Most people who have a passion for golf appreciate history and the tradition of the game. But one of the main differentiators between the sticks and hacks is when it comes to golf course management and strategy. This episode, we’re going to talk golf course architecture, which impacts both here at the business.

The following excerpt has been edited for space. Check out the full episode here.

Alyson Johnson: So one of the things that I read that you were quoted saying “was 90% of the golf course is invisible to the golfer.” So talk a little bit with us about what does that mean and what comes into account when you’re playing. 

Bradley Klein: Well, first of all, I think part of the problem that golf architecture has, it’s a very esoteric trade. It’s really only appreciated by five or 10% of golfers because they think it’s a big mystery. It’s not, there are two principles, and these are all you need to know. The first one, as you stated, is that 95, 90% of what it takes for the golf course to work you can’t see.

So when I talk to committees and members and boards and all that, one of the first things I try to tell them is they have no idea what they’re talking about, because they’ve never seen what’s working. You’ve got miles of pipe, you’ve got miles of electrical wire. You’ve got drainage, you’ve got root structure. You have soil chemistry, all that’s below ground. If that’s not working, the golf course doesn’t work. So if you don’t understand that, you really don’t really know what you’re talking about. So from a technical standpoint, that rules out most people, and it puts the practice in the hands of experts. The second thing is that all you really need to know in order to appreciate architecture is a golf course.

Architecture is what happens when the ball hits the ground. It’s going to go somewhere. It’s either going to go plop or it’s going to go roll and it’s going to roll in the direction of the slope. So when you’re playing a golf course, if you just think about not just the distance, but the shape of the land and where the ball’s going to wind up and you play accordingly, you are now playing golf course architecture.

That’s it. Everything else follows from that. 

Adam Grubb:  When somebody is designing a course, are they thinking legitimately about where the ball could be, should be, or probably will be? And what happens to it afterwards? Explain that to me, from a mental perspective, how a golf course architect is actually thinking years in advance and to every level of golfer that could play that course? 

Bradley Klein: So there are two things that a golf architect is always thinking about: The first thing is actually drainage. All they’re trying to do is get water off the main surface. So the surface can be dry. The only way to get that is to create roll on the side. You don’t want water pouring onto the green, it just soaks the green and it saturates the area and it doesn’t make it play well.

You want a fast and firm surface. So the architect is first thinking about, get the water off the surface, but then provide a little bit of careful steering ground so you can aim the ball. So a well-placed shot, that’s the beauty of a well-designed golf course: is that it’s not just where the ball lands, but where it ends up.

So you’re thinking of all the times you’re playing in a state of sort of permanent terror because you know, it’s hard enough to play golf and put the ball on the club face. And now you’ve got to put it in a spot and if it goes a little out of the way, you’re messed up.

Every architect thinks about that. The distance part is easy. Anytime I talk to people and they’re talking about golf architecture as distance, I know they’re idiots because all they can think about is 7,000 yards, or I hit a four iron 180 and it didn’t stop because they don’t understand the principle of what happens when the ball hits the ground.

Adam Grubb: Brad, let’s talk about the business here behind the golf architecture. There’s so many people that are involved in a golf course on a day-to-day basis, but when a golf course architect designs a course to start, what is that process? Are they designing it to sell? Are they selling their design? 

Bradley Klein: Again, very simple. You work for a client and the client is the owner. So you, the first thing you want to find out is who’s going to play the golf course and what do you want to do with it. Here are things you need to know: who’s going to play it? Is this just going to be for everyday play? Is it going to be member play? If it’s member play, the golf course can be a little more complicated because they can learn it on a regular basis. And within a few rounds, they know what’s going on.

If it’s public play, you have a more diverse client base. You have a lot more golfers who are playing it only once or twice it can’t be quite as hidden or intrigue. You can’t have as much hidden golf shots for example. That’s one consideration. The second consideration is how much is the maintenance budget going to be?

Second question. Who’s going to operate it on a daily basis? Not just maintain it, but who’s going to be in control of it? Is it an owner who’s trying to make money? Is it a real estate company that’s trying to sell real estate? If you’re using the golf course to sell real estate, you can get away with a bigger budget and you don’t worry about the golf operation because that’s a money loser because it’s very hard to make money on a golf course property.

Alyson Johnson: I’m curious, when you think about the history side of courses, which I know Adam’s like a huge fan of, and a lot of people just find so interesting, what stands out to you as: this is a really cool story.

Bradley Klein: I love older golf courses that were built by these curmudgeons. Most of them were kind of drunk and didn’t go to meetings a whole lot.  

Adam Grubb: It sounds like a Stick and Hack member.

Bradley Klein:  Yeah. Well, they’ve qualified. A lot of the great architects came into the game because they loved the game. 

Let’s say most of them were built before 1930, just take a number. Now before 1930, they weren’t using bulldozers, they were abusing hand labor, imported labor from certain, you know, Southern Mediterranean companies in countries. And when you build the green, you had 50 guys with a wheel barrel and they pushed dirt for a month, but they only built up the greens.

They never contoured the fairways cause you couldn’t do it in those days. So what’s great about the older golf courses is they sit on the natural terrain and the skillset of the architect then was to find a natural routing, a sequence of holes that fit on the land, where you didn’t have to move the fairways, and all you really did was adjust those two, three acres of land that would support the green. So they’re inventive in this and all of their skillset was really based on making sure the routing worked, and sometimes you had steep hills and blind shots and over the hill, but you also had things that look really cool cause they were shaped by the big guy upstairs rather than a guy sitting on a bulldozer.

The modern architect gets a little bit more tempted. There’s not as much good land. You have to use landfill and all these different sites and to accommodate housing. So they’re shaping and rebuilding and recontouring fairways with big earth moving equipment. And the result is generally, it doesn’t look as interesting because it was manufactured.

Key takeaway: Rolling greens and the snack cart are not what truly makes a golf course great.

Listen here for more information about the in and outs (literally) of golf course maintenance and design.