Designing in digital


Sean Dudley

Although the thin line between art and science is often too subtle to detect, golf course architecture has successfully meshed these two worlds into one indistinguishable industry where designers create art forms to meet clients’ briefs. From the initial concept to the final cut, golf course design lies somewhere between creating a sculpture and proving a theorem.

Although the strategy adopted by designers to realise their visions depends entirely on personal taste, it can also define the courses they create. The role technology plays in this process, in particular Computer Aided Design (CAD), is fundamental. Digital surveys, manipulated photography and 3D flythroughs have opened up a whole galaxy of possibilities for golf course designers. But as the computer’s influence widens, what affect will these innovations have on golf course design? It’s not a new phenomenon, in fact it’s been around since the earliest days of golf when courses were shaped with as little disruption to the natural flow of the land as possible. Back then routings were adaptations to the land with little need for detailed planning. When the horse-drawn scraper entered the fray during the early stages of the 20th century, things changed. Land that had previously been deemed unsuitable for golf was readily shaped using horse power rather than elbow grease. This innovation also coincided with the Haskell ball which commanded longer and more sophisticated holes.

As the demand for more intricate designs grew, so the search began for technologies to create more sophisticated plans and visualisations for clients and construction teams. Alister MacKenzie, for example, was one of the first to create clay models to communicate the subtle nuances of his greens to the workers who would fashion them. The advent of golf course resorts with obligatory real estate developments also hastened the move towards greater complexity and, ultimately, CAD.

Today, while some embrace the power of the chip, others are reverting to a stripped-down approach devoid of computerised interventions altogether. There is little middle ground, but what impact will CAD systems and 3D visualisations have on golf course design, and what are the alternatives?

Few architects would easily dismiss the potential benefits of CAD. If nothing else, the drawings and models emanating from programs such as AutoCAD, Civil3D and McCarthy Taylor Systems’ LSS solution, are convenient and accurate. However, in today’s world of online communication and virtual reality, CAD and its derivatives can offer so much more, as Ken Moodie, principal at Creative Golf Design and vice president of the EIGCA, explains.

“An experienced architect can envisage the hole with just contour information, but there are little things you can improve on by getting it modelled,” he says. “You can get that little bit closer to the perfect design. Some software solutions can be used as tools, but most of our clients can’t read topographic plans so if they want to get a good impression of how a course will look then a fly-through using 3D modelling is the best way. It is expensive so they may use it as a sales and marketing tool for housing developments alongside the golf course but it can more than pay for itself by selling houses or memberships early.”

Currently Moodie uses AutoCAD bunker positioning, and calculating accurate pipe sizes are just some of the advantages of using computer visualisations and design programs. Yet, when it comes to the finer details, such as greens and bunkers, he prefers to sketch by hand. “There are no programs that give you the fluidity of drafting,” he says. “It’s still an artistic process.”

By delivering tangible benefits enjoyed not only by the architect but also the client, computer software has become an integral part of the design process. This dual role means CAD data and aerial photography is often used to generate raw data for visualisations as well as detailed plans. Sean Roche, managing director of Digitech 3D, says this facet is an increasingly important function of design software.

“In golf course architecture, you’re dealing with the general public,” he says, “very few of which understand line drawings. Technical concepts conveyed in a movie format help laypeople understand what they’re getting.” Digitech 3D has developed a process of creating animated computer models from aerial photographs. Originally fashioned for civil engineering projects, it wasn’t long before the mathematical movies caught the eye of golf course architects. But costing up to €30,000 for a model, what do clients get for their money?

“They get peace of mind, because they know exactly what the architect is creating,” he says. “They can ask the architect to change the designs rather than changing things on site. Changes in the field could cost you €60,000, while a change in the office could might only cost a couple of hundred. One architect said that if he had our technology he would have raised a green by a metre, but on site that would have cost too much of money.”

Flythroughs and 3D models produced by firms such as Digitech and US-based firm 3D Nature help clients and architects understand the layout of a course, but it is also claimed that these graphical interfaces can aid professional golfers dabbling in design. Some even suggest that modern technology is a practical means of bridging the knowledge gap between golfer and architect.

“If you’ve got an absolute novice, then the flythroughs are the stage at which they see what the course is going to look like,” says Jeremy Slessor, managing director of European Golf Design, the architectural wing of IMG and the European Tour. He insists, however, that more experienced players are happy to work with more conventional plans. “Someone like Bernhard Langer or Colin Montgomerie has done enough work that the 2D plans are enough for them to get a feel for the course and how the strategy of the hole is developing.”

Slessor maintains the only true benefactors are the developers. “It’s less important for the professionals and more important for the developers,” he says. “The developers are the ones who get really excited when they see the flythroughs because most of them have never developed golf courses before. They’re the ones who have difficulty interpreting a 2D image into a 3D image and get very excited about the marketing potential.”

The case for CAD and 3D visualisations is fairly persuasive. Not only do they have the potential to save time and money, but they also provide a convincing method of communicating complicated ideas to those with a non-technical bias. As a result, one could be forgiven for thinking computer generated plans and presentations were solely used to appease interested parties. While this plays a huge part in the growth of the use of design software, it would be wrong to assume this was its only function.

“The benefits increase the earlier the 3D graphics are implemented,” says Ted Bierman, principal at Envisage 3D. “During the design and planning phases of a project, it becomes an excellent tool to reduce the number of final modifications that take place once ground removal and distribution has begun.”

Bierman says his 3D graphics company is now able to target 75per cent of all architects and architectural firms because of the latest innovations, but admits technology is no substitute for creative flair. “No matter how sophisticated the technology, most golf course architects/developers must start original creativity in their own minds or pay someone to do it on their behalf. Your best creative tool is your own perception. However, I think it is advantageous to incorporate as much technology as you can to streamline the construction processes and alleviate time consumption and wasted money. Adversely if all you use is technology to design your course I think you not only lose the natural feel of the course but you have a tendency to lose the personality of the course too.”

Interestingly, Bierman believes modern technology can help designers find natural routes for their courses. “I think it greatly improves the ability of the architect to conform the course to the natural contouring of the landscape. There is so much data that can be quickly accessed and analysed. The more information, the easier is it to stay true to the workable environment.”

From 2D CAD drawings to 3D movies, the influence of computer-generated plans is undeniable. For instance, in the opening module of the EIGCA’s Professional Diploma in Golf Course Design, students receive computer literacy lessons before they find out about the principles of routing, layout, safety or construction techniques.

While the influence of computers has grown steadily, there is an emergent band of architects who prefer to take a step backwards rather than charging ahead in a virtual reality world. Their philosophical approach determines how technology is used, rather than the other way around. “Here’s why I don’t do it,” says Tom Doak, president of Renaissance Golf Design. “I’ve seen all the best golf courses in the world and none of them were built that way. If someone had built one from a detailed set of plans, then I would listen.”

His hands-on approach means shaping and grading greensides and bunkers and finalising elevations are concluded in the field. “We don’t draw detailed green plans like other architects,” he says. In fact, he resists drawing any plans at all and only succumbs if the client requests it or it is needed to gain permission to start work. “Detailed plans drawn in an office lead to more construction work because they go further on paper than is necessary. Because they’ve drawn it that way, that’s what the contractor does. You just take up a bigger area of land on paper without thinking about it.”

Although an increasing number of architects have adopted this freestyle approach, Doak says it remains a specialist area. “My business is a relatively small niche; there’s a handful of architects who have made a reputation for it,” he explains. “Maybe 20 per cent of all the projects in the States would be interested in our style of doing things”. He says the difference between his approach and computerdependant practices is considerable. “It’s a pretty strong disagreement – you’re either on one camp or the other and both camps are convinced their system is better and more efficient.”

His may be a niche market, but there are others who share his views. DMK Golf Design’s Paul Kimber believes a stripped down approach not only delivers a natural finish, but can also save money. “If you believe that a golf course is organic and evolves over time with your crew, then you’re not going to get the best result if you’ve already decided where everything is going to go beforehand,” he says. “It’s also a more expensive way of doing things. If I come across a problem, I can adapt the plan instantly and make a decision that’s cost effective.”

Although he uses Autodesk’s Civil3D software to produce cut and fill plans and draw final routings, Kimber believes making decisions on site makes for a more interesting course. “Everything flows from one element to the next, whether it’s a bunker tying into the rough or set of tees, but it also gives you more opportunities to do quirky things that you wouldn’t do in AutoCAD. If you’re sitting in an office not looking at what’s going on beyond the golf hole, you could be blocking a fantastic view. If you move the hole 10 yards, you could make the most of that view and it could become the backdrop for your green. You can’t see that on a drawing.”

The team at DMK uses ingenious ways to communicate ideas to their team of machine operators including a table-top sandpit box in which miniature greens and bunkers are created. “You can save a lot of time by getting inside their heads and using their creative skills as well as your own to produce something that is good for the course. If you set it out using a plan and a bunch of stakes, it would take forever. I can model a green in the sandpit and have it built within two days – it would take you that long to draw it.”

Graeme Webster, a partner in Niblick Golf Design, is cut from the same mould. He spends a lot of time on site using natural ground movements to find suitable routings and restricts his computer work to liaising with his business partner Brian Phillips, who draws up earthwork plans using VectorWorks, a general-purpose drafting and modelling application formerly called MiniCAD. “I do most of my work by hand and working with the shapers on site. Brian does the CAD work and the technical drawings.”

Once again, his approach to golf course design determines his use of technology. “You’ve got to be creative to use CAD,” he says. “My type of creativity is a hands-on one, but I would never knock the guys who just use CAD because some of them are doing tremendous work. I could never see myself changing.” He extends his handson approach to client presentations which are drawn exclusively by Lincoln Rowe, a professional artist who works full-time for Graeme.

“To let the client see what we’re building, I draw a flat-plan of two or three feature areas. Lincoln and I discuss what existing features will remain and he paints the holes as they will appear when the course is finished,” he explains. “If you’re selling a project, you need a painting with warmth and life. In that respect, I can’t see 3D being as good as a professional artist. It’s not the cheapest way to do it, but we go that route because it’s the most natural way. A golf course should be natural and the most natural thing to do is work by hand and use an artist.”

Technology has always played a defining role in how golf courses are designed and built, and CAD drawings, 3D images and flythroughs are no different. The extent to which designers use these tools is dependant on their approach and their relationship with their crews. Those who take a more hands-on approach rely less on computer programs arguing that to do so would create a less fluid result. Architects who have embraced cuttingedge solutions point towards timesaving elements associated with earthworks calculations and changes to coloured rendered master plans. Both make valid points, and both seem equally entrenched.

Maybe Paul Albanese, director of golf architecture at Edinburgh’s College of Art, puts it best: “It is imperative to use technology in the design process, but that does not mean the dismissal of the more traditional methods. Technology is simply another tool at our disposal to help explore the creative process of designing golf features.”

This article first appeared in issue 6 of
Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2006.