Gil Hanse’s Architecture 101: Pathfinding

In this age of GPS and satellite navigation, we seldom set out on a journey in our car not knowing our final destination or how we are going to get there. That is not the case for the golf course architect setting out to route a golf course. While the goal is always the same—to build the best course possible on that unique piece of land—the destination is not clear, nor is the path over the land that will hold the golf course easily defined or clearly marked.

So many variables go into the search for the best 18 holes that a property can yield. The angle of the sun, the prevailing wind, the best topography, oddly shaped boundaries, where to locate the clubhouse, dramatic natural features, development requirements… these are only a few of the pieces of the great puzzle that we call routing a golf course, and we haven’t even started talking about golf holes, which will be saved for another chapter.

Illustration by Peter Ryan

Once the land is selected, my partner Jim Wagner and I start walking the property with a topographic map in hand. I would love to think that in some other life we would be Lewis and Clark creating the maps through exploration. However, even though our field instincts are good, we would be lost without a topo map showing the contours of the land as they exist, and, if available, done at a contour interval indicating every two feet of elevation change. This level of specificity shows us enough of the small ripples and rolls that will form the character of the holes, while also highlighting the more dramatic contours that will become home to greens, tees, and bunkers.  

With the map in hand, we “catalog” the site, making notes of interesting features. Great green site, beautiful tree, nice stone wall, sandy ground with great vegetation—those are some of the notes scribbled on these maps. These early plans take on a wonderful patina with dirt, sunscreen, splotches from rain and sweat fighting with the red ink scribbles. With the ever-present smartphone in hand, we also take photos of these characteristics to help jog the memory when we are back at the drawing board and out of the elements.

Hanse on site at Ohoopee Match Club

These wanders around the property can take days and even weeks as we seek to become as intimately familiar with the site as we can be before deciding what we think is the best arrangement of 18 holes on the property. One of the variables as to how long these treks can take is whether or not the site has a healthy snake population: It is much easier to walk a property efficiently when not constantly looking down to see where each step might take you.

Finding the path is my favorite part of the process of designing a golf course: the possibilities are endless, the options are many. It is a time when we can be out on site, alone with the elements and the land, trying to unlock its potential, observe its secrets. It is quiet, no machinery, no interruptions, the canvas is spread out before us, no road map, just our intuitions, beliefs, and hopes that we can do it justice with our design. As close to Nirvana as we get before the realities, requirements, and regulations of our game, our environment, and sometimes our client find their way into our path.