• Richard Mandell

Is Golf Architecture Civil Engineering?

As discussed previously golf architecture is among many things, engineering. If you ask an egotistical landscape architect what civil engineering is, the response may be “a formulaic attempt at design.” A realistic landscape architect may respond “a necessary assurance that our designs can be built properly.” When most people think about golf course architecture, the specific engineering discipline which is most applicable is civil engineering. An egotistical golf architect may respond to the above question with “a bunch of formulas and a bunch of straight lines everywhere.” But a realistic golf architect may respond with “a vital component of golf course design that ensures proper drainage.” I like to place myself in the realistic category because golf course design success depends greatly on a dry playing field. The greatest golf course features in the world are irrelevant if muddy conditions dominate the ground.


Drainage is critical to the design of any structure or landform, whether it is a house, a park, or a golf course and without proper drainage, a golf course can cease to be a viable business. Yet golf course designers are usually weakest when it comes to aspects of civil engineering. I have had the great fortune of having civil engineers as partners in my previous venture known as Whole In One Design Group and for the majority of the nineties, my design ideas were “whipped into shape” by my partners and taken from concept to function.


A golf architect must consider drainage from the moment one walks the site the very first time because the course’s success (or failure) can be determined by the way that golf course is routed. The key to a successful golf course routing (the layout and sequence of the golf holes similar to a floor plan of a house) is to preserve the natural drainage patterns of the site. My standard operating procedure is to route each golf hole with a high point to high point to high point design process. This simply means that each playing area of a hole is set on a relative high point, letting the natural drainage patterns fall between these high traffic spots. The tees, landing areas and greens are all placed away from where runoff will collect.


This simple concept has great benefits from both an operational and maintenance perspective. Golf operators consider golf rounds much like hotel operators consider rooms. Whereas empty rooms do not generate revenue, empty tee times lack revenue as well. The more days a golf course is too wet for play because of poor drainage, fewer rounds are available. From a maintenance standpoint, the better a golf course drains naturally more man-hours can be dedicated to improved maintenance of the golf course and not dealing with flooding, wet spots and the like. Over the years, internal drainage has also become a great factor because of ever-increasing golfer expectations of perfect conditions (regardless of cost).


From a construction standpoint, if a golf course is routed properly the amount of drainage pipe needed for the golf course is greatly reduced, minimizing initial costs. This is where the art of golf course architecture meets the science of civil engineering. The civil engineer works in conjunction with the golf architect to determine the proper placement of catch basins and pipe. Formulas are used by the engineer to determine not only the placement of drainage, but the proper sizing of drain pipes as well. The golf architect’s creativity in design is balanced by the civil engineers flood control measures.


This synergy is a deviation from golf architecture’s origins, though. For many years, catch basins and pipe were seldom utilized, but as sites became less and less conducive to natural golf course routings and dirt moving became more and more acceptable, the amount of internal drainage increased (as did associated costs). Although a lack of ideal sites has created more challenge for the golf architect today, efforts to properly drain a golf course have been taken over the top and utilized as a cover for poor golf course routing in many cases. The art of routing the golf course has been greatly reduced with the ability to freely move thousands of yards of dirt over the past fifty years. The use of catch basins and pipes as well as other internal drainage techniques has only fostered a less than “studious” attempt at developing a proper routing.


Here is where I point out yet another aspect of escalating costs: Moving lots of dirt and installing the subsequent drainage system are major line-item costs in a typical golf course construction project. To me, one of the major components of a great golf course is that it is routed with the natural landforms not only preserved and incorporated into a golf course, but actually maximized to develop the strategy of the golf holes. Granted, many golf architects will claim strategy can be achieved by moving dirt. Personally, that is somewhat “Disney-esque” and a cop out. I prefer to route a golf course determined by a property’s constraints more so than create an artificial landscape where the artist controls the outcome before nature. That one characteristic runs through all the classics.


Now for the caveat: Don’t solely hire a civil engineer to design your golf course! Whereas all the above are truly valuable attributes from a civil engineering standpoint, a golf course designed purely from the civil engineer’s viewpoint may lack some of the natural sculpting of the ground and have antiseptic (although well-draining) characteristics. It is a proper blending of art (design) and science (engineering) that is the best solution! Nonetheless, the science that a civil engineer brings to a golf course project is invaluable. Coupled with a talented golf course architect, the project team can develop the best of both worlds into a functional business endeavor.

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