This is how we have always done it

  • Royal North Devon

    Natural golf at Royal North Devon in England

  • West Cliffs

    Cynthia Dye’s West Cliffs in Portugal is a GEO Certified Development

Sam Thomas
By Sam Thomas

Twenty-first century golf development is starting to look reassuring familiar. In new marketing materials we find descriptions like: “Resembles many of the great old courses of Great Britain” and “Rolling terrain, sand and vistas which are reminiscent of the Sand Belt of Australia”. Are we a bunch of old romantics, or do we know a good thing when we have seen one? Are we repeating or are we revolutionizing?

Since it began, golf has been evolving – and continues to – at pace. The equipment, the courses, even the players have evolved and adapted to changing times. This creates a changing image and importantly a dynamic environment that the game is played in.

Early examples of where the game was, and still is, played have respect for their surroundings. They are stewards of their natural and social environments, because they need and respect them in a way few other sports can. Those courses have allowed their location, its history, endemic character and geomorphology to shape them and, crucially, not vice versa.

In recent years, we have seen new courses such as Sand Valley, Tara Iti, Streamsong Black, West Cliffs and Trinity Forest come forward, as well as projects that reintroduce lost features such as the recent Pandy bunker at Ganton or herbicide free grow-ins like those at Irie Fields or Georgenthal in Germany.

This recent tranche of projects represents part of a neo-traditionalist design movement that stretches back to when people first started to get a look (again) at a more rugged or stripped back form of golf design, at new courses like High Point and Sand Hills. There has, since the mid-90s, been a growing adoption of these principles into many parts of the industry. Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf Design reflects: “I only realised after building a couple of courses that even more important than minimalist design, is minimalist construction. When we resist the temptation to reshape fairways, and incorporate the natural contours, we preserve the integrity of the topsoil and its valuable ecosystem. When someone says our course looks like it’s been there for 100 years, that’s because most of it has been there all along.”

But perhaps labelling these new projects as neo-traditionalist is not doing them justice, perhaps there is more to them. Often, these new projects are stepping beyond the primary issues of design development and discussions of playing strategy, they are embracing an increasing number of design challenges. Today’s project team seems to be stretching into new areas such as deeper considerations of how the course will be managed and presented, how the course will be grown-in, are we being faithful to the heritage of a course, are people going to play it, how will this affect resource consumption long-term, what else could we do on this land and could it work harder for us.

The modern architect, thanks in part to technological advances but also through sheer determination for success, forensically examines not just site contours for green locations, but shifting underlying geology, diminishing resources, increased legislation, intense economic and social pressures, and rising wider expectations. The result that we are seeing is an increased application across the industry of the established ideals of past designers, a desire to return to a ‘purer form’ of the game. Preference is now showing a bias not to seek out the latest and greatest, but to build on and reinterpret the traditional forms and achievements of the past’s great minds.

In connection to this shift, we have been through a period of significant economic change. Well documented, this has meant greater scrutiny being placed on economic budgets, right across the board. Under such intense pressures is where, remarkably, these recent projects have emerged – constraints drive our creativity and innovation, just as constraints of a different nature did over 100 years ago.

We can say then, that more spend does not necessarily always equal better golf. If we isolate for a moment the issue of maintenance on a golf course, Micah Woods, the chief scientist at Asian Turfgrass Centre, proposes: “Our principle aim should be to maintain the highest quality of playing surface for the lowest amount of resource consumption.” Through monitoring and evaluation, we can demonstrate that a lower input or less intense maintenance regime can deliver a superior golfing experience – more genuine, less ‘amped up’.

Bill Coore of Coore & Crenshaw sets out this perceived shift in thinking: “We sense that golf development is shifting back to the traditional core values of the game, with courses that evoke a distinct and natural sense of place, unique and responsive to their site and conditions. With attention to design detail, these courses can be more fun, affordable and accessible to play, with lower construction and operating costs.”

Creating great golf can mean doing less. The difficulty is being confident in doing less – creating something great doesn’t necessarily need more water, doesn’t need more nitrogen, doesn’t need to be hollow cored four or five times a year. Of course, each situation is different in the various corners of the world or even in each corner of the golf course. But when designers are thinking early on about the long-term and vital variables at play, they are laying the foundations for a more sustainable and resilient golf course for the future.

In our work, we will emphasise the importance of leaving nothing on the table. Maximise the values of your site and context no matter what they may be; choose a site very carefully; work with what you have got; be flexible in construction to take advantage of a situation; gather a deep understanding of how the site lives and breathes before the machinery starts to roll.

This total value approach is resulting in the projects we see setting new targets in terms of expectations, commitments and creativity. We are now seeing carbon neutral or even net ‘climate positive’ projects, chemical free grow ins, zero-waste projects, outdoor classrooms, 100 percent locally linked supply chains, community farms alongside golf courses, restoration of whole watersheds and cleaning river corridors, and creating places that are driving ranges by day and rock concert venues at night. This work is continually evolving, and change is slow, but it is exciting to think where it will go in the next 10 years.

The core idea is that, throughout the process, an awareness of the larger forces at play are always required. As Max Behr said, in 1927: “The forces of nature must expend themselves in the design. Only in this way may golf architecture reach finality as an art.”

Sam Thomas is Golf Development Manager at the GEO Foundation, an international not-for-profit dedicated to helping golf to deliver and be recognised for a positive impact on people and nature. For more see and follow @sustainablegolf on Twitter

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.