The Affordability of Minimalist Golf Courses

It’s been 25 years since Tom Doak opened his first solo design, High Pointe in Williamsburg, Mich. Besides launching Doak’s career, High Pointe had the dubious distinction of helping launch the term “minimalism” as it pertains to golf design. While many will argue over minimalism’s ideology and principles, one fact is true of almost all such courses: They’re built with relatively small budgets.

High Pointe Golf Club (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

In 2004, using figures he gathered from the Golf Course Builders Association of America (GCBAA), the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), and his former employer Denis Griffiths, Scott Macpherson—an architect from New Zealand and author of St. Andrews: Evolution of the Old Course—assessed the cost of building different types of courses. Before architect fees, a minimalist course cost $521,000, Macpherson said; an average course cost $2.22 million; while an upscale course cost $5.18 million. In other words, a minimalist course costs about one-quarter what it takes to build an “average” course.

So if Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes, a $2.5 million job, cost a quarter of what it takes to build Typical Hills, should it not follow that Pacific Dunes’s green fee is one-fourth the price? It’s a nice theory, but, sadly, one that seldom holds up. The peak green fee at Pacific Dunes is a staggering $295 ($250 for resort guests). Florida’s Streamsong Blue, another world-ranked Doak minimalist design, peaks at $275 a round.

Streamsong Blue (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

Initiation fees at private clubs with minimalist courses aren’t economical, either. The total cost for land and design of Sand Hills, the magnificent Coore/Crenshaw course in Nebraska, was under $2.2 million, yet the invitation-only membership fee is reckoned to be around $50,000. And you’ll need to find roughly six times that to become a member at Friar’s Head, a Coore/Crenshaw course on Long Island.

“It’s a classic case of supply and demand,” says Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University. “If suddenly we decide we love minimalist courses, and those are fairly scarce and in relatively fixed supply, the price will rise until people are just choking at paying that much for a round.” The very wealthy are insensitive to price, Jackson adds, so when minimalist courses are extremely scarce they become very desirable and the price—to play or join—can really skyrocket.

“I learned right away that the cost of a green fee has nothing to do with how much it cost to build the course, but everything to do with how much people are willing to pay to play it,” Doak says.

Sand Hills (Photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

Gil Hanse, who started his career working for Doak, agrees: “In our society, people have always been willing to pay more for an exceptional product, especially one that has been hand-crafted with care and skill.”

There are, however, a few affordable minimalist courses out there. One is Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Wash., a Dan Hixson design that has gone generally unheralded, partly because of its remote location but mostly because the little-known Hixson designed it. It is superb, yet on summer weekends, its green fee just barely creeps above $100.

An even better example is Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, Neb., designed by longtime Coore/Crenshaw master shapers Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, along with volunteers from the community. “Everyone pitched in, and Dan and I worked as city employees,” says Axland. The result is a course that appears in national top 100 lists, cost just $1.3 million, and can be played for $51.50.

So yes, such golden courses do exist, but it appears the chance you’ll see lots of them opening up anytime in the near future is, well, minimal.