The value of the golf architect

The value of the golf architect
By AML

British designer Howard Swan wants to know why, particularly when it comes to renovating courses, so much work is undertaken by people other than professional golf course architects.

I had always thought that golf course architects, the ones who spend their life doing nothing else, had a special place in the golf business. Being one, I would; but sometimes I wonder if it is quite true.

So often one goes to a club to try and give the (prospective) client best value of what his golf course needs as it moves forward and we find that its design, condition, performance have been tinkered with by so many before us. Most likely those people were captain, president, or chair of green, out to leave their mark on their golf course.

Why do they do it? Is it just an ego thing, to look good in front of membership colleagues, or leaving a memorial (hopefully without name plate) or a monument (hopefully without inscription)? Is it that it is their golf course and they don’t want outsiders involved? Or maybe it is just that they know better than we might?

Perhaps the most admired elder statesman of our profession, Geoffrey Cornish, when prefacing ‘The Architects of Golf’ almost twenty years ago, wrote: “A golf course, being a living, breathing creature, grows old. It may age gracefully, looking better and playing better the older it gets, but after a time it begins to show its age. Its holes become too short. Its bunkers no longer seem menacing. Its greens lose character. One of three things must be done. The old course can be reconstructed, completely rebuilt from the ground up with scant homage paid to its original design; it can be restored, faithfully reproducing every nuance, no matter how antiquated, to reflect the original designer’s intent and philosophy; or it can be renovated, changing certain features of the course in order to accommodate modern play but maintaining the original framework. Reconstruct...restore...renovate.”

What he didn’t say, but I am sure he would have meant, perhaps even assumed, is that such work on a golf course would be in the hands of a member of our profession alongside the client, its professional staff and its officers in a team effort.

It is important to stand back and take an overall view of the course in the endeavour to produce an all-encompassing renovation master plan. To do so, some objectivity is needed, and this can best be provided by a professional architect, educated, and knowledgeable about what to look for technically and related to play – the play of all, not just one or two.

There is a sound reason to keep a course up to date, even in front: to protect the asset, to maintain it in good condition and add to its value. In the commercial world, this is common sense and practice. The golf course is no different; it is a club’s biggest asset. A course needs to be maintained, not just in the sense of routine greenkeeping, but in the sense of continuous evolution of its natural structure. Failure to do so results in a deteriorating product, less attractive to players, club, owner and operator alike. Sadly, however, the structure of many of our golf operations does not allow this to happen.

Committees may be in office for just one year, captains similarly and green chairmen not always much longer. This turnover does not favour gradual, consistent evolution of the course, which it so badly needs and as nature warrants. Improvements tend to be staccato, inconsistent and personal. Passing fancies and fashions prevail. They shouldn’t!

The combination of modern golfing equipment technology and fitter bodies has brought many courses to their knees. The best players may hit the ball over 300 yards consistently, but many others don’t. Some may hit it further but not always in the right direction! The clamour for longer and longer courses is evident. Safety and security is therefore a bigger problem than most care to recognise.

Lengthening the course may not be the answer. Certainly it can’t be the only answer, especially at the expense of its tradition or the strategic appeal of its design. Does the addition of any length defend it against the big hitters on the tour? I wonder.

Usually, it is preferable to look at the routing of the course, then create a better balance in and between each nine; expose golfers to a more interesting shot variety; having analysed orientation of the holes, particularly the par threes and develop an argument for the elements taking more influence in the game; envisage an enhanced use of the original land, or perhaps some additional area that may be available. The aim is to create an appealing rhythm in the holes, leading to a rollercoaster of emotion for the player.

Improving safety cannot be ignored. As part of any renovation exercise, an audit of the holes needs to be undertaken and revisions made, should risks not be acceptably manageable. Then, once the overall design has been considered, with its safety, the components of the course need to be assessed.

With greens, the focus should lie in their sizing, depth, width, shape, contour; their ability to gather or shed the shot and number of pin positions; their construction profile and drainage performance; the quality of the sward and the grass type; the adequacy of entry and exit from the green and the quality of the feature surrounds.

There is no less to consider with tees – size; tolerance to wear; shape and location in relation to the improvement of strategy; the profile of the tee’s construction and its drainage and rootzone status.

One must establish whether the bunkering is consistent in size, shape and style. Additionally, and most important – is it appropriate? Are bunkers located in the right place to define the hole, to guide the shot?

Drainage is critical, including the need for a consistent colour and depth of sand and shaping of the bunker mound work. All of these aspects need to be thoroughly investigated, researched and their performance (technical and golfing) evaluated with recommendations made for their improvement.

Couching such measures in the context of the natural setting – enhancing the natural environment and creating improving habitats - must be part of any renovation. Doing so enhances its beauty, attraction and inherent value.

Whatever style or rhythm is injected into the renovation, it is essential that the environmental impact of the work involved is assessed professionally by a suitably qualified specialist, together with the golf course architect. They need to make an ecological evaluation of the existing course, its character, its habitats and its natural value. Paying scant homage with the bulldozer is all too simple to do, but it is not for today’s world!

And then there’s irrigation, overall property drainage, traffic management, landscape improvements and the presentation of the course – mowing shapes and patterns to each of the greens, collars and approaches, tees and their embankments, fairways, semi-rough, golfing and non-golfing roughs, ongoing management of the roughs – improving the natural framework and managing woodlands in a progressive yet reasonable way.

Being able to communicate clearly the thoughts of the golf course architect, the audit is an essential part of the renovation process. And this is not always easily done when facing political and personal objection, obstruction and antagonism from elements of a membership, which invariably stems from those firmly against change.

The opportunity to present an audit, to explain the analysis, the architectural subtleties of the existing design and to determine the recommendations for a way forward, are mandatory items and need to be taken professionally. Comprehensive reporting by word and drawing, the use of photography on a ‘before’ and ‘after’ basis creating photomontages of how holes will look after renovation, all help explain what is in the architect’s mind to show those who doubt how it can be.

Personal presentations to members are an equally important communication process, albeit sometimes taxing and quite difficult.

Perhaps most difficult is when it comes to approaching disruption – ‘why has this guy come to screw up our course? It’s all right as it is’ (of course it isn’t) – and to identifying cost. If a satisfactory budgeting regime is not in place to plan for phased capital expenditure, and membership levies have to be imposed, our job gets even tougher.

We need to dispel those perceptions. We can value engineers successfully. We can conceive creative, exceptional, inspirational solutions and manage them efficiently and economically, and give our client clubs best value.

The core philosophy of our profession is to deliver that best value. Do that, consistently, and then perhaps we will indeed be valued!

Howard Swan is a British golf course architect and principal of Swan Golf Designs.

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