Stanley Thompson Philosophy

Stanley Thompson himself summarizes his design philosophy by saying, "The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced golfer without discouraging the duffer while adding to the enjoyment of both.” 

Stanley Thompson in About Golf Courses Their Construction and Up-Keep; 1923

Natural artistry has been ascribed as the essence of Stanley Thompson’s design philosophy. The harmonious blending of artfully sculpted golf landforms with the surrounding environment, omni-present natural features and breathtaking views was and remains the anchor to the classic, uniquely Thompson dynamic. Thompson golf holes were created to look as if they had always been there and were always meant to be there.

If "natural artistry” is the essence, then a memorable quote from the Master himself on his philosophy in design speaks to his profound obsession with the creation of course routings which effortlessly integrated golf’s recreational, physical and cathartic health benefits. "The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced golfer without discouraging the duffer while adding to the enjoyment of both”.

In his publication, About Golf Courses: Their Construction and Upkeep, Stanley Thompson & Co. Limited, Toronto, Montreal, Cleveland, circa 1930, Thompson wrote about his thoughts on the design of golf courses. Following is an excerpt from this publication which best describes the philosophy of Stanley Thompson in his own words.

"In selecting a golf course site, in addition to its accessibility, there are other factors which should be taken into consideration, the most important of which is not its picturesqueness, although this is an important item. Apart from the general suitability of the terrain for golf the deciding factor should be the chemical and physical character of the soil, as the proper selection will save the club thousands of dollars in construction and maintenance. It would be almost criminal for a committee to obligate a club to certain land without first being sure as to its suitability. The average green committee changes from year to year and usually has far more enthusiasm than knowledge. Wherever any work is attempted, outside of ordinary maintenance, the experience of most clubs has been that a great amount of money has been squandered."


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One hundred and thirty acres is sufficient to lay out a course on. Less than this should not be used, unless the peculiar character of the land permits, as the course is then apt to be confined and cramped, as well as dangerous. Anything in excess of 130 acres will permit the architect to work in landscape features. This is an item that cannot be overlooked, for the fascination of golf is not due solely to the science of the shots, but rather to the aesthetic effect of environment.

Cutten FieldsLately there has been a reaction – and rightly so – against the artificiality and grotesqueness of certain architecture. Nature must always be the architect’s model. The lines of bunkers and greens must not be sharp or harsh, but easy and rolling. The development of the natural features and planning the artificial work to conform to them requires a great deal of care and forethought. In clearing fairways, it is good to have an eye to the beautiful. Often it is possible, by clearing away undesirable and unnecessary trees on the margin of fairways, to open up a view of some attractive picture and frame it with foliage.

Water not only makes good mental and actual hazards, but by the picture which can be created adds greatly to the effect of a course if treated in a natural way. Streams, ponds, and even open ditches, if properly made, give variety, not only to the play, but the aspect of the course, and through their steady motion or quiet permanence inspire a feeling of restful calm.

Open areas may be demarked by the judicious grouping of trees, which may define the fairways or act as a screen to hide some undesirable feature. Oftentimes the natural beauty of many a golf course, which the average player assumes was always present, has been created by the skill of the engineer who can see opportunities for beauty in the rough woods, swamps or fields that mean nothing to the unskilled eye. The absence or presence of the above features, among others will decide whether continuous play on a course becomes monotonous or otherwise.


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The actual course should be over 6,000 yards in length, but not much in excess of 6,500, as it then becomes too strenuous. More length will be necessary on clay soils than on sand or loam ones. Sandy loam is the ideal soil for a golf course; it permits of play earlier in the spring and later in the fall, its natural drainage being better, and worm casts are not so troublesome in sand, because they disintegrate much more readily.

The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced player, without discouraging the "duffer”, while adding to the enjoyment of both. This is not an easy task, but is by no means an insoluble one. The absence of the cross bunkers has largely made it possible. One should always keep in mind that more than 85% of the golfers play 90 or over. These are the men that support the clubs and therefore the course should not be built for the men who play in the 70 class.

As soon as a player departs from the straight and narrow path, some penalty should follow. Unless this is so, the game loses some of its enjoyment, for it is only by accomplishing what is difficult that gives satisfaction and pleasure. The most popular courses are by no means the easiest ones and the wise committee will see that the course is difficult, but not impossible.

Every shot in the game should be planned and the holes should be so arranged that each one is different from the following one. There should be three or four short holes – five is perhaps one too many, as the remaining holes are apt to be unbalanced. They should be interspersed – not, however, near the beginning or the end. In the former case they tend to congest the course, while in the latter the player who happens to be down is discriminated against. There should be six or seven good two-shotters, with alternate tees for the lengthening or shortening of the holes as the ground is hard or soft or the direction of the wind, to preserve their values. The rest should be apportioned between pitch and iron shots for the second.


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Beware of three-shotters, unless there is some special natural feature demanding them. The starting holes should be comparatively easy, so as not to congest the course; the finishing ones should be long and difficult, for they are often the deciding ones in a match and no one should win a game on an easy hole. The fewer the blind holes the better. The bunkers around the greens should always be visible when within striking distance. A wider margin will naturally be given for a brassie shot than a mashie, but in no case should the bunkers be unfair. One should be able to get out with one shot without Herculean effort.

The placing and contouring of greens requires serious consideration, as they must blend into the surrounding terrain. Seventy per cent of the putting surface should be available for the placing of the hole. If this is so a putted ball will not increase its momentum after leaving the club. Drainage must at all costs be taken care of. A green should face the shot but should never recede from the player for the very reason that it will be invisible. A practice green and extra putting green helps to pass away the time while waiting, as well as developing one’s game.

The first and tenth tee should be at the club house, as on crowded days both nines can be used for the first hour. As considerable play takes place in the late afternoon, if possible do not face too many holes into the west, because of the irritation of the sun. The careful placing of bunkers and proper treatment of the rough tends to speed up play by eliminating lost balls.” Stanley Thompson

The Stanley Thompson Society has recently been forwarded  from Thompson protege Geoffrey Cornish, an original copy of About Golf Courses: Their Construction and Upkeep written by Thompson himself which is available for viewing at the University of Guelph Archives. 


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