It's About The Game: The Changing Face Of Public Course Architecture May 25, 2011 By Rick Phelps

Rick Phelps is currently serving as President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

 Rick Phelps of Arvada, Colo., is the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He has been practicing the art and science of golf course design for more than 22 years. He wrote this essay about the future of golf course architecture for the ongoing USGA monthly series "It's About the Game." 

Looking back over the past century of golf in the United States, we can find many cycles of growth and recession – sometimes dramatic and lasting, other times minimal and brief. Trends in design have followed these economic cycles, both out of necessity and in keeping with fashion. A brief review of golf-industry economics from the past five years indicate that there is a need to adapt current trends and find new/old ideas that will better respond to the market, or perhaps even initiate a change in market conditions. As we enter what may well be a new era of golf course design, construction and management, following what many have called the “second golden age” from the early 1990s to about 2006, some familiar concerns will need to be addressed.   

There is no disputing the fact that public golf drives the national golf economy. According to the World Golf Foundation and The PGA of America, approximately 80 percent of the total rounds played in the U.S. are played on public courses. Another surprising statistic is that 70 percent of the total public rounds are played on golf courses with a median green fee of $28.  Yet in the decade from 1995 to 2005, how rare was it to hear about a public golf course that wasn’t being marketed as an upscale or high-end facility? Understandably, our competitive society was eager to plan, build, market and experience the next great golf adventure with each new project. 

Perhaps we are now at a point where we need to start exploring options for building simpler, more efficient, less expensive golf facilities, whether these golf courses are smaller (i.e. less than 18 holes), shorter, more efficient (cheaper) to maintain, faster to play, less costly to build or some combination of these factors.  A relatively small percentage of these types of courses have been built over the past two decades.  However, a much greater volume of new development has been focused on the higher tier projects. 

The majority of public golf courses built in the 1950’s and 1960’s were built very inexpensively. The focus was on machine maintenance as a priority over aesthetics, memorability and, in some cases, strategic interest. While there will always be some demand for the stunning, dramatic golf venues that we see on television or in magazines, we must balance the total volume of golf courses with a higher percentage of the inexpensive venues that drive the game. There has to be a willingness on the part of everyone involved – the owner/developer, the architect, the builder and the operator – to understand the purpose and market position of the less expensive golf facility. At the same time, from the standpoint of the user, the expectations in terms of course conditions need to be adjusted to allow the owners/operators of these facilities to function on at least a “break-even” basis.  The architectural challenge is to create strategic options while eliminating design excess. 

The process can be comparable to building an economical automobile. Designing and building a car is a  constant balancing act of quality vs. cost, form vs. function, optional features vs. essential components, as all are factors on every make and model. Ultimately, the goal is to create the most efficient automobile possible. In this case, efficiency has only a little to do with gas mileage. Instead, it has more to do with all of the various items that affect the total cost to the consumer – cost to produce, cost to maintain, reliability (longevity), etc. The consumer makes an educated decision regarding their choice to purchase such a vehicle, knowing full well that they may be giving up a few bells and whistles, but that they are getting good overall value for their money. 

In the United States, the majority of the public golf facilities that will be built in the “new era” must be focused on value. Owners and architects will be challenged to analyze the necessity of each feature or option on the golf course. Bunkers, cart paths, trees and even earthwork will be scrutinized and evaluated to determine their necessity and extent. Builders will be challenged to come up with more efficient (less expensive) means and methods for construction. Every material choice, in both the design process and construction, will be evaluated more thoroughly in terms of cost vs. benefit. 

Many designs will need to evolve toward long-term maintenance efficiency. For example, steep bunker faces (in sand or grass) can be softened to allow machine maintenance, tee surfaces can be combined into fewer, larger areas to speed up mowing operations, trees can be removed or not planted in the first place to allow faster mowing of the rough (healthier turf, too!), cart path extents can be minimized (likely, green to tee only) and surface drainage can be emphasized to eliminate large quantities of underground pipe and inlets. 

Each of these design and construction items will be analyzed in terms of the short-term and long-term costs and their “real” effect on the playability of the golf course. Other items, such as bunker liners and certain soil amendments may also be eliminated. In these cases, the golfers will need to adapt and realize that overall conditions on the golf course may be ratcheted down a notch or two, but the only way to allow golf to remain affordable for many people is to reduce the costs of construction and ongoing maintenance, particularly in out-of-play areas. 

The American golf industry is more than 15,000 courses strong. There is plenty of room for a wide variety of course types, styles and price points, in both public and private markets. The key to long-term success in the industry is to maintain a balance of facility types based on actual golfer participation statistics, not on real estate statistics and certainly not based on human ego – a difficult challenge, but one that is certainly achievable.