Playing away


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

With an ever-increasing supply of destinations to tempt the golfing tourist, building a successful golf resort has never been more difficult, says Adam Lawrence.

Building a course in a tourist resort ought to be the easiest job a golf architect could have.

Resorts, by their nature, are usually located in the kind of places people want to take their vacation – beautiful, scenic spots, with good weather. And they are played by people who are on holiday, and thus, surely, in a good mood already. Not, you might think, the kind of audience most likely to carp and pick holes in a design. Surely, for the holidaymaker, playing golf anywhere – in a cow pasture, next to a coal mine, or under the flight path of an international airport – must be a pleasure, because YOU ARE ON HOLIDAY!

Flippancy aside, reality is rather different. The reason for this is competition. Golf tourism is big business and competition is fierce, with new destinations emerging rapidly. From a European perspective, who could have imagined, only a few short years ago, that golf tourists would have the opportunity to visit courses in Turkey, Egypt and Bulgaria? For the American market, the traditional destinations of Florida, Myrtle Beach and the Carolinas are being challenged by courses springing up in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and, soon, Belize. Resort operators, if ever they could rest on their laurels, certainly cannot do so nowadays.

The result of this is that, to be successful, a golf resort must offer something out of the ordinary. There has to be a wow factor, not only for the golfer who plays the course, but also for the potential visitor looking at a brochure or a website, and even for the non-golfing spouses and children who often are dragged along on golf trips.

All this means that, even before the golf architect can think about the holes themselves, plenty of other decisions have to be made. First and foremost, the site has to be right – if a destination is not desirable in itself, then the golf course will face an uphill struggle to rescue the resort.

This isn't impossible – how many tourists travelled to the remote south Oregon coast before Bandon Dunes made it one of the top golf destinations in America? Research, though, suggests that an area with a cluster of golf courses – at least seven is thought to be ideal – is far more likely to succeed than a single, isolated course. Views are important – most people like to holiday close to the sea, or to water in some other form – so coastal sites are heavily favoured. But coastlines are heavily protected in many jurisdictions, so any site on or close to the coast may come with additional baggage attached in terms of planning restrictions.

Resorts, naturally, must include more than just golf. Most importantly, they need accommodation, and generally, that accommodation is, rather than the golf, the primary driver of profit for the resort developer. So, for anyone contemplating a new resort, once a suitable site has been identified, the next key step is to put together a land plan that determines where on the property golf holes, hotels, apartments, villas and the like will be located.

Golf architects often complain that masterplanners leave them the worst land to build golf holes on, because views sell property, and, while there is some truth in this (on any mixed development the houses or apartments will typically be on the high ground), that's not the whole story, according to Chris Panfil, managing director of leading land planner Hart Howerton. "If anything I'm usually presented with the opposite – that the name golf architect has been signed up and a plan created, and then we have to create a land plan around it! Developers typically say to us 'My marketing cachet is going to come from the name of the golf course architect so we've got to please him as much as possible'," he says.

"On site there has to be a balance," Panfil says. "The views that sell the golf course might well also be the views that sell the real estate. The views that sell property are from the hotel or the villas, across the golf course, to the sea or the mountains or whatever. If the golf just sits in the leftover space then it's a bust. You're not going to maximise the value of the property if the golf isn't perceived as having character."

Panfil says that dumping golf holes in the least attractive land won't make for a successful resort. "We start from the assumption that the site has existing landscape values. The really successful resorts mess with the natural landscape as little as possible. It becomes a game we enjoy playing if the golf course architect is involved early in the process," he says.

But using a high-profile 'signature' architect to design resort golf courses is a double edged sword, according to Panfil. Sometimes, he reckons, these firms feel any course that bears their name must be of a certain level of scale and difficulty, perhaps to an extent not suitable for a holiday resort. "When you talk to the developers they say 'We have to have a big name,' but I've also often heard people say 'It's great to have a name but the golf course is too tough'," he explains. "Maybe the whole point of the holiday is to get your kids or your wife to learn to play golf, and you don't want a championship golf experience for that. People need to understand their market."

American golf architect Forrest Richardson has recently built a course in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Penasco, as part of a development that included a village of high-rise condominiums. In an article in this magazine last year (GCA issue 5, p34), Richardson explained why he was not concerned that the best land – that facing the Sea of Cortez – had been reserved for the condominiums. "I did not win out in the pursuit of many oceanfront acres for golf holes. I am glad," he wrote. "Had my persuasion skills been used for this purpose, I would forever have been known as the guy who stole millions of dollars for his clients."

Now, Richardson reflects on the process of land planning at Las Palomas. "How often do we see those obligatory sausage links drawn on master plans with no regard for great golf? Too often!" he says. "This shows how essential good land planning is to a project, and why golf course architects are always asking to be a part of that process. The clever design is able to address both views, that of the buildings and the golf course.

"In each resort project we have done there has been a spirit of cooperation. I have not had to wrestle the land planner, but there have been showdowns. Did I win every time? Of course not. But we understood the value of views, the financial picture and what would make people want to buy a time share as well as a tee time."

Oceanfront views give the wow factor, of course, but sometimes an architect has to create that by way of his design. "You want to create a memorable character to the golf course," says Canadian architect Doug Carrick. "Most resorts are built in areas with natural scenic beauty, so you must capture that and create a very strong visual experience. But sometimes the property needs some help, and you need to provide some visual appeal on the golf holes. We usually do this with bunkers."

But it's also important to ensure that the quest for visual appeal doesn't hamper the playability of the golf course. The most fundamental characteristic of resort golf courses is that they are usually played only a few times by each visitor. Thus, even architects who are prepared to conceal features to add difficulty generally accept that a resort course should lay its challenge in front of the golfer.

"Numerous and repetitive forced carries can really make for a tough round," says Dave Fleury of the Roger Rulewich Group. "You have to be careful about that in general, but it's even more important in a resort context. You're going to have more seniors, kids and women – and they play their game more on the ground. Sometimes, though, you can go against the grain a little. Playability is important, but there are other factors too. Difficulty can be attractive in itself – take PGA West as a great example. In an area where there's already a lot of golf you need to have a clear style. We built a course, Grand Dunes, in Myrtle Beach, an area where there's already a high density of golf. But it's been a great success, because we had a great property and we used wide fairways and larger greens with a lot of contour."

"We're now building a new course at a resort property in New Jersey called Crystal Springs, where we've already built two courses for same owner," says Fleury. "If you're doing multiple courses you need different styles. I think that's why some resort developers use different designers.

Fleury says that the first hole of the course starts off very much downhill, with 100 feet (30m) of elevation change on that one hole. "Behind the hole is the big resort hotel," he says. "We're building a big fairway bunker and a lake, which was originally a basin for stormwater. It was a necessity, yes, but it also gave us the opportunity to add some wow factor."

Carrick echoes this view: "Not too punishing, but challenging at the same time is a good motto," he says. "I normally look to keep fairways generous in width so golfers are not looking for balls all day. With greens you'd generally keep an open entrance, and maybe only bunker one side. Fewer carry hazards – we might put a few in, but would usually try to provide an alternate route. Short grass round greens is a good option, because average golfers have trouble with recovery shots from sand or long rough. And I'd usually try to keep contours relatively simple. You want to have some interest but not to make it too difficult."

Pace of play is a key aspect of any course that's going to make its living from green fee players. "Number one is a routing where the distances between greens and tees are not excessive, and that can be difficult to achieve in dramatic terrain," says Carrick. Conditioning too is of vital importance – travelling golfers have plenty of choice, and few things annoy them so much as golf courses that are not in good shape. So architects must design for maintainability, and this again is a question of balance. The perfectly maintainable golf course would have large, flat bunkers, few dramatic contours and would generally aim for consistency above all else. But such consistency rarely makes for entertaining golf. "You have to set ease of maintenance off against dramatic features," says Fleury. "Steep bunker faces or other areas that need to be flymowed will add to the maintenance load, but sometimes they are necessary to make the course look good."