There’s a disconnect between what fans of golf course architecture like to talk about and what practitioners of the craft actually spend their time doing.
As appreciators, we tend to focus on how a course looks and plays: the aesthetics of the bunkers, the options off the tee, the angles into the greens. Those are fun topics, but architects will often tell you that their minds are more occupied with practical questions. How should the construction process be managed? What soils are we working with, and how can we deal with them? How will water be drained off the playing surfaces?
These kinds of details aren’t sexy, but they make the difference between a great course and a non-functional one. Here are a few things to know about these under-the-radar but critical aspects of golf course architecture:
Broadly speaking, there are two main philosophies of golf course construction: design-build and design-contract. Most architects employ a mixture of these methods, but it’s important to understand what they are and how they contrast with one another.
When using the design-build approach, the architect doesn’t just route the course and draw up plans; he or she also oversees the actual construction of the course. Often the architect will work closely with a group of trusted associates and shapers in order to exert as much control over the process as possible. Most of the best-known courses from before World War II were built in more or less this manner.
Over the past 20 years, design-build has seen a resurgence, with the likes of Bill Coore, Tom Doak, and Gil Hanse developing coteries of well-trained builders who follow them from project to project. These architects, in turn, give credit to Pete Dye for reviving this method in the 1970s and 80s, and for directly training many of today’s leading architects, including Coore and Doak.
The design-contract approach calls for the architect to make detailed paper plans and then delegate the construction itself to a contractor. Robert Trent Jones went all-in on this method in the post-World War II era, allowing him to spend less time on site and take on many projects simultaneously. But when an architect hands too much responsibility over to a contractor, quality control can suffer, and mistakes can lead to unforeseen costs. On the positive side, contractors can do certain things very efficiently. Indeed, today’s design-build architects often work with contractors to execute large-scale tasks like installing drainage and irrigation systems.
Basically, some degree of design-contract can be beneficial, even necessary, but an overall commitment to design-build has tended to produce the best golf courses.
Soil is perhaps the most important aspect of a golf course that players almost never think about. It’s the literal stuff out of which a course is made, and it has a major effect on the cost of construction and the character of the design.
The first golf courses were laid out on sand, and we still haven’t found anything better suited to the purpose. The primary advantage of sandy soil is that it drains well, meaning that the course can play firm and fast even in the absence of a fancy drainage system. Also, from an architect’s perspective, sand is easy to move around and re-contour. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s best golf courses, from the 19th century to the 21st, can be found on sandy properties.
The majority of golf courses in the United States, however, occupy clayey or rocky sites. Some of them are wonderful, and with expert design and maintenance, they can play nice and firm. But these courses are, in general, more expensive to build and more difficult to drain.
In recent years, courses on less-than-ideal soils have invested in sand-capping. Sand-capping is a process by which four inches or more of sand are added on top of the base soil to facilitate drainage and make firmer conditions possible. While this type of project is expensive, it can end up saving money in the long run because maintenance can be scaled back.
Drainage is fundamental to golf course architecture. If a course doesn’t drain well, it will rarely play well. So figuring out how to move water off fairways and greens is nearly always at the top of an architect’s mind.
There are two basic ways an architect can get water to go where it needs to go: with the slopes of the land, or through manmade drainage systems.
The 6th green at Santa Ana Country Club during construction
In a perfect world, golf courses would use only surface drainage, in which the land moves water off the playing surfaces and into streams and other basins. The availability of natural surface drainage should be a major factor an architect considers when routing a course. Architects of the Golden Age of golf course architecture, including Seth Raynor and George Thomas (along with his construction partner Billy Bell), were known for their ability to do just that.
The surface drainage at Riviera Country Club, designed by Thomas and Bell, is particularly ingenious. When the course receives rain, various slopes and contours direct into a network of ditches. This is why Riviera plays firm and fast more often than most courses.
George Thomas & Billy Bell’s masterful surface drainage swales already at work at Riviera @genesisopen #playsuspended pic.twitter.com/oMUD8DEajM
— Geoff Shackelford (@GeoffShac) February 17, 2017
Surface drainage is not only functional but also more cost-effective, more visually pleasing, and less annoying to players (fewer drains!) than the alternatives.
“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
Unfortunately, not every site has the characteristics that allow for surface drainage alone. For these courses, manmade drainage systems—with artificial basins, metal drains, pipes, the whole deal—become a necessity. And they can make an architect’s life very complicated.
It’s challenging to incorporate a drainage system smoothly into the golf course. For one, water tends to settle around drains, creating soft areas, sometimes harming the turf, and generally disrupting the playing conditions. Another difficulty is marrying function with form and blending the drainage components gracefully into the landscape. As Geoff Shackelford explains in the short video below, nothing takes an architecture geek out of the flow of a round more quickly than a clearly artificial catch basin.
That’s the end (for now) of our Golf Course Architecture 101 series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you would like to explore some of these concepts further, check out our recommended golf course architecture books as well as our free library of GCA.