The importance of embedding golf in nature

  • Lovely Golf Course

    Jonathan Davison’s design at Penati in Slovakia sits lightly on its natural environment

  • Lovely Golf Course

    St George’s Hill in Surrey, England

  • Lovely Golf Course

    The course at Sweetens Cove in Tennessee was designed by Rob Collins

  • Lovely Golf Course

    The minimalistic Yokohama CC course in Japan

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Throughout the history of golf design, two things have consistently been regarded as the greatest priorities for golf architects: that their courses should be a playable, interesting challenge for golfers of every standard, and that they should sit as lightly as possible on their natural environments.

The former is well known as the ultimate test of an ideal golf course. The second, though, might need a little more teasing out. Architects and authors of the Golden Age, like Harry Colt, Alister MacKenzie and Tom Simpson, all wrote extensively about the need to have courses blend in to their surroundings and, in particular, for artificially constructed features to appear as though they were natural. This sort of thinking smacks of the Romantic movement, of a desire to play golf in a wild environment. And, although the designers who followed the Golden Age may have honoured those ideas more in the breach than the observance, it’s hard to ignore the fact that phrases like ‘responding to the natural environment’ and ‘respecting the natural site’ are still standard PR speak for golf course architects when describing their projects.

But what exactly does ‘natural’ mean? There are, as the above implies, at least two interpretations of the word. First, the original meaning, that the construction of the course involved as little disturbance of the raw site as possible. And second, a more nuanced one, that the artificial work is indistinguishable from nature.

It is usually fairly easy for an experienced eye to spot evidence of earthwork. Trees that are obviously older than the golf course are generally the giveaway: unless a great deal of time and money was spent in moving them (it is very impressive to watch the relocation of a massive mature tree, though perhaps not the essence of sustainability), then the base of the tree represents natural grade, where the ground was before construction started. If there are obvious changes of level just inside the line of trees, that’s a pretty good sign either of a cut (the removal of material to lower natural grade) or a fill (the addition of material to raise grade).

That’s not the end of the story, though. Tom Fazio’s design practice has developed, over many years, the skill of moving a great deal of earth and tying in the artificial work so well that it is difficult to see where nature ends and Fazio begins. Architects who have learned from the Fazio team, either by observation or by training with them, have also used their techniques. For example, Dana Fry, whose initial training was in the Fazio team, did a remarkable job at Calusa Pines in southwest Florida; the result of his earthwork is that the course now includes the highest point in the (otherwise very flat) Collier County.

Architect Rob Collins, who imported huge amounts of sand to the totally flat site at Sweetens Cove in Tennessee, explains the trick. “In the case of Sweetens, we tried to make it look natural but had to do it with fill from lakes and cuts into natural grade,” he says. “The big key there was the Fazio trick of making your fill big and broad. I learned that from Jeff Lawrence when I was working for Gary Player’s firm. That helps a lot. Then you can disguise a lot with native plantings. On a flat site, it’s more difficult.”

Collins says that it’s not just firms who are known for massive earthmoving who have learned to conceal the evidence of their work. He worked for a time on the Coore & Crenshaw job at Yokohama CC in Japan. Now, Coore & Crenshaw has a reputation as the most minimal of the minimalists, but Collins says that was far from the case at Yokohama. “The Yokohama job was a huge earthmoving exercise, with tons of import fill,” he says. “At the grand opening, Ben Crenshaw said ‘the biggest compliment I can give is that it looks like it’s been here 100 years’. The primary reason for that was the obsessive attention to detail on tie ins to original grade. You just wouldn’t realise there was that much fill. Granted, most of the fill was in valleys so it was easier to disguise, but it’s there and it is very hard to spot.”

Coore & Crenshaw shaper Quinn Thompson explains more about the process. “It is about ‘lines’, almost like painting, ‘bleeding’ the golf course course into the environment or the other way around, bleeding the environment back into the golf course,” he says. “I’m thinking of a place like Pinehurst, where the irrigation design allows the colours to bleed out. Again, almost like painting; no hard lines, texture, the mixture of colours swirled together... it’s all visual I suppose. At a place like Clear Creek Tahoe [in Carson City, Nevada], we thinned out the native areas. The forest floors were sparse but also quite bushy, so we went through those areas with a mini-excavator and plucked out thousands of bushes, which allowed the native to stagger its way to the eventual tree line; from fairway, to lightly seeded fescue, to forest floor, occasional bush, then pine. It helped get rid of that native wall, and allowed for a better recovery shot in the process.”

Harry Colt, as mentioned earlier, was really the first architect to conceive of making artificial work look natural in this way. Colt’s 1913 report for his new design at Toronto Golf Club demonstrates clearly his mania for making artificial hazards look as natural as possible. “The banks of some of the bunkers can be easily modified, and if ‘torn’ out of the hills, and natural undulations made, will look more natural. The sand can be added so as to give a good effect by allowing it to ‘splash’ up against the banks and look as if it had been blown by the wind, and the margins can be made quite irregular and rough,” he wrote.

Danish designer Caspar Grauballe, who studied Colt’s work closely on a number of projects while working at the Hawtree practice, explains more about his working methods. “At the base of it I think it is an understanding of the landscape and how it was created – it makes it easier to form features that fit it when you understand the underlying material and shapes,” he says. “On a more direct level it is about keeping to the visible lines/angles of the landscape and keeping the size of the features in relation to the site and thereby creating balance. However I also find that breaking out of the scale sometimes works very well in making a feature seem completely natural – I think Colt did this extremely well. At Beaconsfield I am sure he created some of the dramatic ‘pits’, presumably for generating fill as well as playing interest. At St George’s Hill he created the dramatic par three eighth hole using a step in the landscape and emphasising it through bunkering to create much more drama than later versions with small bunkers ever did. This is where the art form of golf course architecture comes into play in making it look natural. I think the best praise one can get is that it looks as if you haven’t done anything to the landscape. On the Zuid Limburgse course in the Netherlands, we created a lake by raising some tees behind it and I don’t think anybody suspects that it was created.”

English architect Jonathan Davison, whose course at Penati in Slovakia has been acclaimed for its sensitive use of a magnificent natural site, says that the decisions taken at the start of the process are hugely important. “Firstly it is about getting the routing right. Finding natural green sites and using existing features where possible allows you to reduce earthworks. It is still hard to move dirt and make it look natural,” he says. “I always try to locate bunkers in existing landforms and basically try and cut them in with an excavator rather than building them with a dozer. I would rather have no bunkers than a bunker that doesn’t sit natural. I just think the blade is too big on the dozer and doesn’t get the same amount of detail which you can get with a small bucket on an excavator.

“I hate to see lake levels higher than other features, lakes built above fairway has to be the most unnatural feature. If I look at Penati, the lakes work well because they were always natural low areas which we opened and extended.&rdquo

Greg Norman Golf Course Design senior associate Jeff Danner also stresses the importance of protecting the natural site. “I think evolution has programmed us to be comfortable in certain surroundings or environments,” he says. “Flowing natural lines mean everything in the physical environment is making sense in relation to each other. Landforms need to tie together, putting surface to surrounds, fairway to rough areas. And you want to find a green site, I almost think of draping a blanket or sheet over that spot. The rolls and movement of the surface transitions smoothly into the greater landform that make up the surrounds.

“I never want to obliterate a landform. It’s ideal if you can make the playing area transition into that landform. Then you want to make the areas you’re disturbing blend as best as you can with the landforms you aren’t. Or if it’s a pretty flat site then you have to recreate the landforms. So if you think of an undulation on a green, I like to see that undulation gradually become a mound or depression you might find around the green. Or if you have a ridge on one side of the fairway out of play, I like to see that ridge gradually become support for bunkering and other undulations in the fairway as you move into the playable turf areas.

“You can always tell when something is a little contrived. It has to fit the eye. For me its always just been a comfort thing. You get a little anxious. The way your brain processes shapes and colours affects your emotions. There’s a great application for environmental psychology in landscape/golf course design. When golfers say ‘it doesn’t fit my eye,’ they don’t realise it, but what they are looking at has just had a slight emotional effect on them.”

Veteran American architect Ron Pritchard stresses the importance of the out of play areas. “I would certainly think without exception, the character of the grounds should not be radically different from the lands abutting the golf grounds,” he explains. “One can add bunkering, and usually find enough green sites that comfortably fit the nature of the surrounding land – but with educated effort provide real challenge as both the culmination of a hole and putting surface topography. I also think the most comfortable transition is the use of native grasses – sometimes within, but certainly on, the margins of the golf course.

“It is not enough just to adopt the native grasses. I have found over many years, those margins are very important, and they must be properly prepared, by eliminating the existing tiger country, then conditioning the shape and perhaps altering the fertility of the soils – next, very sparsely reintroducing a blend of grasses. These margin areas require attention and some expense for quite a few years before they look and play naturally.”

This article first appeared in issue 49 of Golf Course Architecture