Road Hole Shorts

Golf Design, golf, golf, GOLF

Golf Course Architect – designer or entertainment professional?

By Mary Armstrong/For the Sun-News

Posted: 07/29/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT

Forgive me if it seems I’m being vain, but Golf Course Architecture, above most other design disciplines has enjoyed an historic recognition of individual designers unparalleled in other design fields. The profession is filled with historic and contemporary quirky characters and entertaining stories. The influx of professional golfers into the ranks has only enforced the perception that golf architects are special. When I arrive at a new project, I sometimes feel the client is disappointed if I’m not eccentric or at least on the crazy side of normal. In other words, some entertaining is expected. Fortunately, my song and dance has been pretty good.

This all results in golf architects celebrity being a couple points shy of a five pointed star. It’s easy to understand the hype as golf architects are not only allowed, but paid handsomely to play in a 200 acre sandbox, sometimes without interruption or intervention by the client. Media and lore seemingly ties our creations to our persona. In some circles our creations are admired and “collected” with even more vigor and fanaticism than art collectors pursue a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. Where does this notoriety come from in Golf Course Architecture? Was it the public’s adoration of Ross’ creations?

Muirhead’s unrelenting personal expressionism? Never ending stories of Tillinghast’s adventures? Bendelow’s twelve stakes on a Sunday afternoon? Or perhaps the globe-trotting persona of Robert Trent Jones? Whatever the derivation, we as a profession have never discouraged this type of publicity and many have gone out of their way to encourage it.

Sadly, today we hear all kinds of discussion about what’s wrong with golf. More than occasionally that involves, “golf is becoming too expensive”. There are lots of reasons that golf is becoming more expensive – most of which are out of the hands of golf architects. Below is a short list of things that we designers don’t control that often elevates the cost of golf and sometimes ends up in financial ruin for the facility.

– A clubhouse that is too large, expensive to maintain, or requires a mostly idle staff.

– A poor site – meaning location, soils or topography

– A real estate developer that wants to sell houses, not operate a golf course for profit.

I’ve hammered real estate developers in this column before. I understand that their intention is to produce a profit and golf course communities have historically produced stronger profits even while spending exorbitant fees for celebrity designers. In turn the celebrity designers go over budget because they don’t have the design experience of true design professionals.

Golf Course Architecture, perhaps more than any design discipline that I know, requires a strong knowledge in a diverse range of subjects such as civil engineering, landscape architecture, agronomy, and of course the game itself. And yet the public’s attachment to celebrity results in project after project being designed by a “name” – one that doesn’t have that knowledge or experience. The best case scenario is the “name” has able assistants that cover for the “name”. The worst case is that the “name” has such an ego that he or she does the “arm waiving thing” and blows the budget with a golf course that no one can play or maintain. Believe me, it happens.

Celebrity golf architect or not, we as the designers of the “game boards” must pay closer attention to the every day player’s declining purchasing power. Here are some things that I would like to see golf architects promote to hold the line on costs:

– Stay within budget – the construction budget should be relatively easy to meet, but the resulting maintenance budget is more elusive and all too often hardly considered.

– In the last 20 years, the trend has been to opening day conditions that are perfect. Indeed, most courses built today will never be better than the day they open. The industry needs to retract from this trend and encourage owners to reduce costs by delaying excessive work until the project has proven itself and cash flow can support improving conditions or adding niceties. In the old days a course had to mature – we should go back to that standard.

– The enormous earth moving capability and large construction budgets have reduced the skill required by golf architects in course routing. It has also made horrible golf courses out of undesirable property.

– Hold the ego in check. There was a time when “signature hole” was usually one of a few holes that were especially dramatic, aesthetic or strategic. Today many courses have 18 signature holes.

Above all, keep golf courses fun – if the Architect is trying to prove something – most often he or she will bring your game to its knees.

Something different

I’m going to do a column soon that answers questions you might have for me. If you’ve already submitted a question, thanks very much. If not, you may by emailing

A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog:


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