This story was originally published in the Spring 2022 Issue of Stick & Hack Magazine under the title “Inside Course Architecture”. Become a print subscriber and get exclusive stories like this one delivered straight to your door.

Hole 14 of The Cliffs at Mountain Park Golf Course in Marietta, SC. This course was designed by Gary Player.

If you play golf regularly, you might have had this experience: You’re driving along a country road. You cross a little hill, and suddenly off to your left is a field flanked by woods. “That looks like a perfect par four hole!” You exclaim to no one in particular.

 Don’t laugh it off – even golf course architects have this experience.

“Happens all the time,” said Dublin, Ohio-based architect Jason Straka. “You come across some beautiful bucolic sites with rolling hills or somewhere with seaside dunes, and you think, ‘That would make a great golf course.’ Our minds are programmed that way.”

But before you jump in and design a golf course on property that looks perfect for long drives and short putts, Straka, who’s president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and a partner in Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, has some cautionary words.

“In an ideal world, we would go with a client and actually look at different parts of their property, but there’s a long laundry list of things that, at minimum, a golf course needs.”

Before an architect can even begin to think about placing a par five here or a par three there and deciding where the clubhouse might go, there’s a checklist. First, you must check to make sure there are:

  • A reliable water source for irrigation.
  • Enough room. A 7,000-yard golf course needs about 200 acres, not including houses, tennis courts, swimming pools, walking trails, and any other features.
  • No encumbrances or legal or environmental restrictions on the property. You’ll also want to make sure you’re in an area that allows liquor licenses for the clubhouse. 
  • Proper power to run a pump station for irrigation.
  • Area highways that will be good for ingress and egress at the main entrance.

“It’s a lot more complicated than people think,” Straka said. 

The permitting process alone, which is overseen by various area governments, can take anywhere from nine months to two years, according to Straka.

You’ve found the perfect property, and you’ve checked every item on the checklist. You’re finally ready to think about the course design and moving dirt. What happens now?

“Different designers do it differently,” Straka said. “Some will try to site the clubhouse area and the parking and entrance road first and figure out how that’s going to work best on the property. It’s sort of like a wagon wheel. The hub is where the clubhouse will be, and everything else kind of fans out from that.

Then you look for holes 1 and 10 and 9 and 18, the ins and outs of the course. Next, you consider what will be the most interesting and dramatic golf holes, and you piece the layout together. All of the studies you’ve done in the past on other courses help you know what works and what doesn’t, what’s exciting and what’s not. It becomes a big puzzle.”

(C) Jacob Sjöman. The Thracian Cliffs in Bulgaria is another project from Gary Player's extensive golf architecture portfolio.

Straka said his group typically develops about 30 variations of a course layout for each situation.

“If you can get topographic maps of the site and walk the property with that in hand, it helps,” he said. “If you’re going to have housing around the course, that’s a whole other thing. Now you’re doing what you do with golf but also working with a land planner. You’ll figure out home sites and where the roads have to go. If you start adding in amenities like bike trails and tennis courts, that complicates the process that much more.”

All this takes time. “Right now we have a project in southern New Jersey – 27 holes – that’s in the fifth year of building,” Straka said. 

Jeff Lawrence, president of Lawrence Golf Design in Greenville, South Carolina, has designed courses around the globe. For Lawrence, the process begins with a walk across the property, preferably with an aerial base map in hand.

“You want to get a good feel for the flow of the land,” Lawrence says. “What is Mother Nature giving you, and what is she not giving you so you can kind of see what the constraints are. You want to know the positives and negatives and start generating conceptual ideas from that point.”

Beyond just the lay of the land, course architects must consider the impact of climate change on the course design.

“A civil engineer is critical in the process,” Straka said. “Climate change – it makes no difference whether you think it’s manmade or natural. That’s not the point. From an engineering and architectural standpoint, you have to consider the changes and how courses can get flooded for a longer period. It’s a constant challenge to deal with things such as stormwater control and keeping the course open to play in that situation. And, in the desert, for example, you have to minimize the footprint and the use of water.”

According to Lawrence, sun direction also plays a big role in the routing of holes.

“If you’re going to have early tee times, you don’t want to be staring into the sun. You don’t want the first couple of holes going in an easterly direction, and you don’t want to finish 17 and 18 into the setting sun. And you like to have your practice facility going north and south. You take all that into consideration when you’re putting the puzzle together.”

Course architects must also deal with trees in most settings, which have both positives and negatives.

“Trees can certainly be an asset in a parkland setting, and they can be strategic,” Lawrence said. “You try to identify trees you want to play around or next to. But trees also create shade, and shade and quality turf don’t go hand-in-hand. You want to keep the quality trees, but you need to understand that the superintendent needs sunlight to grow grass.”

Architects must also consider the goals of the client. If the course owner hopes to host tour tournaments, the course design will be quite different from one mapped out exclusively for recreational golfers.

“Since the skill level is very different, the layout for the average golfer will be much different from what it would be with pros playing it,” said Luke Dye, great-nephew of famed course architect Pete Dye. “For tour events, the holes will be longer and the fairways more narrow. Bunker placement will be different, and landing areas will be tight. The greens generally will be smaller targets.”

Mike Hembree

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist who has covered a variety of sports for numerous publications and websites, including USA Today, Fox Sports, TV Guide and The Greenville (S.C.) News. He has written 14 books and has won numerous writing awards at the national, regional and state levels. He is a seven-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.