Modern playing equipment, construction machinery, design trends and environmental issues are having a major impact on the way that golf courses are being designed. In this article I will try to convey some of the key developments and to highlight issues which I believe are of particular relevance to golf development in new golf markets.
Developments in equipment technology have seen average drive distances increase on the European and US PGA Tours by around 30 yards (27m) in the last 30 years, as can be seen in the table below. The length of the average championship golf course has been increased correspondingly, with new venues often being designed at over 6,600m in length, and some considerably longer. Whilst golf’s global governing bodies, the R & A and the USGA, have taken a stance to prevent further significant increases in shot length as a result of such technology, many of the older tournament venues are no longer deemed to provide a strong enough challenge for the world’s best golfers and so they have fallen off the tour schedules. There have even been calls for altering the specification of the golf ball from a number of the world’s top players, such as Jack Nicklaus, or even developing a special tournament ball which will fly less far as a simple way to combat the impact of technology!
Whilst the top golfers have undoubtedly benefited greatly from the extra distance afforded by modern equipment, the main advantage for the social golfer has been the fact that it is easier to hit the ball straighter and more consistently. Golf has also become more accessible for the beginner to get started in since the game has undoubtedly become a little easier to learn to play, with large-headed, peripherally weighted clubs providing a larger “sweet spot” with which to hit the ball. The cost of starter equipment has also come down dramatically since I started playing in Scotland almost 40 years ago, and this has made the game much more affordable. The new wave of professional golfers, such as Tiger Woods, has provided role models for children to aspire to, and the relaxation of old, rather conservative, dress codes has also made the game more fashionable and less formal.
As innovations in club and ball technology enable the golfer to hit the ball increasingly long distances, and often straighter, the golf course architect needs to be more creative in the way he challenges the player. Increasing the length of the golf course is not the only solution, and it may be counter-productive as the attempt to “Tiger proof” Augusta has demonstrated, and there are many other ways that the golf course can be made challenging for the top golfers while remaining enjoyable to play for the less skilled golfer. When it comes to tournament courses, lengthening the course often plays into the hands of the longer hitters and gives the rest of the field little chance of competing. The ideal course, I believe, should test the golfer to use all the clubs in his bag and to play as many types of shot as possible. There should be a good mix of par 4’s, from those requiring a drive and pitch (and reachable for the long drive) to those requiring a drive and a long iron or wood to approach the green. The par three holes should be evenly spread and range from one requiring a lofted club, such as a 9-iron, to the longest needing, say, a 3-iron. Par 5’s should range from those reachable in two shots for the better golfer, to one requiring up to three full shots.
Hollow at rear of 3rd green at new championship links course, Marine Golf Club, Sylt, Germany
To create a variety of approach shots, the greens should not always require a lofted shot to be played into them but there should also be opportunities to play a low running shot, or pitch-and-run, as well. For this to be possible, the approaches to greens, as well as the greens themselves, need to be firm and true and should not be overwatered or over-fertilised. With a growing awareness of environmental issues, this is more in keeping with principles of sustainability and the need to reduce inputs of water and fertiliser. It is also a key feature of the links courses where golf originated and which provide the purest test of golf. Run-offs from the green which roll into grass hollows, as shown in the photo below, can be designed to provide a challenge at the sides and rear of a green. Hollows challenge the better golfer often more than a bunker, but do not create too much of a hazard for the higher handicapped golfer and offer a much better opportunity for recovery than rough. Run-off areas and hollows are being developed as a key feature of many of the links golf courses in the UK where the Open Championship is played.
Water hazards, such as lakes and streams, became very popular from around the 1960’s with the increase in televised golf. They not only provide a photogenic feature of the golf course, which is great for television, but also a source of excitement for the spectator. Heroic carries over a lake are common at many championship venues and water often features on the 18th hole, such as at the Belfry where the Ryder Cup has been held many times, providing a “do-or-die” hazard and the opportunity for a 2-shot swing towards the end of a tournament which keeps spectators entertained until the last shot is played.
However, whilst water hazards can provide a very attractive feature of the golf course and a very good alternative playing hazard, the golf architect needs to be careful not to overuse them. They will affect every golfer and be a source of irritation for the poorer player which will reduce their enjoyment if they come across too many during the course of their round. By skilful design, the architect can provide alternative lines of play which can avoid the need to carry the water, if the golfer accepts a longer route to the green as can be seen in the image below. The golfer who carries the lake with his drive gains a shorter and easier line of approach for his second shot.
Heroic carry over water on 12th hole at Golfclub Wouwse Plantage, Holland
Water will act almost as a magnet for the poorer player, drawing the ball towards it, and as a general rule water should not be utilised as a playing hazard on more than a third of the holes on the golf course. Forced carries over streams are fairer and easier to negotiate, particularly if they are set on an angle to the direction of play, than those over lakes.
Lakes should be avoided on uphill holes since the water will not be visible until the golfer is very close to them. Not only is this unfair but it also tends to look very artificial. Lakes should generally be sited in natural hollows and low areas where water would naturally collect. If planned carefully, lakes can provide a very attractive feature of the golf course and a good habitat for flora and fauna.
Natural bunker at Noordwijk Golf Club, Holland
Bunkers originated on the sandy coastal (or links land) of the early Scottish golf courses. They started as animal scrapes which were gradually eroded by the wind and grew into larger open-sand areas as can be seen in this photograph from Noordwijk Golf Club in Holland shows.
Later they were formalised in shape and edged to prevent further erosion, and so that they could be easily identified as a hazard.
Bunkers provide a less penal and fairer hazard than water since they provide an opportunity for recovery without the loss of a full stroke. They can also serve a very useful function in framing a golf hole, particularly is the sand is taken up the face of the bunker so that it is clearly visible, and in providing strategic playing interest if they are designed and sited cleverly. There was a trend during the 1970-1990’s for larger and larger bunkers which originated in the USA, with some bunkers running the entire length of fairways, or a par 3 hole as shown in the photo below.
Flat-pan American style bunker
Bigger construction budgets, modern machinery and the ego’s of some architects to impose their will on the landscape were largely responsible for this trend and, I am glad to say, there is now a move towards smaller and better positioned hazards which are a feature of many of the world’s best golf courses. The problem with very large bunkers, apart from their high construction and maintenance costs, is the fact that they target all golfers and particularly punish the higher handicapper. The better golfer can avoid most of them and, should he land in one, can play a shot similar to that which he could have played from the fairway. The poorer player may take 2-3 shots to get out, often only to find that they have played into yet another sand trap! In addition, large bunkers are expensive to maintain and subject to erosion and contamination during heavy rainfall which can ruin the sand and be expensive to repair. Smaller bunkers can be placed to test the better golfer and make them think. The weaker player is already disadvantaged by his lack of ability with a longer shot to the green and he will still have to negotiate the bunkers with his second shot.
Marine Golf Club, Sylt, Germany - gathering effect of a typical links bunker
The playing impact of smaller bunker can be increased, as is traditionally the case with most bunkers on links courses, by shaping the ground in front to gather the ball into them. The photograph, below, shows a typical links bunker which we designed as part of a new links course we designed for the Marine Golf Club in Germany. These have revetted (turf-stacked) faces to prevent wind erosion.
The great historic architects of the early part of the 20th century - such as Harry Colt, John Morrison, Alister Mackenzie, and Tom Simpson - were very clever to maximise the impact of smaller bunkers. For practical reasons they made the most of a relatively small amount of earth-shaping and bunker sand, while giving them a naturalistic style. Enlightened modern architects are taking inspiration from some of the classic golf courses they designed and implementing similar principles and stylistic characteristics. The photo, below, shows a bunker at Cypress Point which has been restored to the original design which Alister Mackenzie created in 1926.
Restored Alister Mackenzie bunker at Cypress Point bunker
The “Augusta Effect”
Although Augusta National, where the Masters is played each year, was designed by the same architect as Cypress Point, Alister Mackenzie (in collaboration with Bobby Jones) it bears very little resemblance to the course they originally designed. While it is undoubtedly still a great golf course it has been changed and lengthened many times in the past and most of the greens and tees have been rebuilt and reshaped. Most Course Managers/Head Greenkeepers dread the time when the Masters comes on television each April since many golfers expect their own golf courses to have a similar manicured appearance. This is simply not possible in most cases since Augusta National has over 50 full-time greenkeepers and a huge maintenance budget to achieve these results, and the course is even closed for a few months before the Masters each year in order to prepare it! In addition, it requires large quantities of water, fertiliser, pesticides and other chemicals which is not a sustainable proposition or very good environmental practice. It is important to remember the origins of golf and the fact that it started as a game played in a natural environment. It is man’s contest with nature which separates the game from other sports which are played on a playing field which conforms with standard dimensions. Every golf course is different and it is the special site character, or genius loci, which makes each course unique. It is important that this is not destroyed during the development process.
Most of the best golf courses of the world, such as the example of Sunningdale, below, have a much more natural appearance than Augusta and present the golfer with a journey through a naturalistic landscape. Even if he is not playing well the golfer can enjoy his walk and the landscape experience and this is, I believe, the true test of a great golf course.
Sunningdale Golf Club, England - natural heathland landscape
There is a growing awareness amongst golf course architects of the concept of sustainable design and particularly the need to respect the natural environment of the site. As a trained landscape architect this is something which comes as second nature to me, but it has been lost in the development of many big-budget courses by so-called signature designers, many of whom have their origins as touring golf professionals and do not therefore have the necessary environmental planning knowledge and awareness. Sustainable design needs to be considered in all its senses and this includes economic and social responsibility as well as good environmental practice. Developing golfing markets need to build golf facilities which cater for the beginner golfer as well as high-profile “championship” golf facilities which are directed towards the accomplished golfer if it is to meet its social obligations and develop the game of golf. It is possible, through siting forward tees for ladies, junior players and less accomplished golfers, to provide a golf course which can be challenging for the top players but still playable for most levels of golfer, but there needs also to be pitch-and-putt facilities, par 3 courses, intermediate courses and driving ranges if the game is to grow.
Design ideas are always developing and every site offers its own unique range of challenges. The golf course architect needs to creative, innovative and skilful to design a golf course which provides the best fit with the existing landscape and enhances the special qualities of the site. Where natural interest is lacking he needs to design new features to create additional playing and aesthetic interest in a naturalistic manner and he will need to draw on his engineering, environmental and artistic knowledge and golfing experience to do this well. In this way a truly great golf course can be developed.