Part 5: Drainage and construction

The fifth installment in our Golf Course Architecture 101 series


Drainage and construction are the two foundational elements of a course that determine its success.


Drainage is a fundamental piece of golf course architecture. If a course doesn’t drain well it will rarely play well. Therefore, figuring out how to move water off the golf course is a golf course architect’s primary worry. There are two ways that an architect can move water; the natural land or through manmade drainage systems.

“Pete Dye once told me that 95% of the job is making drainage look good, and there’s a lot of truth to that.” – Tom Doak

The 6th green at Santa Ana Country Club during construction

Surface Drainage – The most natural and preferred method of drainage is surface drainage. It is simple and entails using the land to move water off the course and into streams and other receptacles. Surface drainage is a factor that architects must consider when routing the course.

Surface drainage was the method used by the Golden Age Architects. Seth Raynor and George Thomas (and his construction partner Billy Bell) were renowned for their abilities in this field.

A great example of surface drainage is Riviera C.C., long time host of the L.A. Open. When it receives rain water runs quickly off the golf course into Riviera’s ditches. This great drainage allows the course to play firm and fast more often than most courses.

The benefit of using surface drainage is it is the most cost effective method. It delivers the most natural and best visual aesthetics. It will also lend itself to the best playability because of the lack of drains.

Drainage systems – It is ideal to avoid drainage systems when possible. They cost money and require construction. Unfortunately, not every site possesses the characteristics that allow surface drainage alone. For these courses, drainage systems become a necessary and critical aspect of the function.

Drainage systems can make an architect’s life very difficult. Creating a natural aesthetic while using a drainage basin is one of the toughest tasks.

One issue that arises with using drainage systems is the water tends to settle around the drain. This will create a softer area where grass doesn’t grow as quickly and firm conditions cease to exist.

Geoff Shackelford put together a nice video on surface drainage and catch basins.


There are many factors that go into the construction of the golf course. The first aspect is understanding the two competing philosophies; Design-Build and Design-Contract.

Design-Build is a philosophy that has had a resurgence at the hands of Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak. These two changed the industry by controlling all aspects of a golf course build. As its name suggests, Design-Build this approach involves the architects designing and building the course. The architects will work with a group of shapers and associates who work for them to carry out the construction. This is a method that is continuing to grow because it has produced great results with less cost.

The other philosophy made popular by Robert Trent Jones in the post-depression era is Design-Contract. This method involves architect creating detailed paper plans and then delegating construction to a contractor. It allows architects to design more courses simultaneously because there is less time spent on site. Issues can arise with this methodology though because the architect is relying on a contractor to execute on the vision. When the plan isn’t executed properly it can often lead to extra costs.


One of the more impactful aspects of construction, is the soil of the site. This will greatly affect cost and what is feasible from a design standpoint. The best soil to build a golf course on is the sandy variety. Sandy soil allows shapers and construction crews to easily move and contour the ground to their desired specs. The sand also plays a pivotal role in drainage and playing conditions. Sandy soil drains better, allowing a golf course to play firm and fast on a more regular basis. Many of the world’s best golf courses were built on sandy sites.

The vast majority of golf courses in the United States are built on clay or rocky soils. These soils limit the ability for architects and construction crews to shape dramatic contouring at low cost. These soils also present much larger drainage concerns.

A practice which has become popular in recent years is sand capping. This is a process where 4” or more of sand is added during the construction of a golf course to facilitate drainage and firm conditions. While it adds to the overall construction cost of the project, it lowers ongoing maintenance expenses and adds to the playing conditions.

While drainage and construction will never be the sexy topic in golf course architecture, it is the most important aspect of it. The fine detail work might be what make a course memorable, but if the fundamentals don’t work, all those hours of shaping are for naught.