Design by Eye

Golf Is Built On The Ground, Not On Paper

By Tom Doak

The as-built drawings of our golf courses are fascinating for me to look at, because at first they don’t seem to make much sense. The widths of fairways vary tremendously, seemingly almost at random; sometimes a hole has eight small teeing grounds and sometimes one huge one. Overall, the plan drawings of our holes aren’t pretty; sometimes, mostly, they look downright weird.

Golfers don’t enjoy golf holes in plan view, so we don’t build them that way. We make all of our decisions about clearing widths and grassing lines and bunker placement in the field during construction, and we make them from the golfer’s eye view. We arrive at the shapes of things by trying to harmonize our construction work with the existing elements of the site: the texture of the native grasses, the shapes of the trees we choose to save, the vistas beyond the green.

Designers who work from plans have a tendency to fall in love with how the DRAWING of their design looks. An experienced designer with a technically minded brain may visualize all of the nuances of his design in 3-D, but more likely the draftsman is inking [or digitizing] his grading lines to look neat and tidy in 2-D, without regard for the unnaturally regular slopes his plan will produce in the field. Once you have made the contractor re-grade the site to a series of perfect slopes, it’s extremely hard to recreate the randomness of natural undulations, which is why it’s better to leave some parts of the terrain untouched and use those as the model for grading the rest.

Even in the field, there is a tendency on the part of many people to try and finish things too perfect, to the point that they look unnatural… Jack Nicklaus credited us with reminding him of this in our collaboration at Sebonack. It is sometimes difficult to get great equipment operators to stop showing off how good they are; the perfection of their finished product tends to look unnatural. Shapers also tend to forget the fourth dimension, that their perfect earth sculpture will have color and texture and two-dimensional lines superimposed on it when the course is planted, which might change the look of their 3-D shapes entirely.

We let our designs evolve in the field, and you can tell when you look at a real plan of anything we’ve built. Sometimes the coolest of holes look rather dull in plan; other times they look unnatural in 2-D. But when they start to look exactly like I imagined they would, that’s when I’ll know I’ve fallen asleep at the helm.