My View

Ground contours: a sustainable alternative

Paul Jansen, Golf Course Architect, shares his views on design.

By Paul Jansen

Ground contours help to define the golf landscape  

A golf course which merely caters for an everlasting pitch at every hole can never be entirely satisfactory”, Dr A. Mackenzie.  You would think so?  Yet so many of our golf courses today have been “dumbed down” to accept one type of shot – the aerial one. 

This is unfortunate because the game becomes inherently more interesting when the ground is in play. Instead of guarding our landing areas and greens with “abundant” features that stymie the ground game we should be looking to introduce more ground contouring for strategic and visual interest and leverage them in such a way that they maximise creative shot options and intelligent play.

bump or depression

Something as simple as a bump or depression can offer as much interest as any other feature.

Unfortunately a copious amount of our golf courses are totally devoid of ground contours that it leads one to think that this feature is “taboo” altogether. Instead these golf courses are riddled with features that are expensive to maintain and in many cases would hardly look out of place in the Royal Botanical Gardens. 

Ground contours are the most underused golf feature today which is alarming given what they bring to the party at a fraction the cost of any other feature. Something as simple as a bump or depression can offer as much interest as any other feature. Maintain a firm base and even a ground ripple will add strategic interest and make for fascinating play.

Contours offering strategic interest at Eindhoven Golf Club, the Netherlands.

Don’t take my word for it: Robert Hunter in his book the Links wrote that “Clever architects make the natural undulations on the ground play an important role in the game – to carry such undulation may mean many additional yards, while to fall short may make the next shot beyond ones powers”, Dr Mackenzie spoke of “Interesting features such as closely mown hillocks, hollows and swales offering fascinating strategic problems” and Donald Ross was quoted as saying “hummocks (mounds) provide a test in playing the ball from all kinds of stances”.

Ground undulations carry enormous strategic interest - you only need to play links golf or golf courses with links-like characteristics to see that. For instance, at The Open each year golfers have to manoeuvre their ball around the course using the humps, bumps, cants and depressions. The direct line to the pin may not always be the ideal line and this is where smart golfers use the wind and ground contours to positively influence the flight and roll of the ball. Positioning is also important since a portion of the green may not always be accessible (or even visible) from a section of fairway due to the slope of the land or presence of a mound or some high ground.  It’s intelligent golf at its best and fun to play.

The object of golf architecture is to give an intelligent purpose to striking the golf ball”, Max Behr.

Drainage swales
Drainage Swales at Crystal Downs Golf Club, USA.

When designed properly ground contours can be very effective in guiding water off the play surfaces and this can negate the need to add a large amount of sub-surface drainage - another hefty cost. Good drainage is essential and grading the ground to help achieve this end is of paramount importance. We know mounds are typically always well drained and surface swales can help move water off the play zones so it makes a lot of sense to utilize or even build undulations for drainage purposes.

Most important when we grade the ground intelligently we can harvest water by capturing it through surface swales and depressions - then transport it to a water storage point to be recycled for irrigation purposes.

Ground contouring
Ground contouring to the 16th at Laguna Pukhet in Thailand help shed heavy rains to the wetland feature front right of the green.

I am also of the belief that ground contours can help promote fast play. When last did it take you five turns to get out of a grass depression - particularly when mowed at fairway height? Added to that, mounds and depressions are much less intimidating features when comparing them to some of the others – like water and bunkers – and can be negotiated by every level of golfer.

Ground contours are an essential golf feature, they always have been, so why are we not making more of an effort to utilise them in our designs and why are we maintaining many of our golf courses to negate their positive effect?  A golfer will never bore - nor tire - playing shots from varied lies and the cost of constructing, and then maintaining, these features is minimal in comparison to the “standard” ones we get fed each day. Let the ground dictate the play and there is every chance our golf courses would be better for it.

I leave you with Dr A. Mackenzie “A golf course should be made interesting and a good test of golf by the tilt of the greens and the character of the undulations”.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.