The Future of Golf Course Architecture

by Adam Lawrence

When, in the early 1990s, Tom Doak criticized the work of many of the day’s top golf designers in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, he was setting out a manifesto for how he felt the industry needed to change.

Twenty years on, Doak, and his allies—designers like Bill Coore, Gil Hanse, and David McLay Kidd—have won their war. If the presence of Sand Hills and Pacific Dunes at the top of every significant course ranking wasn’t proof enough, then the appointment of Hanse to build the highest-profile course in the world—the one that will host the first Olympic golf competition in over a century—was the final seal of approval. Minimalism, naturalism, neo-classicism, call it what you will, the style that those architects drove forward is now the dominant philosophy of golf course design.

Their victory, though, is verging on the Pyrrhic. The huge boom in golf course construction that ran through much of the 1990s and the early years of our present century was on its last legs when the economic shocks of 2008 brought it crunching to a halt. Now, in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and much of Europe, new golf projects are few and far between. Several of the most acclaimed golf courses of recent years—Doak’s Ballyneal in Colorado, Coore/Crenshaw’s Clear Creek in Lake Tahoe among them—have battled severe financial problems. So the minimalists may have won. But what is their victory worth?

The decline has hit the big firms hardest of all. Arnold Palmer Design Company, once a powerhouse, now consists of two architects, Thad Layton and Brandon Johnson, and the other “signature” design firms have suffered similar degrees of attrition. As a result, the next generation of architects, those struggling to gain a reputation, have been caught in the middle.

San Francisco-based designer Jay Blasi, now 34, hit the headlines while still in his 20s as the point man for the Robert Trent Jones II firm on the Chambers Bay project in Tacoma. Now, despite that early success, he has found himself out of a job and faced with a stark choice, either build up his own business or get out of the industry he loves and sought to join since he was a child.

“Like many businesses, golf is about who you know or who knows you,” says Blasi. “Most people have no clue who I am, but many have heard of Chambers Bay. I’ve found that if one of the decision makers knows my role on that or other projects, my chances of getting an interview go up.”

Blasi’s situation is far from unusual, but it is being compounded by another factor. The large-scale design firm, which came about partly as a result of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s creation of the signature concept, and partly because of Jack Nicklaus’s entry into the business, dominated the business in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, however, those “signature” figures are coming to the end of their careers, and the markets that sustained them are in retreat. Developers once hired the Palmers of this world primarily because they felt the name would help them sell houses and memberships; these days, if the houses aren’t selling and the big name designer is looking forward to a quieter life, what’s the point
of paying the additional fees?

This isn’t to say the signature firm is on the way out. New markets, such as China, are if anything even keener on name designers than existing ones, and potential signatures are created every time a new player wins a big title. But the struggles that Tiger Woods has had establishing his design business illustrate the problems of trying to create a high-end operation in a downturn: Five years since the announcement of Woods’s entry into architecture, he still has no course in play—except for the practice facility at his home in Florida.

The victory of the minimalists can be seen in the dominance that their preferred aesthetic models, especially bunker styling, has established. Frilly bunker edges may not define a Doak or a Coore course, but the fact that so many other designers have adopted that style, with greater or lesser success, illustrates the point. The irony, though, is that the greatest lesson the minimalists have to teach the industry as a whole has nothing to do with aesthetics, and is traceable back to another designer whose visual palette has long been very different.

Plunk a random golfer down at TPC Sawgrass, then drive him south to the new Streamsong resort with its side-by-side Coore/Crenshaw and Doak courses built among the faux dunes of a former phosphate mine, and he might not see the connection. Yet, of course, both Doak and Coore got their starts working with Pete Dye, andboth credit him for teachingthem the most crucial lesson of all—the need to keep control of construction, or at least the fine work of shaping features, floating greens, and finalizing grassing lines.

There is an inevitable tension, though both sides like to downplay it, between golf architects and contractors. Both have an interest in parking their bulldozers on the others’ lawns; there is only so much money to be made from any given project, and a dollar that goes to one consultant can’t be earned by another. So contractors, increasingly, are telling clients that they, generally the much bigger firms, are better placed to be the lead advisor on a project. Some employ in-house golf designers; others regard it as a service, essentially something that can be subcontracted out. This is anathema to the golf architects, whose raison d’etre is to be the client’s closest confidant, helping him get the most for his money and to achieve his goals.

There is no right or wrong way here. It is down to the individual client and the circumstances of a project. Nonetheless, the decline of the large design firm, with several lead architects and a substantial backroom of CAD technicians, is clearly giving rise to a breed of more hands-on designers who are as comfortable running a backhoe as they are doing a grading plan.

This trend speaks to the single most important goal for the golf development industry at the moment: reducing costs. Architect Mike Nuzzo—whose first solo design, Wolf Point in Texas, a remarkable homage to the Old Course at St Andrews built as a private playground for a single client, was built for $3 million, not much more than some projects spend on an irrigation system—has a lot to say on this matter.

“If we don’t cut the cost of golf construction and management, then nothing will get done on a lot of projects, because it’s simply not affordable,” says Nuzzo. “There are a lot of courses out there where a sympathetic renovation could hugely improve the playing experience, but as soon as architects, contractors, and irrigation designers appear and start to specify the build, things go wrong. How can a municipal course that might attract a $40 green fee afford a $2 million irrigation system? If it costs $40,000 to build a new USGA green, then 18 new greens are almost $750,000. How is the average course going to get a return on that investment? We have to cut costs.”

Nuzzo’s partner, course superintendent and irrigation designer Don Mahaffey, began consulting at a municipal course in Victoria, outside Houston, three years ago. With Nuzzo’s design assistance, Mahaffey rebuilt nine of the course’s greens last summer for a total budget of $75,000. “Is it a great course? No,” the architect says, “but it’s cheap to play, the locals love it, and it makes a small profit.”

So there, perhaps, we have the blueprint for the future of golf design. “Sustainable” is a popular buzzword in the modern golf industry, and it covers a lot of bases, but at its most basic it comes back to a very simple concept.

“The real test of a golf course,” wrote Harry Colt back in the 1920s. “Is it going to live?”

Canadian architect Ian Andrew, one of the golf industry’s deepest thinkers, takes an optimistically Darwinian view. “I think the economic troubles of today are good for the long-term quality of golf design,” he says. “With less work, there has been an essential thinning of the herd. The designers of the future have been reduced to a very small group. Only the best will manage to last and see the other side.”

Adam Lawrence is Editor of Golf Course Architecture magazine.