Golf course architects are the artists—the ones who are able to take a vision, move a ton of dirt, and create a masterpiece for golfers to enjoy. Their work can be quite grueling and tedious—Rome wasn’t built in a day, just as any renowned layout wasn’t imagined and constructed overnight.
To dig a little deeper into the world of golf course design and some of the misconceptions about building courses, I talked with one of the bright stars in the industry: Rob Collins, Principal Designer of King-Collins Golf Course Design. King-Collins, comprised of Collins and Tad King, has gained cult-like status for their work on Tennessee’s now-famed 9-hole gem, Sweetens Cove. Collins has seen the highs and lows of the design industry and knows the many tales that his line of work has produced.
Here he helps us break down five myths about golf course design.
You need a great site to build a great golf course
Some plots of land speak for themselves. Pebble Beach is blessed with some of the most pristine coastline in the United States. Sand Hills in Nebraska was a Midwestern gift from the golf gods. But for every natural beauty, there’s a great deal more landscapes that require a ton of grooming.
“There have been many sites that on initial inspection may appear to be unsuited for golf,” says Collins, who knows how daunting that initial realization can be, though he says that’s where the artistry comes into play.
“Through creative design, shaping, and construction methods, a great golf course can be wrung out of difficult land.”
Translation: It isn’t always easy, but sometimes the toughest projects turn out to be the most rewarding.
Construction plans are the key to golf course design
It’s fitting that a Scotsman, Robert Burns, wrote of “the best laid plans of mice and men.” Plans often go awry, but that shouldn’t deter a seasoned golf course architect.
“Plans are far less useful in actual golf construction than you’d imagine. The best golf courses are the ones where the architect and a team of shapers work hand in hand and build the course, adapting to the realities of the site each day,” says Collins.
These are realities that often change on the fly and force designers to pivot or see their construction come to a halt.
“It’s impossible to exactly produce a golf course from a drawing that was created in an office which is often thousands of miles away from the site.”
Designers must follow USGA specs in order to obtain high quality turf
The agronomists from the United States Golf Association provide architects and golf course superintendents with a plethora of information, recommendations, and specifications. The group is known as the USGA Green Section and while the organization is a leader helping create the best playing conditions, their specs are not the end-all-be-all.
“Following the USGA specifications for construction materials is not a prerequisite for achieving turf of high quality,” says Collins, who knows that no two construction projects are the same, especially when it comes to producing a finished product on budget.
“Oftentimes, budgets do not allow a client to buy the most expensive materials. That doesn’t mean we can’t have high-squality turf in our finished product. Through common sense construction methods and proper maintenance, elite conditions can be achieved without splurging on USGA spec sand and gravel.”
The lead architect should get all of the credit
For every Fazio, Trent Jones, or MacKenzie, there have been hundreds of other hard-working individuals who have contributed to the overall construction of any given golf course. Collins recognizes that golf course architecture is truly a team effort and that he himself has benefited immensely from the collaborative hard work of others.
“The lead architect often gets an outsized portion of credit for a successful project,” says Collins. “Any great golf course is the result of thousands and thousands of hours of work by a crew of talented individuals. All of us utilize our own creativity and inspiration to help form the final product.”
A project like Sweetens Cove began with a concept, created by King and Collins, but without the tireless work from Rob’s crew, the concept would never have turned into a reality.
What you see should be what you get
Standing on a tee box, it’s helpful for a golfer to know what to avoid. But is it essential? Collins is a believer that the visibility of features on a golf course is not always necessary.
“Most golf courses of the modern era have placed a premium on moving heaven and earth to ensure that hazards are always visible from the tee and landing area—that’s overrated,” says Collins.
Collins appreciates classic golf architecture and enjoys the history of not only the sport but the line of work he’s in. He says that forcing golfers to pick a sight line or target without hazards right in front of them is completely fine and a practice that has been used by architects for decades.
“Just look back at golf courses in Great Britain and Ireland, along with courses built during the classic era of architecture in the United States. A quick inspection of those courses will show you that a direct correlation between great golf and having all features visible all of the time simply does not exist.”