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On Golf: Building Blocks

By Christine Fraser

| Jan 6, 2023

Architect Christine Fraser looks beyond the aeshetics of bunkers and green complexes when designing courses. (Honey & Oak Photography)

One golf course architect’s view on a healthier future for our game

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

Golf has long been known as a game with clear and sometimes rigid standards, with guidelines that determine what to wear, when to play and what a “good” course should look like. The standards have transcended people, season and
geography to maintain the game’s tradition and set it apart from the rest of the sporting world.

While these standards have dictated the history of golf, they are beginning to shift to support a future that is more accessible, diverse and environmentally conscious. Without consideration of these levers, the game we love today may not have a place in the lives of future generations.  

As a golf course architect and someone who cares deeply about the sport, I believe that design must mean more than just interesting greens and challenging distances; if done thoughtfully and responsibly, architecture can work to secure golf’s future. Here’s how.

Prepare the course for climate change

Access to water is a serious threat to many courses around the world. What happens to courses when water is so scarce that we are no longer allowed to purchase it from our municipalities to feed our game? Very few courses have the financial resources needed to buy their way out of climate change, and those that try will inevitably have to pass those costs onto the consumer. The rest of our local and municipal courses will need to take immediate action to prepare their facilities for climate extremes to stay in business.

Aside from water consumption, maintaining the current aesthetic standard of a typical North American course requires labor, fuel and other resources – the costs of which have only risen. Such cost pressures make golf more expensive and less accessible, and in the worst of cases, put courses out of business. But there’s hope: If we can reduce maintenance inputs, we can have a substantial effect on our consumption of non-renewable resources and financial expenditures.

Thoughtful architecture is the starting point for diminished consumption. Reducing irrigated and mowed turf in strategic out-of-play areas is an efficient way to increase habitat and biodiversity while simultaneously reducing labor, fuel and water consumption. Aesthetically, naturalized areas often bring great texture and tone diversity to the landscape. Planting habitat rough must be done thoughtfully as to not slow play and unduly penalize the weaker golfer.

I’m an advocate for firm, fast conditions when the environment allows. Firmer fairways allow us to conserve water and potentially redirect resources to more vulnerable areas like greens and tees. It is important to understand how the playability of a course will change when the ground becomes firm and fast during dry season or drought. The designer must consider how a player will more often navigate the course along the ground. Firmness allows more roll for those who need the distance and offers more challenge to better players who rely on angle into the green to score well.

Lastly, choosing drought-tolerant species will become increasingly more important. Turfgrass breeding  efforts have advanced sufficiently so that drought-tolerant grasses can be used without compromising feel or playability. A thoughtful architect, in consultation with a superintendent, should be able to specify grass species best adapted to the local soil and climate.

Use architecture to recruit and retain new golfers

The other part of my job description is creating a product that consumers want to consume. The ideal in course architecture is a layout that is challenging, interesting and enjoyable for all skill levels. Too often design thought has been given only to how the course looks and plays from the “men’s” tees. This can sideline anyone who isn’t a lower-handicap player and reduces our potential consumer market because we haven’t created a considerate or enjoyable experience for women, girls, seniors, juniors, beginners or those with adaptive needs.

In its simplest form, teeing equity is the process of positioning tees to maximize enjoyment and playability for all levels. Calculated using each player’s actual swing speed, this objective approach is likely to result in fun, interesting and enjoyable rounds for a wide range of players. As a general guideline, we consider appropriate hole yardages for slower swing speeds and those playing the forward tees not to exceed 140 yards on par 3s, 340 yards on par 4s, and 400 yards on par 5s. It is important to view tees based not on gender but rather to focus on overall strategy and player enjoyment. There is great opportunity to increase the consumer lifespan by implementing a thoughtful, well-conceived forward tee program: A shorter course will encourage people to begin playing sooner and extend the life span of a golfer into their later years, increasing potential revenue over a longer timeframe.

Each tee should allow players of varying skill levels the opportunity to experience the same course. This means when a par 4 is short, and perhaps drivable, it should be drivable for most players. The tee should be placed so that everyone can hit generally the same club into the green.

The design and placement of a teeing ground is an important tool for the architect because it provides complete control over where the player is hitting from. Once the player leaves the tee, they navigate the rest of the hole on their own, with less involvement from the architect. Therefore, we consider tee locations very carefully; we analyze the view, angle,
elevation, safety, size, orientation and length of every single teeing ground to provide the greatest amount of physical and strategic engagement for each player.

Strategic (as opposed to penal) design provides many routes to the green and allows players to navigate the hole based on their own skill level without forcing carries and requiring airborne shots. Architecture that requires all players to hit up and over hazards is one-dimensional, non-inclusive and often less enjoyable.

Finally, fairway landing area width is a primary determinant of strategy. It is common for fairways to narrow inadvertently over time as a result of maintenance practices. Here we may find opportunity to slightly widen fairways along with approaches into the greens to increase playability and enjoyment for all golfers. Wide approaches help higher handicap golfers without affecting the challenge to better players, who typically fly in their approach shots on most courses in North America. We should also consider the start of the fairway in reference to the forward tees; the carry shouldn’t be overly long so that it hinders the momentum of drives hit along the ground – 65 yards maximum.

Educate the consumer so their mindset embraces change

It is also important to recognize the consumer’s role in challenging industry standards. We too often demand perfectly manicured, lush, green grass, flowers in bloom, thick rough, and white sand without recognizing their effects on accessibility and sustainability. The obsession with perfect playing conditions contributed to the perception those outside the game hold of golf as “bad for the environment.” Ensuring grass stays green throughout the golf season requires more water, labor and other resources that are increasingly scarce and expensive.

As consumers become more aware and concerned with their consumption of natural resources, we are beginning to accept that a course is a living, breathing thing that changes with the seasons. Do you require your course to import white sand, or is there a local alternative that functions just as well at half the cost? Do we allow the grass to change and brown naturally with the seasons or do we demand perpetually consistent lush green conditions? Dormancy is a naturally occurring period that both cool-season and warm-season grasses experience, in an effort to conserve water and nutrients. It’s a period of rest during a time of stress that is usually brought on by cold temperatures during the winter, or dry conditions during the summer. The pursuit of perfect aesthetic playing conditions is not always possible, certainly not sustainable, and shouldn’t be considered as desirable. If we want golf to be around in 50 years, we cannot put aesthetics before playing conditions or environmental sustainability.

The future

Sustainable design and maintenance need not be at the expense of playability. It is possible to create a culture of golf stewardship that respects and safeguards the natural environment and provide interesting, challenging, and enjoyable golf experiences at the same time. Investing in our course infrastructure now to prepare for drought and climate extremes is a worthy and necessary pursuit. Consider your course an heirloom, greatly cared for and generously handed down from one generation to the next.

Inclusive design doesn’t have to be boring, easy, or uninspiring – it still demands solid strikes and putts made to score well. Brute force becomes less necessary, and a higher demand is put on angles, accuracy and strategy. The ideal design allows for the inclusivity of less skilled golfers without mitigating the experience of more skilled golfers; this is what we strive for.

The approach we take to ensure a sustainable and accessible future for our game must be holistic, and bought into by all parties – management, architect, superintendent, professional and most importantly, consumer. Envision a future where we experience golf on a sustainable playing field, with less dependency on irrigation and other inputs, a membership that reflects local demographics, and architecture that welcomes everyone and entices underrepresented communities to join in. That is how your golf course survives the next 50 years.

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