Golf Course Design Features That Matter Most

It often seems as though all golfers are wannabe golf course architects.  It’s one of the many allures of the game.  Golf courses, like ice cream come in many “flavors” in the form of shapes, sizes, features and environments.  As one who’s been lucky enough to play more than my share of great (and not so great) golf courses and analyzed thousands of others on the basis of economics it occurred to me that some features were more important than others for sustainability.

Everyone likes dramatic views that can be enhanced by the golf course architect and a variety of shots being required is always interesting.  However, each golf course has a market niche, and serving that niche is what makes for economic success.  Golf courses need happy players and clubs need happy members.

First and foremost, my friend Mike Hurdzan has written on more than one occasion about the issue of safety on golf courses.  In fact, Hurdzan lists safety as #1 in his list of basic criteria for golf course design in his authoritative text Golf Course Architecture, Design, Construction & Restoration.  It’s critical that the golf course be safe for both players and adjacent land owners.  That’s not always the case and there are numerous examples of injuries and subsequent lawsuits, as Dr. Hurdzan wrote about in his latest book, Golf and The Law.  Thus, it stands to reason that any golf facility should look at things like steep and sharply turning cart paths, narrow hole corridors and areas around water like steep banks, bridges and wildlife habitats.

Having had numerous conversations with golfers of all abilities, I’ve learned that different types of golfers consider different features to be desirable.

For instance, stronger competitive players often seek courses with ample length and varied hazards and challenges.  Obviously, the length can be adjusted by using different teeing areas, but the most skilled players typically are those who appreciate the toughest courses.  Conversely, novice and recreational players seek wider playing areas with minimal hazards and the ability to play along the ground to the green.  I once visited a course considering renovations that was largely played by casual and recreational players and didn’t have any bunkers on the course.  The patrons were vehemently opposed to adding bunkers.  The course was very busy and financially successful.  Another design element to consider is walkability.  Many golfers prefer to walk the course, but some courses include such steep terrain and long distances between greens and tees that walking isn’t a realistic option for most players.  The design features that often generate conversation and excitement among golfers don’t always convert to economic success for the golf course.  Does that mean all golf courses should be void of hazards and challenge? Absolutely not!  However, any golf course needs to be designed for who will play it.

In his famous 1927 book Golf Architecture in America, George Thomas writes: “The Municipal (DF) Course should first of all consider congestion; everything hinges on that, for there is the absolute necessity of getting as great a number of players around the course as possible between daylight and dark, and those many persons are all hammering golf balls in diverse ways both as to length, direction and execution, and like all golfers, are doing it with implements ill-suited to the purpose.  In the opinion of the Municipal Greenkeeper, all such impeding obstacles as long grass, traps, hazards, one shot holes, and so forth are best elsewhere, and there is much truth in his belief.” 

Furthermore, in his 2005 book Golf Course Architecture – Evolutions in Design, Construction and Restoration Technology, Dr. Michael Hurdzan, PhD, states: “A public golf course can expect to host golfers with a wider variety of skills than an upscale, invitation-only country club.  This suggests that the public course might have more gentle hazards than those found at the private club.”

In his 1982 book Turf Management for Golf Courses, Texas A & M professor James Beard wrote: “Public fee and municipal courses may exhibit only the elemental concepts of strategy, having few bunkers and other hazards, whereas courses designed specifically for hosting major championships usually have numerous bunkers and water hazards to accentuate the strategic, heroic or penal nature of each hole and to create a high level of excitement during competition.  The normal private club or resort course falls somewhere in between.”

These are the first clues that PR and DF golf courses can be very different and not appropriately comparable to each other, despite both being golf facilities.

Private clubs typically have more complex and precise irrigation systems and because players demand quality playing conditions (and are willing to pay for it), these courses typically have better components as listed below:

  • More and larger Hazards (bunkers, ponds, trees, etc.)
  • Different types of turfgrass
  • More extensive and lush rough areas
  • Better maintenance practices throughout, including tighter cutting heights and faster, firmer greens and fairways.
  • On-Course amenities (bathrooms, water fountains, “turn stations”)
    • Better drainage systems (Better Billy Bunker reports 90% of its customers are private clubs)
  • More extensive golf practice facilities

Golf course maintenance practices are typically more complex at PR clubs with larger budgets and result in healthier, more dense turf and more manicured, precisely mowed playing surfaces. Conversely, DF courses often do not provide the strategic design, playing surfaces or conditions that many PR clubs do.

As clearly demonstrated herein, all golf courses are not alike.  An analogy might be restaurants.  McDonald’s and Ruth’s Chris are both “chain” restaurants.  However, they are not comparable, serving dramatically different products, and most importantly in very different environments with different facilities.  Golf courses are segmented into submarkets.

What seems to matter most to golfers are playing conditions (especially greens) and how they’re treated (service) while onsite.  The design features that matter most depend on the clientele and ensuring that they have a positive experience and plan to return.