Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Future of U.S. Golf Course Design

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled: “When Building a Course Makes Sense.”  Right now the answer is, well, pretty much never.  There has been a net loss of 300+ golf courses since 2006 and the author could find only a half dozen courses scheduled to open in the next two years (compared to the ~300/year that opened during the 90’s).

While the drop off is more significant than I would’ve imagined, the trend makes sense.  Courses are often built as attachments to real estate communities or resorts, or by municipalities to serve the community.  We’re all familiar with the recent struggles of these industries / budgets.  Additionally, the number of golfers in the U.S. fell 13% from 30 to 26 million in the five short years between 2005-2010.

According to the article, most of the courses currently under construction are “destination courses” that are looking to cut costs by being built in remote areas on sand-based land while utilizing more of their natural environment in the design.

The article cites Bandon Dunes and Sand Hills as great examples of this philosophy being a good one.  I’d include Whistling Straits as well.  All three were created in this style and are widely considered the best courses built in the U.S. since 1960.

Whistling Straits, where Dustin Johnson famously
couldn't tell what was and was not a bunker
A friend in the golf industry recently gave me a book called "Planet Golf USA” and in it, the author laments the lack of quality golf courses that have been built in the U.S. since the Great Depression.  And he’s right.  If you look at Golf Digest’s ranking of “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses” you’ll find that 9 of the top 10 were built before1933 … along with 18 of the top 25.  I find these statistics fascinating considering the remarkable advancements in technology and equipment since then.

It’s reported that Sand Hills (#9 in the aforementioned rankings) was built for $1.5 million in 1994 compared to some resort courses with fake waterfalls, etc. that exceeded $20 million.  I know which one I’d rather play.

Sand Hills - only Top 10 U.S. course built after 1933 and
considered one of the most naturally-built courses ever
Interestingly, my favorite public course in Los Angeles – Rustic Canyon – was one of the few non-ranked courses featured in Planet Golf USA.  It is rugged, pure and a great test of golf.  The designer moved only a scant 17,000 cubic yards of soil during the construction process, bringing the project in on time and under budget.  As a result, they charge $60 greens fees in a region where the only other public option (besides municipalities that take 6 hours to play) are mediocre, fancied-up daily fee courses needing to charge $100+ to stay afloat.  And that is the problem the market is currently correcting.

Rustic Canyon's Front 9 hugs the natural landscape
The recalibration occurring in the golf industry unfortunately affects many good people.  But if there is one bright spot, I hope it’s that the necessity to build more cost-effective courses brings the game back to its roots of being played on minimalist courses designed from the natural environment.  This applies to both destination courses we can dream about like Bandon Dunes and local courses we can play regularly as weekend warriors like Rustic Canyon.

If this trend continues, who knows… perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time as a second golden age of golf course design.  And undoubtedly there are opportunities out there for entrepreneurs to capitilize on this shift. 


  1. Interesting read. The golf industry needs to get back to its roots. Golf course architecture is an opportunity to address the factors that deter people from getting to the golf course. We need to play quicker, cheaper, and in more accessable locations. Stop beating beginners and junior golfers with penal courses that are no fun to play. Bomb and gouge needs to be replaced with strategy and precision. Let's design courses with those concepts in mind!

  2. Great points, George. Totally agree that golf needs to be quicker, cheaper and more about strategy than brute force. I think these points align with the philosophy of course design that's focused on integration with the natural environment, especially as it relates to cost.