Adapted from a 1999 Interview of golf architects Arthur Jack Snyder and Forrest Richardson by Senior Golfer Magazine.
SG: A lot of people want to know just how you go about designing a golf course. What is the first thing an architect will look at?
AJS: First, we like to get a survey of the site for such basic information as property dimensions, whether the long axis is in a north-south direction (to keep east-west holes to a minimum so golfers are not facing into the rising or setting sun), if there are any areas whose shape or size might cause design difficulty, total acreage of the property, and contour lines showing the slope of the land.
SG: And what do you do from that point forward?
AJS: We visit the site to confirm what we saw on the drawing, to determine soil conditions and locations of any rock outcroppings or prominent natural features, to observe the amount and types of existing plant materials, and to consider the effects of erosion along stream beds or dry washes.
FR: It is opposite what many people think — that is, that the golf course architect will always visit the site first. We have been in situations where we are taken to the land before ever given the chance to see how it appears on a map, but this usually amounts to just a very nice trip to the country. It really is important for us to get a picture of the site in our minds before we start looking at the dirt from an eye level view. The survey allows us to formulate questions — to think about things before we get there.
AJS: Once we have studied the property and the site we can then give our recommendations to the client, taking into account their objectives and ideas on what type of course they ultimately envision operating.
SG: And then what?
AJS: We make our first routing plan studies using our “computer” consisting of plastic templates measured at a scale of 1″ = 200′. For a regulation 18-hole layout we strive for the customary two par-3’s, two par-5’s and five par-4’s. Each template shows the tee, fairway, and green, with the 4’s and 5’s being pivoted at the dogleg points. They are cut to show the required width for each fairway. Templates for each nine holes are a different color. Then, using a 200 scale aerial photograph with topography superimposed, generally with a two-foot contour interval, we choose a location for a clubhouse along with parking and practice areas.
FR: There is a trend to use “real” computers for this work, but so far we feel more comfortable with the templates. They are simple and allow us to look at the whole site without having to zoom in and out as required by the limited size of computer monitor screens.
SG: Is there a set process to laying out these templates?
AJS: Yes. At this point we start placing the templates on the combined aerial-topo drawing, carefully observing contours, existing trees, and other surface features. Generally the beginning holes on each nine are a little easier to help the average golfer off to a good start. There is no fun in starting a round of golf with a double-bogey! We like to try for a good par rotation, something like 4-5-4-3-4-5-4-3-4 can be good, but this is seldom obtainable. We let the land tell us what makes sense. After developing a satisfactory 18-hole schematic we take a vertical Polaroid [now digital] photograph, and then start over again with the templates to create another layout for as many times as necessary.
FR: The photo is our way of storing each option we develop so we can compare the advantages and disadvantages of each.
AJS: Now is the time to start transferring the hole layout onto paper. Accurate lengths and details of each hole are determined including locations, sizes, and shapes of tees; fairway outlining and contouring; green locations, sizes, and contouring; and locations and shaping of bunkers and sand traps. Irrigation and drainage must be designed, as well as a planting plan for trees and shrubs. Construction cost estimates must be calculated, all permitting must be obtained, and we are just about ready to go to bid!
SG: Of all the projects you have been involved with, what types of courses would you say have given you the most challenges?
AJS: Probably the courses I have done in Hawaii, where there is lava rock of varying degrees of hardness, large rock outcroppings, endangered specimens of trees (we were even involved with some that were supposed to be extinct!), trees that had religious significance, ancient stone walls and heiaus (temples), scenes of battles and burial grounds where work stopped when bones were unearthed until they were determined to be human or not (if they were human they had to be reburied elsewhere), and finding sufficient fresh water for irrigation because of the fractured rock structure of the Hawaiian Islands.
FR: Since Jack and I have been working together I would have to say it has been the projects that involve sensitive land issues. The environmental concerns surrounding golf and development has added many, many layers to the design and approval process. When this becomes political it can easily add years to the length of a project that would otherwise have only taken as long as two years from start to opening day.
SG: And would you characterize any types of courses as being easy to design?
AJS: Perhaps a self-contained course with no interior housing, gently rolling terrain, good soil, and sufficient tree coverage to help separate holes.
SG: Give us an idea of time. For example, how long does it take to get a routing plan?
AJS: A good routing plan can be developed in a day or less. Since Forrest handles most of the drafting, perhaps he should answer this.
FR: Well, we’ve come up with routing plans while on the ground, and even in airplanes. But, really, a routing plan needs to be put in a form that people will understand and appreciate it. As Jack pointed out, we need to refine the very small sketches and layout into a workable course with accurate yardages and, if there are residential lots and roads, we need to allow sufficient and accurate safety distances. All things considered, to study the site, visit the land, create a design concept for the course, and then to develop a color presentation, we probably spend a week or more.
SG: And then how long does the rest of the work take?
FR: It really depends on the nature of the course and complexity of the construction work. Our primary goal is to create a simple set of plans that will communicate very succinctly what we want the shapers to build in the field. Golf course plans really do not need to be that complex. Many times, however, they are made more complex. This can happen when plans need to be used to get approved zoning, design review or for grading permits. The most complex part is nearly always drainage issues and that often times has nothing to do with the game of golf per se. It has to more do with drainage coming into the course from home lots, streets or with flood control issues. Generally, a typical set of plans and specifications takes about four months to create and finalize.
SG: Once you are in the field overseeing the shaping, what are you looking for?
AJS: During design and construction there are three major considerations. They are the game of golf itself, eye appeal, and future maintenance. In the construction phase we have the opportunity to adjust the first two of these by fine tuning contours and elevations which may appear to be slightly out of balance perhaps caused by optical illusions initiated by surrounding hills or the other landscape features. We are looking, also, for continuity and smoothness of contouring which is important for eye appeal and future maintenance.
SG: What is your opinion of the notion that the shaping is where nearly all of the design really takes place?
AJS: It’s crazy.
FR: It may be where the final details come together. But the essence of the design comes from creating a routing plan. That’s the anatomy, the bone structure of the course. What follows is partly cosmetic and it amounts to letting the basis of the design evolve. This is not say that one can create a plan on paper and pay no attention to the field work. That’s crazy, too.
SG: What influences your work?
AJS: Whether the facility is primarily private, public, resort, or municipal is a big factor in its design. A private course is being played continuously by the same members while a resort course has very few repeat golfers. Public and municipal courses may be a little less difficult and more open to speed up play somewhat. The available construction budget also affects the amount of cut and fill for contouring, sand for traps, the amount of landscape feature development, the number of trees, and the size of lakes. Another big influence on our work is the cost of maintenance. Being a member of a three generational family of golf course superintendents, and having myself been in charge of golf course maintenance at courses in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Hawaii, we try to keep maintenance problems minimum in our designs.
FR: It is a common mistake for a developer to look at the cost of a golf course as being only that dollar amount necessary to build the course and get it open. The more significant cost is that which occurs every day of every year following the opening.
In terms of design influences, we look at what the land can become without loosing its natural beauty and views. More than any of the great golf architects or great courses I am more influenced by the relationship between the particular piece of land we have to work with and the dynamics of the project and the golfers who will eventually play there.
SG: For a course to be successful what do you feel are the necessary ingredients for the architect to bring to the table?
AJS: The golf course must be designed to require a reasonable maintenance budget thereby producing a favorable effect on membership dues at private clubs and green fees elsewhere. The practice range should be aimed to the north to prevent hitting toward the sun. East-west holes should be kept to an absolute minimum for the same reason. Holes should vary in length so that the golfer must use every club in the bag. Each hole should be a complete picture in itself as one of eighteen exhibits in an art gallery, taking advantage of existing vistas. Each hole should vary slightly in direction from the preceding hole so that the view does not become monotonous. Greens should be contoured sufficiently to provide interest in putting but not so much as to be impossible. All of these items tend to cause the golfer to return to the course and play it again and again.
SG: What do you feel is the most important consideration that an architect should make when designing a course?
AJS: To design a course which is challenging but not intimidating. Golf is meant to be fun!
SG: 100 years from now what do you think golfers will be saying about the numerous courses that have been built in the past 10-15 years?
AJS: I am afraid they will say that many of them are too difficult to play and maintain. They satisfy the requirement of scenic beauty, but they just aren’t always fun to play for the majority of golfers.
FR: I hope our designs will be among those which are regarded a fun. But I am afraid that Jack is right — too much emphasis is being put on length, and too much money is being spent on lavish aesthetics. The expensive water feature is a great example. Come back and visit them after a few decades. You will find an overgrown, smelly environment that needs to be re-built. That isn’t good for golf.