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“Turtleback greens” are a design technique synonymous with famed traditional golf course designer, Donald Ross. While many later designers began to use this concept on their course designs, the most famous example is from Donald Ross’ design of Pinehurst #2 in North Carolina — a true destination for any traditional golfer, be it as a spectator or player. The gentle, rolling nature of the course almost lulls golfers into believing that it’s not as challenging as seen on television, while as soon as you step foot on the lighting fast greens that look like upside down saucers — you think again.
“Turtleback greens” are defined by GolfClevelandOhio.com as “Old fashion greens which are high in the middle and low at the edges, similar to the outer shell of a turtle.” The basic concept of the design is to award great shots while rejecting poor shots. This article will eventually look at this design technique from a disc golf point of view, but initially, we will study why it’s so treacherous for traditional golfers and should be incorporated in disc golf course design, when possible.
For one to fully appreciate the daunting nature of “turtleback greens” you have to understand spin and the flight trajectory of a golf ball. Drivers and lower irons (3-5 irons for example) have a very low ball flight and less backspin than a more lofted club. Lower clubs, like 6 irons down to pitching wedges have much more loft, sending the ball higher in the air with more backspin and a softer approach to the green. While lower irons tend to fly, bounce and run forever, many skilled traditional golfers can actually spin the ball backwards with 8 irons down to sand wedges — but this is where the challenge comes in.
When staring at a “turtleback green,” what is your plan of attack? Do you hit a 9 iron into the middle of the green, have it take a big bounce and run over the back edge before it gets a chance to spin or “bite”? How about hitting the ball into the front face of the upslope — trying to play one big bounce before sitting — only to have the slope of the green kill the momentum of the ball, have it check up and spin back down the face to the fairway short of the green? Or do you hit lesser club, like a punch 7 iron with less spin and let it run up the face of the “turtleback” only to have it smoke through the green and down the other side. As you can see there are a lot of options, and it only gets worse when you miss the green and have to pitch onto the slippery green from 4” rough.
Anyone familiar with traditional golf will remember John Daly chipping the ball over the “turtleback” green on the 8th hole at Pinehurst #2 in the 1999 US Open multiple times before hitting the ball as it was still rolling back to his feet — incurring a two stroke penalty on his way to firing a 13-over round of 83. Frustrating indeed! Now one of the main differences between traditional golf design and disc golf course design is the issue of environmental impact. While traditional golf has an incredibly large foot print — removing trees, moving earth, operating within wetland setbacks, applying pesticides and so on — disc golf is quite the opposite. Disc golf course design is fun and challenging due to the fact that it is so environmentally conscious, and able to be applied to many unsuitable sites.
Unlike Donald Ross, though, disc golf course designs and their associated projects typically have small budgets. It is due to this fact that movement of earth and creation of “turtleback greens” is less than common — yet it can be done. The 6th hole at Hornet’s Nest in Charlotte, NC (cover photo) is a perfect example, as is our design of the 3rd hole of The Mobile Disc Golf Experience in Roseland, VA. Designers don’t need bulldozers to move earth around, but they do need to be creative — look for landfills or the remnants of fallen trees like the 13th hole at Beaver Ranch in Conifer, CO as natural “turtlebacks.”
“Turtleback greens” provide their own challenge in disc golf, and should be explored in disc golf course design. Since discs can’t spin back or sit as quick as golf balls, the spin factor doesn’t translate over, but the trajectory of the disc similar to that of a golf ball does. While discs can skip when they land, “turtleback greens” could reject some shots, but it really is all about the trajectory of the disc that will make this design concept so fun. Can you land the disc on the “turtleback”? If not, how close can you get it? While you obviously want your disc to land close, you REALLY need to land it close as the raised elevation of the basket makes putting incredibly difficult. Maybe not so much if you make every putt you look at, but the penalty for missed putts are so heightened that many players may just lay their disc under the basket instead of going for it, missing and have the disc continue to fly by the basket, ultimately missing their comebacker (see Putting Arcs and How to Minimize 3-Putting in Disc Golf article).
Take this piece of information and seek out “turtleback greens” when in your travels. Many parcels of land don’t afford the opportunity to integrate this design technique into a new course, so we encourage you to look for “slippery” greens that drop off on one side — continually rewarding good shots and punishing poor ones. Flat greens are boring and luck sometimes plays more of a factor than skill, so look for changes in elevation and stick those baskets on undulations whenever possible. Force players to think more than they feel comfortable doing, and make them prove that they have the skill set to birdie the hole by rewarding great shots through fair, yet challenging course design.