As one of the most popular sports in the world, golf is no small business. With approximately 33,161 courses in 208 of the world’s 245 countries as of 2016, there are millions of acres dedicated solely to the sport. These millions of acres are painstakingly designed, constructed and routed so that players can get the most out of courses and their surrounding landscapes. And for golf course architects, that’s just one part of the job.
“This type of architecture is certainly specific in that it’s a sport, and most sports have very set regulation fields and golf doesn’t really have that, so it takes a bit of ingenuity,” says Greg Martin, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and practicing architect since 1985. “We have to focus on agronomics, turf science, grading and drainage, site use and infrastructure—it all comes into play.”
Not surprisingly, creating a new course from start to finish can take anywhere from three to 10 years, depending on the size of the lot, the approval process and any number of other external factors. But they all start out the same way: with a piece of land.
We have to focus on agronomics, turf science, grading and drainage, site use and infrastructure—it all comes into play.
To start, Martin explains, developers will either come to him with a piece of land to see if a course can be created there, or they’ll share an idea with his team and ask for help finding a proper plot. Together, once they have the land and it’s ready for development, they’ll move on to the design phase. Will there be a clubhouse? Will it be a small hub or a large facility with restaurants, banquet rooms and outdoor space? Will the clubhouse offer guests sufficient views of the course? Will there be practice facilities? Where is the road access? All this and more contribute to the many design iterations and revisions that Martin’s team undergoes before ever breaking ground.
As for how they decide where to place the 18 holes, Martin simplifies the process: Let’s say you have a piece of string with a series of 18 knots along it. Now draw an outline of the property and your immovable objects within; perhaps there’s a lake in the middle, a clubhouse and an intersecting road. To decide where to put the holes, take the string and coil it throughout the property, aiming to fit all the knots inside.
“It’s not like you can drop 18 holes onto a property and figure out how to connect them after the fact,” he says. Also, not only should the path be a continuous line, easily flowing from one hole to the next, but “a routing plan should provide a golfer with a very distinct tour of the landscape. The intent is to gently reveal the property using the game of golf as a method to do so.”
Of course, weather conditions have to be factored into the layout of the course as well, as architects want the golfers to have variety as they move throughout the course.
“You’re going to have wind and sun no matter where you go. In fact, the wind in Texas is one of the primary issues when creating courses. But if you set up the course so that some holes play in one direction, some in another, then the golfer isn’t always facing into or away from the wind. Variety will account for natural weather [shifts],” Martin says.
Once the concept is agreed upon, there can be as many as 30 different approving and regulatory agencies to get through before construction can begin. And as with any years-long process, the cost quickly adds up. Martin estimates that, with land, the cost of a new golf course can run from $5 million to $20 million.
“When these golf courses are built, they’re sold later at way less than replacement cost,” says Jeff Woolson, executive vice president of Capital Markets, Golf & Resort Properties for CBRE. “The value of the golf course is that it is an amenity to a residential community and is a benefit to the properties that are associated with the course, but there’s just not that many situations where it makes financial sense to build a golf course from scratch.”
Since starting the Golf & Resort practice in 1991, Woolson estimates that his team has sold over 100 golf courses, both private and public, across North America, the Caribbean and Europe.
The problem, he says, is that the space became quickly overbuilt in the 1990s, when the National Golf Foundation predicted that the sport would need to create “a golf course a day” to keep up with demand. Architects and builders alike met, and exceeded, the challenge.
It’s very difficult for a golf course to be successful without several thousand homes surrounding the course to support it.
“Not only did they build all these stand-alone courses, they started building a lot of residential communities with a golf course as its primary amenity. But now, while the golf population isn’t necessarily declining, it’s just not growing. With rare exceptions, like the Bandon Dunes stand-alone courses in Oregon, it’s very difficult for a golf course to be successful without several thousand homes surrounding the course to support it,” Woolson says. “I love golf, but if you can turn the land into something else—office, retail, industrial, residential, farming—it’s probably more valuable.”
That said, Woolson isn’t negative about the future of the sport. With the Baby Boomer generation slowly aging out of active playing years, the industry is looking to pass the torch to millennials, but progress is slow.
“The industry has gotten innovative, putting music on carts, trying to shorten the game,” he notes. Places like the Topgolf, enormous driving range facilities that combine the game with a bar and restaurant atmosphere, are popping up around the country. The company’s flagship location opened last May in Las Vegas to much acclaim. It offers dozens of tee-off spots, as well as two pools, a concert venue, five bars and VIP suites.
And as 51 percent of Topgolf guests are non-golfers, it seems they’ve captured a new, very elusive market. Woolson thinks it could be the change the industry needs: “It’s like a party with a little bit of golf. They do way more business than traditional courses, and if they get new people interested in the sport, it’s a good thing.”