Design for the next generation

  • R&A

    The R&A has created the Golf It! facility in Glasgow to provide the local community with easy access to golf

  • Toptracer

    Architect Jonathan Davison says indoor simulators and Toptracer technology have strong appeal among younger people

  • Portmore Golf Park
    Portmore Golf Park

    Portmore Golf Park has increased its revenue by revamping its range with the latest technology and introducing food and beverage options

  • Nicklaus Design
    Nicklaus Design

    Gabor Tankovics (left), CEO of Hyperscapes Golf Club, and Chad Goetz of Nicklaus Design are working on the world’s first virtual-only golf course

  • Nicklaus Design
    Nicklaus Design

    “We have approached the design process for Rocabarra Cliffs in the exact manner that we develop all new designs around the world,” says Goetz

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

The golf industry has long been extremely concerned about the ageing profile of the game’s participants. 

Go to any golf club, and you will surely see why: juniors are in short supply, young adults are also scarce, and even the middle-aged tend to be outnumbered by seniors. It has been obvious for many years that figuring out how to attract the next generation of golfers is a critical issue for the game’s prosperity in anything but the very short term. 

As is well known, participation in golf has jumped significantly since the Covid pandemic, and junior numbers have increased similarly. Figures from the National Golf Foundation show that in the US, the number of junior golfers increased by 36 per cent, or 900,000 people, between 2019 and 2022 (the biggest participation jump of any segment in the golf market). Clearly, this is a good start, but it is not, yet, enough to secure golf’s future. Does course design have a role to play in making the game more attractive to the young? The main obstacles that prevent people from taking up golf are well known, and they apply just as much, if not more, to young as they do to the old. The game is perceived by many as being too expensive, as taking too long and being harmful to the environment. It is clear that course design has plenty to say on all three of these factors. One way of dealing with them, at least in part, that has become increasingly popular of late is the construction of short courses, usually comprised exclusively of par threes, that can be played quickly and take up less space. 

But in practice, the short courses that have been built, much fun though they often are, has not done much to develop new golfers. This is principally because of their location: the short courses that have come about of late have, mostly, been constructed at either elite destination private clubs or high-end resorts, in both cases, principally to be used for a shorter round after the day’s main game has been finished. This they do very well indeed: Gil Hanse’s Wild Piglet course at Les Bordes in France, and the Coore & Crenshaw designed Sandbox at Sand Valley in Wisconsin are both examples of short courses that should make even the most jaded golfer smile. But neither is ever likely to be populated by local kids just taking up the game. 

One shorter course that is directly aimed at new golfers is the Golf It! facility in Glasgow, Scotland, developed by the Royal & Ancient. It is located on what was previously the Letham Grange municipal course, one of five in the city, located in the (fairly rough and ready) east end of Glasgow. It is this part of town that was the venue for the notorious ‘Ice Cream Wars’ – in reality a series of turf wars between rival gangs of drug dealers in the 1980s. 

Golf It! has been designed by the Scottish resident, New Zealand-born architect Scott Macpherson. “Letham Grange had been a golf course for over a century, and probably hit its peak in the Sixties,” he says. “By the 21st century, though, it was ‘on its uppers’, not a great place to play. There had been no work on the trees for many years, some were dying, many were past their best. The place needed stewardship as much as redesign. When the R&A chose it as the venue for this initiative, it was probably about five minutes from being turned into housing.” 

The R&A’s objective in creating Golf It! was to provide a community-based facility to grow the game among people who had previously had no contact with golf. “People from non-golfing families find it difficult to find a route into the game. They’re not going to go to private clubs,” says Macpherson. “We needed it to be a really welcoming place, even if you were not here to play golf. The building has been designed to face the Hogganfield Loch, which is a very attractive lake, not the golf course. For the course itself, it has gone from 18 to nine holes, with only one par five, and I wanted to pick out the best of the existing hole corridors. You get a nice panorama of the city from the second tee. There are only seven bunkers, and the first is by the third green, so it is not too scary for beginners. But it is long enough to get an official handicap, so it’s a true on-ramp to golf. If you’ve never played before, you can come, get lessons, move onto the range and the short game area, and then the course. It is a broad-based pyramid.” 

Golf It! has a two-deck range facility with Toptracer technology, with music playing and is bookable by the hour, rather than by the bucket of balls. There is an adventure golf course. “We need to provide a fun and accessible route into playing golf,” says Macpherson. “Kids can play nine holes for five pounds, and there is no dress code. It is doing well. In the first eight weeks, there have been 50,000 people through the door, and two million balls hit on the range. Taking an 18-hole course down to nine holes meant there was room on the site to do other things – including an orchard, and a network of pathways so people can just walk round, even if they are not playing golf. All of a sudden, a golf course has become an education centre.” 

Will there be other such places? “If we make this work financially, then absolutely we will look to do more,” R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers told Today’s Golfer recently. “I don’t want to overstate things, but we’ve had 10 enquiries from around the world, saying, ‘Can we come and look at this because it might work in our country?’ And I find that exciting.” 

Macpherson says that, to make the course less scary for beginner golfers, he eliminated all blindness and crossing holes, but English architect Jonathan Davison says that he thinks that young people embrace things that are a little unusual and adventurous. “For me, I think more quirk is a good thing,” he says. “If everything is simple and in plain view then it lacks interest. That’s what attracted me to golf as a youngster: I enjoyed the mystery of the blind shots, and the challenge of hitting off odd slopes. But I do think clubs need a rethink, I think adding indoor simulators and Toptracer on driving ranges will appeal more to the young.” 

Davison’s mention of simulators echoes something that has a lot of traction around the world. All over, the use of technology to simulate ‘real’ golf is attracting attention from golf facilities, players and the media alike. Globally, without doubt, the biggest news in simulator golf has been the TGL indoor golf league, founded by Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and former NBC executive Mike McCarthy, featuring A-list investors including Serena and Venus Williams, basketball’s Stephen Curry and Formula One legend Lewis Hamilton, and with a host of the world’s top players signed up to participate. TGL signed a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN in October and was due to start its first season this month, but an incident in November when the roof of the new Sofi Center in Florida collapsed, has forced it to be postponed by a year. All the league’s backers have stressed that they remain fully committed to the concept, though it is not yet clear whether the delay will have any impact on player participation. 

Read: Insta-worthy golf – four holes to share on social media 

The simulator boom is feeding through into the mainstream golf market too. Figures from the NGF suggest that 6.2 million Americans used golf simulators in the last twelve months, a huge increase on the previous year, and that there are over 1,600 businesses across the country that have simulators. An obvious appeal of simulator golf is that players whose options for actual physical golf are rather limited can ‘play’ bucket list courses like Pebble Beach (or wherever) without travelling and spending the enormous green fee (if the bucket list course is even accessible to them). In locations where winter golf is simply not possible for climate reasons, it makes golf a 12-month business. Danish architect Caspar Grauballe says that the simulator boom is changing the economics of golf facilities. 

“We may have to look at the design of other areas than just the course. Our designs are being used in simulators on ranges because our designs can easily work with technology to provide players a new/different path into the game. I think we are seeing a lot of young people being introduced into golf via new concepts which seem to fit their lifestyle,” he says. “I work with a club, Portmore Golf Park in Devon, England, where changing the driving range to feature target greens, Toptracer, and beer and food has changed its whole economy. There are young people using it as a social meeting place and these are people who have never played golf. 

“I think our role as architects has to be broadened in the future to include design of virtual courses as this market will grow and we’ll see more players being introduced by practicing, playing and competing on virtual courses. Possibly this will bring golf out to a whole new demographic. For ‘real’ courses there is an opportunity to gain new customers if they can create an exciting experience of their virtual course.” 

And it is happening now. Nicklaus Design’s Chad Goetz has recently embarked on a project to design the world’s first virtual-only golf course. Hyperscapes Golf Club is a virtual club, a members-only service, for which Goetz is working on the design of Rocabarra Cliffs, described as ‘the metaverse’s premier golf course’. 

Rocabarra Cliffs is an ambitious project that goes beyond the creation of a virtual golf course. The course will be set in a real location, a small peninsula on the banks of Loch Shieldaig in the north-west of the Scottish Highlands. This part of Scotland is not a golfing destination – it is a wild two-hour drive west from Inverness – but it is a spectacularly beautiful spot, and, crucially, home to one of the few surviving patches of the Caledonian forest, the pinewoods that covered much of northern Scotland in prehistoric times before the massive deforestation caused by farming, and are among the most precious of ecosystems in Britain. 

Of course – even if it were large enough to host a real-world course, it would be inconceivable to construct golf in a location this sensitive. But for virtual golf, it is perfect. “The location is truly superb, on the edge of Loch Shieldaig, the continuation of Loch Torridon,” says Goetz. “The peninsula features breathtaking views to the Loch and surrounding mountainsides. Its dramatic rocky landforms and extensive shoreline provide an ideal canvas for a unique and exciting golf experience that will translate well to the virtual world. I cannot wait to visit the site in person to gain additional inspiration and insight to translate into the design work. Reimagining the Caledonian forest on the site and integrating the course within it will be an exciting and rare design opportunity.” 

The golf design process takes place on a digital twin of the terrain, using lidar (light detection and ranging) data, high-definition aerial photography, and digital terrain maps transformed into contour maps. The actual golf design commences with a hand-drawn preliminary routing map, mirroring the approach taken with physical golf courses. Goetz says: “Thus far, we have approached the design process for Rocabarra Cliffs in the exact manner that we develop all new designs around the world.” 

“The peninsula at Shieldaig is almost treeless now but before the earliest farmers 6,000 years ago, the thin soils supported a diverse woodland ecosystem of great richness,” says Dr Richard Tipping, former University of Stirling professor, whose research work focuses on Scotland’s environmental archaeology and the changes in vegetation over the ages. Dr Tipping is also the scientific brain behind Hyperscapes GC’s virtual rewilding initiative. “The few surviving remnants on the Scottish west coast are dubbed the ‘Atlantic rainforest’, mixes of different tree species including the iconic Scots pine, now rare on the west coast. Different soils and exposures to Atlantic storms created a mosaic of woodland and open patches, with havens for wildlife.” The ‘course’ is expected to be open for play in the second half of this year. 

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page