Get A Grip On Golf-Course Design

A superior golf course begins with an attractive piece of land and a professional golf course architect who can transform almost any type of property into a piece of art and a challenging golfing experience.

The heyday of golf course development may be over, but new challenges allow for strides in landscape design.

Completed properly, routing a golf course is a coordinated effort among a golf course architect, a site planner, and a civil engineer. And, finally, there is the landscape architect--the one who makes all of the elements come together in the composition.

Beginner golf-course design classes teach the basics, such as not starting the course in an easterly direction or finishing in a westward direction so players do not have to contend with direct sunlight. Then the actual routing must be considered to ensure a diversity of lengths, orientation, and changes in character.

Those fortunate enough to work on a site partially vegetated with natural fauna only need to follow suit with “Mother Nature,” and build on what has already been provided. This task is even more enjoyable if the course architect has enough confidence to allow the landscape architect to blend his or her talents so the landscaping becomes part of the course’s strategy, rather than merely being decoration at the course’s edges.

One of the crucial elements the landscape architect must understand is the amount of space it takes to play the game properly, and to keep shrub beds in certain areas out of play.

While the placement of specimen trees that indicate proper playing direction or targets are critical and fall within the auspices of the golf-course architect, the separation of adjacent holes is really under the jurisdiction of the landscape architect. Beautifying tee boxes and providing suitable “green” backdrops also fall within his or her purview.

A landscape architect can establish the tone of a golf course project with the entry signage and character of the entry drive. Before starting on any design, it is important to distinguish the difference between “parkland”-type courses and the Scottish “links” style, which employs a less landscaped, more open course susceptible to the forces of nature, and dominated by native grasses and low plantings.

While the “parkland” courses obviously give landscape architects the most latitude, an effective designer uses what is provided. In the event no natural vegetation exists, the choice becomes even more of a coin toss, with all types of solutions available.

For example, south Florida is not blessed with huge topographical changes in elevation, but those fortunate enough to work on a seaside site should help augment attractive views and utilize seaside vegetation.

Peer Into The Past

While the basic steps for a successful golf course design have remained constant, certain trends have developed that caused a shift in the industry.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, golf courses were often the central attraction within residential developments. Courses with a site plan that included views over lakes, and attractive tee areas and greens could charge additional premiums for these vistas.

In those “heydays,” the budget to build a course was between $7.5 million and $10 million, with the ability to move ample amounts of fill to create a varied terrain and build more lakes. A similar landscape budget was between $800,000 and $1.25 million, depending on how many acres the course consumed and how much natural vegetation existed.

Understanding what the golf course superintendent was facing was critical. Since the chief responsibility was caring for the 70 to 90 acres of golf course turf and the irrigation system to sustain them, a landscape architect was expected to avoid providing maintenance-intensive landscaping, or creating dead-air situations around tees and greens.

The Slippery Slope

As the economy deteriorated, all the elements that went into creating a beautiful golf course soon became the landscape architect’s undoing. Since weeds were not tolerated on high-end courses, for example, fertilizers and pesticides were applied in abundance.

Golf course design is trending toward smaller courses, more natural design.

But as more and more chemicals were considered detrimental to the environment, they became outlawed for their long-term effects, and maintenance costs escalated, putting 18 holes of premium golf at $1.2 million or more a year to maintain.

Additionally, the much-sought-after views that developers demanded began to show design flaws. Many holes ran parallel to housing parcels and required ample fairway widths to protect homes from being bombarded by errant golf balls. Another critical issue that surfaced was the separation of golf course turf and residential turf.

As golfers became unwilling to pay $100-plus for a round of golf or upwards of $75,000 to join exclusive clubs, many golf courses were consuming in excess of 1 million gallons of fresh water daily during periods of severe drought.

Since developers could no longer justify the costs of maintaining the gargantuan clubhouses built in golf’s heyday or the two or three golf courses on their property, many were forced to allow the courses to deteriorate, thus lessening the original premium homeowners paid to dwell on the scenic perimeter.

In many instances, homeowners banded together and bought the courses from the original developers for a greatly reduced rate.

So now the question becomes: how do we maintain our house values and the excellence of golf courses without breaking the bank?

As “baby boomers” comprise the predominant group of golfers, what can be done to interest younger generations to play the game? Slow play that results in 4- to 5-hour rounds must be marshaled on the course, and the cost of new equipment must become more affordable.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but as a proponent of the value of these large tracts of land and the amount of open space they contribute to the environment, some common-sense factors need to be figured into the equation.

Water Consumption

The use of “grey water,” which is cleaned effluent, is a readily available commodity instead of using up invaluable potable water.

Irrigation equipment also has become more efficient, and 90-gallon-per-minute heads can be replaced with heads utilizing half that amount. Since most of this water percolates through to underground aquifers, the dispersal rate is lowered and allows the soil to stay wet longer, reducing evaporation and making it more available for the sustenance of the turf and plants.

Another water-saving and maintenance-lessening technique is to reduce the large acreage of mowed turf. Properly located, “waste” areas comprised of crushed shells, mulch, or large beds of native ground covers can reduce the mowed acreage significantly.

Low-Impact Development

Low-Impact Development has recently come into vogue, and professes to utilize natural drainage systems instead of large quantities of drainage pipe that ultimately empty into man-made canals and are lost to the ocean.

Why not take advantage of the golf course’s ability to handle large volumes of water and purify it through natural-looking wetlands before being stored in the lakes? Native landscaping requires less maintenance and uses less water.

Repurpose For Multi-Purpose

Exorbitant clubhouses need to be redesigned to become more multi-purpose. Why spend additional money on building new facilities for other community activities when underutilized 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot clubhouses already exist?

If golf is truly being played less than in the past, why not convert two 18-hole courses into three 9-hole layouts that can be played in less time? These can be grouped in a number of different combinations to yield 45 to 50 acres for other recreational uses, such as natural playgrounds, which are a popular new commodity and don’t diminish the beauty of the natural environment.

Walking and biking are also popular activities, and the old cart paths can provide miles of available trails.

Butterfly gardens and local farming also are gaining in popularity.

Blend With Nature

Recreating native habitat provides migration corridors for local wildlife. Cutting holes delicately from the surrounding woods allows for the harmonious blending of the two worlds. More naturalistic landscaping is also much easier to maintain and requires less water.

The real trick is to fit the golf greens and holes into the environment seamlessly, so they appear to have always existed there.

It is also paramount that the landscape architect appreciates what the golf course architect is trying to accomplish, so the landscaping accentuates the holes’ features, rather than detracting from them. This finessing of the final product can only happen on-site with a “hands-on” approach.

Bruce Howard is the President of Bruce Howard & Associates, a landscape-architecture, site-planning, and golf-course design firm in Miami, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at

Bryan BuchkoComment