In the 1500s, the rough and windblown terrain of St. Andrew’s golf club, set against the backdrop of the North Sea, guaranteed hours of reveling in nature while battling the physical challenges of the course. The untamed, stunning seascape setting played a major role in the golf course’s appeal. Golf has always been about the technique and concentration required to play the game, combined with a well-designed course on a picturesque site.
Back then, the clubs were hand-crafted from ash or hazel wood; the expensive balls, called “featheries,” were made from stitched leather (usually horse hide) and stuffed with goose feathers. “Golf architecture” started around 1837 when the provost of St. Andrews orchestrated an upgrade of the 300 year-old Old Course. By 1900, there were hundreds of North American courses, though many were pretty rugged. Over time, golf courses like the Chicago Golf Club, opened in 1894, became known for their elegantly designed and perfectly landscaped grounds. In the 1960s, universities started turning out turf management professionals to fill the industry’s need for more sophisticated golf course design and higher standards in grounds maintenance.
Technology has dramatically changed the sport. Golf clubs are unrecognizable compared to their long-ago cousins; electric caddies are common sights; GPS devices estimate distance to the holes. According to the National Golf Foundation’s 2019 Golf Industry Report, “more than one third of the U.S. population – over 107 million people – played, watched or read about golf last year.” An estimated 24 million Americans play golf. No wonder golf is now an $84 billion industry.
As the popularity of golf has grown, so have the costs. Maybe there’s a nice, affordable public course in your community where you can play a round for $40. If you want a tee time on one of the best public courses in the country, Pebble Beach will cost you $500 per round. Some of the nation’s top golf clubs’ fees are as high as $10,000 per month, with six-figure initiation fees. At all levels, players expect a well-kept, groomed course that will provide an invigorating four hours in a natural environment that is as beautiful as it is challenging.
In keeping with the growth and sophistication of the golf industry, club general managers and course superintendents are typically required to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in landscape architecture or agronomy (soil science), familiarity with computer design programs like CAD, construction oversight, budgeting and development experience, and the ability to manage environmental and sustainability issues. Landscape architects must be state-registered and licensed. At one of the top private clubs like Augusta, these positions earn a six-figure salary.
In golf course landscape design, there is little margin for error. A technical game requires a technical course. The architect must maintain the balance between providing a strategically constructed player experience, merging the course with the natural environment, and managing the costs of landscape maintenance. The master plan must factor in aesthetics, placement of native plants and trees, water features like pools and waterfalls, views and impact of natural backdrops, considerations for seasonal color, and the region and climate. There is a great deal of science and engineering involved.
Once designed, the greens keepers are responsible for ensuring the playability and safety of the course. Meticulous attention must be paid to grooming to reduce grain and manage top growth. Mower blades must be razor sharp and consistently set at precise height. Fairways are mowed to very specific patterns that are time-efficient and also complement the player experience. One-eighth of an inch-long grass on the putting green must be exact for consistent putting speeds. Mowing in a wrong direction can affect the outcome of a game.
The best golf courses blend technically challenging game design and wilderness in harmony with nature. Excellent landscape design and dedicated maintenance to that design will always be integral to the sport.
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