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Golf Course Design: The Art of Creating a Golf Course

Golf Course Design 

Golf course architecture is an art form that requires a lot of creativity.

This sport is unique because no two courses are the same around the world. Golf landscape has seen so many changes in the last 100 years that its layout and history have changed tremendously.

In the past, links golf courses were the only type of golf that existed. They are not like the modern courses in the United States. Links golf in Great Britain features greens with flat putting surfaces, rolling hills, and deep rough made of fescue.

While today’s course architecture is much different as courses must keep up with the changes in the golf industry – specifically distance. If courses don’t get updated, it’s hard to challenge players and golfers might go elsewhere. 

These amazing tracks are constantly being improved and redesigned by the designers. Keep reading to learn more about golf course design.

Golf Course Design – 15 Questions Answered 

1. How do I design a golf course?

First, you need a great imagination. You need to have a clear vision of the golf course you want to build.

You will then need to find the right land to make it possible. The site is an important part of golf architecture.

The next step is to start at the greens, and then work your way around the terrain. Every golf course is different and unique so it is important to use the land as a guide. For each shot, you will need to work backwards starting at the green and ending at the tee.

Each green should be matched to the shot average golfer will make into the green. 

For example, you don’t want thin green with trouble short and long if the average golfer will hit a hybrid or fairway metal into the green. While there should be some challenging holes, it shouldn’t feel like a greenskeepers revenge tournament on each hole. 

Another option is to keep the trouble at bay. There isn’t much more frustrating than hitting a shot that you think is perfect, only to end up OB or in the water. This is a great way to frustrate players and not have them come back often.

You should also ensure that there are plenty of tee box options to cater for all levels of golfers. Many courses have at least three sets, while some have five or six. This makes it fair and more enjoyable for all types of players. 

2. What are the five elements of a course of golf? 

The five elements of a golf club are the fairways, fairways greens rough and rough. 

Each of these factors plays an important role in making a course profitable. Players will enjoy teeing up on it. The fairways are usually matched by the tee boxes. Golf course architects ensure that the tee boxes provide the correct angles for the players. Some holes are narrower than others, such as Pebble Beach. Other holes offer wide fairways that allow for more golfers.

The location and landscape of the golf course will affect the greens. Let’s not forget about hazards either. Some courses have more water hazards than others. Others prefer sand, while some have other challenges.

These are the five areas designers should focus on when designing new or updating existing golf courses. 

3. What makes a great course? 

A fair course with a challenging round of golf is what I consider a great design. It is great when there are different holes and you use every club in your bag.

I don’t like playing the same hole on the same golf course. Or, the same clubs (drivers, wedges, putters) throughout the day. 

It’s fun to have a mix of holes, with some long and some short. There are some easy holes as well as some difficult ones. This variety helps golfers stay mentally active and is paired with the weather and wind to make it a fun day. 

4. Who are the most renowned golf course architects?

This is a great question, as there are many amazing people who have transformed a piece of land into an amazing course. The most famous names are:

  • Donald Ross
  • Old Tom Morris
  • Alistair Mackenzie
  • Jack Nickalus
  • Arnold Palmer
  • Bill Coore
  • Ben Crenshaw
  • Tom Doak, who has six courses on the top 100 list.
  • H.S. Colt (who boasts 11 course designs on the top 100 list)

5. What should I look out for in a course of golf? 

Each hole should have its own challenges, but be fair to all players. Here’s what I look for when I play a new course:

  • Tee boxGood courses should have flat, smooth driving ranges and well-kept teeing fields.
  • Maintained fairways and rough: Players should have a clear cut from fairway and rough. This will reward them for finding the short stuff, and make it harder to find your golf ball in rough.
  • Bunker well-placed: Off the tee as well as around the greens. You need to be mentally engaged and work to save par when your golf ball is lost in the sand.
  • Difficulty level: Only a few holes require great golf shots to make birdie. A par 3 is a risk-reward par 4. A par 4 is a shorter par 4. And a par 5 is difficult but reachable, but it has water. But you don’t want the course so hard that it’s not fun and people don’t want to return for more golf in the future.

You can also use the practice facility to warm up for the round.

6. How can you design a golf course? 

Be prepared to put in the effort if you want your dream job as a golf course designer. Usually, they’re decent golfers themselves (or in the case of guys like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, amazing players). They often have a degree or training in architecture and are often apprentices to famous designers.

Phil Smith of Phil Smith Designs was one example. He worked with many legends before he left on his own.

As his website states, “After 10 years designing with Jack Nicklaus and 14 years working as Tom Weiskopf’s exclusive architect, Phil’s design career has been shaped by two of the top names in golf. Drawing inspiration from these two great legends, Phil has had the opportunity to absorb a lifetime’s worth of knowledge while contributing to some of today’s premier golf course developments. Phil’s philosophy of design has been shaped by the traditional values of golf.” 

7. What are the most famous courses in the world?

There is so much great golf design it’s hard to pick just a few but here are some of the most popular and critically acclaimed.

  • Pebble Beach
  • Augusta National
  • St. Andrews (known for being the home of golf).

Again, this list could go on and on as we’re fortunate to have thousands of golf courses in the world. Make sure to check out our article on the golfer’s bucket list courses. Read the 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes to check out some of the best designs (and coolest holes) all over the world. 

8. How long does it usually take to design a course of golf?

It is not an easy task to build courses. It can take many years to plan, build, and develop a course. It can take a long time to build a clubhouse or other features such as parking lots, practice facilities, or lodging.

According to William M. AmickAn ASGCA golf course architect is, “The actual construction time for a golf course from ground -breaking to opening can be from one to two years, depending on the weather and amount of equipment used.  But today it often takes an additional one to two years to obtain all of the permits and required approvals before construction can begin.” 

Yikes, that’s a long time. Other factors such as zoning, resident growth, and location as well as weather conditions are important. It won’t take long to realize your dream of a course on the green, even if you have the money and land.

Redesigning a golf club is generally faster than building a new one. You will still need to think about things like existing membership and hiring a team to improve the course. 

9. Is there an association for golf course design? 

Yes, ASGCA (American Society of Golf Course Architects) is the governing body. Robert Bruce Harris, Robert Trent Jones and their first meeting of the new association were held after World War II.

The purpose of this organization, is to:

  • Develop and advance the game.
  • Encourage professionalism in order to teach architects how to design the best courses. 
  • Encourage and support beautiful course design, as well as helping to meet the needs of developers, communities, and owners of golf courses. 

Learn more about becoming a member Click here

How is a Golf Course Designed

10. How much land is required to build a golf club?

According to William M. AmickAn ASGCA golf course architect is, “Most golfers expect a golf course to have 18 holes with a par of about 72, plus a practice range and practice greens.  This can typically take 140 to 180 acres.  Nine holes with a par 35 or 36 should take approximately half the land area. However if nine holes are built initially, it is still better if there is enough land to design a second nine at the same time, for eventual expansion to 18.”

Needless to say, you’re going to need a large site to make it happen.

11. What software do you need to design a golf club?

As technology continues to advance, it’s made turning your dream of designing a course into reality much easier with software. There are tons of different pieces of software to give you a visual idea of what the course will look like even if you’re starting with nothing. 

It appeared that Total Pro Golf Course Designer was the most popular tool when I researched this article. According to the Developer“The Total Pro Golf Course Designer is a standalone application that allows users to create golf courses for use in Wolverine Studios’ Total Pro Golf which will be released in the summer of 2006. The TPG Course Designer combines ease of use with a powerful array of design options to provide a robust 2D environment in which users can design original course creation or replicate their favorite courses.”

Other software includes: 

  • 3D Nature 
  • CH Golf Editor 
  • AllyCad Home

I imagine that golf course design firms may have more sophisticated software and keep this technology for internal use only. 

12. What books are the best in golf course design?

There are many books that will help you build and design golf courses. Here are some of our most loved books:

  • Golf Course Design by Tom Fazio, Cal Brown
  • St. Andrews – The Evolution of the Old Course by Scott MacPherson 
  • Tom Doak’s Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture by Tom Doak 
  • The World Atlas of Golf by Pat Ward Thomas 
  • Alister MacKenzie: Golf Architecture: Economy in Course Construction & Greenskeeping 

13. How do you renovate a golf course that is already in use?

According to the ASGCA there are four main ways to update a golf course without starting from scratch. Here’s a brief overview:

  • RemodelingThis is a huge project that may involve shifting multiple holes, blowing up holes or starting over with a new design. 
  • Renovation: This type of golf course upgrade doesn’t include re-routing any holes but upgrading the existing ones. This can include adding length, adding bunkers or updating greens. 
  • Restoration: This type of upgrade is for older courses to keep them relevant in today’s world but still honor their past as well. This is needed in today’s world as the driving distance changes courses and makes shorter, historic courses obsolete. Augusta saw changes like these almost every year. They increased the length of holes (like #11 & #15) to keep up with the best players in the game. 
  • ResurfacingThis is the fastest and easiest way to upgrade an existing golf course. This involves changing the type of grass used on the fairways, greens, and tee boxes. This can be done by changing from Bermuda to bentgrass or vice versa. Certain grass types are better suited for certain climates, which results in better conditions for players all year. 

14. Which players have become designers?

Design was a passion for many great PGA Tour players, including Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. They’ve created some masterpieces and changed the history of the game.

15. Do you get a golf course design degree?

According to the ASGCA“Golf course architects come from varying backgrounds, with training in landscape architecture, civil engineering, environmental studies, agronomy, golf course construction and professional golf, to name a few. The most common degree amongst golf architects is landscape architecture.” 

As they explain in the FAQs page the majority of training takes place on the job. Designers must learn many aspects of the game and its environment, including cost estimation, land planning, heavy construction, public speaking, civil engineering and more. 

Final Thoughts 

Golf course design is an art form that requires imagination and creativity. Finding land and building a course on it is no easy task but when it comes to life, it’s magic for golfers. 

We’re all grateful for these visionaries who give us fun and challenging tracks to test our games. It’s possible to make a career out of golf if you have the right background and passion.