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Golf Course Design – The Price of Progress

If you transported a footballer from 1880 to 2011 he’d recognise his sport as essentially unchanged in the last 130 years. The same sized muddy pitches, goal posts and nets. He might marvel at the light-weight Jabulani ball (which is more than can be said for the players during the last World Cup) and be scornful of the latest kangaroo skin boots, but in all other respects he’d be quite familiar with the sport. And if W.G. Grace walked out to the crease at Lords this summer he’d be hard pushed to see any changes at all to cricket. He might huff and puff about sponsors logos and helmets and he probably wouldn’t see eye to eye with Hawkeye or understand why they’re referring decisions to a third umpire, but the game as it is played today is pretty much the same. I suppose in tennis Fred Perry might struggle today with his wooden racket and long trousers but, like football and cricket and almost every other sport you could mention, at least the dimensions of the playing area have remained pretty much the same.

But in golf it’s different. The equipment manufacturers spend millions working out ways that we can hit the ball further and that’s creating a bit of a problem. In 1980 Dan Pohl led the US Tour driving averages with a measly 275 yards. In 2010 Bubba Watson topped the list with a much more impressive 315 yards. If we assume that the best players are hitting their iron shots at least 10% further as well then it’s no wonder par 4’s are creeping over 500 yards.

Twenty years ago if a client asked how much land he’d need for a tournament standard golf course we’d confidently say about 150 acres, and that would include room for a decent practice area, a clubhouse, a course of about 7,000 yards, a maintenance building and plenty of room for the club president to park his Bentley. Nowadays that figure is probably closer to 200 acres and often more. And guess what – bigger sites and longer courses cost more money and I’m not just talking about the purchase of the land. It’s been estimated that each additional 100 yards on the length of a golf course costs an extra 2% to maintain and longer courses need more irrigation, more fertilizer and more chemicals, at a time when we are trying to improve sustainability and environmental awareness.

What’s more, while we all might be hitting the ball further more often we are not necessarily hitting it any straighter. With larger sweet spots it is possible to hit the ball considerable distances even when the strike is not out of the centre of the club. Consequently the safety margins golf course architects are using are increasing and again that means more land is needed. I am sure that many golf clubs around the country are familiar with increasing litigation from adjoining home owners as those living next to courses find their peace being shattered by errant golf shots.

So what can golf course architects do? Should we try to reign back the length of courses by taking the driver out of the golfers hands and putting more premium on accuracy? Or should we make them more strategic, perhaps with trickier greens and more bunkers? Well it seems to me that we should be designing courses that test every facet of a players game. So yes, I want to see golfers of all standards given the opportunity to use their driver, but there needs to be a suitable penalty if they don’t use it correctly. And courses need to be more strategic; we would all benefit from having to think about our game a bit more and being rewarded for the correct placement of our golf shots. However, we also need to recognise that even courses built to hold tournaments must be playable for average golfers 99.9% of the time, so we can’t go over-board with hundreds of deep bunkers and wildly sloping greens. And length should play its part. If par 4’s need to be in excess of 500 yards so that a pro has to use a long iron for his second shot, then so be it, but let’s put in enough forward tees to make it enjoyable for everyone else.

While advances in technology do make the game easier and more fun for most of us, the real shame is that many of our great courses will soon be unable to hold major championships as they simply run out of room for expansion. On the Old Course at St Andrews they are now placing tees outside the golf course boundary, as we saw on the 17th hole this year. Can that continue? We shouldn’t be surprised if Open Championships on the Old Course become a distant memory, just like those at Prestwick and Musselburgh Links. I suppose it’s what they call “the price of progress”.

An edited version of this blog first appeared in Today’s Golfer.

An Unforgettable Week in Bahrain

When one sets out upon a career as a golf course architect there are a number of goals that one seeks to accomplish along the way; a first green to be built, a first entire hole, 9-holes, 18-holes and so on. But to be associated with the design of a course chosen to play host to the World’s finest golfers with a major European Tour event, which was shown on TV screens in more than 140 countries is about as thrilling…and nerve wracking as this career can get.

It has been my privilege to work with Colin Montgomerie on the design of the Montgomerie Course at The Royal Golf Club, Bahrain, which hosted the inaugural and highly successful Volvo Golf Champions this past week. The tournament was won in thrilling fashion by Paul Casey with a score of 268, 20-under par. Paul was the highest ranked player in a very strong field and all of us associated with the tournament were delighted that the course truly did identify the best player.

Now, with a 20-under winning total you might be thinking that the course was something of a pushover, but this was far from the case. Indeed, it would be fair to say that we’ve had to deal with a degree of criticism about the difficulty of the greens. Tour pro’s have earned the right through their skill to voice (or tweet) their opinion on the courses they play and with the Royal Golf Club being a brand new, untested tournament venue, designed by one of their peers, it was inevitable that it was going to prove to be more of a talking point than an oft-frequented tour venue. Comments were anticipated…and welcomed. It would have been far, far worse if the week had passed by with palpable indifference. The Royal Golf Club is a visually striking, intensely strategic and delightfully quirky golf course, that was designed to bring out a spirit of adventure in the golfer. The club members, our clients, love the course with a passion. Even after two years of play they are still finding new ways to navigate the course, such is the rich vein of ‘local knowledge’ secreted away throughout the holes.

This last week we had 93 of the world’s golfing elite as our invited guests. It is fair to say that the playing agenda of a touring professional is highly refined. They are playing for their living, not for leisure like the other 99.9% of us. The examination paper they faced in Bahrain demanded that they test facets of their game not commonly encountered under tournament conditions. Our greens are highly contoured with hole location areas defined by changes in elevation. Some of these hole location areas are not especially large and can only be approached easily through the correct placement of the preceding tee shot. To give themselves good birdie opportunities the pro’s had to be aggressive and shoot at the pins. If they played conservatively they left themselves with some seriously challenging chips and putts. As the great scoring proved, they coped marvelously, either through hitting it close or through a breathtaking display of short game skills, which highlighted the talent gulf between these guys and the rest of us. It was compelling viewing at the course and produced some of the most stimulating TV coverage you could wish for. My appreciation for their talents has certainly gone up several notches, because I know just how tricky the course is. It was a unique challenge for them, to which some struggled to adapt mentally. As golf design is to a large part a psychological game, I would say that we, as designers were one-up on a few notable players before they’d even got to the 1st tee!

Professional golf is first and foremost an entertainment industry and by that measure the quality of the show the course drew out of the players was truly outstanding, both for those lucky enough to attend in person and for the millions who tuned in around the globe. I cannot conclude without mentioning the spectacular condition of the course prepared by my good friend, Mark Hooker and his dedicated team of assistants. I doubt that the European Tour has been to a more immaculate venue.

Golf Course Architecture is meant to be stimulating, exciting, challenging, beautiful and unforgettable. Monty’s course at the Royal Golf Club has proven itself to be all these things under the most intense scrutiny. All of us involved with the creation of the course are intensely proud of our ‘baby’ and we’ll be taking stock in the coming months to see what we can do to make the course even better for our return as the season opening, Volvo Golf Champions in 2012.

Robin Hiseman

  • Surprise Day 2 Leaders:  It was irresistible!
  • The bonny 12th:  Mark Hooker prepared the course beautifully.
  • With the Champ:  Well played Paul!  A worthy and brave winner.

Time flies…

It hardly seems twelve weeks, let alone twelve months, since we were getting ready for Christmas 2009 but here we are again at the end of another year. As it has been for many, this has been a challenging year but, ultimately, a successful one. The highlight of the year unquestionably was the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. Having spent the past ten years watching Ross, Alex, Matt and Will work so hard on this, it was a huge thrill to see all their hard work finally be recognised. Despite the weather, the course challenged the best players in the world for four days and provided those lucky enough to be there some amazing viewing, even if it was a little muddy underfoot. Beyond that, we’ve been fortunate to sign a number of new projects which we’re very excited about – next year should see us working in some new countries, which always adds to the interest of a project. And construction should start on three or four sites over the coming year.

Here are some of the highlights of the year from the rest of us:

Robin: Hosting the Ryder Cup committee’s site tour of our forthcoming golf course at Tres Cantos, which is the proposed venue for Madrid 2018.

Sarah: Arriving at the top of the hill down to the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor on the Tuesday morning. The sun was shining over the valley and I thought WOW, how lucky to be part of this.

Dave: Seeing Ross have his first ever hole-in-one……pity it was his second ball, off a mat and to a temporary green! Hole halved in three.

Alex: Cycling from the office in Sunningdale to Celtic Manor the week of the Ryder Cup.

Gary: The highlight of my year was getting to attend the final day of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor to experience the electric atmosphere and dramatic finish as Europe were victorious again!

Shara: Standing overlooking the 16th green at Celtic Manor 2010 Ryder Cup – last few hours of play.
Atmosphere breathtaking.

Matt: Being lucky enough to be at Celtic Manor for the 2010 Ryder Cup and seeing my Site Map around the course and people actually finding it useful!

Ross: The last day of the Ryder Cup and a victory for Europe in the sunshine.

Stan: Having Mac, Alex’s Labrador, join us in the office

On behalf of everyone here, we wish you all a happy Christmas and a successful, healthy 2011.


Golf weekend at Celtic manor

It felt like just the other day we were all watching Europe regain the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor (maybe the wet ground conditions had something to do it) but it was great to be back, and this time playing some golf!

This past weekend Gary, Alex, myself and a mate went down for a golf break, where we had tried to organise a round on the Twenty Ten Ryder Cup course, but as to be expected, it was full, so we were booked in for a round on the Monty and the Roman Road courses……(A heavy fog would have made it impossible to play the Twenty Ten, so in a way it was a blessing).

The standard of golf was pretty poor, so the less said about it the better (a ‘slight’ over indulgence may have played some part in that). Nevertheless, there were numerous highlights, namely:

1. Gary attempting his ski impression down the 3rd on the Monty…….and ending up on his rear!
2. Me snapping my driver……whilst not even using it, and
3. Alex adamantly refusing to remove his coat and shoes for bed.

A memorable and enjoyable weekend, but unfortunately not too many good golf ones!!

Dave snapping his driver……whilst not even using it?

Getting Organic in St Kitts

Gary and I spent last week in St Kitts. We’ve had a contract there for several years – but the project has been on hold for the past three years as the developer has reviewed, revised and reorganised the financing of the project. That done, which is a major achievement in the current market, we were back on site to review the staking of the golf course before construction starts early in the new year.

The project is, for us, hugely exciting and incredibly challenging. The whole ethos of the project is that it be sustainable (which is not, in itself, unusual). As part of that aim, the golf course will be managed organically and many of the areas of the course that would normally be left to unmaintained rough should, instead, be used for organic agricultural production. This is challenging in terms of the design of the course, it’ll be challenging in terms of construction and, ultimately, in terms of the on-going maintenance of the course. But it’s a fascinating challenge to take on.

US based Project Manager and Shapers required – send CV’s to enquiries@egd.com

Total Domination

Accepting that, in the big scheme of things, it’s not quite as life-changing as remembering where you were when JFK was shot (for our older readers), or what you were doing when you heard that John Lennon had been killed, but what were you doing when you realised that Tiger was no longer the top ranked golfer in the world?

It seems like he has been number one for ever. And, until about this time last year, it felt like he would continue to be there for as long as he wanted it. Much has been written since then, and while one can only admire Tiger for his total domination of the sport for so long, how much more interesting is it going to be over the coming weeks and months as at least four players battle it out for the right to be called the best golfer on the planet?

Congratulations to Lee Westwood on reaching top spot. It’s an incredible achievement and testament to his skills and his perserverance – who would have predicted this when he was languishing, just a few years ago, in the mid 250’s on the world ranking.

And the top four players all find themselves in Shanghai this week, competing against each other. Each has the opportunity to become No. 1 by Sunday, depending upon their own result, as well as the results of others. That can only be a good thing for the game, and a great thing for those that follow it.

2010 Ryder Cup Blog

So that’s that. The 2010 Ryder Cup matches have been and gone. The Twenty Ten Course may have been 10 years in the making but it still took an extra day to get the right result – a European win and in bright sunshine! The weather gods may have done their worst but the golf course, spectators and Colin Montgomerie’s team came up smiling, as did all of us at European Golf Design who were privilidged to be there to watch the exciting finish to the worlds greatest golf event at The Celtic Manor Resort. In more ways than one the last week has been totally draining!

The weather aside this was one of the greatest Ryder Cup’s, coming down to the last match out, on the 17th hole, before the result was determined. The atmosphere on the closing holes was phenomenal, with tens of thousands of spectators lining the fairways and finally breaking through the ropes on the 17th green to join the European team in celebration. Even the mud didn’t seem to dampen the fans enthusiasm. As one spectator said, “It was just like Glastonbury, but with better singing!”

Congratulations to Sir Terry Matthews, the Celtic Manor Resort and all the organisers responsible for staging such a great event in such difficult circumstances. It will be a tough act to follow.

Get on your bike

Having decided to ride to The Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor for charity a few months ago the Monday morning start date was suddenly with us, after months of training, riding from the European Golf Design office to the Course should be no problem, after the training I did however, this was going to be very, very painful! Gary was in much better shape than me and feeling confident.

Having packed a tent and some cereal bars the night before we were almost ready, just one thing to do in the office before we left, print the route (very organised). With that done we set off on the road to Malmesbury (78 miles) where we hoped to spend the first night. After a steady start we quickly knocked off the first 25 miles, whilst having a drink it quickly dawned on me that we were not even 1/3 of the way through day one. Ouch. After another 23 miles we stopped for a late lunch – Super Noodles in a field – very tasty. It was almost 4 o’clock before we picked ourselves up again and had to get a move on as we still had 30 miles to cover before Malmesbury and we didn’t want to be setting the tent up in the dark. Finally we made it – the last 60 miles of day one were very painful! We pitched the tent and headed straight to the pub for a well deserved pint and some food. After the pub Gary went to the Co Op to buy some Bananas and Vaseline. Most men would be embarrassed doing that, Not Gary though. I was hiding under my hood outside the shop.

After a surprisingly good sleep next to Gary in a tent which is small at the best of times we headed off on Day 2. 71 Miles to go. We were reliably informed that the road to Gloucester was hilly, after that apparently it flattened out to Celtic Manor. The road to Gloucester via Stroud was indeed hilly and very painful! We made it though spurred on by the fact that it would get flatter. After getting lost in Gloucester and some lunch in another field we began the last 40 miles or so on the A48. Unfortunately our reliable information turned out to be unreliable, the flat never really came and the hills were relentless! By this time I was struggling to keep the bike going forward, Gary was patient and never once told me to ‘hurry the f*** up.’ Slowly but surely we ate up the miles (along with all the food we could find) and arrived at the course about 6.30. We stood proudly by The Celtic Manor sign and asked a security guard to take our photo – very kindly he refused! Luckily Sarah and Ross were close by. We threw the bikes in the car and headed off to the pub. As satisfying as it was to complete the ride look out for my bike on e-bay.

Details of the charity and sponsorship information can be found at: http://www.justgiving.com/Alex-Gary

  • Alex Hay and Gary Johnston set off from the EGD office in Sunningdale
  • Checkpoint 1 - One wrong turn could add miles!
  • Gary start to feel the strain!
  • The finishing line 150 miles later at Celtic Manor