Friday, April 20, 2012

The Evolution of Golf Course Design

Ever wonder how a golf course becomes a golf course? I find golf course architecture and design to be a fascinating topic, but to be honest, I don't really know the first thing about it.  For this article, I did some research and consulted with some industry experts to bring you the inside scoop...
Golf course design and development is a fascinating subject and has evolved over the years along with the game of golf. As most are aware, golf has been around for over a hundred years, and thus, so has golf course design (to a certain degree). In the beginning, natural landscape played a large role in how courses were designed but over the years with construction and technology advancements, it have become a lot more complex.

Back in the day, golf courses were developed based on the natural terrain, which limited the required excavation as well as the associated costs.  St. Andrews' Old Course, the "home of golf" in Scotland, cost almost nothing since it mostly wasn't designed. Instead, it evolved during golf architecture's Folk Era out of the sheep-shorn, grass-covered sand dunes, or "linksland," through which sailors would stroll from the town to the shore, striking stones with sticks as they went. Over the centuries, favorite corridors, or fairways, emerged. In the low spots where rocks, and later balls, were most likely to wind up, repeated swings tore through the grass and exposed the underlying sand, which is why the placement of St. Andrews' bunkers are so frustrating that the links remains enough of a test to host this July's British Open.

Today, building courses can be much more complex and extraordinarily expensive. Back in 1989, Fazio and casino owner Steve Wynn spent about $40 million dollars on Shadow Creek. In the barren desert outside of Las Vegas, Fazio dug a half-square mile hole 60-feet deep. He then converted its interior into an apotheosis of the North Carolina Sand Hills by building giant undulations, installing creeks and lakes, and planting 21,000 pine trees.  

Here's what some industry experts have to say about the subject...

Questions: How has golf course design changed over the last 100 years?

Response by Scott Covell from Covell Design: Basically, golf course design has gone full circle over the past 100 years or so. The early golf courses built overseas and here in North America were essentially designed with the land, utilizing existing natural features and topography, designed to be played on the ground. Minimal earthmoving was required. With the advent of larger construction machinery and a movement towards bold, sculptural landscapes towards the end of the 20th century, courses became more imposed on the land, manipulating and creating features by moving huge quantities of dirt. For the most part, it was evident that man had a hand in the creation of the golf course. In the U.S. course design put more of a premium on the target approach or penal style where hazards were required to be carried. I would say that over the last 20 years or so, with environmental concerns and a movement towards a more natural aesthetic, course design has for the most part returned to its roots whereby architects are trying to work more with the landscape they are given and impose less on the natural ecology of the site.

Questions:  What are some of the challenges that most people may not realize?

Response by Mike Nuzzo from Nuzzo Course Design:  The race for green speed has destroyed some of the best greens in the world. Flattening them beyond recognition. It is amazing that the average private club member will complain about greens if they roll below an 11, when for at least 50 masters tournaments the best players in the world never saw double digit green speeds. And everything else too....

Response by Scott Covell from Covell Design: Challenges that people may not realize would start again with the environmental restrictions imposed on the design and construction of a golf course. 2 of my latest projects had to deal with endangered species that were found or listed on the sites on which I was working. One project had specimens of a type of tree that had to be preserved and circumvented while another had to avoid disturbing the habitat of a stream that contained an endangered species of minnow. Habitat preservation and water conservation are usually the biggest issues.

Questions: What does it take to be a great golf course designer?

Response by Scott Covell from Covell Design:  Great Golf Course Designer? An ability to integrate the needs and desires of a wide range of stakeholders into a cohesive golf environment. A combination of aesthetic sensibilities, understanding the game of golf from a number of player perspectives, problem solving skills, practical knowledge of building and maintaining a golf course.

Question: What do you think has been the biggest 'game changer' in golf course design through the years?

Response by Jeff Mingay from Mingay Golf Course Design Ltd
:  To my way of thinking, there are a few 'watershed' moments in the history of golf course design through the years that were 'game changers'.  Augusta National was a 'game changer'. The concept behind its original design, devised by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie, was revolutionary. Loosely modeled after the Old Course at St. Andrews - Jones' and Mackenzie's favourite course - ANGC was designed to achieve what remains the 'ideal in golf architecture', which is to challenge the world's best golfers but, at the same time, provide an enjoyable round for all caliber of players. When Augusta National opened for play, during the early 1930s, there was essentially no rough and only 22 bunkers (today there are 44). The course was geniusly designed around inherent slope and manufactured contour (greens) without reliance on artifical hazards - most notably sand bunkers.

Legendary Canadian golf architect Vernon Macan once said (I'm paraphrasing, here): If you want to learn about golf course architecture, all you have to do is read the chapter in Bobby Jones' autobiography on the making of Augusta National. That's high praise for Jones' and Mackenzie's design concept there, at ANGC, isn't it?

Basically, the same principles established and employed by the likes of Park, Macdonald, Jones/Mackenzie - more than a century ago, now - remain the foundation of what we understand to be golf course architecture.

Response by Scott Covell from Covell Design: Several game changers have affected course design over the years. As mentioned, a more environmentally conscious approach is required. As a result, many sites that were previously available to build a course on have proved too ecologically sensitive to alter. This has led to golf courses serving a secondary purpose of remediating previously degraded sites like landfills and brownfields. One of the biggest changes has been the evolution of equipment and the improvement in ball distance. Many older courses have been rendered obsolete or required lengthening or repositioning of bunkers at the least. Lastly, the economy in recent years has had a significant effect on the quantity and types of golf courses being built. Compared to the booming 1980's where hundreds of golf courses were opening in North America, many of them big budget championship style facilities, recent years has seen a decline in openings and a smaller scale style of course being built. Par 3 courses and executive style courses are becoming more popular and are actually fulfilling a much needed niche in the golf market for more affordable and playable golf. My latest project is a 27 hole executive course in Guelph set to open May and I am currently working on the design for a par 3 course in Markham.

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This post is part of our "Evolution of Golf" series which takes a look at various components of the golf industry and evaluates the changes they've experienced over the years.