In Depth: The secret's in the dirt

IN golf course design, plans are only part of the process. Working on site often means changing things on the fly to get the best results.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” - John Le Carre

Golf course architects tend to fall into one of two camps – there are ‘plan guys’ and there are ‘dirt guys’.

‘Plan guys’ generally come from a technical background. They’re usually skilled at creating detailed plans by hand or using computer programs such as CAD (computer-aided design), and as a result tend to put stock in preparing a set of great drawings.

I guess they would see this as the most important part of the design phase.

Plans, in turn, are given to a construction company to build and site-visits by the architect are simply to check that holes are being built according to the plans.

‘Dirt guys’, on the other hand, view plans differently. They are important without question, but only in a conceptual sense.

Sculptural details such as green contouring and the shaping of hazards, or even tees, are carried out on site and if there are opportunities to improve on the design by shifting a green, changing the contours of the ground or repositioning bunkers it is done.

In -Depth -dirt -sketch -2

Image: It’s not that dirt guys can’t draw. It’s just that sometimes a little sketch in the sand and a five minute conversation provides all the direction that any 3D model could.

Construction is generally undertaken by a hand-picked team of like-minded shapers, often including the architect, and visits to site focus on achieving the best result rather than checking that the design is as per the plan.

As golf holes take shape, opportunities frequently arise to improve on the concept – whether for strategic or aesthetic reasons. Muddy shoes and blisters are a badge of honour.

This isn’t to suggest that plans aren’t important and some extra detail prior to construction is often necessary – even for guys used to sculpting in the dirt.

If the site is heavy (clay) and lacks interest, holes will need to be created and detail may be needed to give a building crew sufficient information to cut and fill or install some of the trunk drainage.

But if the site is good – sand dunes for instance – there is no better way of creating great golf than being on site and working closely with the shaping crew.

Some architects will even choose to shape themselves.

Gil Hanse is not averse to jumping in the seat of a bull dozer and playing around in the dirt and we often do a similar thing with a bunker rake machine.

Spending a few hours on the bunker rake going over and over a green you get a great feel for the contours – more than by just looking in my opinion – and it is often those little tweaks here and there which can bring a green to life.

On sites like these, holes are found rather than created. Too easily features are lost by too many passes with a bulldozer so it’s essential for the architect to be there every step of the way.

Quite often there is an expectation by clients that architects should produce detailed plans prior to construction.

In -Depth -bunker -rake

Image: The fine slopes of a putting surface are best achieved from this position rather than at a desk. Pass after pass with a bunker rake is where contours are refined until they look and feel right rather than adhering to any sort of contour plan.

Some find comfort in detailed plans and expect to see contour lines before digging up a sod. Or perhaps the works are going out to tender and so, in order for multiple contractors to submit a price, there really must be a relatively high level of detail.

Yet, creating a golf course isn’t like building a road or a house. It’s a more organic process and the architect needs to be able to respond in the moment.

Perhaps the hole looks different than first imagined once its cleared of vegetation? Maybe the ground gets particularly wet? Does the green look too high?

Some companies will even go so far as to tell a client who wants detailed plans that “That’s just not how we work”, even if it means losing the job.

Historically the field or ‘dirt’ approach has proven the best technique. Very few of the world’s great courses have been built using CAD and GPS controlled dozers.

Interestingly, for all the modern advances in technology and equipment, the best approach for building great courses is somewhat archaic.

Spending a lot of time walking the site, understanding the terrain and then watching holes come out of the ground – being there to make the necessary adjustments.

Making changes in the field is often not just limited to the hole you’re working on. The architect needs to factor in how the holes are related.

Like a giant jigsaw, a change in one area may require a rethink somewhere else. For instance, a green may end up being shaped in a particular way – lets say favouring a high fade – which might be different to what the concept showed.

But what if the next hole was drawn favouring a similar type shot? For the sake of variety, surely another change might be worth considering here?

American architect Rod Whitman (designer of highly regarded Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and regular collaborator with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) perhaps summed it up best.

"The most enduring golf courses,” he said, “aren't created on a drawing board in a downtown office.

“They're built by golf architects who spend an extraordinary amount of time on-site, in the dirt, throughout an entire project.

“It's the guys with dirt under their nails who will never build the worst courses and have a better chance to build the best."

I completely agree.


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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