Golf Course Architect Roundtable 11: Degrees of Intervention

A discussion with leading architects about the spectrum from minimal to maximal site interventions


The earliest golf courses were truly minimalist. Laid out over rumpled linksland with blowouts for hazards and greens in rabbit-nibbled hollows. It didn’t take long for man to begin imposing his vision and will on the landscape, especially as course building moved inland and the horse was replaced by the steamshovel. This progression would give birth to the discipline of golf course architecture, and through the years a spectrum of design intervention developed.

At one end is minimalism, its ethos captured well by Perry Maxwell:

“It is my theory that nature must precede the architect. First you need a suitable piece of land and then you should do as little as possible to the land to make a playable golf course. In this way you give the place character and you make it different from any other golf course in the world.”

At the other end is maximalism, with its practitioners using imagination and machinery to bring forth their creations. Tom Fazio sums up this perspective:

“I don’t believe nature can make great golf all by itself. I think it’s pretty obvious that you need to shape the land forms to create a quality golf setting and to produce acceptable shot values. That’s where a golf course designer earns his keep.”

Today’s leading architects eschew a one-size-fits-all approach in favor of fitting the degree of their intervention to the ground at hand. Great land rich with natural features warrants a light touch, while less inspiring land serves as a blank slate for creativity. Given our love of modern designs from Sand Hills to Sweetens Cove, we celebrate the dynamism of contemporary architects and shapers along the minimalist to maximalist spectrum. We are left wondering, however, which end of that continuum presents the bigger challenge?

Perry & Press Maxwell's lay of the land Prairie Dunes

To satisfy our curiosity, we put the question out:

Which is more difficult – teasing a hole/course out of great land, or creating one from scratch on a bland piece of land?

We heard back from Riley Johns, Mike Cocking, Andy Staples, Rob Collins, Dave Zinkand, Ian Andrew, Jeff Mingay, and Mike DeVries. As always, the architects were thoughtful and generous in their responses.

Riley Johns – @integrativegolf: Divine intervention vs. Design intervention

In my experience, teasing a golf hole out of great land is an easier endeavour because you have your starting point and framework already defined by nature. In other words, the canvas has already been populated with colours, textures, features, views, and other elements of character. Good land is similar to an artist’s muse; it stimulates creativity and acts as inspiration. The intrinsic randomness of nature ultimately allows for the ever important spark of serendipity to then occur.

Creating good golf from a bland piece of land is in my opinion more difficult. It requires much more foresight and planning because there is no starting point or cues to follow from nature. Spontaneity is almost unwelcome when everything must be planned and fully thought out in advance. This over-cooking of golf is perhaps why the majority of “built from scratch” type golf developments look disconnected from nature, sanitized of any peculiarities, and unapologetically artificial.

The easiest thing to do when creating golf is ruin a great piece of land. Too many examples of this exist. The most difficult thing to do when creating golf is make a man made landscape believable as if it was crafted by nature herself. Not enough examples of this exist.

Ian Andrew – @ianandrewgolf: That depends on the designer’s personality. Just about every architect outside of Pete Dye would choose to start with great land because it gives you the best starting point for achieving something exceptional. The more interesting question to me is whether that will yield the best result with each designer. I don’t think it would and here’s why.

I’m going to start by defining what I believe is “teasing a hole out of great land.” I see this as “finding a hole on site that can be finished with a mini excavator, a box blade and sand pro. No bulldozer.

It’s my own opinion that only a few select architects are capable of teasing an existing hole out of a great site. It doesn’t mean you can’t get great holes with a more aggressive approach. But I believe that doing so little is really hard and not in most people’s wheelhouse. I believe the vast majority of architects can’t leave enough natural ground untouched to meet that “minimal” level of input set out in this question. They have the internal instinct to control as much of the landscape as they can. While they may control the urge enough to maintain the framework of a great setting, they will inevitably shape the living daylights out of everything in between. The vast majority of architects prefer to make the landscape fit their view of how the ground should treat the player. Whether receptive, collective, repelling or flat out sinister, they like to control the bounce and run of the game. They all do, only the degree varies. The problem is once you begin to manipulate the site to suit your own needs, you begin to change the essence of what is there.

For the record, I’m not arguing that there should never be any manipulation, but my point is that once most begin to tinker, the instincts are too strong and the smallest undulations will give way to new larger features. There are very few exceptions to that rule. It becomes even more pronounced when architects highly value aspects like visibility or fairness that are used to justify larger scale changes to a great natural setting. It’s a slippery slope that can easily take the result from natural to imposed.

Doing as little as just “teasing out the hole” takes absolute conviction to a simplistic approach. Almost every architect in existence struggles to show that much self-control or finding the places capable of supporting that approach. It’s just easier to push some dirt around when needed.

My point is I see this question as a philosophical choice between extremes. So I wanted to paint the extremes carefully and precisely to answer the question the way I saw it being most interesting.

It’s really hard to build a golf course out of nothing and that’s why I said everyone would intuitively choose a great site. How do I know that? Because I was tasked to build 18 holes out of a site that was almost 200 acres and absolutely dead flat with only two small sections of trees. You are given no starting point which makes it difficult to begin. But there is also an advantage. You can build the golf course in any style you want. You can create or re-create any hole type that you thought would be interesting to play. It all comes down to the limitations of your budget, of the natural drainage and your imagination. There’s something very exciting about that.

The advantage of a clean slate is complete freedom and no responsibility. The mindset is, “What do I feel like creating and how do I want it to play?” The disadvantage of a great site is you get all the responsibility of having a perfect setting with minimal creative license if you want to tease out the holes. It’s often a great measure of what you don’t do and restraint is often a key part of the process. If you’re serious about this approach, the mindset is simply, “don’t fuck it up.”

That’s why I would argue that almost every architect is better off with a blank slate. It’s not a better setting and not the ideal starting point, but it is the best opportunity to be free with your ideas and to build exactly the type of golf hole you always thought would be best. For many that’s an easier task than accepting what you’ve found.

Dave Zinkand –@davidzinkand: The years I spent with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw might create the assumption I view great land as more difficult, as we had more than our fair share of great sites. Yet, nearly every reportedly great site has a stretch where interest dries up and significant interpretation is required. It can also be said that a lot of dull sites possess all the necessary bones to inspire compelling golf.

In either case, it is the room for interpretation and opportunity to apply imagination that intrigues the golf architect. If we unpack Perry Maxwell’s thoughtful statement, nature rightly deserves to take precedent if our work is to attain any sense of realism and differentiate the results for our client. We must also maintain reverence for the land in order to produce environmentally sustainable results proportionate with the privilege and responsibility we are granted working with the natural landscape.

All the while, we do have impressive tools at our disposal! Why not apply them in a sensible manner to enhance the results? The effort to scratch golf out of bland ground is a more involved process. It requires teasing out attributes of a site that are not readily apparent and then applying a healthy dose of theoretical design. Both a sense of naturalism and a certain amount of flair, or style, must be instilled to differentiate the results as a place people wish to return to again and again.

Though more involved, a bland piece of land does not require a fundamentally different view of the riddle at hand. Both opportunities require imagination, sensibility and an adherence to thoughtful design principles. When you compare the flexibility afforded with a bland piece of land to the challenge of sorting through all the potential avenues and seeming restrictions associated with elevating a great piece of land, what is not to love about either?

Mike Cocking – @mikecocking: Mother nature will always provide us with the best opportunity to create unique golf holes. No one is as creative as her. No matter how imaginative a designer may be, the randomness that nature provides cannot be copied or created by man or machine.

She is clearly the best shaper out there. Who better can fill a site with the wonderfully crumpled ground that architects salivate over?  Where has someone ever managed to replicate that? Whether consciously or not we all have natural bias when manufacturing a landscape. Mounds and hollows massaged so they please our eye, fit the hole or maybe even our own golf game. From small contours in and around the green to larger features set up to play through or over. If created they will ultimately be more formulaic and predictable than if by nature’s hand.

The unique contours that nature provides will not only make for a more interesting landscape but can also be the source of great inspiration to an architect.  A number of years ago on a site in Tasmania a hole presented itself which was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. A wonderful short par four over a crumpled sandy landscape with 3 large chocolate drop mounds in the driving zone, set on a diagonal and spaced apart just enough for narrow strip of short grass between. From the tee the player could try and squeeze their drive between, lay up and run the risk of a potentially blind second, or play wide and around but face a long approach. I’ve never seen a hole before or since which was anything like it and I’m not sure I could ever have imagined such a feature to build on a bland site.

Aside from the shaping of the ground on a manufactured course I also think there is less tendency to want to break the rules when it comes to routing challenges, par, course length or even the direction of play. Most likely the architect will route the course first and then shape with the layout in mind.  This in turn will likely avoid things like non-returning nines, blind shots, consecutive par-3s or other quirky numbering sequences which may have been necessary on a natural site in order to maximize its potential. Some of the world’s great courses have required some cunning to best maximize the potential of the site – even if that means straying from convention. Sometimes the result is a quirky par, a shorter than standard course, a strange sequence of holes or even a cross-over in order to get out of a difficult corner. Maybe even the holes played directly into a rising or setting sun in order to use the best ground. If built from scratch is the architect as likely to incorporate such quirks into the design?

I have often wondered on major earthworks projects whether a better result would come from rough grading the site with no preconceived notion of where the golf holes will lie. Perhaps even grabbing the topographic information from some great sites around the world and copying sections of them. Then once all the bulk shaping is complete, try to route a course shifting as little land as possible.

Now perhaps a more interesting question to ponder is when should you or shouldn’t you fire up the bulldozer? If for instance the architect is presented with a good site, largely on sand but only slightly undulating should they look to bring in material to dial up the drama? Should they look to the Lido for inspiration or leave the land more or less as it is and work on a design inspired by flatter course….Kingston Heath perhaps, or maybe Hoylake?

The other factor of course is agronomy. In comparing a site manufactured versus one found you are more often than not comparing good soil with bad. Great sites are likely to comprise sandy dune land…flat boring sites are typically heavy. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but they are few and far between. So the additional complications of drainage and sand capping will likely need to be factored in.

So please give me the great land…..I’m happy to while away the hours teasing out a course.

The created landscape of Tom Fazio's Shadow Creek - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

Andy Staples –@buildsmartrgolf: Assuming you’re asking about teasing out a GREAT hole/course, rather than something unoriginal, I would say they’re each difficult in their own way. Most architects are drawn to visualizing golf holes, and natural land is more conducive to being able to “see” a good golf hole.

Being able to creatively leverage that natural land into a playing field that fosters great golf shots is what good golf architecture is all about. That’s where the difficulty usually lies, and that’s the key – teasing the land to find a consecutive string of great holes, that are fun and interesting to play. I feel that’s the hard part. Sand Hills is great example of this. I often wonder how well I would have done if given the opportunity to make my own constellation map.

But I would say teasing a great hole from uninteresting ground could be considered more difficult, and takes even more creativity and fortitude in knowing your ideas will make for great golf.

I love being able to take an uninteresting piece of land and make something that works really well in the routing, or create a hole/series of holes that turn out to be one of the most interesting aspects of the course. I really tried hard at Rockwind to find concepts that work well on mundane land to fit the strategy. There are features there that feel natural, but also make sense for golf. And, they are completely manufactured. The stretch of holes 15, 16, and 17 are examples of this.  This is cool since many of these features are often talked about as something players find memorable and intriguing.

Jeff Mingay – @jeff_mingay: Both present challenges.

It takes unique talent to “tease” great holes and a great routing out of great land. Obviously, you need a keen eye for landscape do to so. But, the best architects combine a keen eye with a sharp understanding and a strong feeling for golf and course architecture. On a virgin piece of ground, you have to be able to accurately envision how the game of golf is going to work over that terrain to create truly great holes. I don’t think this gift can be taught. I sincerely believe there are some architects who are simply born with more of that type of talent than others. It’s a gift that’s then refined and enhanced over time with gained knowledge and real experiences.

On bland ground, there are two big risks. If you do too much, you risk creating a hole that could end up looking and feeling over-shaped and forced. If you do too little, there’s the threat of leaving a comparatively ugly, boring course. Both ends of that spectrum aren’t good. Golf architects who I’ve admired the most tend to be very careful not to let their creativity get the best of them. They’re able to strike a happy medium on comparatively bland ground, which presents a better chance than otherwise to create something  that looks and feels right, and ends up being something special.

Mike DeVries – @devriesdesigns: I believe creating from scratch is more difficult because great land gives you a big head start on building excellent golf.

Certainly, everything starts with the land and analyzing what is good and bad about a property, whether that is soil, views, access, undulation, vegetation, or multiple other factors. Comparing all these variables will lead you to design a course in a certain way.

When given a great piece of land, you must be careful to not overdo things and allow the subtle features of the land to come out and develop a unique story that marries the land with the golf. This is challenging in that you must reserve the human’s natural instinct to “fix” things or make them better. When something is already really good to great, you should let it stand on its own and work to connect the dots in the routing to make the whole course better overall and let the highlights stand out above the rest.

If the property you have to work with is very bland – flat, poor drainage, lack of vegetation or character, etc., then the job to make a great course becomes less about the land and more about the structure and process necessary to make the land suitable for golf. Overall concepts, from how to properly drain the site to what bigger theme for the course you want to pursue, take on more importance than making sure you don’t destroy natural features, as you try to do on a great site.

Great golf can be achieved on either type of site, but on a bland piece of ground, you will have to expend more money and do more to the land to create something truly distinct. With great land, restraint is necessary. With poor land, find something to work with and expand that into a larger theme to drive a design concept that will invoke the golfers’ enthusiasm.

So, preferably, find a good piece of land like Maxwell says and work with it. But, if your site is less than ideal, then do as Fazio says and manipulate the land in a bold way to create something out of nothing.

Rob Collins – @kingcollinsgolf: This is a very interesting question, and I don’t think the answer is entirely straightforward. While it may be easier in terms of the amount of work required to build a hole/course on a great piece of land, having a true blank slate can lead to more creative freedom, which is easier in the sense that you have few limitations in terms what you can do. There is also a little more pressure associated with a great piece of land. In those situations, you’re playing a little bit of defense and trying not to get in the way, which can be difficult and can lend its own unique demands to the architect and construction crew.

Overall, however, there’s no substitute for great land and having the opportunity to tie your work into a thrilling natural environment. From personal experience, I can relay that creating something from nothing can be very exhausting. That is a long and convoluted way of saying that it’s more difficult to build a course on a featureless site than one that is filled with natural interest.