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Routing Plans for the Second Golf Course at Giants Ridge - Part 5

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


Editor's Note: In this fifth installment of golf course architect Jeffrey D. Brauer's ongoing journal about construction of a second course at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minnesota, he discusses the routing plans.

After my first round of golf (at Rob Roy in Mt Prospect, Illinois), I was hooked on golf course architecture. The routing changed direction often, and got me wonderfully lost in the middle of the wooded property. Somehow, it didn't occur to me that the holes could be arranged to start at and return to the clubhouse, so I made sure I had change for bus fare to get me back there! And, when I came up a slope from the 8th green to the 9th tee, and saw the clubhouse behind the green and smelled burgers cooking (just when I was getting hungry), I thought to myself, "The guy who designed this is a genius!"

A masterful routing does provide for important things like returning nines for the hungry, the tired, and those yearning to be free to go home. So, that night, I sketched the routing on napkins - as sophisticated as some architects ever get.

There are no set rules for routing a golf course, save one: If a routing works out well after just one try, I make a careful hole count. For some reason, 17 or 19 holes are always easier than that the pesky requirement for 18.

Routing cannot be by formula. It must be born of careful study of site properties. The first step is thorough analysis of the property's natural features, including soils, drainage patterns, geology (including subsurface rock - which we obviously try to avoid with the routing for cost reasons), trees, views, surrounding land uses, planned and future utilities, and the like.

More and more, environmental impact assessments are prepared by outside consultants. These do not replace the architect's work, but they often add to it. Mostly, they identify "off-limits" environmental zones, such as wetlands, high-quality forests, historic sites, sensitive habitats, and other legally protected areas.

Routing doesn't usually come easy, especially with increasing land-use restrictions that "Golden Age" architects never considered. I often prepare 20 or more preliminary schematics. I used to label these starting with "A," but often ran out of letters midway through public hearings. I now use a numbering scheme, but haven't hit infinity.

It's easier to correct things in planning, rather than moving millions of yards of earth during construction. So, I route a few schemes, then walk the property and route some more, making sure I cover every possibility. A good architect talks to the land, asking it what kind of feature it wants to be - a green, tee or fairway - and listens.

Routings in the South always take longer, because the land speaks more slowly, usually in a soft drawl. But, this process always works - except internationally, when the land speaks back in a foreign language.

Golf design critic Bradley Klein says, "Routing is destiny," setting the course's eternal footprint - until the end of time, or at least until death by bulldozer. While misconceived tees, greens and hazards are fairly easy to rebuild, critical routing mistakes like inadequate room for a practice range are impossible, or impossibly expensive, to correct.

The primary goal of any routing plan is to find the 18 most natural golf holes. Given this, it may seem strange that it is the last thing done in routing. First, we simply try to fit any 18 holes on the property. Many landowners have property that's too small, and ask us (charitably phrased) to squeeze a size 9 course into a size 7 dress.

We do this using pre-made clear plastic golf holes, which never fails to disappoint visitors. The second order of business is locating a few potential places for the clubhouse. The clubhouse area must have room (as little as four to six acres, with elaborate clubhouses needing more) for parking (150 to 200 cars), cart storage and staging, a tournament pavilion, scoreboard, and "general milling about" on holes 1 and 10. There should be enough area for future expansion of the clubhouse or the addition of other facilities. The popularity of croquet, for example, may skyrocket, and it's best to be ready!

A clubhouse on a roomy site appears gracious and stately, while a cramped one doesn't. Tight spacing is detrimental to efficient operation. And, some of the most terrifying opening tee shots in golf (like Merion) result from teeing off from just in front of a clubhouse, where everyone is close enough to watch.

We must also find a convenient adjacent area for a practice range, putting and chipping areas, which usually take 15 acres. If possible, this should be an open area, as it always seems a shame to remove a large number of trees. Practice sand bunkers pose safety problems from sculled shots. Practice bunkers should allow those shots to stray harmlessly into unused areas. Ideally, the sand bunker is located near the practice range, where these shots can be retrieved with the ball picker.

What else makes a good clubhouse location? Several things, including:

Access, Proximity and Identity

The golf course needs identity. Traditionally, clubhouses are located on prominent hills, with good views of the most scenic portions of the property, which helps establish identity.

The clubhouse should be easy to get to, with direct and safe accessibility from a main road. Clubhouses accessed from secondary roads are hard to find. A course west of town usually has its clubhouse near the eastern boundary, for example. While most golfers will find the course, why make it inconvenient?

For cost reasons, the clubhouse should be located close to existing utilities like power, water and sewer. The economics of golf don't allow for money to be spent on buried, unseen necessities that don't impact or improve the quality of the course.

Jurisdiction

If a course is within multiple governmental jurisdictions, the clubhouse should be located in the most advantageous area for taxes, utility rates and municipal services. For municipally owned courses, the clubhouse ideally retains alcohol and sales taxes within the city's jurisdiction to maximize revenue for the city.

Administration

Most golf courses prefer visual control of holes 1, 9, 10, 18 and cart staging areas. If there is an off-season when staffing is minimized to a single person, visual control of the first tee is necessary. A starter at the first tee is required during peak times, with another person in the pro shop serving customers. A clubhouse near the finishing holes facilitates club drop-off and returning carts, etc.

Food and Beverage Service

Good views, including those of the 9th or 18th greens to watch finishing players, encourages golfers to stay for food and beverages after the round. Arranging circulation from the 9th and 18th greens, with easy access to the clubhouse and restrooms, is convenient; studies show that food and beverage sales increase with each "opportunity to buy." With emergence of the food-and-beverage carts, and where course restrooms are provided, this is not as critical.

Privacy

The clubhouse location should avoid proximity to existing or proposed homes, as its operation is not compatible with single-family housing. High-density housing (such as club condos) is favorably placed near the clubhouse. In general, the clubhouse and parking area should be a stand-alone facility, located within the boundaries of the golf course envelope.

Placing the clubhouse too near a church or school is often frowned upon, not only because of the alcohol sales, but also because of potential "defections" to the much more attractive facility next door!

Course Orientation

A clubhouse located near "12 noon" is generally preferred. It sets up holes in a north/south direction. As the clubhouse moves clockwise around the site, it becomes progressively less desirable. An eastern or southern site is acceptable. A western site is undesirable, starting opening holes to the east - and directly into the sun. Closing holes will run west, also finishing into the sun. Playing into the sun is sometimes unavoidable, but it is particularly bad to open or close a round with bad sun orientation as it creates and leaves a bad impression, and may slow down play.

Usually, one or two sites fit those criteria, and quick test routings see which one has the most overall potential to fit (in most cases!) returning nines, the practice areas, approach drives and parking lots in a nice package. Then, the process of finding the best natural golf holes begins.

At the Quarry Course at Giants Ridge, our decision was quick but not painless. The selected site was on the outside curve of the main highway, with utilities in place, and a killer view of Embarrass Mine Lake. It was a bit on the small side, but the main operation was to remain at the hotel and clubhouse for the first course. Its location on the highway minimized costs, and was convenient to both sides of the road - and we knew the road would split the course into two nines. It allowed good sun orientation as well.

Our first hint of a problem came when the soils engineer recommended the clubhouse be built at the bottom of the lake, reasoning, he said, that it would get there in a few years anyway! We had picked an old spoil pile for a location, which did not provide stable support for a foundation. No problem, we said, and quickly relocated it slightly west, but still on the lake bank for that killer view.

Then the consultants recommended it be set back because of the possibility of the steep lake bank slumping. The view is still there, but not as good as it could be if located right on the edge. A similar fate befell our first hole, which might have been the most terrifying opener in golf, playing over the lake as shown in the accompanying picture, if it could be built.

So, we began our search for the next best 18 holes on the property, and that will be the subject of our next installment.