The Framing “School” of Architecture, and An Unpopular Defense of Robert Trent Jones II

Here’s a line that appeared in a feature on Monterey’s Poppy Hills, a lesser-known former member of the “Clambake” circuit, having replaced Cypress Point. That’s like…being whoever takes over for Tom Brady whenever he dies. It’s a ridiculous expectation, but that doesn’t seem to be the only thing that prompted critical reviews. Robert Trent Jones II (RTJ2 from here on out) recently returned to smooth rough edges, and all seems well. But this line from The Fried Egg got this week’s post a-rolling:

“After decades of churning out courses that exemplified what Geoff Shackelford calls the “framing school” of golf architecture, the firm began in the mid-2000s to embrace the strategic school and the ground game.”

More golfers than ever are buying into the art of architecture. And yet we reckon the idea “framing” is lost on most. Most of us are familiar with the Strategic, Heroic, and Penal “schools” of design, so we won’t waste your time on them. But fewer are familiar with another trio. For one, the “Natural” school is the OG, and has since returned to glory thanks to Doak, Hanse, C&C and that whole gang (remember…the schools can overlap). The other two aren’t really schools, per se. They’re pretty much just insults aimed at half-assed designers. First, the “Freeway” philosophy is simply taking a piece of land and cramming straightforward holes into them. A better term might be the “cheap municipal park method”; even doglegs are rare in this field. The other diss is the aforementioned “framing.”

This one’s tougher to define. The most common explanation is the construction of hazards that no one has any business hitting into. This is best exemplified in bunkers tucked way off the fairway. Sometimes this is the result of renovations, which leave formerly-useful bunkers stranded. More often than not, it’s honestly just to make a weak design look pretty.

For the sake of transparency: BPBM is more pro-RTJ2 than the average course-design-based blog. Many simply lump them in the same Penal group as their father, but he and brother Rees have exaggerated their father’s heroic tendencies as part of their design philosophies, and provided more fun for adventurous golfers in the process. Robert, in particular, tends toward Tom Fazios’s better half—creating courses that deliver on such an aesthetic level that you’re willing to shrug off a worthless bunker here and there. We generally enjoy the opportunity to play Tom Fazio courses, Rees Jones courses, and especially RTJ2 courses. Sometimes if you put the Blood Incantation record away for a minute, you can have fun with the more simple joy of a Six Feet Under record.

Need a more hands-on look at the difference between “Framing” and…everything else? Well let’s bring ol’ RTJ2 in for examples! We’ve selected two Par 5s from his Prairie View Golf Club design in Carmel, IN—a course that certainly bounces between penal and strategic in its philosophy…and one that we certainly wouldn’t mind having in our neighborhood.

It features many holes we love. And many holes others will hate. Such is Prairie View, and RTJ2.

No. 7 @ Prairie View Golf Club

FRAMING: No. 7

So here’s the thing: No. 7 at Prairie View is not a bad hole, per se. It’s beyond reachable, and those going for it in two will face a stiff greenside test. That’s the most basic formula for a winning short Par 5. But across the first 520 yards…there’s definitely some framing going on. We’ll look at the holes from both the back tees and the middle tees for reference.

Photo Cred: Google…we guess?

Alright, we’re teeing off. The first thing we see is the large bunker along the right fairway. Farther down, a pair of sizable bunkers intrude from the left side. They look good, for sure. But do they have any impact on your play? Those of us playing from the back tees, even if we go right, only need to hit 250 to get past the far end of the first bunker. For middle players? A mere 185. But how much distance do we have to work with on this relatively wide fairway? As long as we’re not driving 385 (or 320 from the middle tees), there’s no way we end up in the second set of fairway bunkers.

That’s 135 yards of hazard-free landing area, requiring relatively little challenge to end up on. That first bunker is a moot point. And, as you’ll see, so is the second set (unless you really mucked up that tee shot).

Photo Cred: Space Angels

Let’s say your first drive was around 280 or 250—average numbers for our respective players. Now you’ve got two choices. The middle of the green is 250 away (208), somewhat inviting to a long draw, but guarded at the gates by two (fully-functional) bunkers. Another bunker awaits in back for anyone who tries to be safe by taking too much club (the group behind us proved this latter trap’s effectiveness while we were still putting. Hope that egg got fried, jerk). The other, and wiser option, is to lay up.

This means carrying that second set of bunkers, of course. Which—using those same theoretical numbers from your first drive—will only require about 140 yards of carry (110) to get past the bunkers. Ideally, you’ll be aiming to hit 185 (140) to set yourself up for the best third shot anyway. That second set of bunkers is more useful than the first, but ultimately a competent golfer would play this hole exactly the same, regardless of whether those first three bunkers existed.

And that’s the essence of a “framing” hazard. Sure they look good…but bunkers bleed money. Cutting ineffective ones from a design like this is a spending boon, especially for the more liquid budget of a public track.

Photo Cred: Our Eventual Search Engine Overlords

STRATEGIC: No. 3

No. 3 features a less RTJ2 vibe than the more dramatic nos. 13 and 18, but this Par 5 is—at its core—the best design of the bunch. At 590 (and 540, respectively), no non-pro is getting to this green in two. But the placement of every hazard has an impact on the goal of your second shot.

Photo Cred: The incredibly incompetent BPBM graphics team.

Off the tee, you’ll see four bunkers curving along the fairway up the right side, following the direction of the hole. This is a tee shot that asks for left-to-right movement, so it all adds up. Now, if the last of those bunkers ended 250 yards out—as with No. 7—they would be irrelevant. Here, they don’t. They end at 300 yards (250), very much in play for someone with a slice, or who takes a risk riding the right fairway edge. This will push more conservative players back toward the center (which might be just fine depending on your strategy for the second shot).

Photo Cred: Ya know…”SEO” could totally stand for “Search Engine Overlord.”

Now you see the second hazard line; an S-bunker jutting into the fairway from the right. The bolder player can choose to attempt carrying the hazard, setting up an unmarred approach to the green. But, assuming you hit a 280 yard drive, it will take 195 yards through the air to carry the bunker. Certainly doable, certainly risky.

Going to the left is considerably easier, but will set you up for an 110-yard pitch over or around three deepish bunkers guarding the entry ramp/front-of-green.

As is often the case with the Jones crew, you will eventually have to pick a poison—and that’s an argument for another day. The point here is that all hazards measure into the strategy of No. 3. No “framing” here.

Think we’re full of crap and want to automatically write off RTJ2 because, hey, you read a blog post once and now you’re the guy? Mouth off @BethpageBlackMetal on Instagram or @BPBlackMetal on Twitter.

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