Golf/Golf Architecture

Golf Version 2.0

The 18th green and clubhouse at Wild Horse Golf Club, Nebraska

The 18th green and clubhouse at Wild Horse Golf Club, Nebraska

Just as it has in other fields, the recent economic downturn has brought the current practices and priorities of the golf industry into sharp focus. Many livelihoods are currently tied to providing a high-end golf experience, but as the marketplace has arrested over-consumption the future viability of such venues has become uncertain. During the boom years we frequently heard appeals for affordable golf. With those calls mostly left unanswered, an unsustainable product standard has developed within our industry. We have routinely implemented every agronomic advance, maintenance upgrade, sports technology break-through and construction marvel available in the name of progress and for the sake of growth. But all too often this has occurred at the expense of the sport itself.

Attempts to recover from this recession should not be limited to short-term solutions. We need a long-term approach to tackle the deeper issues plaguing the game. The modern version of golf is simply less fun and more expensive than it ought to be. A new version, with a more inviting atmosphere, needs to be generated: Version 2.0, if you will. In this essay, I will review some of the issues facing golf and offer a few ideas that I hope will promote conversation on ways to move forward.

Though I mention them first, rankings are hardly the lone villain in golf. Nevertheless, while innocent at their conception, they have influenced golf development at every step. Ranked courses are relentlessly compelled to increase their difficulty. Of course, new drivers and lax regulations on golf ball design have contributed to the phenomenon as well. Clubs react with new back tees and additional hazards that strangle landing areas, while others that choose not to adopt such measures almost inevitably drop in the rankings. The end result is that too many courses reward a one-dimensional game, length.

For new courses, high construction costs are often due to ego-driven projects geared to achieve the highest ranking possible and sited on questionable ground, often including wetlands, formidable terrain and/or poor soils. As a result of their sites—and, sadly, sometimes despite them–budgets often include a half or even a million cubic yards of earthwork.

Maintenance budgets too often reflect an insatiable desire to manicure every square inch, forcing green fees even higher. Take, for instance, the legions of string trimmers that groom every linear foot of lake edge, tree trunk and flower bed in sight, further relegating the landscape to artifice. In an effort to provide the next “greatest” test of golf, these stretched-out, inorganic monuments to developer and architect alike provide enough anguish to fill five or even six hours of a father’s weekend. Meanwhile, the staggering green fees rid him of enough greenbacks that a return trip with the kids isn’t even considered.

All of this brings us to the children, pesky though they are. Shouldn’t dads be walking away at midday on Saturday looking forward to a Wednesday evening loop with the kids? This is a tough sell, because the game simply takes too long. Holes built today, with few exceptions, are more difficult and less fun to play. To the average golfer, that “Tour challenge” (you know what I’m talking about, the chance to stand right up there in the pro’s shoes on the most difficult hole in the state) has been marketed as the pinnacle of golf and a challenge to conquer. More often than not, the only thing conquered is the clientele. Little wonder mom and dad aren’t bringing the kids back midweek. They’re home playing Wii golf instead, because the course down the road can’t be bothered to offer a nine-hole twilight rate for families.

It is unlikely golf’s downturn will end with a wave of new course construction. This makes it all the more important that the new courses that are built use their clean slate to provide a model of affordability. New facilities can look to such standing successes as Dave Axland and Dan Proctor’s Wild Horse in Gothenberg, Nebraska and Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford’s effort, Rustic Canyon, near Los Angeles. Considering the quality of golf these courses provide, the fifteen and twenty-five dollar green fees they offer juniors are simply remarkable. Economy of construction and streamlined facilities allow Wild Horse to offer fantastic membership rates, while Rustic Canyon provides club cards and attractive rate structures that have developed regulars. Everyday green fees are well-priced with regard to each region. Most importantly, the courses are fun to play.

Since fewer courses will be developed in the coming decades, cost-effective design and construction will ensure a better future for the game. This will require architects who are sympathetic to the challenges posed on affordable courses. Finding land with the help of a discerning architect will provide the client a site with the best potential for golf, while avoiding undue construction expenses such as excessive earthwork, topsoil plating, and re-vegetation. Another option, the trend of rehabilitating sites such as landfills, quarries and brownfields, will certainly continue. Enormous expense is already required for state agencies to rehabilitate these sites, including earthwork, re-vegetation and establishment, so the development costs to incorporate golf are automatically subsidized.

Speaking of cost-effective, here's the 16th fairway at Rustic Canyon before construction...

(Photo: Geoff Shackelford) Speaking of cost-effective, here's the 16th fairway at Rustic Canyon before construction...

Not every architect can be so generous as Pete and Alice Dye, who have in the past charged a single dollar for their design services to affordable courses. One path toward ensuring thoughtful design at lower priced facilities is through reducing design fees during the planning and construction phases. The architect’s fees could then be supplemented by providing a small stake in the facility, offsetting some of the initial development costs. Coupling future compensation with volume of play would also ensure the architect will carry design and construction oversight through to their full potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if the deserving munis and mom-and-pop tracks already out there could develop cachet in the golf market? Recognition that these layouts offer a fun, valuable experience has been subverted by the assumption that lengthy, high-end venues provide the ultimate test of golf. Proactive public facilities that are well-designed would benefit greatly by affiliating with one another to create a selective network of courses. Member clubs would offer a particularly welcoming atmosphere with thoughtful architecture, educational programs and practice facilities, all at prices that are respectful to the local market. Because these facilities are designed with golf as the first priority, rather than housing, lengthy green to tee walks would be minimized and there would be no need for mandatory cart fees. Walking could be encouraged for the camaraderie, health benefits and—an often overlooked factor–the focus and tempo it provides the golfer.

...and after. (Photos courtesy Geoff Shackelford.)

...and after. (Photo: Geoff Shackelford)

Such an association could be Internet-based, providing nationwide access to potential new member courses and customers alike. By determining membership from within, rather than through commercial means, the association would foster a discerning reputation. Postings volunteered by golfers could evaluate each facility’s merit, while democratically curbing the potential for self-glorifying members. If sites like GolfClubAtlas.com are an indication, these evaluations are readily available from players who appreciate golf architecture and the benefit good values would have for the future of our sport. In any case, giving thought to the criteria involved and opening a conversation along these lines can only be a good thing. Surely, some readers are already thinking of courses worth nominating to such an association!

Customers, too, could become members of the association. These golfers would receive benefits for their repeat business with discounts and enrollment programs that reward play, practice and lesson-taking at their home course or other member tracks. The kind of loyalty a beloved golf course evokes would turn patrons into eager advocates of the association and its other courses. Stories abound of regulars at Rustic Canyon turning into de facto tour guides for visiting golfers. Why not reward them? Along with great bargains, a competitive spirit could easily be harnessed through competition between member courses, providing variety and stimulating fellowship among their golfers. Golfing members would also know that their modest membership fees would be promoting new opportunities at member courses in their region and beyond, including the development of programs and sharing of innovative ideas and cost-saving measures. They might even have the satisfaction of knowing their association promotes youth golf by working with municipalities in regions that lack affordable courses.

Programs available to non-members could further promote the growth of our sport. Many courses already offer lessons, junior programs, and access to local school teams. Educational programs could provide opportunities to play built right into the end of the lessons, allowing friendships to develop among students. Clubs, much like leagues, that are targeted to juniors, seniors and, in particular, women, would encourage family participation at the course.

There is no need to lavish. Simplicity works just as well

There is no need to be lavish. Simplicity works fine at the Sand Hills Golf Club practice range.

Courses that could be part of such an association are relatively rare. However, the boom of courses built in recent decades generated such volume that many layouts have deteriorated and are in need of renovation. Other courses that embraced the “country club for a day” fad no longer have the market demand to be profitable. Long-term master plans are the norm at private clubs. While public facilities have contrasting ambitions, market competition and customer satisfaction still dictate their viability. In this environment every golf course can benefit by reevaluating the golf experience and amenities they provide, placing interest, value and future clientele at the forefront. The foresight to address these issues will provide lasting success and a brighter outlook for the game.

Master planning requires a comprehensive evaluation of the existing layout and expenditures to eliminate waste and anticipate improvements. As with new ventures, an inclusive atmosphere, suitable practice grounds and educational programs that nurture the interest of novice golfers are a prerequisite. Facilities may consider supplementing the practice area by adding a short course. Yes, they usually include nine par three’s. However, the number of holes and their lengths are irrelevant. There are only two imperatives for success. The course needs to present a provocative yet attainable challenge for everyone. It must also be maintained at a level comparable to the regulation course in order to instill a sense of value upon its users. With none of the requirements of regulation golf, as little as a couple of acres can handle a pitch and putt with several holes. Even more important than the additional income short courses provide is the opportunity they offer inexperienced players to move beyond the practice tee and become acquainted with the game and its etiquette. Free from the intimidation of a regulation course, this environment helps develop beginners into loyal patrons.

On the regulation course, in addition to streamlining, the master plan’s goals are playability and variety. Allowing the running game and providing multiple lines of play are essential. Penal hazards may be reconsidered with a more forgiving approach. The savvy golf architect can infuse variety into the most sterile of modern layouts. Provocative features along with those of a subtler nature can be incorporated into the design. These elements induce chance and strategy, providing customers an experience unique to the venue. Unlike penal designs, familiarity with these features only enhances the player’s experience, ensuring repeat business. That’s just the thing a course needs to emulate Rustic Canyon’s success at turning regulars into enthusiastic promoters.

Allowing the running game to flourish is a necessary complement to thoughtful design. Reduced irrigation provides leaner turf, allowing golfers chances for creative shot-making. While the bounce these conditions create requires more inventive play from skilled players in order to score, it actually helps less experienced players to roll the ball further, shortening the course while they develop their swing. Speaking of a shorter course, another movement championed by Alice Dye is appropriately placed forward tees. They make for a more appealing game for many golfers and would be a welcome addition to some of the so-called “championship” layouts.

Even Scotland is not immune to over-maintaining. Fly mowers are commonplace. However, the ropes attached to maintain bunker slopes on the Monarch Course at Gleneagles Resort seem excessive.

Even Scotland is not immune to over-maintaining. Fly mowers are commonplace. However, the ropes attached to maintain bunker slopes on the Monarch Course at Gleneagles Resort seem excessive.

Realistic maintenance expectations are essential to our game’s future. Through extensive travel in Britain and Ireland, I have seen first-hand that a more relaxed approach to turf maintenance can actually enhance the golf experience. American climates are typically harsher than the British Isles and do require more effort from our superintendents for the same results. However, we are not asking for the same results, but are, rather, exporting our ridiculous standards abroad. Hues of purple, brown and olive accent the view down a hole the same way spices complement a great dish. The occasional patch of “Heinz 57” (you know–57 varieties of turf) provides relief from over-fertilized mono-stands of bluegrass, while soft, broken edges along playing corridors and on bunker lips provide a natural aesthetic. I do not understand Tour officials applauding clean, artificial bunker edges for the sake of fairness. Why not just hold an indoor skills competition? We should expect a little rub-of-the-green in a game played across the ground. There is a sophisticated, practical beauty in the product that actually costs less to maintain.

Augusta National presents an unparalleled product year after year for the Masters. One day, however, they may develop a different, long-range view on how the course is maintained. Other courses need to proceed today with the understanding that the standard of maintenance at Augusta is the anomaly in golf. In many regions of the country water is in short supply, and going forward the severity of this issue is only likely to increase, leading to further political tension. Golf can avoid being at the center of this firestorm by taking proactive measures that significantly reduce the consumption of clean water, ending the frivolous expense it requires. Future limitations on chemical treatments should be met with understanding and, as many of our superintendents already do, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) needs to be fully embraced. IPM works in concert with the natural environment to allow for the control of pests and disease with cultural and biological methods. The program has its limits and imperfections on the turf are inherent to its practice, but dialing down our expectations to rely more heavily on IPM will allow us to experience a safer, more natural round of golf and co-exist more harmoniously with the ever-strengthening green movement.

The bunker edges and turf conditions on the third hole at Woodhall Spa are full of character.

The bunker edges and turf conditions on the third hole at Woodhall Spa are full of character.

Creating a truly economical layout is possible with some practical measures. Mowing the entire playing corridor, including tees, at one height reduces labor and equipment expenses. Fairway irrigation and native boundaries, along with greens, contours and bunkers will still provide more than enough definition to the holes. The fewest possible turf varieties should be selected, focusing only on those species best suited to the climate. This allows for less maintenance and a simpler irrigation system. Putting surfaces need only a slight increase in cutting height to vastly improve turf’s resistance to stress and disease. Dramatic contouring can be implemented in place of lightning speed to provide strategic interest. The slower paced greens along with drier fairways and rough will yield a faster pace of play and more revenue! Diminished use of irrigation and fertilizer will slow plant growth, reducing mowing frequency. Enlarging native areas will also decrease mowing time. The additional native vegetation adds character and will allow edges that are otherwise string-trimmed to be left untouched.

Southern courses should reconsider the policy of overseeding. Facilities that rely on large volumes of winter play for their revenue are less capable of handling the wear dormant bermuda takes from excessive foot traffic. However, many courses could forego overseeding on all but the greens to save on mowing, irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide applications. The result is a fun, fast track that is comparatively dry at a time when many locales experience their wettest conditions. When things heat back up in the spring, the bermuda will not have to compete with overseeded ryegrass, so the turf will be better than ever in the summer.

Considering fewer bunkers is another way to provide a faster pace of play and reduce maintenance costs. Again, contouring can be used in their place to add variety and interest. However, installing bunkers with faces that need little or no hand-mowing, cutting rugged lips requiring no edging and avoiding steep sand faces to reduce washouts will greatly decrease the expense of maintaining bunkers. Let’s not forget, while we are on the topic of bunkers, that they are a hazard. Rub-of-the-green should apply. Mechanical rakings are scheduled so often these days that we are more likely to land in a bunker groomed freshly that morning than find an imperfection on the sand’s surface. We need to leave bunkers alone for longer durations. Fewer trips around with the Sand Pro will keep golfers honest if they want good lies.

Finally, green sizes on affordable courses require a careful balance of construction and maintenance costs with interest and strategy. Reducing the average putting surface down to a more modest size will keep the budget in check, but a few well-conceived larger greens will lend a dynamic quality to the routing.

mach-2nd-green

Subtle features add immensely to the golf experience, like these contours folding in upon themselves on the second green at Machrihanish Golf Club.

The current state of the game requires a ‘grass-roots golf’ approach where those of us with a smaller stake create and export successful models. What better time than a recession to rethink the issues? Whether it’s American capitalism or American golf, we had better strive towards Version 2.0, not settle for version 1.1. Besides, the next time I head to the course, I won’t mind if a bag boy doesn’t pull my clubs from the trunk, Pabst Blue Ribbon is the finest libation at the bar, and the clubhouse doesn’t have any “leather-bound books” or smell of “rich mahogany.” If the golf is great, I’ll be happy.

___

Dave Zinkand practices a hands-on style of architecture that incorporates shaping and project management into his services at Zinkand Golf Design. He also works as a Design Associate for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Dave earned a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University, where he received the Dreer Award to study the golf courses of Britain and Ireland. In addition to his affiliation with Coore and Crenshaw, he gained design experience under Arthur Hills, Mike DeVries and Gil Hanse. More information is available at ZinkandGolfDesign.com

Discussion

5 comments for “Golf Version 2.0”

  1. Except for the Pabst Blue Ribbon, a thoughtful piece indeed. I’ll digest it further over a better beer!

    Posted by Tom Bedell | April 28, 2009, 10:14 am
  2. A couple of courses I’d nominate to this “Golf 2.0 Consortium” would be Wintonbury Hills, near Hartford (one of Dye’s $1 courses, with a design assist from Tim Liddy), and Bobby Weed’s reno of the Deltona Club in Florida. Both deliver strong architecture at a fair price.

    Tom Doak’s Common Ground, which is set to open near Denver this year, promises to be a contender for this group as well.

    Posted by td | April 28, 2009, 11:51 am
  3. “Let’s not forget, while we are on the topic of bunkers, that they are a hazard.”

    Hallelujah! If we shout it loud enough maybe someone will listen.

    A great piece and great photos, thank you very much.

    Posted by greenfee | April 28, 2009, 11:24 pm
  4. Metropolitan Golf Links in Oakland is a candidate for highlighting this type of Golf 2.0. Reasonable fees, challenging course and maintined well where it needs to be and nature does the rest. Built in an otherwise less than useful area next to the airport- I play the back nine in the morning and feel like I have the whole course to myself.

    Posted by Ted Cahill | April 29, 2009, 9:45 am
  5. Dave, well done! An excellent article and right on track to getting back to what is important — the game of golf and how we should approach the sport for its unique courses and playing characteristics.

    I have been fortunate to be involved with many affordable golf projects. Diamond Springs in southwestern MI is a prime example of what you are talking about — its green fee is less than $30, it is 3/4″ bluegrass in the play areas with bent greens so play is fast and firm and the ball is easy to find, and it has a dramatic ravine that touches 6 of the holes. And the Mines Golf Course in Grand Rapids, MI is in the heart of the city, providing affordable ($35) public golf on land that is over old gypsum mines — good, solid golf that is fun for everyone and close by, right downtown.

    Posted by Mike DeVries | November 5, 2009, 2:37 pm

Post a comment

Social Media


Follow thomasdunne on Twitter