Gil Hanse’s Architecture 101: The Land

Whether you’re designing a building, a road, or any structure, every good design starts with a solid foundation. In the case of golf course architecture, that foundation is the land. There are relatively few great golf courses that do not sit on great pieces of land. The exceptions rely on features created by golf course architects, features that are so strong they overcome the natural deficiencies of the site. Think of the bunkering at Kingston Heath and the green complexes at Winged Foot as examples where architectural brilliance was able to compensate for what the sites were lacking.

5th Hole, Winged Foot – West (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

Since we believe that, it’s the goal of every project we take on to extract the maximum degree of interest and character from the natural landscape we’ve been given. We search for sites that are walkable, with enough topography to contribute to the flow of the golf holes, and a property that possesses natural locations for the features of the course (greens, tees, bunkers). Land that has variety in its topographical nature will yield the most interesting golf holes. It does so by providing the golf course architect with opportunities to create holes that are unique because they embrace the landforms that can be found only on this piece of ground. In my estimation, the East Course at Merion comes closest to embodying the characteristics of perfect golf terrain, with the  dramatic elements of several creeks and an abandoned quarry providing exclamation points during the round. 

With the topography and flow of the golf course being the most important character of the land, we also must focus on what is under the land, the soil. From a practical consideration, finding a site with excellent soils can make a huge difference in the quality of the course, but also can save the owner quite a bit of money. Finding free-draining soils will require less reliance on costly sub-surface drainage systems. 

9th Hole, Merion – East (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

In our opinion, a sandy site is best as it impacts the construction process in a great way—less drainage, easier to move around, and less compaction of the soil. It also provides a wonderful aesthetic quality as it contrasts nicely in the transition areas with the green grass. Aesthetically, Pine Valley is my favorite golf course to look at. The scale of the course, the character of the vegetation—tawny, stunted, rugged—provide the perfect transition from the maintained areas to the natural terrain. 

I’ve mentioned the need for a site to be walkable. The walking game restores the golfing soul, enables the golfer to move across the ground at a pace that allows for appreciation of all that we’ve discussed. The topography is encountered and engaged by your feet as opposed to being driven over. The feel of the soil and turf under foot also tells you a story about the types of shots to be encountered and the possibilities that exist when the ball is moving along the ground. The ball and the golfer, both in direct contact, moving through and along this wonderful landscape. Can it be any wonder that the land is where it all begins for the golf architect and for those who set out on the journey to answer the questions and the challenges the designer and the land will pose?