The Challenges of Building a Golf Course

Gil Hanse couldn’t have been more excited when he beat out seven other top architects in March 2012 to design and build the course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And why not? It was a highly coveted job, putting one’s name on the course that would host the first Olympic golf competition since 1904. “When the selection committee described the process to us, everything sounded great,” Hanse recalls. “The reality was that after our selection, the process turned out to be anything but smooth.”

The Olympic course could be the poster boy for the most daunting assignments or obstacles architects have had to overcome, but the truth is, Hanse is not alone: Most of his brethren have run into hazards of all kinds while trying to create a great test of golf. From giant boulders to microscopic snails, Communist governments to obstreperous owners, the challenges run the gamut.

“You’ve got to expect the unexpected,” says Greg Norman.

While Hanse was building Castle Stuart in Scotland in 2008, partner Mark Parsinen likened what they were doing to a battlefield. “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Parsinen told him, quoting Prussian field marshal Helmuth Von Moltke.

“You’re always having to react to what happens day in and day out and, as a result, you’re having to adapt your strategy,” says Hanse. “But that only helps to improve the golf course. I don’t understand how anybody can plan for any eventuality sitting in an office and having it all run smoothly.”

If planning and permitting are handled properly, architects shouldn’t worry about interference by outside agencies. But that’s exactly what tripped up Hanse in Rio. “That was the part of the Olympic process that was the most difficult,” says Hanse. “We thought that was all taken care of and it turned out to be exactly the opposite.”

The plan in Rio was to start the year-long construction process in the fall of 2012. But then came Olympian hurdles that would have given Edwin Moses trouble, including ownership squabbles, financing issues, and environmental and logistical challenges.

“It was complicated by a variety of legal challenges, first and foremost with the land dispute and then with the environmental aspects,” says Hanse. “Another issue was who was going to be in charge. I thought it was going to be Rio 2016 [the organizing committee] in concert with the PGA Tour as technical consultants. Turned out the landowner-developers were the ones calling all the shots and they had never built a golf course.”

The outside entanglements delayed construction by about nine months. However, building went pretty smoothly once underway, even when a lack of manpower and equipment made the process inefficient.

“I had been warned that doing business in Brazil was tricky,” says Hanse. “But I naively thought that this would be different because it’s the Olympics—they have to have figured out a better way to do it because they have a definite timeline we have to adhere to. That turned out not to be the case.”

Perhaps Hanse should have consulted with Robert Trent Jones Jr., who has the distinction of building the first course in the then-Soviet Union, Moscow Country Club. It took 20 years. He and his dad first visited in 1974, planning to build a course as part of a larger recreational complex for foreign dignitaries.

“To build a golf course in your enemy’s ground zero was extraordinarily difficult—ideologically, historically, politically,” says Jones Jr. “It took five years to find the property and get past the naysayers of the Communist regime who saw golf as an English capitalist game.”

The war with Afghanistan set progress back another five years, along with delays from the U.S. government, which was concerned the bunkers might have military significance. Finding the right equipment and workers who actually worked caused more setbacks. The full 18 holes didn’t open until 1994.

“The Red Army came out to serenade us and one of the band members asked what the game was,” recalls Jones Jr. “I helped show him a grip and there’s this famous picture of the Red Army soldier hitting balls on the practice range and I said, ‘The Reds are on the greens. The Cold War is truly over.'”

South American politics and unfriendly governments are nothing compared to an endangered microscopic snail. The meddling mollusk found in the dunes of Doonbeg in southwest Ireland caused Norman to draw 27 different routings. Headline writers had a field day: “Snail Bites Shark.”

“We had one routing going through the main area of the sand dune line but the more we did that the more we violated the snail area, so we got pushed a little bit off the sand dune site,” says Norman, who had to leave the bulk of the dunes untouched. “It was a quid pro quo. The environmentalists gave us some holes in the dunes and some holes off of them. We almost built that golf course by hand because we didn’t have a whole lot of heavy equipment coming in there.”

It resulted in the quirky charm, found in older links courses, where fairways criss-cross and players tee off over greens. But unlike 150 years ago, Norman had to get a legal team involved to weigh liability issues. “We had to do all these timing calculations, insuring that between the time someone hit his approach into a green and someone else teed off over it, they would never be anywhere near each other. I never did see one of the snails, but I probably walked on top of a billion of them. I think 100 snails can fit on your thumbnail.”

From microscopic snails to micromanaging owners. Architects hope their clients are on the same page, but that wasn’t the case when Tom Doak started building the third course at the Legends Resort in Myrtle Beach after his well-received Heathland course.

“We thought we’d have some leeway with the client because the first course was pretty successful,” says Doak, who was trying to build something unusually subtle for Myrtle Beach. “But he kept wanting us to jazz it up more. Finally I said, ‘Show us what you want to do on this hole,’ and he starting waving his hands around and we were like, ‘No, that’s not what we want to do.’ That was the one job where I agreed to part ways with the client and it was a real surprise because I’d worked for the guy before and thought it would be easy. It’s a critical relationship. You don’t have to agree on everything, but if you can’t agree on the basic things, it’s pretty hard.”

Besides the right client, the two other factors it’s important to get right are the land and the money. Steve Smyers had the first two when he built his first course in the mid-‘8os, the highly regarded Wolf Run near Indianapolis, but he didn’t have the capital.

“We were basically starting the project without any money,” he says. “We had the support of Jack Lupton, the founder of the Honors Course in Chattanooga, but he just signed the note to purchase the land. The construction money to build the course was coming through the sale of memberships. So I was not only acting as the architect but also as the co-chairman of membership sales. Every time we’d sell a membership, we had the ability to go do something else on the course. We were not only managing the design of the project, but the cash flow as well.

“Nothing goes easily,” he adds. “I’ve always said we don’t build golf courses, we manage personalities. That’s all the way from the owners and the clients to the owners’ representatives through the construction personnel.”

Money certainly wasn’t an issue when Tom Fazio built Shadow Creek for casino owner Steve Wynn in Las Vegas around the same time. We’ve all heard the oft-repeated joke: “He had an unlimited budget and exceeded it.” Fazio says Lupton used the line to describe Pete Dye building the Honors Course, but doesn’t dispute that Wynn had plenty of resources to bring high Carolina to the desert, so Shadow Creek wasn’t difficult to build.

What was challenging, Fazio says, was Paupack Hills, a course he did in the Poconos in the mid-’60s.

“It was very hilly, all rock and no soil back in a time when we didn’t have the budgets,” he recalls. “When you have unlimited amounts of money, you can solve anything. It was the first time I’d ever put two par threes in a row because the land was so severe and steep. The owner didn’t want to do it, but I said ‘Well, one of the best courses in the country, Cypress Point, has two par threes in a row, so if it’s okay for them, why wouldn’t it be okay for us?'”

Those situations are now more the exception than the rule, at least for Fazio. “I’ve done a lot of courses,” he says. “When you do your homework, you find out what the conditions are. There really shouldn’t be surprises.”

Except when there are.