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Course Design: Natural or Planned?

When it comes to designing a great golf course, the property itself is always—and has always been—the primary consideration. Classic designers such as Alister MacKenzie were drawn to different parts of the world because they found land that was conducive to great golf. The northeastern United States, the rolling hills and coastal dunes of the Carolinas and Georgia, and the Sandbelt region of Melbourne, Australia, are examples of areas where designers have had tremendous opportunities to let the land dictate how the golf courses being laid out would look, feel and play.

In today's world, these opportunities are a privilege, and should be treated as such. As a designer, I consider myself fortunate to have worked with a number of these ideal sites, such as Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland. At this and several other locations I've worked at, designing the course was really a matter of finding the right combination of holes within the natural terrain.

Whatever the terrain, my staff and I repeatedly walk each site before we begin the design process, as each parcel of land has its own story to tell and its own uniqueness to reveal. I want to picture the golf course in my mind as I discover that uniqueness. However precise a topographical map may be, it never fully reveals the nuances that characterize the terrain.

But no matter what I'm working with, I try to build a golf course that looks like it's been there for a long period of time. The only way you can do that is to fall in love with the virgin site. On my initial visit, I'll typically get a quick mental snapshot of what we'll do on the property. Often, however, multiple visits at different times of the year in different conditions are necessary until we can settle on a particular hole or routing.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge we face in creating great golf courses today is working with the increasing number of sites where residential development is included in the master plan. This takes a concerted effort and a level of understanding between developer, land planner, engineers and designer to carefully position each component to maximize the value of the property.

In my view, one of the best jobs we've done of that was at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Georgia, the first course I designed in the United States. Sugarloaf's fifteen-hundred acres, located just northeast of Atlanta, originally belonged to Wayne Rollins, a businessman who used the land for his country estate and for breeding Tennessee Walking Horses. A development company called Crescent Resources purchased the land—which has a combination of rolling terrain, majestic pine and oak trees and a chain of man-made lakes—in 1994 for the purpose of creating a private residential community.

The feel of the terrain reminded me very much of Augusta. The land flowed perfectly and the corridors were automatically visible, which was probably the most important element to what we wanted to accomplish. When we began planning the course, we designed it as a purely residential club with no hint of a tournament coming there, but later we learned it was going to be a Tournament Players Club and had to fine-tune it for the PGA Tour. The changes were very minor: We simply adjusted some bunker placements and tweaked the greens to make room for some tougher pin placements.

Naturally, in routing the course the developer mandated that we position holes to maximize views from the residential lots, and we were able to work the premium home sites into the best viewing corridors. Fortunately for us, our partners had a keen understanding of the value of balancing golf and real estate and were very supportive of using the site's natural features to make the best possible course. Sure, it would be ideal to design courses without paying attention to home sites, but these days that's not often possible. With the expense of building golf courses, not having a real estate component often makes the project cost prohibitive, with the exception of a few very exclusive private clubs.

I spent many hours at Sugar-loaf walking the initial routing and repositioning tees, greens and, yes, even lots, to satisfy our collective goals. Sometimes the natural features dictated everything—for example, on the par-five fourth hole, I was adamant about leaving an enormous sycamore tree in the landing area to serve as a hazard off the tee. By hitting a number of shots off the dirt, I realized that, like the Eisenhower tree on the seventeenth at Augusta, this tree would challenge the tee shots of Tour players and members alike with myriad options. Many players would later report that the hole was their favorite simply because of the tree. Sadly, although it survived a 1998 tornado that leveled more than ten thousand trees on the property, the sycamore succumbed to disease in 2000. Now the challenge off the tee is a collection of bunkers.

Elsewhere, the hand of man played a more prominent role. For example, the par-five eighteenth was a work in progress for many months. Originally a par four, the final complexion of this hole arose out of our desire to provide great drama on the seventy-second hole of a professional event: a downhill par five that is reachable in two with a well-struck and well-positioned tee shot. Here again I spent considerable time hitting tee shots off the dirt to determine where to extend and elevate the end of the fairway to create an opportunity for a well-placed drive to allow a shot at the green. The construction crew then transformed the landing area for the tee shot, seventy- five feet above the putting surface. Extensive blasting was needed to eliminate a large rock outcropping so that the layup spot would be visible from the fairway. Despite the massive construction required to create such an exciting finish, the eighteenth has a perfect balance of risk and reward, and it looks remarkably natural. Aided by a natural amphitheater behind the green with ample room for grandstands and spectators, this hole has provided the BellSouth Classic with a number of fantastic finishes over the years.

Yes, it is always nice to have a high-caliber site like Doonbeg, but great golf today is more often a balance of "found" and "created" holes, as was the case with Sugarloaf.


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