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There’s much to consider when designing a golf course


January 28, 2014
By Mike Jiggens


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When designing a golf course, it is important the architect achieves a balance between a challenging layout that appeals to all skill levels and a golf course that is maintenance-friendly for the superintendent, one of Canada’s premier designers said in December.

Doug Carrick, whose designs include Angus Glen, Greystone, Predator Ridge and King Valley golf clubs, was among the speakers at the 25th annual Ontario Seed Company/Nutrite Professional Turfgrass Seminar in Waterloo.

Speaking on the topic, “Golf course design: the search for perfection,” he said his quest for perfection has yet to be fully realized.

“For me, the perfect golf course is one I’m completely happy with when I’m finished, and I haven’t achieved that to date,” Carrick told an audience of close to 300 superintendents and assistants. “It’s a continual search, but I think the golf industry at large has been searching for answers right now…how to get more people involved in the game.”

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From his perspective as an architect, he said the single most important realization is that golf has to be fun to play.

Many designers, he said, get caught up making golf courses too difficult to play, thereby taking the fun out of the game. A good design should make the game stimulating for the golfer, both physically and mentally, he added.

At the same time, a properly-designed golf course needs to keep maintenance in mind. Carrick recommends to his clients that a superintendent be hired when building the course so that his input can be sought throughout the construction process.

“There’s tremendous value not only to me but the client to have the superintendent involved during the construction of a new golf course because you can identify some of those issues concerning maintenance.”

Carrick’s presentation included a history lesson on golf course architecture over the past century, with notes about how certain outside influences have impacted design philosophy throughout that time.

In 1896, there were only about 90 golf courses in all of North America. By 1929, just prior to the Great Depression, the number had jumped to about 6,000. An average of 600 golf courses alone were built each year between 1923 and 1929. Among that era’s most notable architects were Willie Park Jr., Donald Ross, Harry Colt, Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast and Stanley Thompson.

“All of these architects really introduced the concept of strategic design and an artistry as well.”

The next period of significant growth in golf course construction began after the Second World War, between 1950 and 1970. The most notable period during that phase occurred between 1960 and 1970 when about 400 courses a year were constructed. The more celebrated architects of this era included Geoffrey Cornish, Robbie Robinson and Robert Trent Jones.

Carrick said putting greens had become larger during this period, and it was at this time when triplex mowers were introduced.

“A lot of the courses were built for easy maintenance during this period of time.”

The next significant period of growth in golf—known generally as “the modern era”—was between 1980 and 2008, during which time the number of golf courses in North America almost doubled, from about 11,000 to about 20,000. The more notable architects of the time were Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and former Tour players Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

“I think during this time there was a return to a more classic style of design,” Carrick said.

New golf course development essentially came to a standstill late in 2008 with that year’s credit crisis. In 2012, only eight new courses were built in North America.

“There were a lot more golf courses being closed than being developed.”

Carrick said the golf industry is currently assessing the impact of the recession and its associated problems. Two issues of note which affect play and impact the number of potential golfers entering the sport are the amount of time it takes to play a round of golf and the cost of playing the game. He said these are viewed as major deterrents for attacting new golfers, and the industry will have to address these matters if it wishes to move forward.

Advances in both ball and club technology have made a large impact on golf course design and development, he said, noting that golfers are hitting the ball longer than they ever have before.

“We’re using a lot more land today than when I first started in the business.”

At one time, prior to the surge in ball and club technology, 150 acres provided a sufficient parcel of land to build a championship golf course, Carrick said. Today, at least 200 acres are required which not only has a huge impact on the cost of a project, but adds greatly to the time it takes to play a single round.

Another factor influencing the cost of development and course maintenance is the desire among many golf courses to pursue the No. 1 ranking position. Such a pursuit adds some extravagance to golf course design and development.
New golf course development in the modern era has been dominated by real estate development.

“Real estate has been the economic engine that has helped to promote new projects.”

But with the collapse of the real estate market in the United States, new course development over the past five or six years has largely ground to a standstill. Several new projects took on a lot of financing and heavy debt and ran into serious financial problems once the real estate market collapsed.

Looking toward recovery in the development of new golf courses, Carrick said it will be golf real estate communities, such as golf resorts, that will continue to be the economic engine to drive new course development.

Golf courses designed to encourage walking are on the right track, he added.

Golf has to become more affordable to the public, Carrick said, and it must be seen as an escape for people from everyday life.

“The industry has to do a better job of promoting the everyday values of the game” by concentrating on the positive aspects of golf and not dwelling on the cost and length of time it takes to play.

Many mistakes which contribute towards the problems experienced with a golf course stem from site selection.

“You want to be in a good market where there’s demand for a viable golf course.”

When looking at the physical site, Carrick said soil needs to be the primary consideration. A handy and plentiful source of water must also be considered. Although natural aesthetic value is important, he said it can sometimes be created.
Climate must be pondered to ensure there are sufficient playable days available.

Golf courses built in mountainous, desert or wilderness settings can be visually spectacular, but are usually difficult and costly to build due to poor soil conditions, excessive rock, poor drainage at the site, poor topography and water constraints. Environmental constraints are something many golf course owners and developers don’t devote much thought towards, but can significantly contribute to a project’s overall cost with unanticipated expenditures.
Having to construct artificial, lined ponds for irrigation purposes, for example, add greatly to the cost of a golf course development project.

“What makes a golf course great? In my mind it’s variety.”

Carrick said variety includes how the terrain is used, design strategy, design character and the ability to keep the skilled player interested in the golf course. The means to maintain an interest in the golf course demands a design balance, he said.

The visual aspect of playing golf cannot be overlooked, he added.

“It’s what people remember after they’ve played a round.”

When routing a golf course, careful attention must be paid to flow which impacts pace of play. Minimizing the distance between green and tee is a strategy for promoting faster play.

It’s in the architect’s best interests to design a course which offers a variety of holes, from short to long, so that golfers can use every club in their bag and remain interested throughout the round, Carrick said. It’s possible, he added, to test the skills of a good player without the course being excessively long, noting a 7,000-yard-long course is plenty for the skilled player but much too long for the average golfer.

Variety in the terrain adds to the challenge of the game when uphill, downhill and sidehill holes are incorporated into the design.

Different strategies are used in golf course design, Carrick said. Penal holes can be designed which require golfers to carry their shots across a hazard in order to reach their target. Strategic holes require the golfer to play close to a hazard in order to gain a better angle into a green or may require some risk on the tee shot. Risk/reward holes give golfers the option to take riskier shots so as to benefit from an easier approach or to play a safer shot yet leave a longer or more difficult approach.

Some golf courses, such as Predator Ridge in Vernon, B.C., are blessed with a great variety of landscape characteristics. Both the starting and finishing holes feature open grasslands. Other holes feature enclosed wooded valleys, open meadows, dramatic elevation changes offering tremendous views of Lake Okanagan, and rocky terrain similar to that found in the Muskokas in Ontario.

“It’s nice that we can incorporate these landscape characteristics into the design of the golf course.”

Carrick said it’s easy to make a golf course difficult. By simply contouring the greens excessively, having plentiful rough, narrow fairways and numerous bunkers, a golf course can be rendered difficult.

“The majority of golfers don’t enjoy playing a golf course that’s too difficult.”

Carrick said it’s important to have some flexibility in how a golf course can be set up from a yardage standpoint by incorporating multiple tees. It’s also wise, he added, to have open entrances to the greens so that the average golfer can roll the ball onto the green and not necessarily be forced to carry a hazard.

Keeping forced carries to a minimum is important to ensure the game doesn’t become excessively difficult for the average golfer, he said.

“I try to keep mandatory carries on tee shots only, because everyone’s starting from the same point.”

Holes which test a golfer’s ability to hit the ball a long way should be incorporated into a course design while others which require finesse and distance control add to the challenge of play.

Carrick recommends highlighting some of the unique features of a property, such as memorable views, because these are what golfers tend to remember after they’ve played the course. Designing the course so that the holes appear to belong in their setting is key.

If a site is not blessed with favourable, natural landscape characteristics, architects will have to use their imaginations to create interesting features, he said.

As a means to promote a faster pace of play, Carrick said he pays close attention to the connection of holes in order to minimize walking distances between holes. Crossover holes, which require golfers to exit one green and circle around another before reaching the next tee, are avoided in his designs.

“Sometimes that can be a little bit confusing to one who has never played the golf course before.”

Greens are the “heart and soul” of every golf course, Carrick said, yet if rounds of golf are to be played within a reasonable time frame, simplicity needs to be considered. By simplifying contours and grain, golfers won’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of time putting.

“Greens that are subtley contoured can provide enough challenge for a skilled player without being too punishing or demanding for the golfer of average skill.”

Green speeds need to be matched to the contours and slopes on the putting surfaces, he said, suggesting that if faster play is the objective, then it makes sense to monitor green speeds and ensure they are manageable to prevent golfers from four and five-putting.

Carrick said tees tend to be features often ignored on a golf course. Providing different sets of tees gives the right amount of challenge for golfers of various skill levels. Free form tees suit a more rugged type of landscape, he said, while the more classic-looking square or rectangular tees better suit a flatter site. Large, single tees are ideal from a maintenance perspective, he added, but dramatic changes in elevation can make such a goal more difficult, especially when downhill holes require terracing to maintain sight lines.

Fairways can be designed to add challenge to the game when reasonable distances are sought. Those which are undulating and have changes in grade are more interesting, he said, and can be an effective equalizer to distance. Skilled players will face different lies, adding challenge to the game.

“Perhaps you don’t have to have a long golf course to create a challenge for the skilled player.”

Bunkers give a golf course personality, Carrick said, and there are endless styles and varieties of bunkers which require a certain degree of maintenance, depending on the intricacy of their shapes. He said the Scots “got it right” by keeping maintenance to a minimum with their pot bunkers because they are smaller and don’t require much handling.

Before he begins a golf course design, Carrick said he first studies a topography map of the site.

“That way I have an idea of what features I want to look at when I go out to the site.”

Once at the site, he said he identifies features which should be incorporated into the design, including those which are unique. After understanding his client’s objectives, he will develop some preliminary routings before returning to the site to verify they will work on the land.

Following the preliminary work, a mandatory regulatory approval period allows various agencies to have their “kick at the cat.” Carrick said this process often involves a series of compromises to the design before it is finalized.

Each architect has his own method for getting started on a design, he said. Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, renowned for designing Banff Springs Golf Course, Cutten Fields Golf Club and Highlands Links Golf Course among others, was known for locating his par three holes first. He considered those to be the “glamour” holes of golf.

By contrast, Pete Dye, whose designs include TPC at Sawgrass and Harbour Town Golf Links, located his par five holes first, suggesting he could locate par threes anywhere.

“And, me, I have no idea where it starts sometimes. Every project is different.”

Occasionally, the shape of a property can present a challenge to the design process. A project of his in Slovakia was one such challenge.

“Sometimes you end up with odd configurations of land parcels that make it a little bit difficult to be efficient in the use of land.”

Starting with some of these awkward corners on a property, Carrick said he tries to figure out how to use the land efficiently. At Predator Ridge, for example, he was presented with a number of challenging land forms and elevation changes. In particular, an area at the centre of the golf course—encompassing the fifth, sixth, 11th and 12th holes—proved to be a difficult landscape with which to work. He said he began on that particular part of the property while trying to figure out how to get through it “without blowing the budget.”

Looking toward the future of golf, Carrick said the values of the game need to be actively promoted and that walking should be emphasized more.

“I think that’s a wonderful aspect of the game that’s been lost a little bit with the introduction of golf carts. That’s something we need to be looking at in the future.”