Eight tips for good short game area design

  • Art of practice

    At Balsam Mountain Preserve in North Carolina, the driving range doubles as a par-three course

  • Art of practice

    Arnold Palmer Design Company created the new practice facility at Bay Hill

Thad Layton
By Thad Layton

This article is based upon a piece that first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.

Golfers have largely embraced the importance of the short game’s role in scoring. Stats confirm the most important real estate is the last 100 yards of any golf hole; approximately two-thirds of one’s overall strokes occur within this zone. It’s no wonder that the popularity of short game practice areas is on the rise, catapulting from afterthought to must-have amenity.

While it’s hard to quantify the financial returns of a dedicated space for short game improvement, it’s increasingly challenging to compete in the golf industry without one. I’ve seen first-hand how the addition of a proper short game facility can be leveraged as a recruitment tool for collegiate golf programmes and club managers competing for new members. These ‘alternative’ golf offerings are attractive to our time-strapped culture and provide a casual setting to learn the game’s finer points.

While the demand is undoubtedly there, not all short game areas are created equal. If your course is debating the addition of such a facility, there are more than a few important things to consider before putting a shovel in the ground. As a golf course architect, here are my eight essentials for a successful short game area.

1. Safety – It doesn’t matter how great your practice area is if someone working on using their wedge’s bounce gets beaned by an errant shot. Ample space should be provided to allow a margin of error for less-than-perfect shots from less-than-perfect golfers.

One thing to avoid like the plague is shallow bunkers. A good rule of thumb is to build bunkers at least three feet deep to contain the dreaded but altogether common thinned or shanked ball.

Another thing to avoid is bunkers facing each other on opposite sides of a green. I learned this lesson recently where I conceded to a last-minute request from the club to build an additional bunker to practice long irons toward the body of the range. I cringed on opening day when I witnessed what I can only describe as the golf equivalent of a food fight with golfers in each bunker blading shots towards one another. The bunker was quickly filled in – lesson learned!

2. Variety – All great golf courses have a variety of looks and shot requirements. Why should a short game area be any different? At a minimum, a practice complex should replicate shots one might expect to hit with regularity on the neighbouring course. If space and budget allow, add design features that cater to the needs of different types of players.

For example, at Bay Hill we built an elevated ledge adjacent to one of the bunkers with our resident Tour players in mind. This exacting shot gives better players the unequivocal feedback they’re looking for – anything less than the perfect shot won’t hold the mercilessly narrow ledge. Alternatively, we made sure to include a few generous upslopes to hold shots and create confidence for new golfers. In total we built four greens and seven bunkers, every one of them unique in size, shape, and style.

3. Beauty – Form should follow function… to a point. While there are many technical aspects that can and probably should be incorporated into any short game area, don’t lose sight of the overall feel of the finished product. Features should all relate to one another and tie together a cohesive and believable landscape. A good architect will ensure the contours flow naturally through the entire frame to complete the composition.

Additionally, if there are native trees within the envelope of the subject property, save them to anchor the short game area and give it the appearance of age. Golfers will appreciate that shade come summertime!

4. Maintenance – For consistency, the short game area should be maintained in the same condition as the rest of the golf course. Green speeds, turf firmness, sand types, and rough heights should all match the conditioning of the main course.

Also, make sure to provide enough flat areas on the greens so holes can be rotated regularly to spread traffic and provide different setup options. Gentle slopes are also important around the greens to stave off the concentration of divots. Firm greens are recommended to prevent pitch marks and closing the short game area for a day of rest will speed turf recovery.

5. Location – A conveniently-located practice area that is visible and walkable from the clubhouse is paramount to attract golfers. Remote practice areas won’t be used nearly as much by junior golfers who typically can’t drive carts. Even for those who have access to a cart, the long drive disconnects the experience and puts the facility out of the view and control of the pro shop.

We considered several sites at Bay Hill but, in the end, opted for shortening one of our golf holes to keep our short game area close to the clubhouse; and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

6. Flexibility – Explore opportunities to build-in flexibility for alternative uses. On our recent project at Balsam Mountain Preserve, we created a driving range that also functions as a par three course. We utilised synthetic turf on the target greens to guard against pitch marks that might compromise the true roll of the greens needed for putting.

7. Space – The best short game areas I’ve seen measure somewhere between two to five acres. A facility with this much space affords the opportunity to safely host short game clinics, wedge fitting sessions, and private lessons without closing off access to other players. Within the two-acre practice area at Bay Hill, we built greens and bunkers of varying sizes and styles, and there’s always room to have a private practice session.

8. Fun – Last but certainly not least is the fun factor. The finest short game areas encourage you to use your imagination and get lost in the improvement process. The best advice I can give to make it fun is this: Don’t be afraid to break some rules. There are things you can build in this setting that you’d never be able to get away with on a regulation golf course. A postage-stamp style green? A massive green with boiling contours? Perhaps an impossibly deep bunker requiring a staircase and a periscope? If you have fun building it there’s a strong chance people will enjoy playing it!

Thad Layton is a senior golf architect at Arnold Palmer Design Company