Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Golf architect: The art of drawing up the course

this article was published in the Las Cruces Sun News on 4/30/10

it is a revised/extended version of “A good cart ride spoiled?”


Recently, a friend suggested “tongue in cheek” that I write an article that could be entitled: “How I ruin your round of golf”. I laughed and we had a short discussion about his idea. Although his comment was made to me in humor, I realize that there is a faction of the golfing public that believes part of my job is to make the course difficult.

 The idea that I could sell my services by making someone’s round of golf miserable is astounding to me. And yet, it’s easy to see why some people might think so. After all, much of today’s golf architecture is nothing if not overbearing and flashy. One could make the case that only the courses built on strict budgets are eminently playable, since the architect must be measured in his/her palette. If they are good at what they do, they’ll spend what’s needed to create ample playable corridors and an adequate irrigation system. If they don’t, well, make sure you bring plenty of balls and if you have an old set of clubs… you get the picture.

 The reality is that our very best golf architects are expert at making a course that is visually stunning, all the while creating a layout that the average player can enjoy. Interestingly, and as the masters’ laid down in “golf design law”, it is the player’s responsibility to avoid a hazard regardless of where it is positioned. According to Alister MacKenzie, John L. Low wrote one of the earliest definitive books on golf course design in 1903. In MacKenzie’s book The Spirit of

 St. Andrews, he paraphrases Low, “He propounded the principle that no bunker is unfair wherever it is placed. He elaborated his argument and showed how the most fascinating and interesting holes in golf have hazards placed in the exact positions where players would like to go if those hazards were not there. He illustrates this theme by the End Hole bunker (on the 9th) at St. Andrews. There, is a small deep hazard only about five yards across placed about one hundred and ninety yards from the tee in the direct line for the hole. John L. Low pointed out that a player has four alternatives: he can play to the left, right, short or over it, and if he gets into it he has only himself to blame.”

So how do you reconcile what seems to be a “license to kill” with the more modern golf design commandment “thou shalt not abuse”? A good question to be sure, but the answer is simpler than you might expect – experience. The required skills combine knowledge of various disciplines. So far as I know there is no bachelor’s or higher degree program for golf architecture. Developing these skills can only come from experience. One skill, perhaps the most obscure as it relates to course playability, is understanding how slopes affect the golf shot. A slope can propel a shot forward, repel it in a different direction or it can “catch” and retain it in the golfing corridor. A slope can be designed to be unnoticeable or so steep it looks like a wall. Finally, a fairway cross slope can be enough to direct a shot around a dogleg fairway with the natural contour of a hole, or it can be too much for the type of turf specified and the ball will roll out of the fairway regardless of the skill of the player. Understanding how to design these subtle features while properly routing stormwater off the site is just one of the numerous challenges for a golf architect.

 Golf Architecture involves understanding the game – how it is played, the rules, how the course is built and maintained, and how play is managed – overlaid by the technical and design skills one might be taught in a Landscape Architecture degree program. Accredited Landscape Architecture programs will include among others, classes on design, grading design, construction drawings, professional practice, master planning, planting design, and in some locales, irrigation design. As minor studies or areas of emphasis, someone entertaining a career in Golf Course Design should be taking courses in Civil Engineering, Surveying, Agronomy, Geology, Turf Science, Hydrology, and Environmental Science.

As you can see, a lot can go into the education and experience of a golf architect. Not all people “in the business” have taken all these courses or have the same experience. Some depend upon employees or subcontracted professionals to “round-out” their qualifications. So, how can the casual observer tell a good architect from a … not so good one? You may be asking yourself – what else could matter if the golf course is fun? Actually, there’s more than a few things. As patrons of a given course, we ordinarily wouldn’t know:

 o if the architect designed a course that was within the construction budget;

o how long it took to get the course designed;

 o if the plans were clear and concise;

 o how long it took to get the course permitted;

 o how much earth had to be moved and did any of it have to be moved more than once;

 o how long it took to build the course;

 o if there were construction change orders required and why;

o if there were proper erosion and sedimentation control measures and specification of materials;

 o if the course can be maintained within the Club’s annual budget;

 o if the golf course superintendent has an irrigation system that allows him or her to maintain the course as designed.

 These are just a few of many factors that are involved in getting a project from the signed design contract to opening day and beyond. Each one of these factors has dollar signs attached to it. Sometimes just one of these missteps can make the difference between a profitable facility and a golf course that can’t compete.

 Golf course design has come a long way from the early 20th century when Tom Bendelow used his method of “18 stakes and a Sunday afternoon,” to design hundreds of courses. Because of this colorful character and others, we can play 18 holes on a Sunday afternoon followed by a couple pints to toast this great game.


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