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The Element of Space

Space - A three-dimensional area within which objects exist.

The three-dimensional area where objects exist, Space, can be divided into the area within which objects exist (positive space) and the area beyond which objects exist (negative space).  Positive space specifically refers to the area represented inside the line which defines its specific form.  Negative space is the area outside that same line, encompassing its own contrasting shape.  Both positive and negative spaces are the embodiment of the dualistic yin and yang, complementing each other while at the same time acting as interdependent forms.

I was first exposed to the concept of positive versus negative space in one of my early design studios in college.  That lesson first opened my eyes to view a particular object in multiple ways.  Some humans are pre-conditioned to look at things only one way, but when considering positive and negative space, a whole other dimension is exposed to the viewer.

Site planning is the creation of adjacent spaces.  A disjointed plan is evident when one focuses on creating individual areas without exploring how those spaces relate to each other at the same time.  One must consider the form of the negative space that surrounds each of those positive spaces, how that negative space helps connect those spaces, and its function within the overall design.

Site planning in golf course design is when a golf course architect begins to lay out golf holes (routing the golf course) and proceeds when he or she begins to lay out the space of each golf hole.  The spaces that make up a hole are tees, fairways, sand bunkers, 

Positive vs Negative Space

Compositions formed through interaction of positive and negative space provide dramatically contrasting perspectives.


The negative space remaining from the positive space of created golf features ties those positive spaces together to create a seamless and unified design.

Skydoor Golf Club
   Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China

water features, and greens.  Each can be viewed upon as positive spaces.  The extent of rough on a given golf hole can be considered the negative space.

The aesthetic impact of a particular golf feature is strengthened by the negative space imparted on the feature’s positive space.  Without the existence of the outside (negative) space of a cape and bay bunker, for instance, the line created by the space and the visual impact on the surrounds is not as effective.  When properly designed, the negative space of a fairway line developed by the bunker may be just as visually captivating as the sand bunker itself.

Positive space and negative space can change based on different perspectives.  For instance, fairway is the negative space when it relates to the positive space of a bunker edge.  Yet fairway becomes the positive space when contrasted with adjacent rough, which becomes the negative space. 

In golf course design, the relationship between adjacent spaces is strong when those spaces are linked through strategy.  For instance, the placement of fairway bunkers that influence a decision by the golfer is directly related to the portion of the fairway which is adjacent to those bunkers.  Whereas the hazard is the positive space that defines a strategic choice, the adjacent fairway is the negative space the golfer sees as the actual target.

Keller Bunkers.jpg

The negative space established from the positive space created through a pair of bunkers draws visual and strategic attention as well.

Keller Golf Course 12th Hole, Maplewood, Minnesota
Photo by: David Parker

Penal hazards are spaces that do not strategically relate to the intended target.  For example, there is no strategic relationship between a fairway and the sand bunkers located along its sides that strictly catch shots that miss the fairway.  Neither the bunkers nor the fairway are strategically dependent upon each other.  The fairway stands alone as its own space to be negotiated by the golfer.  The bunkers only exist to catch missed shots and don’t impact a strategic choice by the golfer other than simple survival.  In penal situations such as this, the relationship between adjacent spaces is weak.

The shape and location of the spaces surrounding a putting surface influence how a golfer strategically considers the target (the green).  For instance, the best approach to play a Redan hole is to bounce the tee shot onto the front right portion (highest point) of the putting surface and allow the ball to track along the slope to the green’s lowest point at the back left corner (the original Redan is the 190-yard, par-three fifteenth hole at North Berwick Golf Club in North Berwick, Scotland). 


The ill-advised approach, yet most instinctual, is to play the tee shot directly over two front-left bunkers.  Because of the length and necessary trajectory of the approach, it is virtually impossible to keep a ball on the putting surface taking that route.  Strategically, the space created by the two front left bunkers relates to the space created by the putting surface because those sand bunkers guard the front left portion of the green and force a risky tee shot.  In this instance, the Redan green’s surrounding bunkers relate to the green because of the inherent strategy in choosing that line of flight to the hole.  

Three additional bunkers are found to the front right of the Redan’s putting surface and are also crucial to the strategy of the golf hole.  Golfers who understand where the tee shot should land to take advantage of the green’s predominant slope must play as close to those bunkers as possible in order to use the backside of their faces to kick balls towards the back left corner of the putting surface.    The bunkers catch tee shots which just miss this slope.  

The negative space that makes up the kick-slope on one side and the bunker face on the other side is crucial to the strategy of the hole.  That negative space also forms a visual bridge between the sand and the green. In both strategic and aesthetic terms, the back face of the bunkers bleeding into the putting surface creates a strong relationship between adjacent spaces.

Many imitations of the original Redan green lack the kick-slope face between the right-side bunkers and the putting green, leaving the golfer with no chance to use the slope to direct the ball toward the target.  These hazards are spaces that do not strategically relate to the adjacent putting surface because they only penalize a poor shot. In these examples, the green stands alone as its own space and the bunkers only catch a missed shot.  The result is a weak relationship between adjacent spaces.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the negative space between both a putting surface and surrounding features can be the difference between a design that is pleasing to the eye versus one that is not.  The Element of Space is often neglected when designers couple odd-shaped features such as greens and surrounding hazards with little relationship to each other.  

Redan Hole-Sketch.jpg

North Berwick Golf Club 15th Hole (watercolor)
 North Berwick, United Kingdom

Without addressing the element of space, a green complex can become disjointed and evoke a poor reaction from the golfer.  A strong visual relationship between a putting surface and adjacent sand bunkers (or other surrounding hazards) is one where both the negative and positive spaces are intentionally considered in the design process. 

Some Redan holes adapted in the works of Charles Blair MacDonald and his disciples (Seth Raynor, Charles Banks, and Ralph Barton) are excellent examples of how the negative space created between the back bunker and the putting surface creates a pleasing, naturally-appearing composition.

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Yeamans Hall Club 6th Hole 
 Hanahan, South Carolina

For example, the fifth hole at Yeamans Hall Club, a Redan designed by Raynor in Charleston, South Carolina, has a trio of sand bunkers aligned along the back side of the green extending the length of the putting surface.  The ridge connecting these bunkers to the putting surface seamlessly flows into both the edge of the green and the edge of each bunker because the negative space connecting the bunkers and the green was designed and shaped with consideration of the positive spaces it connects.

The relationship between positive and negative spaces is crucial when creating grassing lines on a golf course.  The strongest visual relationship is between the positive space of fairway lines and the negative space of the surrounding rough.  The negative space created by fairways is a void that leads the eye to a line defining the edge of the playing area, typically in the form of trees, rough, sandy waste, or native areas.  

The advent of rough in golf course design evolved through the desire to penalize mis-hit shots, eventually transitioning into a strong visual design component as well.  The deeper the rough, the stronger the line between it and the fairway became, strengthening the aesthetic impact yet inadvertently increasing the difficulty of the game as well.

Although ‘contour mowing’ originally followed the contours of the ground, this nineteen-sixties approach to mowing fairways became more and more curvilinear over time with its own aesthetic appeal.  Contour mowing replaced the straight-line fairway mowing of the Golden Age when designers focused more on strategy than aesthetics regarding grassing patterns.

As irrigation systems advanced at the same time, contour-mowing of fairways became more common and coincided with the rise of the PGA Tour, leading many to decide that golf was a game best presented as a difficult challenge rather than an enjoyable experience.  Contour mowing widened certain areas off the tee and narrowed other areas.  The inconsistency of golfers and deep rough led to penal playing conditions.

In recent years, design has moved away from contour mowing and deep rough, maintaining lower rough or just one cut of height for playing surfaces beyond the green.  The goal is to make the game more fun and enjoyable with less focus on aesthetics.  But without a visual relationship created between the positive space of the fairway and the negative space of the rough, the composition of the golf hole becomes homogenous yet more playable.  One height of cut reverse-engineers the negative effects of aesthetics that slowly crept into the game of golf and re-introduces width and strategic options.

There is a happy medium, though, where one can utilize the negative space of rough in such a way as to promote strategy and aesthetics on equal terms.  It requires wide fairways that incorporate natural features or man-made hazards to create strategic options. Weaving fairway lines around hazards (central or otherwise) or cutting fairway lines tight around putting surfaces creates visual movement with the intention of offering choices to gain a strategic advantage.  The space defined by the lines of a fairway around hazards and contrasting rough is not only strategically functional but pleasing to the eye as well.  

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North Berwick Golf Club 15th Hole (watercolor)
 North Berwick, United Kingdom

Fairway wrapping around a hazard creates strategic benefit in addition to aesthetics gained through a positive and negative spatial relationship.

Space as a continuous area within lines is as broad a definition as one can consider yet it is the primary Element that develops cohesiveness in design.  In golf architecture, the full use of space allows for all portions of a golf hole to work together seamlessly.  These parts are all tied together through the glue of negative space.  The better golf course designers make great use of the negative space within a property, efficiently weaving all portions together for strategy, aesthetics, and a sense of place. 

Braemar Drone.JPG

Braemar Golf Course
Edina, Minnesota

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