• Richard Mandell

Is Golf Architecture Design?

With my past few blogs, I have shared my perspective on the broad-reaching definition of golf course architecture. As evidenced by my writings, it is many things. Civil engineering, environmental science and art are just a few elements of golf architecture not to mention land planning, agronomy, or landscape architecture. In fact, most people who approach the profession from an academic entry are graduates of a landscape architecture program. As a conclusion to this mini-series, the question of whether golf course architecture is design has a pretty straightforward answer: Most definitely yes! The real question is how to define the word ‘design’. If one considers ‘golf architecture’ a broad field, ‘design’ is a dwarfing giant and an appropriate catch-all to the definition of golf architecture.


A relevant definition of design is ‘to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), especially to plan the form and structure of.’ In the golf course architectural profession, many are considered golf course architects, yet others are known as golf course designers. The difference is vague, yet usually the delineation is in the amount of professional education one may possess. The above definition infers that a designer can take a plan just so far; at some point a professional architect must take over to derive working drawings in order to implement a functional product.


The professional golfer who dabbles in design is referred to as a golf course designer more so than a golf architect because the expertise to do grading plans, compose a complete set of construction drawings, or navigate the permit process is usually not part of their repertoire. Without this skill set, a golf course project can become more costly than necessary. A golf course architect, with the proper training to perform these tasks, is usually the best person for the details.


There are many detractors from the above statement and those people usually call themselves golf course designers. Their defense is that the best golf course design occurs in the field and not on paper. Where as many great golf courses have been built solely in the field, I am sure that the construction budget for those projects exceeded preliminary estimates, no matter how formal or informal those estimates may have been.


The bottom line in today’s development climate is that design in the field is not only a one way ticket to high costs, but most banks will be loath to finance a project without complete documentation or a way to establish a baseline for construction cost proposals. With environmental challenges and the lengthy permit process associated with almost every conceivable project on the table, no government agency will allow a golf course designer to do minimal drawings.


The profession of golf course architecture is both design and art. In theoretical terms, design is the process and art is the result (or so one may hope). My personal definition of design is ‘problem-solving’. As a golf course architect, I am faced with how to apply the art of golf course architecture to a particular piece of property as well as a particular market. In other words, not only must I design a product that works physically, it also has to work economically as well. The design must work for the intended user. No matter how impressive it may be, if it fails to be a solid business venture, it fails to be good design.


Whether I am charged with a new project or a renovation, the design charge is the same: Solve the problem of placing golf on the ground that works. The problems that we encounter can also be seen as constraints – again either site related or otherwise. For example, the way the existing ground lays will be a constraint in the way I can place a golf hole on that ground. Not only shall it fit the ground best from a physical standpoint, but also from strategic and cost standpoints as well.


Constraints for renovation projects are similar – again looking at the ground, but in a slightly different vein. The ground already has a golf hole and my design task is to solve the problem that golf hole may entail. From poor drainage to slow play to a lack of strategic or aesthetic interest, my design task is to solve these problems with one solution.


Golf architecture is first and foremost about design and solving problems. What makes the profession so fascinating is all of the different aspects that must be considered within that problem-solving process: Engineering, the environment, land planning, agronomy, and the aesthetic. The proper design solution should consider all these disciplines.

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