What Makes A Successful Golf Course?

BY Tony Cashmore
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I was asked recently – ’What makes a golf course successful?’

The questioner was deliberately not talking about location, or the course’s operations, or financial return on investment, or the value of real estate assisting the’success’ of the venue. Nothing like that. Rather, what are the intrinsic qualities in one golf course which add up to something golfers consider’successful’, whilst another course, perhaps close by, perhaps on similar terrain, has the reputation that it somehow fails?

Is’successful’ the right word anyway? I mentioned that the course is to be regarded as successful by golfers. Maybe that lets out all those good souls, perhaps non-golfers, who might look at the trees, and mown areas of green grass, and ducks on ponds, and say “how beautiful!” So, beauty of the venue may not be one of the ’intrinsic qualities’ regarded as essential for success? You see? The question may be harder to answer than it initially appears.

And who are ’golfers’ anyway? A guy on a scratch handicap has an utterly different set of standards in judging the success of a golf course than, say, two mates who loyally play at the one venue every Saturday, rain or shine, because it succeeds, it satisfies them constantly; or the four girls who love, say Ivanhoe Golf Course, because the golf is fun, and manageable for them on that little course, so they succeed in their limited golf aspirations, and play there regularly.

So, can a golf course be all things to all people? Is that part of why’success’ of a golf course (outside of financial success) is so elusive to define? And does it need to be an overall satisfying journey for everyone anyway?

Well here are some comments on this, and I’d relish input from golfers of all skill and strength levels, to get at this vexed question.

Firstly, let’s do away with the need for satisfactory financial returns from a golf course’s operations. That’s a different criterion. We all know golf courses, or golf venues which we as golfers believe to be’successful’ from all manner of golf analysis, but which may not have financial returns which make for viability, perhaps now, perhaps into the future. No, I don’t intend to name some here, for obvious reasons; they exist, and undoubtedly give golfing pleasure to some, but may still be hanging on by the skin of their teeth from a ’financial success’ viewpoint. Similarly, there are venues, private clubs, or resort courses, which perhaps many of us think of as golfingly boring, or unnatural, or compromised by any number of things – trees, water, a proliferation of unnecessary bunkers etc, which continue however to be financially secure, with strong patronage levels year-round, and regarded by the industry as successful.

So. Many architects down the years have stipulated, using all sorts of formats, that a golf course must give maximum pleasure to the maximum number of players, no matter what their skill and strength levels might be. Let me question that sort of statement immediately (acting as devil’s advocate, let it be noted for the record, because I’ve said the same thing at critical moments)!

Here’s a statement:“A golf course, to be successful, must give continuing golfing joy, stimulation and satisfaction to the players for whom it was/is intended.”

For example, there are a dozen courses I could name like Ivanhoe Public Course, cramped into a small (but picturesque) site, with many very short par-4’s, notional par-5’s only, which certainly would never attract strong players. They avoid the venue, or if they live close by, and think of playing after a liquid Sunday lunch, they intentionally try to brutalize the little course, with golf balls going wildly astray to the discomfort of everyone else, and perhaps neighbours too. Not therefore for the entire or maximum golf market as the pundits proclaim is necessary, and not successful at all for good strong golfers.

Or, as a corollary, there are a several golf courses around Australia set in glorious terrain, sometimes with staggeringly beautiful coastal character, where careful design has formed golf journeys there which are challenging, stimulating, especially for strong and skillful players. Yes, there is the risk of losing balls, often in close-by deep rough which the designers apparently see as visually necessary to cloak the experience, and the challenges, hole after hole may browbeat many lesser players into submission, but excellent promotion work still puts such venues up very high in ’ratings’. My personal view is that constantly losing golf balls in deep rough adjacent to fairways is simply wrong, particularly when strong wind is a constant companion to the golf.

So, is one of the ’intrinsic qualities’ golfers find necessary for holding a golf course as successful, that you don’t lose balls constantly, due to course design character, site limitations, or sheer abrogation of maintenance requirements? Does the ’inevitable’ losing of golf balls militate sufficiently against the enjoyment that most players will eventually spurn such a course? I think this has some merit.

Does the course seem to play easier than it looks from the tees – a maxim of success for several great architects of the early 20th century? Does it actually play easier, when set up for normal play, (easier pin positions, tees a bit forward perhaps) allowing visitors to somehow score better than they thought possible, so that they succeed in their ambitions on that day? Royal Melbourne, and dare I say one of mine, The Dunes here in Melbourne have that reputation, and we all know such venues in other States. Perhaps then, that is another criterion by which we judge a course as successful.

The course may not be outstandingly beautiful in itself, and nor need it be in a superlative visual setting, to be successful: Bethpage comes to mind. But surely the ’wow’ factor embellishes the golf experience, and is an integral part – perhaps the main embracing quality which leads to a particular venue achieving some success in golfers’ minds – the visual images remain when the lost balls are forgotten, and the constant struggle against the landforms and design impacts become a softer memory.

I wonder therefore whether the following thoughts go a long way towards what goes into a golf course for it to be regarded by golfers as truly successful.

“It must be designed and constructed to give continuing golfing joy, stimulation and satisfaction to those players for whom it was intended.”

Thoughts For Discussion

  • If it is to appeal in this way to the broadest possible range of golfers, (and that is the supposed normal policy) it shall provide on each hole a generous range of tees, both down the line of play, and where possible, laterally across the centerline of play, And, the venue’s enforced policy shall be that players are monitored to play from the tees of the day, appropriate to their skill/strength levels. (This can be achieved, and is being pursued increasingly at pay-for-play courses through the USA. We follow USA trends.)
  • Similarly, greens shall be articulated to present several broadly-available pin positions from anywhere out in the fairway, but with one or two strongly-guarded places, confident approaches to which require placing the tee shot in a particular spot, which is also severely examined. In this way, the course can be set up very flexibly, on a rotation basis for continuing interest, on a day-to-day basis.
  • Par-5 holes shall not generally exceed about 500-510 metres in length from back tees on flattish land; this allows a large portion of golfers, on any one day, to sometimes get near or on the green in 2; to present challenge to the strong players, temper the fairway scope and protection severely out at about 270-290 metres (but randomly).
  • Never, ever construct an island green – there must always be a tacking way into a green for those who cannot fly the ball longish distances over water or sand.
  • Do not use ball-losing rough anywhere close into fairways as a ploy to ’toughen up’ the examination – it’s a total ’no-no’, making for lost balls and dismay, and this militates against’success’ of a golf course more than just about any other factor.
  • Ensure the condition and presentation of the course, especially all playing surfaces, remain at top-rate seasonal standard.There’s a starting list of thoughts for a golf course to have the chance of being considered’successful’. Obviously I could have set down 20 more such thoughts, but over to you!
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    About the Author: Tony Cashmore

    Award winning golf course architect Tony Cashmore formed Cashmore Golf Design in Australia over 30 years ago. Renowned for courses such as The Dunes and Thirteenth Beach, he has successfully designed and/or redesigned over 40 courses and assisted a further 30 plus Clubs and public golf operators with improvements to their venues. Tony Cashmore is also the Vice-President of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects.

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