Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 128 / APRIL 1991 / PAGE 50

Design your own golf course. (includes related article on Jack Nicklaus' comments on course design)
by Mike Harrison


You don't have to be a professional to design a golf course. One of America's greatest courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links in Carmel, California, was designed by Jack Neville and Douglas S. Grant, two gentlemen who had never before been involved in golf course architecture, in 1918. The course was later remodeled by Alister Mackenzie, Robert Hunter, and H. Chandler Egan, but it retains the character of the original design. Pete Dye, one of today's leading architects, was an insurance salesman before entering the field as a summer diversion. The only requirement for a designer is an interest in the field and a basic understanding of the elements of design.


Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but golf courses seem most appealing when they blend in with the natural terrain. Early designers didn't have much choice, but even modern designers with access to powerful bulldozers, graders, and scrapers, and the ability to move hundreds of tons of earth, strive to make it look as if the original land were created with a golf course in mind.

You would think it difficult to make the green turf of a golf course blend in with the desert, but Nicklaus' Renegade Course at Desert Mountain is almost invisible as you drive by only 100 yards from the fairway. Containing the entire course between natural rises accented with 100-year-old saguaro cactuses, Nicklaus used the indigenous plants and terrain as the predominant hazards on the course.

You don't find straight lines or perfect circles in the woods, meadows, or mountains, and except for flagsticks and club shafts, you shouldn't find them on a golf course either. While "cookie-cutter" bunkers, greens, and tees were popular in the British Isles in the late 19th century, modern design favors a more free-form approach where each element seems to flow from the contours of the land.

Recent advances in turf management equipment have allowed more and more courses to take advantage of contour mowing for sculpted fairways. The days of the old and imprecise gang-mowers being pulled behind tractors is over, and the replacement allows more control over the shape and precision of the fairway. Contour mowing is more pleasing to the eye and can be used as a strategic element by altering the size of landing areas at various distances from the tee.

Routing the Holes

Planning the path of your holes is a direct result of the size, configuration, and contour of the building site, but it has become almost standard practice to locate the 1st tee, 9th green, 10th tee, and 18th green next to the clubhouse, where golfers can visit the pro shop or grab a bite to eat. Careful designers also ensure that these same holes do not play into a rising or setting sun to slow down play.

Most designers avoid parallel fairways where errant shots could be dangerous to golfers walking or riding on other holes. When there's no way to avoid it, use trees to isolate one fairway from the other. One of the problems with early courses that played out in a straight line and then back in a straight line is that golfers only played with the wind blowing from two directions. Modern designers largely endorse a looping design where holes play in every conceivable direction over the 18 holes.

Keeping the interest level high is one of design's primary goals, and spacing the par 3s and 5s out over the round brings some variety to the game. It isn't etched in stone, and some fine courses have back-to-back short or long holes, but repetition isn't conducive to a championship layout.


The first bunkers were carved out of the links grass by the winds along the Scottish coast, and these unkempt areas spelled real trouble for early golfers. Unless a designer is trying to re-create the ambiance of an early course, however, the design and placement of bunkers have become more of a craft than a natural occurrence.

Raised bunkers are the most common type on American courses, with the side facing the hole (the lip of the trap) at a higher elevation than the side facing the tee. It's an accepted practice to make the lip higher the closer you get to the green. In most cases, fairway bunkers are relatively shallow, while green-side bunkers have more depth. The thinking is that you've already penalized the golfers by making them hit from the sand, so give them a chance to advance the ball with a well-played shot.

When building fairway bunkers, use them to narrow the fairway and create a narrower landing area for the big hitter. By requiring accuracy on the long shots, you take away some of the "long-knockers" advantage during a round and provide a fairer test of golf. When adding sand near the greens, leave some grass between the green and bunker.

The theory behind the use of bunkers around the green could change in the future. The professionals have become so adept at playing from the sand that they sometimes intentionally hit into the bunkers rather than risk a lie in tall grass. Some designers add tall grass to the lip of the bunker to prevent that strategic move.

Greens and Pin Placement

Creating a test of a golfer's short game depends upon the careful consideration of the size and contour of the putting surface and the placement of the pin in relation to the slope. While wildly sloping greens are an obvious challenge to the game played on the dance floor, building subtle breaks into the shaved grass is an important aspect as well. In many ways, a barely perceptible break tests the golfer's ability to "read" the green more than a twisting one.

Fair pin placement becomes vital on greens with dramatic changes in elevation. It doesn't make sense to allow a player to hit a shot to the green and then take away any chance of hitting the first putt near the hole. You can require that a perfect shot is the only way to keep it close, but when you build a two-or three-tiered green or add a steep section, don't place the hole too close to the bottom of the slope. Putting's tough enough without impossible pin placements.

Pin placement and the slope of the green affect more than putting, pitching, and chipping. You can tuck a pin close behind a sand trap when you've planned a par 4 hole for an approach shot with a high-flying wedge or 9-iron, but the same placement on a 210-yard par 3 where a boring 2- or 3-iron is required wouldn't create a proper opportunity for par.

Course designers haven't come up with a specific formula for the size of greens. Robert Trent Jones, Sr. built enormous greens, while Nicklaus designs usually include small- to medium-sized putting surfaces. While size is affected by the severity of the hazards around a hole, many designers decrease the green size as approach shots become shorter. A 450-yard par 4 usually has a larger green than a 375-yard hole that follows.

Currently commanding a $1 million fee for a design, Nicklaus is one of the world's most sought after architects, renowned for his flexibility in creating beautiful and challenging courses for all calibers of players. As history's greatest golfer and one of the innovators of modern course design, his comments on design theory are especially insightful.

* "Golf is a game of precision, not strength;

it's a thinking man's game. There's no

challenge in just whacking the ball. A golf

course should be enjoyable and offer variety

to every golfer, no matter what his level

of skill or strength. My aim primarily is

to test a golfer's accuracy. I try to use the

richest possible mix of shot values - varied

tests of precision."

* "With medium-to-small greens, you call

on the player to hit more chips, pitches,

and sand shots and require a successful

golfer to master the finesse shots in addition

to the rest of the game. Smaller

greens also speed up the putting process,

the slowest part of the game today,

and the element most responsible for the

five-hour rounds that destroy the enjoyment

of the game."

* "Every hole should require the golfer to

make one very good shot to make par

and one great shot to make birdie. It's the

essence of great design and the area

where the early masters truly excelled."

* "Use whatever topographical features exist

naturally to create holes that never become

dull or stale no matter how many

times you play them."

* "Utilize land roll, woodland, water, rough,

and sand as hazards in a varied and balanced

way throughout the 18 holes."

* "Strive to vary the location and configuration

of fairway bunkers depending on the

use to which the course will be put, creating

them sometimes purely for directional

purposes, sometimes purely for strategic

purposes, and sometimes as a combination

of both."

* "Every green should be tailored to the

hole and to its surrounding land in size,

shape, and contour. Every bunker should

be tied to the flow of the green and its adjacent


* "Golf is more enjoyable, especially for the

average player, when it is played primarily

downhill rather than uphill, and with rather

than against the flow of the terrain."

* "Avoid routing opening and finishing holes

so that sun becomes a problem at the beginning

or end of the day."

* "Direct as many holes as possible so that,

under prevailing wind conditions, the

course plays at its easiest, and is at its

toughest when the wind comes from unexpected


* "When I design a par 4 hole, I try to emphasize

tee placements so the average

golfer will be playing the same club to the

green as I would. I'm sure the average

golfer is tired of playing every par 4 with

two woods and an iron. On my par 4s, I try

to create a need for thought and shotmaking

precision, not power."

* "Too many of today's par 3 holes are just

too long. A one-shot hole should be an accuracy

hole, and for accuracy you use your

irons. most of the 3s I've designed

have been between 140 and 210 yards."

* "I've always believed that it's much more

comfortable for the average golfer and the

good player to have a golf ball collected

rather than repelled. I like to feel as though

my fairways are down, my greens are

down, and the golf ball that hits the green

is collected into the hole area."

* "I personally like Bob Jones's a concept of

building par 5s that are intrinsically par 4

and one-half. They are within reach in two

if the golfer puts a pair of long, accurate

shots together."

* "All first-class golf courses and all

outstanding golf holes have one thing in

common to the golfer's eye: they look absolutely

natural, as if the terrain had always

been that way, waiting to be

discovered for golf."