Architecture & Design of Golf Courses

By Jim Thomas
Jack Nicklaus's design firm has built dozens of courses.
Jack Nicklaus's design firm has built dozens of courses.

Golf-course design and architecture is a fascinating topic that has been the subject of many worthy books. Notable golf course designers have ranged from skilled professional players such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to bankers and businessmen who turned their passion for the game into shaping some of the world's top golf courses. As with painters and composers, the work of golf-course designers falls into different philosophical camps and is subject to much debate and analysis.

Classic Designs

Golf architects are given a living canvas – a piece of land – on which to do their work. The most-acclaimed designers and courses appear to flow naturally from the land, as if the golf course was always meant to be there. Hugh Wilson, designer of the famed Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania, "routed the course as the land gave it to him," says Ian Andrew, a noted golf architect who has studied the great golf designers. Famed course designer Herbert Fowler once said, "God builds golf links, and the less man meddles the better for all concerned." In the modern era, designers such as David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak built the first two of the four courses at Bandon Dunes, located along the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. Kidd and Doak have received near-unanimous praise for the pristine beauty and natural flow of their links courses.

Penal Golf Design

Some course architects are known for the difficulty of their layouts. Hazards such as bunkers were meant to exact a harsh penalty. George Crump, a wealthy businessman turned golf designer, built the famed Pine Valley. Many designers and course raters consider the course in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey as the best – and perhaps the most difficult – in America. Building a course that tests your game against the most difficult challenges is a worthy philosophy for a golf designer. But it's hardly the only philosophy.

Inspiring Golf Design

Max Behr, an outstanding golf writer turned course architect, wanted to inspire the best in golfers with his designs for courses such as Lakeside Golf Club in California, a course that helped influence Bobby Jones and Alistar Mackenzie on the design of August National, home of the Masters. Behr's intent was to instill in golfers a "spirit of independence, life and freedom which we are all seeking, and which we should find in all places of our recreation."

Playability

Some golf architects focus on creating courses that are playable and fun for the average golfer. Stanley Thompson, who designed Jasper Park and Banff Springs in the Canadian province of Alberta, built the courses to be both playable and aesthetically stunning, tucked into the mountains and forests of the Canadian Rockies. Ian Andrew says if he could only play one more round of golf, it would be at Jasper Park, not Pebble Beach or Bandon Dunes or Pine Valley.

Environmental Concerns

When golf was booming in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, golf designers were routinely hired to build courses as part of a housing tract or resort. Many of these courses were compromised in terms of design by limitations of the land or the requirement to fit the layout into a housing development. Bulldozers often moved tons of dirt to built mounds and other unnatural objects on naturally flat land. Pesticides were heavily used, and natural plant and animal habitats often were displaced or destroyed. In the 21st century, course architects – and government regulations – are much more cognizant of environmental concerns, and the American Society of Golf Course Architects is "actively involved in promoting responsible golf course designs .... "

About the Author

Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.

Photo Credits

  • Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
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