Golf architects and the pursuit of width

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Sand Valley’s first course was designed by Bill Coore, whose firm has long been associated with wide fairways

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Mammoth Dunes designer David Kidd also pushed the width envelope at Gamble Sands in Washington state

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Modern irrigation technologies, like the impact sprinklers used at Golf Club Föhr in Germany, have a crucial role in optimising the application of water

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

As far as golf architectural fashion goes, wide fairways, at the moment, are most definitely ‘in’. The dominant designers of our age all favour fairways that give golfers confidence to open their shoulders, help them avoid losing too many golf balls, and set them an interesting strategic challenge.

Without adequate width, there can be almost no strategy to a golf hole. If fairways are narrow, and bordered with deep rough on both sides – as some favour, in order to make courses more difficult for elite players – then every ordinary golfer is just trying to get his ball in play from the tee. There is no thought of trying to place the drive to secure the best angle of approach when all angles except one mean approaching from long grass.

But width brings its own problems. Primary among those is cost; more fairway grass inevitably means a higher cost of maintenance, especially if a significant amount of artificial irrigation is required. So how can one figure out the sweet spot that gives the best balance of width and cost?

South African golf designer Andrew Goosen sets out the problem: “It’s tough, because the manufacturers are creating a larger disparity between good and weak golfers. Good players are hitting the ball longer and straighter, while the average golfer has not gained that much length, but is definitely able to hit the ball further off line. And at the same time, our commitment to environmental sustainability – and economic too – is demanding we make playing areas smaller.”

American architect Andy Staples says that the issue of affordable width is largely determined by decisions taken early in a project. “Much comes down to the turf types for fairways,” he says. “Bentgrass is costly, and tends to be limited – 40-45 acres of short grass is the most I’ve seen in bent, mostly due to cost to maintain. But in parts of the world where everything is one turf, whether it be bermuda, bluegrass, paspalum or whatever, then increasing width is generally just a matter of mowing costs. From a strategy standpoint, I balance the width of specific holes, and the design intention of what I’m trying to accomplish, then balance where the highest of priority lies. I also spend much of my effort around greens, then focus on width at landing areas, and then maximise the carry distance from the tees.

“Conventionally I would design with strategy as the primary driver for creating a challenging but fair golfing experience. When width is used as part of the strategic setting out it can be a relatively straightforward exercise to reduce, in proportion, after the first draft. Where proportion relates to the ratio between the wider and narrow areas. That being said, the wider playing areas that cater for the higher handicapper should be retained where possible, and narrow, more challenging areas can become either narrower or longer or both.”

Golf architect Bill Coore, whose firm has long been associated with wide fairways, says that the answer inevitably varies according to the individual circumstances of a particular project. “It is a pure judgement call on each course and each individual hole,” he says. “And it is affected by the slope of the ground, by wind, by the type of grass and by soil conditions. What are the roughs going to be? If the roughs are very playable, then perhaps you don’t need so much width.” Coore’s new proposed course at Coul Links, near Dornoch in Scotland, for example, has been reduced in size as a reaction to criticism from environmentalists, to the extent that the final course design that has gone in for planning approval, covers only 22.7 hectares (56 acres).

David Kidd, whose recent courses, including Gamble Sands in Washington state and Mammoth Dunes at the Sand Valley resort in Wisconsin, have pushed the envelope as far as extreme width is concerned, says that if one wants to build a course that is especially wide, it is important that the project fits a bunch of criteria. “You need the right site,” he stresses. “If you’re building in an urban setting with residential development as part of the project, chances are you don’t get the opportunity to do big width. You need a site where the only real cost is construction, which ideally means pure sand. When I did Gamble Sands I said to the owners I wanted to build 120 acres of grass. They’re not golfers so they didn’t realise what that meant. I explained that they would be signing up for extra construction – irrigation costs – and long-term maintenance costs. But it would make the course more playable for their guests. But also, I think width is about perception: I’d be interested to find out how much grass there is on Mammoth Dunes compared to the Sand Valley course designed by Coore & Crenshaw. People come off and think its twice as big but I don’t believe it is.”

Kidd says that the decision on how much width is appropriate depends on multiple factors. “You have to take a golf course and analyse it from three perspectives – design, construction and irrigation,” he says. “If you want to build something that is very wide, you must compromise on other factors. Make sure you can ride mow everything, and that there is nothing that is excessively manicured. If you keep it so the course can be maintained by the smallest number of people with the biggest equipment then you can add extra width without making the course so expensive it will not be sustainable.

Australian golf architect Richard Chamberlain says that the key issues relate to water. “When I’m wrestling with fairway width there is rarely a debate about the actual cost to mow and fertilise the extra grass. The number one issue is usually water availability,” he says. “In my market, 80 per cent of the time, water is the constraint. And it’s not an issue of whether or not you can afford to pay for the water, but that it is just not available.”

Chamberlain says that, in markets like Australia where water is in short supply, even water sources that appear sustainable are under pressure. “Maybe the issue is related to a certain degree to irrigation cost, but most of the time the actual water is free, because people use effluent water,” he explains. “But that is changing. There is discussion, for example, that effluent will be charged for on the Gold Coast, and that could easily add two hundred thousand dollars to the cost of maintaining a course.”

So can advanced irrigation technologies be the solution that enables architects to design the width they – and the golfers desire? Certainly, the irrigation manufacturers think so. Stuart Tate of Rain Bird, for example, explains how their technology can help. “Rotors have evolved to give the greatest flexibility of full and part circle in a single unit. Rain Bird units can be adjusted from the top from full circle to part circle without the need to lift the rotor or even have water flowing. This can assist the user in making adjustments should water levels become low and reduced arcs are required,” he says. “These rotors are nearly all individually controlled by PC software, which provides clubs with a tailored, data-driven operation that suits their specific requirements. The new Rain Bird IC system is capable of handling three times as many stations (750 units per cable path) as a conventional decoder system. This saves cable costs, operates up to 20 times the number of valves simultaneously, and enables the pumping station to be run at full capacity for the shortest period of time, which was not always the case with a standard decoder system. Increasing the irrigated area of a fairway will, in most situations, require not only the addition of irrigation rotors but pipes, control systems, valves, pumping flow capacity, water usage and electrical capacity. This is a major task and as such will not be possible on the majority of systems as they will have been designed to perform to a given requirement. Adding up to a 30 per cent increase in capacity is not possible.”

Toro’s Marco Capelli stresses that clubs that want to widen fairways don’t necessarily have to pony up for an all-new irrigation system. “Many in our industry would prefer to have everything new and shiny, whenever possible. At Toro we believe that existing irrigation retrofitted with clever design and extensive use of technology can go a long way in reducing the overall budget and environmental impact. The answer is in precise irrigation. The menu comes in many flavours, but the actual options are down to design and technology. Design efficiency can increase by using part-circle sprinklers on multiple-row fairway irrigation setups (typically three or four rows). Part-circle sprinklers used on fairway edges ensure water reaches only the fairway and no area of the rough is watered. In many older designs, this can allow fairway expansion while keeping the cost of watering down, and in some cases, even reduce watering costs.

“Today a lot of attention is usually given to greens, rightly so. However, if we really want to reduce cost and waste of watering, we have to pay extra attention on how to reduce watering of fairways. By managing each sprinkler intelligently, we can substantially reduce the use of water. Modern sprinklers allow for reconfiguring of sprinkler nozzles and adjustment to alter coverage. Also, ease of adding/subtracting sprinklers from the system as courses evolve is an important feature.”

Detlef Ring of German manufacturer Perrot says: “The wind, of course, has a great influence on such irrigation systems, especially on large and open fairways. This reduces the range of the sprinklers by a few metres less than that stated in the specifications of the manufacturer’s data sheets. A shorter distance between sprinklers can remedy this issue. The selection of alternative drives for the sprinklers can also produce amazing results. In particular, the impact sprinklers have proven to be especially wind resistant. Due to the larger drop formation, the sprinkler load is less easily dispersed by wind, thus allowing a much better sprinkling range. A good example here is Föhr Golf Club. It is located on an island in the middle of the North Sea and has opted for the version with impact sprinklers on the fairways, achieving above average results.

“The aim is to water the course optimally and whenever required. If professional planning and the use of state-of-the art products forms the basis of an optimal watering system, individual irrigation management becomes irreplaceable. Knowledge of, for example, soil conditions, infiltration rates and mowing heights are all important factors. Regular precipitation measurements and fine adjusting of the sprinklers will also optimise results. There are no modern control systems or unparalleled precipitation levels that can replace the expertise of a greenkeeper.”

Mexican architect Jose Agustin Piza describes the design process. “It all depends on who the course is catering to,” he says. “Resort courses often find themselves with widths up to 100 metres, which to be honest is pretty ridiculous, but at the same time is necessary to enabled client who play golf only once a year to have fun and make a reasonable score. On a regular private country club, you more usually see fairway widths of between 40-60m. I personally design 60m of grass width at 210m from my members’ tee and shrink it down to 40m at 240m. This brings strategy to the big boys and still leaves an ample area to land the ball for the mid to high handicappers. In addition, working with 40m and 60m in width also provides easy and more efficient irrigation head separation if you separate at 20m. You won’t need an extra row to compensate.”

In the end, the issue comes down to irrigation, not just the cost of the water, but of the installation of the system in the first place. “Not that long ago, it was the case that two or three rows of irrigation heads was regarded as pretty generous,” says Bill Coore. “Now, we see a lot more than that. But really, when you get to six or seven rows, then things are getting a bit ridiculous.” 

This article first appeared in issue 50 of Golf Course Architecture