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The Architecture of a Great Course

It’s in rarity that humans find value. We are all drawn to that which is rare: precious minerals, beautiful people, success in careers and exhilarating moments are all, by definition, rare in their own context.

In the context of ‘traditional’ architecture, when looking at the Sydney Opera House or Casa Mila, it is quite clear these aren’t ordinary buildings. These are works of art; they are inspired and they inspire others, they are functional and beautiful, they’ve pushed the boundaries of what was believed to be possible and they’ve resisted the ravages of fashion and time. What has separated their architects from all the tens of thousands of architects seeking to leave their legacy on the world?

In case you wondered, I’m going to leave that question hanging – every individual’s answer is valid and my opinion is just another opinion. The point I’m making is that great design is rare.

This is equally true for golf course design, and, as a company that has worked through dozens of projects with brilliant ‘signature’ designers such as Jack Nicklaus from initial concept to completion and beyond, Golf Data has learnt a great deal about why great design is so rare.

Great design is both a science and an art, and it asks of the designer to take into account many complex factors and constraints that range from site (topography; soils; features such as large trees or ruins) and budget (combined with ‘site’, probably the most important constraints), through to style (links or parkland) and design philosophy down to practical matters of water reticulations and effective drainage, weather patterns (prevailing winds and history of rainfall), ecologically sensitive areas, and aesthetic considerations to create a beautiful environment that looks as if it was always meant to be there (most often from sites that are virtual wastelands).

One of the great golf course architects of all time wrote: “The chief object of every golf course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature (and presumably also the hazards) so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself.” (MacKenzie, 1920)

With all these challenges (to name but a few), the course designer has to design a great test of golf, and this is where it starts to get even more complicated! Golfers range from Rory Mcilroy, a sublime artist with the golf ball, through to beginners barely able to wield a putter without damaging themselves and their playing partners. The terms that designers use are ‘playability’ and ‘resistance to scoring’, which speaks to a course’s ability to provide a test that is fair to all levels and still provides a true test of golf to the most skilled. A great design should be accessible to and fun for the beginner, and a dynamic and strategic challenge to the scratch player.

Just when you think you’ve achieved this, the technology changes….

The distance the ball travels these days is probably one of the most talked about issues in design currently. It has certainly affected the way designers are forced to look at layouts, but it should not dictate the way courses are designed. The strategy of simply adding length hurts 90% of the golfers and, quite frankly, results in boring, unimaginative design. Tightening up fairways, adding strategic bunkers/hazards at various landing areas, makes the golfer think constantly. Bring the risk and reward factor into the game. Subtle mounding can be created to either feed you into position or repel an off target shot. In most surveys on what golfers rank in terms of the attributes of a golf course that is most important to them, from clubhouse and dress code through to views and course conditioning, it is the greens that draw the most attention. The greens complexes (contouring and surrounding bunkering and slopes that tie into the rest of the course) also present the designer with what is probably its strongest tactical defence. Subtle hollows, collection areas and bunkering can transform a new or existing course.

The greens surfaces also continuously vary, from big, small, flat and undulating (as long as there are enough pinnable areas), depending on how the hole is designed. Variation is important; mix up all the complexes and greens. Avoid monotony, give each complex its own identity, but beware the designer who takes this too far, who seeks to leave his stamp on a course with ‘overcooked’ variation and undulation, unfair penal hazards and shapes that become a maintenance nightmare.

Great course design is rare, and it is rare because it is incredibly complex. It is also only great if it becomes a reality and that is what Golf Data specialises in – taking great golf course and landscape design and making it a reality.

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Originally published on 24 Apr 2015
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