In Depth: A career in course design

GOLF architect Mike Cocking explains his passion for golf and what it takes to become one of the country's premier course designers.

MIKE Cocking is a partner in the design firm OCCM and will be contributing regular articles on the subject for Golf Link. In this first instalment, he relays how he got into the business in the first place:

Like many, I was totally obsessed with the game of golf growing up.  If not playing or practising in the back yard, I’d be watching replays of majors, reading about the great courses of the world or scribbling golf holes in the back of textbooks.

Of course, I didn’t have much of an appreciation for great architecture back then and drew far too many island greens or impossibly long par 4’s, but it nevertheless sparked an interest in design.

Fast forward 30 years and I’m still drawing golf holes.  The only difference is these days I get paid to do it. 

My entry to the world of design was relatively conventional when I look back at it now.

Being good at maths and science I did an Engineering degree after high school – not that I necessarily had a burning desire to become an engineer.

My golf had improved to the point where after university I won a scholarship to the Victorian Institute of Sport and over the next few years had a number of good results.

At the same time I remained interested in design and during interstate and overseas trips would seek out the best courses in the area to play – courtesy of a well-worn copy of Tom Doaks Confidential Guide.

On a return visit from overseas I decided that perhaps playing as a career wasn’t for me and, as luck would have it, I was in the right place at the right time.

A small local company (comprising John Sloan, Bruce Grant and Mike Clayton) was engaged to redesign my home course – Peninsula CGC – and I knew Mike through golfing circles.

By chance, they were in need of part-time assistance so I went in for a chat.  That was 16 years ago and after 10 years together a few of us separated to form – Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking and Mead (OCCM).

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Rather curiously I find myself back at Peninsula (now Peninsula Kingswood) as we embark on a major upgrade to finally realise the potential of this wonderful property. 

The backgrounds of many of the world’s greatest designers are far more interesting than my own – especially those active during the Golden Age of design.

Spanning 1910 to 1937, this was a time when the majority of the world’s top courses were built and when the best architects were most active.

With the game developing at such a fast pace architects emerged from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Occm 4 SmallThere were lawyers (Harry Colt and Tom Simpson), stockbrokers (CB MacDonald), doctors (Alister Mackenzie), Club secretaries (CH Alison), engineers (Seth Raynor), manufacturers (Henry Fownes), hoteliers (George Crump), insurance salesmen (Hugh Wilson and later Pete Dye), bankers (Perry Maxwell), green keepers (Billy Bell), and, of course, professional golfers.

Professional golf has long been a breeding ground for aspiring architects with many early designers successful players in their own right.

The advice of Old Tom Morris, Donald Ross, James Braid, Willie Park and Walter Travis was sought by clubs as they were proficient in playing the game and that remains the case today.

In the last few decades, some of the most active design firms have also involved great players including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and even most recently Tiger Woods.

Unfortunately, however, not all professional golfers associated with modern course developments enter with a genuine interest or understanding of great design. 

University, too, has provided solid foundations for many architects – particularly in modern times.

Whilst there is no longer a specific golf course design degree* there are many other related studies which have proven popular such as landscape architecture or engineering.

(*A degree was offered at University of Edinburgh a number of years ago but sadly the GFC, and the fact the number of graduates outweighed the number of positions available in the industry, soon put an end to the course.)

Robert Trent Jones was perhaps the first to go to University (Cornell) to specifically try and study golf course design by creating his own unique course, which included landscape design, agronomy, horticulture, hydraulics and surveying.

Another Cornell Alumni, Tom Doak, would several decades later go down a similar path, studying landscape architecture and winning a coveted award. He would later travel to the UK to study their best courses. 

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Arguably the best grounding for a designer is away from the drawing table or lecture theatre and out in the field.

This is really where you gain an appreciation for how a course is built – not in the office but working closely with the crew (or even better, being part of the crew) to help sculpt greens, tees, and bunkers.

Learning to work in an ever-changing environment, and importantly in three dimensions, is far superior to what can be achieved looking at a computer screen or sheet of paper.

Whilst the theoretical side of the game is important, an architect also needs to develop a good appreciation for moving earth, drainage, grassing and the aesthetic – everything from hiding golf carts to building beautiful hazards.

In the field you learn to react to different issues as they arise and, most importantly, you learn that the best results come through refining a design on the ground.

Whilst a good reference, a plan should be never have too much importance placed on it or be allowed to dictate the outcome.

For this reason we tend to prepare ‘concept’ plans as there needs to be some flexibility in the field.  This is also the reason we prefer to build our own work, rather than leave critical decisions to a contractor’s own interpretations.

Working in the field is how many of today’s famous architects really learned their craft.

Perhaps the most significant figure in this regard from the last 50 years has been Pete Dye.

His own background, as a highly successful insurance salesman, was perhaps not a sign of things to come but his career helped shape those of many other significant architects.

Pete was a strong advocate for working in the field with the shaping crew in an age where many other architects were preparing detailed plans for a contractor to execute.

Once, criticising one of America’s great Golden Age designers Donald Ross (designer of more than 400 courses), Pete maintained, “he’d often make one trip to lay it out and then have some other guy build it... he didn't spend time building courses”.

Producing pretty plans means nothing if you can’t get the right result in the field and Pete knew the only way to achieve this was by being there, helping to bring the course out of the dirt, sculpting and re-sculpting until the right result is achieved.

Many of today’s leading architects started out in Pete’s construction crew – Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Rod Whitman, Tim Liddy, Jim Urbina, Bobby Weed and Lee Schmidt, to name a few, and whilst they may have had prior careers each considers their time with Pete as hugely influential in shaping them as golf course architects.

They, in turn, have helped mold the next generation of architects which I have no doubt you will read about in years to come.


Mike Cocking

Mike Cocking is an architect and partner with one of Australia's leading golf design firms - Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead. Click here for OCCM's website

Mike is currently spending his time at Peninsula – Kingswood CGC on major course improvements – a project especially dear to his heart, having joined the club as a 15 year old and representing the club for almost two decades.

After completing a Bachelors degree in Environmental Engineering in 1998, Mike gained a scholarship with the Victoria Institute of Sport's golf program.

Over the next few years he represented Victoria and Australia in various team events, winning a number of major competitions including the 2000 Victorian Amateur Championship.  Travelling extensively for competition play also allowed Mike the opportunity to seek out and study many of the world’s best courses. 

His passion for the game and his inquisitive nature fuelled his interest in golf course architecture, and in 2000 he launched his career as a designer.  Major projects have included redesigns at Bonnie Doon (Sydney), RACV Healesville, RACV Torquay and Royal Canberra.

Mike is also a keen artist and a selection of artwork can be found on his website. 

Mike can be followed on Twitter: @OCCMGolf and @MikeCocking 

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