize the swale. But Walter wasn’t done and had planned to dissect the back plateau with a small valley leading away from the middle valley. This left the back on the green with two high plateaus on either side of the central valley.

Most architects feel a crease green is already a bold concept, but this is why Walter is special. The back pins require playing to completely opposite sides of the fairway on your second shot if you want to try and get a ball to either shelf.

The 12th green that was benched into a strong hillside. It did use a tier to compensate for the elevation change, which most architects will use, but that’s where the normal answers end. Where the obvious choice was a front left bunker, Walter zigged the other way and added a mound. This is really an unconventional choice, but a brilliant one since it creates really gentle pins behind and the ability to use that strong feature to putt down from the upper tier without running a ball off the green. Since you have a way down, the steep grade and tier became fair. Not easy … fair.

The mound created really strong contours on either side where the green rolled off. No front pin was easy despite the absence of bunkers. On the back right he built two ever steepening valleys that were separated by a strong roll. Putting up into them is fun, you might hit a putt by and watch it come in the back door if you’re lucky. But putting down or across is not meant to be. On the left side he built a high steep plateau with lots of room for a pin. Missing short left not only doesn’t reach the upper tier, but the ball spins right off the green and down the slope. Long is deader than dead.

It could have been two plateaus and it would not have been memorable. One he added the front mound, he added both complexity and playability. The rest of his decisions took that interesting green and made it something you will definitely remember. Play three days and you’ll be blown away by how you change your approach to the shots you hit.

One fact I should share with the reader was what Travis thought of when he designed his incredibly long and hard par threes. He thought of match play and the possibility that someone who was short, but possessed a great short game could outsmart the longer player. They could lay-up for position and pitch for position and put the pressure back on the longer player. If they could save three, even if they drew the hole, it would feel like a victory. If you want my advice for playing the 17th at Penn Hills, start by understanding the design concept and play for position.

I looked at the 17th green and thought, can I really build this? The 17th was a long par three with a green set at the top of the hill falling away in front and left. Walter had added a large set of mounds along the right side creating a high ridgeline. Missing right would be dead, so the addition of a bunker seems to be more about discouraging a bold tee shot than penalizing it.

The entire green falls hard from right to left with a series of knolls on the left flattening out the bottom of the green to create pin locations. But these mounds are spread further apart to let the water run out making those spots fast and tough to putt. The front and back are separated by a large diagonal ridge.  The front pitches very hard from right to left and really only the front left is a reasonable pin. The back has a bit more bowl shape making it more receptive and falls a little less severely from right to left.

You can get a ball back there, but the fact that its more than 200 yards and some twenty feet higher than the tee makes it a herculean task. Or one could simply play to the front bank and pitch to either pocket and try make a putt. I put this green back note for note and it’s the most beautiful of the set despite its challenge.

I look at what he designed for those three greens. I marvel at the complexity and the creativity needed to make those greens all memorable. The greens at Penn Hills are full of pockets, compartments, shelves, run-offs rolls and spines. I often look at a special green and say I wish I did that. I would be super proud if I had built that. I got to feel that way with his three greens, but the artist is still Walter, I just got to see inside his head for a few weeks and it was delightful place to be.

Every visit to Penn Hills, I take 30 minutes extra and spend it walking and admiring the 7th green. I work through the spaces and always finish with the throne pin. I always ask, how did you ever get the gall to do that. It’s clearly my favourite “pin” in golf. It’s why he’s the best, nobody else would have made that decision.