Date: Mon 07 Dec 2015

The Value of Good Golf Course Design – An Architect’s Perspective

By Jonathan Tucker, Senior Member EIGCA

During these challenging economic times when golf clubs are vying for the Golfer’s Pound is there a valid argument for re-design of the golf course? There is no doubt that clubs who focus on the quality of the golf course and offer something different, which distinguishes them from the mass of other courses, are invariably the most successful. This should not be confused with vanity projects which can be costly and disproportionate to any golfing merit they may have. The problem is that usually there is an incoherent, or possibly no, plan in place for future course development with projects initiated on a piecemeal basis which is driven by changing course committees and the whim of individuals.

Good short holes should be challenging for all abilities regardless of length

Good short holes should be challenging for all abilities regardless of length

It can be argued that good design is timeless with many of our classic courses formed during the ‘Golden Age’ of golf architecture in the 1920s. The skill of the golf architects during this era was to recognise the natural qualities of the land and utilise the God given features to best effect. Where nature was deficient the land was shaped and moulded, and in the best works it is difficult to distinguish where nature ends and art begins. It must be stressed that even the revered courses of the day did not subsequently escape the hand of the architect with respect to redesign and it is extremely rare for golf courses to truly reflect how they were at inception.

The principles of good design apply now as they did one hundred years ago, but in the modern era there are increased pressures on several fronts, notably:

  1. Greater concentration of golf courses and hence competition
  2. Issues of membership retention and decline in members, particularly in the 20-40 year old category
  3. Linked with 2, the waving of joining fees has meant that golfers can move freely between clubs
  4. Environmental considerations are increasingly important as the golf course must be environmentally and economically sustainable
  5. Safety factors have unfortunately impacted on many golf courses due to greater urbanisation and the litigious nature of the current world.

Each golf course will have its own particular emphasis, but there are specific areas which are worthy of further consideration from a design view:

  • Hole length and provision of alternative tees
  • Bunker design and rationalisation – with options for mounds, hollows and swales
  • Making the most of water features
  • Practice facilities/short course options.

There is usually pressure to increase the length of golf courses, mainly in response to improvements in equipment, but a long course does not automatically equate with a high quality golf course. Indeed sometimes lengthening can be detrimental, for example a finesse, short par 4 hole which tempts golfers to drive the green can potentially be ruined by lengthening. The most memorable par 3 holes are often shortest as they challenge and provide dramatic tension for all abilities if well designed, whereas par 3s in excess of 200yds can be just a slog for the moderate player.

Tees should be placed commensurate with the ability of the golfer. By implication this should include dedicated forward tees over and above the usual distribution of back medal, general play tees and ladies tees. This will cater for juniors and beginners and the tees do not have to be large (around 7x7m for par 4 /5 tees and 9x9m for par 3 tees) so that the cost for construction and maintenance can be kept under control. Offsetting tees so that the line of the tee shot is altered also adds further variety and interest compared with a linear arrangement.

Bunker lining methods can mitigate issues of sand contamination which may justify the investment

Bunker lining methods can mitigate issues of sand contamination which may justify the investment

An example of links bunkers with naturalised grass edges

An example of links bunkers with naturalised grass edges

Sand bunkers are a major drain on greenkeeping resources and are costly to construct as well as maintain. With the increasing shortage of suitable bunker sand for inland courses this may become even more relevant. On heavy soils, or where there is very significant stone within the subsoil, contamination of the bunker sand can be mitigated by use of appropriate liners, but these add another significant cost. Against this background it makes sense to carry out an audit of bunkers to identify if they still contribute positively, notably from a playing strategy perspective. Invariably there are bunkers which frustrate and penalise the weakest golfers rather than stimulate and dictate the playing approach of the better player. A few bunkers well positioned are often preferred to a multitude of bunkers placed with no particular aim in mind. For example, a single bunker placed to guard one side of the golf green, while leaving the other side relatively open (i.e. an offset alignment) immediately asks more questions of the golfer depending on the location of the pin.

There are no magic distances to place bunkers and cognisance needs to be taken of topography to ensure that the bunkers fit into the terrain and utilise natural features – for example mounds/upslopes or ridges, rather than simply placing bunkers mechanically at 240-250yds at each hole!

Water features can enhance most courses if appropriately designed and are sympathetic to the landscape

Water features can enhance most courses if appropriately designed and are sympathetic to the landscape

Upgrading practice facilities can provide additional value to courses

Upgrading practice facilities can provide additional value to courses

“Tiger Tots Play Yard”–Rutland County Golf Club. Example of a simple initiative to attract youngsters up to five years into the game using plastic clubs and balls over a mown out ‘course’

“Tiger Tots Play Yard”–Rutland County Golf Club. Example of a simple initiative to attract youngsters up to five years into the game using plastic clubs and balls over a mown out ‘course’

Bunker design also has a significant bearing on the appearance, playing character and subsequent maintenance demands. The merits/de-merits of turfed/sand faces will continue to be debated. Sand faces (or at least glimpses of sand splashed up the face) provide visual impact and definition to the golf course, but for traditionally constructed bunkers this approach can exacerbate sand contamination and stone ingress unless appropriate lining methods are implemented.

On links courses there has been a reversion to more naturalised bunker edges characterised by an eroded look complemented by long wispy grasses and tussocks of marram giving the characteristic ‘eyebrows’.

As an alternative to bunkers, grass hollows, swales/depressions and mounds can provide playing as well as visual interest without the significant cost associated with bunkers. Grass swales can be particularly beneficial as they not only provide an interesting golf feature, but can also help to deflect surface water away from primary playing areas and aid the clean-up of surface water flows before they reach main drainage channels.

Surface water features including streams, rivers, lakes and ponds are particularly valuable assets on the golf course offering diversity of habitat, attractive landscape features and primary drainage elements as well as hazards for the unwary. In order to fulfil their true potential they should really be visible. Streams and river banks are often screened by dense vegetation and the process of thinning or complete removal of the trees and scrub (without destabilising the banks) can make a dramatic difference to a hole.

One area which often clubs could make more of are the practice facilities. This encompasses anything from a short game area and practice ground/driving range through to a bespoke par 3 golf course or dedicated practice holes offering a variety of length. As a minimum, a purpose built chipping area and ideally separate bunker practice area (incorporating a variety of bunkers and dedicated target green) should be provided and dovetailed to the available area. The creation of hollows and mounds around the chipping area provides a variety of different lies so that the full repertoire of shots can be practiced.

A separate par 3 course (or, if space is limited, a pitch and putt course) not only refines short game skills, but also adds value to the golf course for established members as well as helping to attract newcomers. It is all about inclusivity and encouraging golfers to the game as much as retaining members.

This article originally appeared in Greenkeeping, November 2015.

To read more about Jonathan click here.

Golf Course Design
EIGCA Annual Meeting 2023