As a Golf Architect I have had the opportunity to see many things through my travels. The past 15 years I have dedicated a high percentage of my time working in different locations across the globe. I have also had the opportunity to see many new and existing golf courses wherever I get to travel. I have visited and studied many of the world’s best golf courses and seen some of the worst.
Having seen what I have seen, I am of the view that many of the golf courses built today, and over the past few decades, are representative of society as we know it.
Let me explain: for many we live in a world where “excessiveness” is sought after and, at times, celebrated. Added to that, people are often judged on their appearance as if this is important. Many golf courses, unfortunately, carry that same mantra – they have an “excessive” amount of needless features that add little to the golf experience, but rather add to the cost of maintaining the golf course. To go further many golf courses are visually very “appealing to the eye” - yet lack much, if any, content.“
Golf would be in a better place if we embraced a “less is more” attitude to golf design
When I think of content I think of a golf course that is strong on strategy or one where “every hole should present the golfer with an appealing problem to solve” Mackenzie (Golf Architecture).
It’s my opinion that golf would be in a better place if we embraced a “less is more” attitude to golf design and maintenance coupled with a need for more strategic golf environments that call for thoughtful play. If we are to grow the game and make it more accessible then we need to review some of our design and maintenance practices as a start.
Putting “less is more” into practice
Let me explain this in some detail using Laguna Lăng Cô in Vietnam as an example – a golf course I was involved with as lead Golf Architect alongside Sir Nick Faldo. Also for the purpose of this essay I will focus on grass selection and how a “less is more” model was applied to this Faldo Design golf course.
At Laguna Lăng Cô our design brief was simple: create a golf course that embraced the surrounds. Rather than bulldoze the whole lot (and start afresh) we painstakingly looked to preserve everything we could. We spent copious amount of time at the start studying the site on foot understanding its character and terrain. This exercise was very helpful in that we established early on that we could utilize most of the existing features to create strategic and visual interest, rather than design and build features that had little in common with the site. Where outstanding features already existed, we resisted adding MORE since we felt that this would have competed “negatively” with the surrounds and lessened the golf experience. Where we had to work the land we did so with care to ensure that those few features we created closely mimicked what we found around us. “LESS” is more and the outcome was a course in harmony and total balance with its surrounding terrain.
At Laguna Lăng Cô we felt if we were able to use the indigenous grasses and flora we would have the greatest opportunity of creating an environment that would stand the test of time - a golf course that would be sustainable moving forward and one with real character and a true sense of place. If we could identify a grass that was proven to grow well in the varied conditions we felt we would ultimately require LESS in every way conceivable. At least that was our thinking.
Added to this, both Sir Nick Faldo and I are great proponents of the ground game and wanted to highlight this, and the interesting ground contours about the site, by creating a firm play surface. The existing sand base would help achieve this (to an extent) but without a suitable grass species the likelihood of creating “hard and fast” conditions would have been difficult.
The choice of Manilagrass (Zoysia matrella) enabled us to create the “hard and fast” conditions we desired for the fairways and green surrounds.
Since manilagrass (which accounts for 35 ha of play area) is a local grass that thrives in the conditions, we are able to maintain it to meet our specific needs as well. In a sense we can starve it of water and cut it “close” to the surface, to create the firm conditions we desire without actually worrying about the grass dying. The benefits of this also include LESS water, pesticides, fertilizers and manpower. The other pleasing characteristic of manilagrass is that it remains a high quality play surface even during dry periods, which golfers welcome.
Rather than needlessly irrigating far rough areas - that would see very little play - we decided to plant out these areas with a local grass found on site called “Mondo” grass. We were lucky to stumble across this grass, before construction started, and fortunate to find enough to propagate and plant nearly 10 ha of far rough area. As expected these grasses are self-sufficient and require much LESS water and care but add MORE visually (and strategically) as well as help blend the golf course seamlessly into the surrounds.
Our decision to go with bermuda TifEagle for the greens (1.3 ha in total) was based on us wanting a high quality putting surface and knowing that it had been used successfully in the region. We also knew we could maintain it to play firm if we needed - much like the fairways and green surrounds.
Choosing indigenous grasses for tees, fairways and rough areas at Laguna Lăng Cô enabled us to make great savings at no cost to the golf course. In many cases we have been able to use these native grasses and flora to blend the course seamlessly into the surrounds which add unquestionably to its “natural” beauty. Instead of adding senseless golf features we have looked to highlight some of the outstanding features on site, like the ground contours, and utilize them as much as possible through the choice of grass. The result being that Laguna Lăng Cô is a golf course high in content and natural beauty.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.