In depth: The importance of routing

THE greatest test for a golf course architect comes with the routing phase, which refers to the way the holes are arranged on a property.

IN the last few months I’ve been fortunate enough to look over new sites in Vietnam and Queensland as well as continuing to refine the routing of a new development in Tasmania.

This has led to the idea for this months column: routing the golf course, one of the most important aspects of any golf course design.

The greatest test for a golf course architect comes with the routing phase.

Routing refers to the way the holes are arranged on a property and it is the skill in getting this right, almost as much as anything else, which separates great architects from the rest.

Architects approach the routing process differently, but the end goal is always the same: find the best 18 holes a site has to offer and bring them to life.

Some designers prefer to study topographic plans in detail and may only visit the site when a couple of possible routings have already taken shape.

Others prefer to walk the property, traipsing over and over, setting aside the land that feels most like golf, and slowly cobbling together their best 18.

Irrespective of which method is used, the power to recall great holes from around the world and recognise similarities on a new site is, perhaps, the greatest talent of all.

Routing Cropped

Image: Partial image of a proposed site in Tasmania. To the untrained eye the spaghetti like contour lines reveal little, but with practise, slopes become quite easy to recognise and before long holes can be imagined in three dimensions.

When looking at a new site the task can seem overwhelming with so many combinations of holes to sort through, but after studying the contour plan and spending a day or two on site the puzzle generally becomes clearer.

Land unsuited to golf will get pushed aside, a handful of potential green sites or fairway corridors will reveal themselves and slowly a routing takes shape.

Some sites present very few options, either through land constraints or a lack of interesting ground movement.

Others, where the undulations and backdrops give a sense there are holes in every direction, the options are almost limitless.

As Perry Maxwell said of the routing process at Prairie Dunes, “There are 118 golf holes here. All I have to do is eliminate the 100.”


There are a number of factors that influence the routing, other than just finding great looking holes. These include:

Clubhouse: The location of the clubhouse is often chosen by the time the architect gets involved but, unfortunately, the best clubhouse site may not necessarily suit the best routing.

At Lake Karrinyup, for instance, the high ground was chosen for the views across the sprawling landscape but it meant the opening and closing holes of each nine had to navigate the steep rises around the clubhouse.

Sun: It is generally advisable to avoid a rising and setting sun with the opening and closing holes but sometimes this is easier said than done.

Occasionally a property will be oriented in such a way that the starting or finishing holes need to run in an east-west direction and therefore the sun is encountered at some point.

Barnbougle Dunes provides a good example, where the narrow strip of dune land running for the most part east – west meant that the sun would need to be dealt with at some point.



Par: In an ideal world the architect is granted freedom to find the 18 best holes with the total par simply an addition of the individual pars of the 18 holes.

Unfortunately, though, many clients place great importance on the number believing it must be 72 in order to be a ‘serious course’.

This, of course, ignores the fact that more than half the world's top 100 ranked courses don't have this par.

Direction of holes: In many ways the ideal routing is one where the holes constantly shift direction so the player enjoys a variety of wind direction during the course of a round.

Obviously, though, this is only achievable with the right type of contour and size and shape of the property.

Another factor to be considered with hole direction is to keep any close boundaries to the left – the least ‘risky’ side given the majority of golfers are right handed and mishits skew heavily toward a slice.

Returning Nines: Alister MacKenzie famously wrote: “I have had more sleepless nights owing to committees being obsessed by this principle than anything else, and I have often regretted that it had ever been propounded”.

More often than not, returning nines as a design principle makes sense. At public courses it allows more golfers to play the course each day, in turn increasing revenue, and most members of private clubs also prefer the convenience of a two-tee start.

However, there are occasions where returning nines can be difficult. Coastal links-land, for instance, is often only a sliver of dunes wide enough for two holes – out and back.

At other times, returning nines limits the potential of the routing as you can only ever stray around four or five holes from the clubhouse. What if some of the best land lies just beyond this point?


Quirks: In years gone by architects were bound by contours to a much greater extent than today.

Through necessity, holes had to be cleverly routed over the property since they didn’t have the equipment capable of making significant changes with ease.

This left us with some wonderfully unique and often quirky designs featuring blind shots, cross over holes, consecutive par threes and fives.

How the architect (and, perhaps more importantly, the client) views some of these less conventional design features will greatly affect the ultimate routing.

The final factor goes beyond the physical and deals more with the emotional impact on the golfers themselves.

It’s the feel of the course routing, a subtlety that you often can’t quite put your finger on, going beyond strategy or aesthetics.

It might be the rhythm of the golf course, whether it builds in difficulty or drama as the round progresses, or perhaps how the architect has chosen to use the dramatic part of the property, such as the cliff top at Pebble Beach or Cypress Point.

Ultimately the skill of the architect is to balance all these factors, blending art and science in order to find the best combination of holes available.


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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