Designing Courses for the Weekend Golfer

Designing Courses for the Weekend Golfer

Golf architects want you to enjoy your rounds on their courses—no, really!

If, by chance, you shot your best round of golf last season at Baker National Golf Course in Medina, give yourself a pat on the back. Then consider sending a note of thanks to Michael Hurdzan, the Columbus, Ohio–based architect who designed the 18-hole course.

“I would like people to shoot their very best round of the year on our golf courses,” says Hurdzan, principal of Hurdzan/Fry Golf Course Design, Inc., who also designed the Troy Burne Golf Course in Hudson, Wisconsin “People want to shoot a good score. If they are having their best rounds of the year on our courses, I will be the most famous golf course architect in the world, because I’m satisfying the people that play this game.”

In fact, Hurdzan and his architectural colleagues wield more power over your on-course performance than you might think. On any given hole, the placement of a green-side bunker or the direction and degree of a fairway slope can be the difference between putting for par or settling for a double bogey.

Consider, for example, this potentially familiar scenario: You tee up your ball on a 250-yard, par 3 hole. You get good distance on your drive, but like most middle-of-the-road right-handed players, your ball slices from left to right. Fortunately, the fairway is wide enough to accommodate less-than-stellar drives. And when your ball finally lands, rather than rolling down a hill into an unforgiving rough, it glances gently off an upward slope and stays on the fairway, leaving you with a playable shot onto the green.

Though you might assume you got a lucky bounce, you’re more likely the benefactor of a thoughtfully planned design aimed at helping you shave strokes off your round. “It’s too easy to make a golf course hard,” says Garrett Gill, principal of Gill Design, Inc., in River Falls, Wisconsin. Gill designed the new Meadows at Mystic Lake in Shakopee and recently redesigned the 18-hole Highland Park National Golf Course in St. Paul. “The challenge is making the course fun,” he says. “The overriding goal, at least in my opinion, should be for the golfers playing your course to have fun.”

Hurdzan concurs: “You want to build a golf course that looks hard but plays easy.” Yet, he concedes, that’s much easier said than done. “I don’t think people realize the amount of hardcore engineering that determines how a golf course will be laid out,” he says. Environmental restrictions and legal concerns also contribute mightily to course layouts, he adds.

“We hear a lot about how creative a lot of the old architects were,” Hurdzan says. “I guarantee you that a lot of them would absolutely die if they had to work with the limitations we have today, and yet be expected to be creative on top of that.”

A Brief History

Golf’s origins trace back nearly six centuries to Scotland’s eastern coast, an area marked by small hills, sand dunes, native grasses, and the occasional tree. The early golf courses that evolved from this dynamic landscape conformed, simply and elegantly, to the character of their physical environments.

By the beginning of the 20th century, several hundred golf courses, which similarly blended with the landscape, peppered the United States. Meanwhile, a class of master designers from the U.K., including Donald Ross and Alistair MacKenzie, began elevating golf course design to an art form. Ross is credited with revolutionizing greenskeeping practices and constructing faster, more contoured, and more challenging greens. MacKenzie, in turn, is best known for transforming bunkers from natural, sandy-soil features into more free form, amoeba-like shapes.

“He figured out how to build bunkers attractively in other types of climates. Basically, that set the pattern for what bunkering looks like today,” says Jeff Brauer, president of GolfScapes, Inc., in Arlington, Texas.

After World War II, course design changed dramatically again. Advances in engineering, irrigation, chemistry, and construction enabled developers to build and maintain courses in virtually any location—deserts, wetlands, mountain ranges, or abandoned mines. “That was one of the real heydays of golf course architecture,” Brauer says.

During the next such heyday in the 1990s, golf’s popularity surged substantially. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of golfers in the country (those that played more than eight rounds per year) went from 11.8 million to 14.1 million, according to the National Golf Foundation, a Florida-based organization that tracks and reports on the state of the golf industry. To accommodate the demand, course developers and architects turned out new courses in staggering numbers. In 2000 alone, about 300 new 18-hole courses opened throughout the country.

Meanwhile, new technology, such as titanium clubs and Titleist Pro V1 balls, were helping to fortify the sparsely populated ranks of 300-yard drivers. Golfers started clamoring for longer courses. In 1920, 6,500 yards (the combined distance from the center of the tee to the center of the green on all 18 holes) was regarded as a long course. Players started seeing 7,000-yard courses in the 1970s. In 1990, the length of a championship course was 7,200 yards, and since 2000, courses exceeding 7,500 yards are not uncommon, Brauer says.

Though business boomed throughout the 1990s, Brauer, Gill, and Hurdzan contend that golf course design took an unfortunate turn during that period. Architects became more fixated on challenging the elite few—the 8 percent of golfers who have an average score under 80 strokes—than on attending to the needs of the middle-of-the-road player with an average nearly 20 strokes higher. The majority of courses were being designed for the minority of golfers.

Today, Brauer, Gill, and Hurdzan agree that such an approach is impractical. The golfing ranks have thinned—down to about 12.8 million in 2004, according to the National Golf Foundation. Indeed, the foundation reports that new course openings in 2005 totaled just 124, compared to about 150 the previous year. With less disposable time and income, it seems Americans are spending theirs elsewhere.

“Golf courses don’t compete with other golf courses, necessarily,” Hurdzan says. “Golfing and golf courses compete with every other kind of activity that asks for people’s discretionary time and money—backpacking and fishing and bowling and movie theaters and cruises.”

Hurdzan contends that people are seeking the best leisure-time value and golf “has to become a better value to people. How do you measure that value? Well, you don’t measure it by the number of golf balls you lost or that it took you five-and-a-half hours to play a course. Or that it cost $200 to play.”

Adds Hurdzan, “We need to satisfy the reasons why people play the game.”

“Green” Greens

Before an architect even starts work on a design, he or she must account for an array of engineering questions: Where will patrons enter the property? Are the essential utilities—water, electricity, and sewage—available? Where can they be situated on the property? What are the zoning issues—does a county line run through the property?

“None of these things has anything to do with golf, but they are all very real factors that determine so much of where major elements have to be, like the clubhouse, the parking, the entrance roads,” Hurdzan says.

Liability issues also influence today’s course layouts. “We say that golf architects decide whether golf holes will be long or short, and the lawyers decide how wide they are,” Hurdzan quips.

Indeed, architects now routinely include so-called safety corridors in their designs, thereby providing extra “padding” between golf holes and between the course and adjacent property. The goal is to protect golfers on the course—and people and structures nearby from stray golf balls.

“I use the phrase, ‘Bad things happen on good golf courses,’” says Michael Kraker, a St. Paul attorney who specializes in golf course liability. His Web site,, provides a tour of golf course safety hazards, including danger from stray balls, golf-car accidents, and more.

Kraker notes that safety should be considered in the design phase. “Once the golf course is built, it’s either too late or very expensive to change it,” Kraker says.

Stricter environmental regulations have also altered the ways in which architects can manipulate the landscape. A few decades back, for example, golf course architects could routinely fill in wetlands or level woodlands. Today, however, “there are a lot of ‘no touch’ areas out there,” Brauer says.

In short, golf courses are becoming “greener.” Facility owners are increasingly requesting sustainable designs that can be maintained by smaller staffs with fewer inputs. Audubon International, a New York–based nonprofit, has developed standards for sustainable golf course design and offers certification for courses that comply. Audubon International’s standards encourage designers to connect areas that will form natural habitats; specify varieties of turf grass and other vegetation that require less water and are less dependent on fertilizers and pesticides; and include methods of catching and retaining ground water. Gill’s Highland Park redesign, for example, includes low-input hybrid bluegrasses that require less nitrogen than previous species of bluegrass. Gill also devised an irrigation system that relies mostly on captured ground water.

“I think this whole idea of golf and sustainability is for the good,” Gill says. “I think golf architecture has been vastly improved by the fact that we now recognize wetlands, for example, as unique, form-giving constraints that make for exciting, beautiful golf holes.”

Shaping the Land

Architects must also consider the course owner’s expectations. For example, when Brauer was contracted to design the first Giants Ridge course, now known as the Legend, he was asked to create a “gentle giant”—a picturesque resort course that could be played and enjoyed by golfers of all abilities. For the second Giants Ridge course, the Quarry, Brauer was asked to build a tournament-worthy course. The difference between player friendly and tournament friendly, he explains, can be as simple as tightening corridors, making elevation changes more severe, and incorporating more—and more difficult—hazards.

“You have to design the course for who is going to play it,” says Don Herfort, a retired Twin Cities architect who designed several Minnesota courses, including the Superior National Golf Course in Lutsen, Pebble Creek Golf Course in Becker, and the course at Stillwater’s Indian Hills County Club. “I’m not going to make a 7,300-yard golf course for the average guy, because he’s not going to like it. He’ll play it once or twice, and he won’t come back.”

Next, the architect must apply the owner’s specifications to the available space, which generally covers between 140 and 175 acres. “That’s the canvas,” Gill says. And to each of these canvases, architects tend to apply, in varying degrees, their signature styles. Gill, for example, likes to incorporate beach bunkers, or bunkers situated alongside ponds. “Water is sort of the absolute hazard,” he explains. “I see bunkers, on the other hand, as infinitely adjustable hazards. So when a bunker is placed next to water, it can prevent you from entering into a worse hazard—an unforgivable hazard. That’s a feature I really enjoy.”

Brauer, in turn, looks for opportunities to incorporate split fairways into his designs. Environmental “no touch” zones and other natural features can inspire fairways that part in their midsections and reconnect before the green. “I like to be able to give you some choices—make you think for a moment before you tee it up and swing away,” Brauer says.

In addition, both Brauer and Hurdzan tend to place bunkers to the left side of their holes. Again, the less-skilled right-handed player is more likely to slice the ball from left to right. They’re also more likely to hit the ball short than to overshoot the green. The better players are more apt to hook the ball from right to left. So by placing greenside bunkers to the left, “you’re statistically more likely to catch the good player and less likely to catch the average player,” Brauer says.

By employing these multipurpose features, architects are better able to design courses that reward all types of players. They’re able to challenge the top golfers without humbling lesser ones.

“I liken it to viewing art,” Gill says. “When people look at a piece of art, they each get different impressions, and it means different things to them. Likewise, as golfers look at a golf course, some of them might be playing them for the challenge—the physical punishment of it. Others might be playing because it’s a beautiful environment. They don’t care what they shoot, they just want to spend time with friends and have fun. I think that all can exist on the same course.”