Golf course architecture is a unique and demanding discipline. Not everyone can design a skyscraper or produce a high quality oil painting. Likewise, not everyone can design a workable golf course. As in any creative medium, golf course architects tend to express their own personalities within the various parameters with which he is presented.
When we are approached about designing a golf course, we are confronted with various corollary challenges. Governmental and environmental constraints, topography and configuration of the property, market demand, design criteria, and owner preference all must be taken into consideration. But the greatest challenge is to incorporate all of the above into a golf course that is enjoyable and playable to all ability levels of golfers.
Unless directed by the owner to design a specialty course for a small-market segment, the architect must create a playable course for all golfers, with the widest range of abilities, within the context of the terrain, his design criteria, and the market.
Each of the five types of golf courses has its own set of guidelines. For instance, there is far more flexibility for the architect in designing the old line golf course, where he is dealing purely with golf; than on a destination golf resort or a residential golf community course. Not only is there more freedom in the land usage (for instance, you never have to concede that ideal green or tee location to other development components), but the average player at a golf-only facility will usually be a more capable player, who is more intimately aware of the course details.
Regarding difficulty ratings usually given to courses: Certain facts must be kept in mind. First of all, the ratings are generally made by above average golfers. The truly great golf courses are designed for the full range of golfers. Juniors, seniors, women, duffers and scratch golfers should all be accommodated in order to make the course enjoyable to everyone, and profitable to the owners. Good design means presenting a different degree of difficulty for the various levels of golfers – a more stringent examination for the low handicap golfer than for the beginner.
Of course, much has been said about designing for multiple levels of talent, but little has been done in the way of explanation as to what it entails. The most elementary step in designing for all levels of golfers, but not necessarily the most important, is the positioning of tees. In addition to the standard front, middle and back tee positions, some architects add a tee at an intermediate level between the front and middle tees for the seniors or championship ladies’ tee. We often break that middle tee into two tees for additional versatility. Tee use may also be varied based upon weather conditions. Manipulation of the angle of the dogleg by sliding the tees laterally within the golf course corridor also determines the difficulty of a hole. A few degrees more or less of angle can make a very big difference. Back tees may be positioned so golfers must play over a hazard, while front tees may allow their less capable counterparts to roll the ball down the fairway.
Additionally, not everyone who plays from the so-called members’ tee is going to be able to drive the ball +/- 235 yards. A better average is more like 180 to 200 yards. By widening the fairway at this point and keeping all hazards well to the sides or beyond this range, you have made the fairway just that: a fair way for the average golfer. Ladies’ tees are generally positioned so the average woman golfer will reach at least this point, the better ones will go beyond. Increasing levels of ability will encounter higher degrees of testing of their skills. The player who is able to hit the ball farther should be tested for his accuracy as well. Strategic bunker placement and pinching of the fairways beyond the normal landing area is a typical way of demanding accuracy from the long hitter.
von Hagge, Smelek and Baril has developed an extensive method of quantifying the examinations presented to each golfer. We have identified twenty one examinations for the low handicapper, sixteen for the golfer in the mid-handicap range and twelve for the high handicapped golfer. Although many times topography and other restrictions prevent the incorporation of all examinations into a particular design, we attempt to present the golfer with as many of these examinations as possible.
These are compounded as well as facilitated by eight sub-examinations. These examinations and their sub-examinations are all a function of three basic criteria (listed in order of importance): trajectory, angle of turn, and distance. Trajectory is the ability of the golfer to get the ball in the air. Obviously, not all golfers are able to get the ball in the air for any great distance. Tee placement, fairway grading, and mowing height compensate for this. But historically, the most important factor is trajectory. Second is angle of turn, or the ability to turn the ball from right to left or left to right in varying degrees once it is in the air. Finally, the criterion carrying the least amount of weight is distance. This is not to say that the “power hitter” should not be rewarded, but he should be able to hit a long, controlled shot. Control is the key to the game of golf. If it were not important, every fairway would be the width of a practice range.
The average golfer will leapfrog his way down the fairway. His first shot will land short of the better player’s tee shot with his second going beyond it. Therefore, two shots into the green for a better golfer will become three (or more) for the average one. This should always be taken into consideration in the placement of bunkers, water and other hazards.
Regarding hazards: The term “hazard” is misleading in our estimation. These features should be used as directional signals to guide the golfer into the shot he should be making to best play the hole. They should not be used to penalize the golfer. A penal bunker, for instance, would be one placed in the center of the fairway at 190 yards. That same bunker placed in front of a green on a short par five is not penal. It serves to force a particular shot for the scratch golfer going for the green in two, another shot for the one trying to reach it in regulation and a completely different shot for the one for whom double bogey is merely a dream. A hazard placed at 250 yards forces the long hitter to control his drive, but for the average golfer, it is between shots. So, hazards should not be penal, but they should make sense. A pond 100 feet out of bounds, for instance, will neither provide a directional signal nor enhance the beauty of the course.
Hazards are truly the signals or signage, available to the architect, to convey the intended tactical examination.
Island and elevated greens can be graciously done. They can be tantalizing and intimidating without being completely overpowering, yet they should represent a very small minority of the presentations within each particular design. Often, they are altogether inappropriate.
Additionally, through the manipulation of the various design techniques and target locations for the different ability levels, a green that is guarded for the scratch golfer can afford an easy approach for the average or low handicap golfer.
Regarding aesthetics: They play a big part in our everyday lives, and that should hold true for the golfing experience as well. If beauty were not important, we would all live in square houses with concrete floors with big drains in the middle so that we could just hose them down once a week. On a golf course, function without beauty is just as unthinkable. The golfer is not merely out there for the exercise or to aggravate his ulcers, he is there to unwind from a hectic work schedule, to leave the cares of the world behind or even to conduct business in non-repressive surroundings. It is the commission of the architect to enhance and manipulate his natural medium so as to produce a functional product that is appealing to the eye. Various grass types and cut heights provide a wide range of color and texture. Bunkering with a blend of grass and sand bunkers, should be pleasing as well as directional and tactical. By careful manipulation, the architect can create and prolong the ethereal mist on the water that causes one to just step back and enjoy the view. Varying degrees of slope, both subtle and severe, and direction of play should be used to maximize the effect of light producing shadows, dense and filtered alike. Steep slopes should not be avoided, merely reasonably placed, taking all levels of golfers into consideration. Finally, native vegetation provides yet a further dimension to the aesthetics of the course while providing a maintenance free zone within the course.
Regarding maintenance: Much is said these days about how much it costs to maintain these “extravagant” courses, but the truth is, many of the areas being maintained were not designed to be maintained. The American golfing public has been taught that more mowing is better. One would think that everything is supposed to look like the town square. But by introducing native grasses, wildflowers and other natural vegetation into the out of play areas, installation costs are reduced, ongoing maintenance costs are reduced and environmental preservation areas and wildlife habitats are created. Where permitted, wetland areas should be created and extended as golf course design features. Consistently higher quality wetlands providing better reproductive habitats are born whenever such practices are followed. Slow growing grasses and environmentally safe growth retardants used on steep bunker, fairway and rough slopes not only allow for design flexibility with regard to color and texture, but can drastically reduce the amount of mowing required in areas where there is little or no play.
The key to golf design in the future should be seen as one of diversity with emphasis on artistry, functionality, and reason. Resource shortages will necessitate the increased use of effluent irrigation and further advances in efficient design and research to offset the rising costs associated with the inorganic chemicals typically utilized on golf courses.
von Hagge, Smelek and Baril will continue to make the most of the scientific advances, while encouraging continued progress in the areas of turfgrass development, maintenance practices, and irrigation monitoring and control, in our continuing efforts to create golf courses which are aesthetically enjoyable, environmentally responsible and tactically challenging for a full range of golfers.