Architect, architect, architect

Sean Dudley

Kyle Phillips

Location, location, location, the retailer’s mantra, applies just as much to golf course developments. But in golf, remoteness from your customer base, though perhaps not ideal, need not be a deal-breaker, as the success of developments such as Bandon Dunes shows. Location, in golf, is more to do with the nature of the site, and the ease with which it can be transformed into a golf course.

“Location with respect to the market is one thing,” says golf course architect Kyle Phillips. “But location with respect to development potential is quite another. Whether it’s feasible to build a golf course on a particular piece of land depends entirely on the site and the market it’s going to serve. The Asian market, for example, has generally been able to sustain higher construction costs, which is just as well, as many of the sites architects have had to work with have been extremely rocky and difficult to work.” The economics of golf course development are delicate, and it’s easy for relatively small increases in budgets to make a previously viable project hopelessly unprofitable.

“Two of the biggest factors influencing the cost of golf courses today are geology and environment,” says Phillips. “Good soils reduce budgets dramatically: on a sandy site you don’t have to bring in gravel or drainage, and you don’t have to build USGA greens. At the other extreme, if you have to truck in soils, your costs go through the roof.” Phillips cites his courses at Kingsbarns and Dundonald in Scotland as good examples: both were built at relatively modest cost, despite the substantial earthmoving and shaping involved, because the underlying soils were favourable, and could be used for the construction of features.

“People call up architects all the time and say ‘I have this site, how much will it cost me to build a course?’,” says Phillips. “There is no easy answer – it depends on so many different factors, but the cost of constructing the architecture is fairly constant. We know how much it costs to shape and contour ground – but other agronomy-related factors, such as drainage, irrigation or cart paths, can change dramatically. These items can add up to 80-90 per cent to the budget in certain circumstances. Maintenance costs stem fairly directly from the style of architecture. What are the other development objectives? If there is housing involved, and the architect gets only the leftover land to work with, then building a course that meets the required standard will probably be much more expensive.

Planning approval is another area where early involvement by the golf course architect can aid the progress of the development, Phillips says. He cites a particular project in Sweden, on which he worked with the developer for several years looking at potential sites, finally finishing up on a completely different piece of ground from that originally envisaged. “You need access, you need to be able to get your customers to the golf course, but you also need to have a chance of getting approval in a reasonable time,” he says. “Communities are generally not very well informed about golf. They can make life difficult if they decide they don’t want a development, but if you help them to understand the proposal they are more likely to work with you and ease the process significantly.” Early involvement by the architect, Phillips says, can ease the concerns of local communities, and make planning permission much easier to obtain. “In many areas, golf has become a target for environmentalists, and that can make planning consent harder,” he says. “But the truth is that when we convert agricultural land in arid areas to a golf course, we have been able to demonstrate that we use less chemicals and less water. Architects are better placed to explain that to people than are the developers.”

Based in California, Kyle Phillips is principal of Kyle Phillips Design. His courses include Kingsbarns Golf Links, Scotland.

This article first appeared in issue 2 of Golf Course Architecture, published in October 2005.