Designing a golf course…how hard can it be?


What inspires and informs golf course design in the modern age?

Peter Masters sat four of the UK’s pre-eminent golf course architects down to discuss their craft, their clients and their courses.

Meet the architects

Ross McMurray (European Golf Design)
Responsible for The Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor Resort and The Marquess’ Course at Woburn. Plays at Royal Ascot GC.

Tom Mackenzie (Mackenzie & Ebert)
Responsible for a portfolio that includes 60 courses in 16 countries, including Skibo Castle. Plays at West Sussex GC.

Tim Lobb (Thomson Perrett & Lobb)
Responsible for Carlton House in Ireland and courses in more than 10 countries worldwide. Plays anywhere and everywhere.

Jonathan Gaunt (Gaunt Golf Design)
Responsible for more than 30 new courses designed and built, plus over 80 reconstruction/restoration projects. Plays at Cavendish.


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What’s the single most important requirement when designing a golf course in 2016?

Ross McMurray: The first requirement is to hit the brief, and that brief varies depending on whether you’re creating from scratch or renovating, or if you’re creating a course that will host professionals or simply regular members. But as designers we wear multiple hats because we have to create something significant and sustainable, but also something that’s fun.

Tom Mackenzie: That is the key thing, making sure that the design is fun for as many people as possible. We obviously have to hit the brief, but if the course isn’t fun then my view is you’ve missed the point.

Jonathan Gaunt: That’s true but I’d also add that you want to create something that holds the player’s attention and stays in his or her mind long after they’ve gone home. You want to create something that will be remembered. I’ve played some ‘great’ courses and not been able to remember all the holes. So that
is something I think we all strive to do.

Tim Lobb: We strive to do that but it’s hard. Creating 18 memorable holes would be quite an achievement.

Is it even possible?

JG: There are courses I’ve played where all the holes have been memorable, but it’s so subjective. What’s memorable to one golfer may not be to another.

RM: Creating a course of 18 signature holes is what we’re always looking to achieve. It drives me mad when people ask, ‘Which is the signature hole?’ They really all should be!

How often are you asked to fashion a signature hole?

RM: Every single client asks for one, and they’re all looking for drama.

TM: A one trick pony is what they’re looking for. A photograph they can churn out every single time. And that is how the course is then identified.

RM: Preferably with water. Ten and 18 at The Belfry influence many UK clients. And the TPC at Sawgrass.

In this age when there are lots of discussions about the future of the game, how long it takes and how difficult it is, do designers have a responsibility there?

JG: I think the whole industry has a responsibility, the R&A, USGA, England Golf. I think there is a positive move to become more inclusive rather than exclusive. That has to change and I think it is, and we have a part to play in that, for sure.

Is talk of shorter courses, more nine-holers, a bigger hole even, sacrilege to a course designer?

JG: Not at all. Why not? Let’s make it easier, it’s too bloody difficult. We’re playing from the white tees at places like Sunningdale and The Berkshire and these guys can hardly play to their handicaps as it is. We’re talking scratch golfers, some of them, and they’re struggling. We’re only talking 6,400 yards, but in the cold and damp they play long. These 7,000-yard courses – I don’t enjoy that kind of golf. I’d design one for someone if they so desired it, but I play on a 5,800-yard layout, par 68, and I love it.
RM I played up at North Berwick and Gullane this year and neither of them were over 6,000 yards, but they were still great fun and a challenge.

TM: Some clubs are starting to think more ambitiously and trying to understand the market more. So some clubs may decide that having 15in holes makes more sense to them, for example.

TL: I’d ask how much influence do we actually have as designers? The ball has been a big issue for golf design, and tournament golf influences regular clubs and what they want. Yes the ball flies further, but that isn’t reflected in the scores for amateurs. Amateurs aren’t hitting it much further and they don’t appear to be getting any better. So it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Is the professional game getting further away from the amateur game in that sense?

RM: Yes, definitely. You get a client who wants to have potential for a Tour event, but what about the regulars? You need to factor in the fact that players are getting older and older. People are still playing into their 90s so I’m finding myself building a lot more tees because that’s a good way to make a course challenging for lots of different levels.
JG: Rockliffe Hall up in Darlington is 8,000 yards off the back tees. Who the hell wants to play it at that length? But they do at least have a whole selection of tees.
RM: Sometimes those tees are there for flexibility so that things can be changed depending on the wind and the elements. And that’s my point: a design needs to be as flexible as it can be for as many people as possible and as many purposes as possible. That is actually a successful design if you can do that.

Are there any trends at the moment?

TL: It’s all about maintenance right now. Pre-recession, and I’m probably guilty of it myself, we were maybe a little excessive in the design. We’ve reduced the number of bunkers significantly in new builds and we’re reducing the size and number of bunkers in renovations, making sure that each one is absolutely necessary.

TM: This is particularly true where bunkers are now obsolete for the longer players and are really only getting in the way of mid to high handicappers for whom the game is tough enough anyway. On renovations it’s a question of reshuffling the pack and taking away sand that is not needed anymore. Too often greenkeepers are spending more time maintaining bunkers than greens, and that does seem to be wrong. Bunkers are needed strategically and visually, not wastefully.

So what makes a great opening hole?

TL: A wide open fairway and a challenging second shot – St Andrews being a prime example. I don’t think you want to terrify someone off the 1st tee. You can stand there and sweat and shake, but it shouldn’t terrify you.
RM: It’s a great opening hole because as long as you get it 100 yards off the tee then you do at least have a second shot into that green. But it’s still quite a precise second, so it isn’t as easy as maybe it looks.

TL: Ideally, a bit of space off the tee and you want people to be able to have a go at the green with their second shot. Getting it into play is important, just to get everything moving with a good early flow. Having said that, I think a good par 3 also works. Lytham has one and it’s very special.

TM: That’s true but the problem with starting with a par 3 is that clubs like to have tee times eight minutes apart, and the problem there is that the chance of a group completing a par 3 in that time is just about impossible. It then stacks up over the day. You need a par 4 with the green easily accessible so that a flow of play can start smoothly. That was the trouble with Sunningdale New’s opener (a par 4 that was more like a 5). Everyone thought they could get up in two so they waited for the green to clear before duffing it 100 yards up the fairway.

TL: A game of golf should be like a symphony in that the round starts slow and then builds up. There’s no need to bang the cymbals on the 1st tee.

If not at the 1st, then, how soon should a course have its first par 3?

JG: Probably the 3rd, but really it’s where the land dictates. We know that many people don’t hit balls before they start, but you’d hope that they were warmed up by the 3rd. A lot play the 1st hole and still aren’t that focused on what they’re doing.

Is it outdated to expect every course to be par 72?

TL: I think it is. People get carried away with the need for a par of 72. But that all depends on the number of par 3s you have. I played Berkshire’s Red course recently and it was six 5s, six 4s and six 3s – the variation was magnificent.

TM: There was a quote by Herbert Fowler that reflected the fact the ball was being made to go further and further. He said that more short holes would then be needed to fit in 18 holes to counter that. But the point is, as soon as you start getting formulaic by saying a course has to start and finish in a certain way, then you’re going to start butchering the land.

TL: I think the word needs to get out there that you can have a great course that isn’t a par 72. A course that is not shackled to any type of format. I accept that our brains might not think of things in the same way as some others, but the concept that television golf shows the pros playing on par 72 courses means they are the best is ridiculous. Particularly when you consider that hardly any US Opens in recent years have been par 72.

RM: The Fowler quote was: “Now that inventors have so spoiled the game by making it possible to hit the ball to impossible distances, the only thing a golf course architect can do to get decent two-shot holes is to increase the number of holes of the one-shot variety”. And it’s true. What once worked may not always be best.

What about long short holes – is that the way forward?

TM: Are long par 3s good for golf? For the better player, absolutely. A good 0par 3 changes the whole dynamic of a course. You get huge sluggers who hit the ball 350 yards with a driver and they look forward to a second shot on a par 5 with their utility wood. But put them on a tee, where the ball is teed up and the pressure is on to hit that green, then you have more chance of really testing their skills. That is where the long par 3, if it’s in a blend with holes of other lengths, is absolutely key. We struggle to test a good player’s long game, to the extent that they can have room in their bag for five wedges!

RM: Berkshire’s Red course has six par 3s and yet some are long and some are short so you end up playing a different club off each of them. One of my favourite holes is the 3rd at Elie, which is 210 yards. It’s a par 3 but if you’re into the wind, it’s a driver.
I don’t have an issue with that. Variety is the key.

TL: Long short holes are an important part of a designer’s arsenal, but 99 per cent of players wouldn’t be teeing up on them at 230 yards. For most amateurs, 200 yards is a good hit. As long as there’s a route into the green and it’s not covered with bunkers and lakes then that’s fine.

What are the ‘must have’ elements in a modern course design?

TL: The problem with ‘must haves’ is that it becomes ‘cookie cutter’ design. We must have a long par 3, we must have a driveable par 4 etc, so you have six holes in your head before you even look at the land.

TM: I have to say that the driveable par 4 is a ‘nice to have’, likewise par 5s that are reachable. I think anyone feels great if they can hit a par 5 in two or a par 4 in one and any time someone feels great on a golf course it should be encouraged.

JG: Putting for eagle at any time makes you feel special. It makes you feel like a pro. But as Tom said earlier, you should let the site dictate the layout. Sometimes it will influence your thoughts in a much better way than your own imagination could have done by itself.

How often do you have to see a place before you know what fits?

TM: Sometimes it’s very quick, sometimes it can be a real head scratcher. You can come
up with a design that you know is not the best but you just can’t quite get it. So you put it back in the drawer, leave it there for the weekend and get it out again on Monday, hoping something pops out at you.

JG: Or you just rotate the design. Martin Hawtree told me to do that a long time ago, rotate it and if it then looks right then you might be onto something.

RM: I find that green designs are frequently like that.

TM: The easiest sites are obviously those where you effectively have a blank canvas to work with. They allow you to take a formulaic approach, so you can make a list of all the things you want, whether that be driveable par 4s or island greens. But, if you’re too reliant on bulldozers in your designs, then you lose respect for the land and then you start to impose your ideas rather than let nature dictate.

What things don’t you like in course architecture?

TL: Over design. Especially in an existing club situation where you have a committee. Everyone is an expert on their course and, to my mind what happens is they over design what they think they want to do. You have to say to them, ‘You don’t need any of that, simplify and you’ll get a better result’. Then there’s new constructions and most of the time the client wants too many bunkers and water features where you don’t need them. Obviously they can have their opinion, it’s just a question of whether it’s implemented.

TM: My pet hate is forced carries. Whatever standard you are, there’s nothing worse than standing on a tee and thinking you can’t make a carry. Or hitting it OK then seeing it fall short. That’s just depressing and the most miserable feeling in golf, apart from three putting from two-and-a-half feet on the 1st.

What part does bunkering play in your arsenal?

TM: A bunker should – should – be visually stunning but placed to have maximum influence on play.

TL: We’ve been commissioned to look at The Buckinghamshire, which was a John Jacobs design and is about 20 years old. Part of the brief there is to reduce the number of bunkers but, predominantly, to bring their size down because of maintenance costs. Pre-recession there was a different style for new builds, which was fine back then, but we are now reducing the size of traps by over 50 per cent. We think it’ll be a lot more strategic. There won’t be bunkers down every hole and it’ll be more down one side and not the other. It will also be more visually striking. Modern techniques will help us to keep the sand up and in view, which I personally prefer. The best bunkers for me should be ones that you can see and they should sit in a natural upslope in the earth.

JG: There seems to be a trend right now to go right back to restoration and remodelling bunkers that are not appropriate. Some courses with the names of historic architects attached to them, they see the old black and white photos and want to turn the clock back. But we’re in 2016 now and there are 20,000 rounds of golf being played there. Those old bunkers haven’t survived because they’re no longer appropriate. Most greenkeepers would say they want a maintainable bunker they don’t have to waste their time dealing with when they have much more important things to do, by which
I mean maintaining playing surfaces. The top priority for them is what are the greens like. And rightly so. Good greens equals a good course.

What are your views on course rankings?

TL: They’ve become very important because clubs look at them and they have aspirations to climb higher. It can be a trigger for investment.

JG: All rankings have areas I would disagree with, but that is always going to be the case. To me, the most important two criteria for judging a layout is design strategy and routing.

TM: I would also argue that too much stock is placed in conditioning. More important than that is how much it costs to play. The condition and how much it costs maybe goes hand in hand. Cost should reflect playing quality.

RM: One of my bug bears is the weighting towards traditional courses compared to modern ones. Some great courses have emerged in the last 20 years or so. Obviously Kingsbarns is a great course and is on the list, but you also find some old places that are now not as good as some of the new developments.

TM: I would agree with that. There is a degree of unjustified reverence.

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