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Site Selection: Or How To Avoid a

By: Jeff Shelley


Editor's Note: In his second installment in the Architect's Corner, golf course architect Jeffrey D. Brauer discusses land selection at Giant's Ridge. In his journal Brauer will give Cybergolf readers insight into the bigger-than-life workings that transform hundreds of acres of former mining land into a great golf course, and the minute intricacies involved in the second course at Giant's Ridge, from drainage and irrigation to soil and sand selection.

By Jeffrey D. Brauer

Ideally, a golf course architect is retained to select a property on which to build a course because site quality determines the project's destiny. But most owners have an existing piece of land and our charge is to develop the best possible course on it. The first course at Giants Ridge was a hybrid of these two methods. The Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) owned some property, but not enough for a golf course. The resort is in a rural area. (I'm not saying how rural, but the paved road ends just beyond the clubhouse!)

There is lots of undeveloped land, but much of it is contained in Superior National Forest and the U.S. Forestry Service doesn't often sell land. (It does lease land. In fact, many ski resorts are on public land, and the Forestry Service considered trading land to Giants Ridge in exchange for some even more remote property that is valuable eagle habitat, but the process grinds slowly). Thus, the IRRRB eventually purchased several other parcels from different landowners, resulting in a "carts-only" golf course with some long connections between holes. If there is any negative comment about the first course, it is the "carts-only" status. That's directly because of the need to purchase several land parcels, and to a lesser degree, because we knew that the IRRB would likely require carts most of the time.

Fortunately, designing a second course for the same owner is like getting a Mulligan. We were determined to avoid any of the mistakes of our "first shot." We all wanted a golf course that was longer, a better challenge for the low-handicapper, and more compact and walkable, making it suitable for regional competitions and the golf purist. (We had dubbed the first course the "gentile giant" as it is designed purely as a fun resort track.)

Since the IRRB had no available land for the second course, and would be purchasing one of a host of available properties, it was an ideal chance to select a site to accommodate a favored golf course, and not the other way around. It was clear: The resort's business plan would benefit from a second course that was seen as equal to the first but wasn't just more of the same.

Many people ask me the "minimum acreage required for a golf course." There are some publications identifying 130 to 150 acres as suitable for golf development, but 160 to 180 acres is the norm, given a regular shape. L-shaped or unusually shaped properties really eat up acreage. I'm always reluctant to give acreage estimates without seeing a site. It might be an old railroad right-of-way, 100 feet wide and 13 miles long - 160 acres to be sure, but not capable of even building one golf hole! I'm careful to say 160 to 180 USABLE acres.

Environmental laws have gradually made greater portions of land off-limits to development, including wetlands, archeological sites, potential habitats and even ridges if they are part of a scenic corridor. One hundred sixty "usable" acres often equate to 200 or more acres. With additional safety buffers required for residential areas, golf courses within housing require more than 200 acres. In fact, it has been awhile since we have designed any course on significantly fewer than 200 acres.

The potential for residential development was a part of the original design program (eventually discarded by IRRRB), so we began our site search by reviewing land-ownership maps for parcels containing 400 to 600 acres - the minimum for combining golf with housing. We identified four sites based on acreage, and then began by evaluating them for macro-development issues like access to utilities, road and irrigation water. Contrary to what most golfers might imagine, only then did we look at their ability to support a great golf course.

Good golf factors include gently rolling topography, some creeks or ponds, or other natural hazards, and a nice mixture of open and wooded areas. One of the sites was directly adjacent to the existing resort, and would have used the existing 8th and 9th holes as the starting holes for the new course. Unfortunately, that land is part of Superior National Forest and is still unattainable.

A private site north of the existing course was discarded because of power lines (which don't exactly convey the feeling of the North Woods), a high point in the middle of the property that would be difficult to route around (we tried!), and the need to extend utilities and road, which would saddle the course with $3 million in infrastructure costs. The selection zeroed in on a site across Wynne Lake: a former sand quarry three miles south of the existing course.

I first recommended the site across the lake, having prepared the test routing with 12 holes bordering the lake. One of the signature holes on the first course is the 17th, a par-3 playing across Wynne Lake. One sure way to build a more spectacular course is to build near a beautiful lake! But utilities extensions and an expensive bridge across the lake offset cost savings of using the existing clubhouse; plus the site was rocky. The quarry site was the final choice. The macro issues were all in place: It's on the main road, has the lowest infrastructure costs, and contains just enough acreage for a compact golf course.

Moreover, the rugged spoils from mining operations make the land distinct from the first course, meeting a major design goal and offering the chance to create a North Woods version of Pine Valley. It was the topsoil source for the first course, and rock is minimal, also reducing costs. Lastly, the site fits with the IRRRB's mission of restoring and rehabilitating mine sites. And, given the environmental challenges of the first course, we felt that using the course to restore scarred topography would result in the least opposition to the project. While the first course received several letters of opposition, and encountered a year and a half in delays, environmentalists gave "two thumbs up" to this golf course and it sailed through the environmental review process. That's pretty rare in this day and age.

We are finishing the plans and will be putting the project out to bid in September to begin clearing this fall. In the next installment, we will examine environmental issues facing golf courses, and we'll briefly examine the bidding process and clearing trees for the course. Since the winter months don't allow construction this far north, we'll use those months to talk design philosophy - both in general and as it applies to my design for the new course.