As we sit around and contemplate our world amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had ample time to think about the future of course design, and what might be in store over the next decade. We asked 20 or so golf-course architects to reflect on the business and its future. The consensus is a pragmatic one: There won’t be a boom in golf course development during the next 10 years.
Most feel that any new development will be resort courses built in spectacular locations and that the same four or five design firms will continue to get the bulk of those jobs. The names Tom Doak, Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, Gil Hanse and David McLay Kidd were the ones most frequently mentioned. (Of course, in 10 years, Coore will be 84 years old, Crenshaw 78, Doak 69, Hanse 66 and Kidd 63, so presumably a younger generation of design talent will move into the spotlight by then.) But it’s hard to say who that might be. Five years ago, aspiring designers that seemed destined for great work included guys like George Waters, Will Smith and Trey Kemp. Those three are no longer in the design business, at least not full time.
Sand-based locations will continue to be the likely locales for resorts. Architects say there’s still potential for new development along the Oregon and Washington coastlines, in parts of eastern Canada, west Texas and along the Great Lakes. Architect Tim Lobb of England tells us the coast of Poland contains miles of untouched sand dunes that could be ideal for destination golf. Several designers, particularly American, reluctantly admit to seeking work in Saudi Arabia (despite human-rights issues) and Vietnam (despite the distant yet indelible pain of American deaths in the Vietnam War.)
Interestingly, no architect mentioned Cuba, but this writer feels it will be the next emerging market for resort golf in the Western Hemisphere in the 2020s.
Here in Australia, Mike Clayton of CDP Golf – the new international design partnership made up of the Victorian, American Mike DeVries and Dutchman Frank Pont – believes much of the design work could focus on downsizing, particularly courses in CBD areas where the battle for green space intensifies.
“Post-coronavirus there seems sure to be a rationalising of the number of clubs in our biggest cities,” predicts Clayton. “When it comes to club memberships, supply exceeds demand especially in parts of Melbourne and Sydney. The merging of Peninsula and Kingswood is an example of one way forward. Selling and relocating is a trickier option because great land close to cities is limited. And there has to be a place for great 9 or 12-hole golf.”
Clayton said Sydney courses would be particularly vulnerable given the lack of space they sit on. “Sydney has a number of courses with 18 holes jammed onto land too small for so many holes. I for one would much rather play a really good 12-hole course with a great practice fairway than one with space-compromised holes and no practice.”
For most architects, the primary source of work, when clubs begin to reopen and return to normalcy post-COVID-19, will continue to be in remodelling existing courses. Many courses built in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, still in their original condition, now have aging, often out-of-date irrigation, drainage, tees, bunkers and greens that need retrofitting or replacement. The seeming excesses of those decades are finally being addressed. Many architects see future business in reducing the number and size of sand bunkers on 25-year-old courses, because labour costs are so high, labour shortages are rampant and, frankly, because those courses had far too many bunkers to begin with.
As architect Damian Pascuzzo points out, many clubs have put off improvements due to costs. In some cases, the clubs are now at a tipping point and are finding the only solution is to “repurpose” a portion of their property. Pascuzzo is involved with redesigning one well-established 18-hole course in the Los Angeles market into a 12-hole par 45 to free up 30 acres to be sold for commercial development. Other architects are involved in similar endeavours in other parts of the country. All point to lifestyle changes, particularly the need to accommodate golfers who don’t have time for a full 18 holes, as the reason alternative golf, like 12-hole layouts, will be far more acceptable in the coming decade.
Canadian architect Riley Johns reminds us that the 2020s will mark the centennial of the cherished “Golden Age of Golf Course Design,” and many clubs celebrating 100th anniversaries in the coming decade are already, or soon will be, upgrading their vintage courses as part of an overall celebration. He predicts a great deal of work for course architects in the field of restoration in the next 10 years.
Not one architect we spoke with had anything good to say about advances in club and ball technology; all feel that technology has reduced the challenge and original character of many classic golf courses as well as posing new safety issues for anything they design or remodel. But several look to other forms of technology being beneficial in assisting lifestyle golfers in their quest for some golf, but less than 18. Architect Beau Welling suggests a phone app that can determine the slope and rating of each individual hole played, so golfers can still post scores on rounds less than nine holes for handicap purposes. Designer Nathan Crace forecasts a pay-for-play device that will automatically debit a golfer’s account as he or she finishes a hole, so a golfer can play a quick six without paying for a full nine.
Only two architects predict that a full 18-hole course made of artificial turf will be built sometime in the next 10 years. Most feel the tremendous cost of synthetic materials would not be recouped by savings in water and chemicals because of the short shelf life of synthetics. Others, like Kansas City architect Todd Clark and his associate Brent Hugo, are unsatisfied with the performance of artificial turf on several par-3 courses they’ve built. “The greens that putt well won’t hold a shot,” Hugo says, “while if we add enough resilience to hold shots, they putt erratically.”
Weston Weber, founder of the backyard greens empire Southwest Greens and now operator of a rival company, Celebrity Greens, insists that he can build putting greens that accept shots and putt true, but admits the turf has not yet been perfected for fairways. He is involved in R&D in creating synthetic blades that can withstand the repeated impact of clubheads from full swings. Presently the blades tend to melt or shatter, leaving divots that can’t be replaced.
Most designers don’t have interest in regulation synthetic turf golf courses. The market simply isn’t there, says Todd Eckenrode, so it won’t happen. There’s also the heat issue. “Stand in the centre of a college football field in 90-degree heat,” says Michael Hurdzan, “and you’ll realise why synthetic fairways won’t happen. Fake grass radiates heat.” – Additional reporting by Brad Clifton