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How long is a regulation length golf course?
Should a regulation length, 18 hole golf course be the objective of every golf course developer?
How many acres are required for a golf course?
How burdensome is the permitting process to golf course development?
How much will it cost to develop a golf course?
I want to renovate my golf course, but I don't want to lose revenue in the process. Is this possible?
I would like to become a Golf Course Architect. How do I go about doing that?

How long is a regulation length golf course?
One of the things that endears us to this game so much is that each golf course is different. However, there is a somewhat standard range of length that most players seek out when looking for a place to play. An acceptable 18 hole course would play to a par of 70 - 72 and have a length of from 6200 yards to 6600 yards from the middle tees. A course of these lengths would then likely be 6600 to 7000 yards long from the rear tees. Longer than this will make the course too difficult for most players, while shorter than 6300 yards usually means that the course will not test the players' skill in using all his clubs and shot making abilities.

Should a regulation length, 18 hole golf course be the objective of every golf course developer?
No. There are many circumstances that warrant a shorter course. This is usually market driven. A course developed as part of a retirement village, for instance should probably be shorter than regulation, perhaps even an executive length. An executive length course is an interesting design problem, because it offers even more flexibility in hole lengths and composition than a regulation length course. The par of an 18 hole executive length course can be from 58 to 68 and from 3,000 to 5,500 yards long.

We have designed three courses at Citrus Hills in Hernando, Florida. The first was a shorter length, the second a more upscale and moderate length regulation course. A few years ago, the developer came to us to design a third course that his market could enjoy more. His clientele are retired senior citizens. The course needed to meander through the proposed development. The resulting course is designed to have 8 par 3's, 9 par 4's and one par 5. The project is currently on hold, but eventually, I think it will be the most popular of the three.

Nine hole courses are warranted when the market is very strong or there isn't adequate room for a regulation length course. With today's cost of land, enough land for a nine hole course may be all that can be bought. Donald Ross, one of our most revered architects, wrote "Better a choice nine-hole course, than an indifferent eighteen-hole one. Some tracts are admirable for nine holes, but make abominable eighteen-hole courses." In these circumstances we advocate tying up adjacent land if there is enough for the eventual expansion to eighteen. This can be done with a relatively inexpensive "option".

How many acres are required for a golf course? 
Since each golf course is different, there is a broad range of area needed to design and build a regulation length golf course. There are some very nice eighteen hole courses in Westchester County, New York on about 100 acres. Nearly all were built before World War II, but still on land that was valuable at the time and availability was shrinking. Many of these courses stretch the limits of what is considered a safe design today, but the membership is accustomed to them, and this is an important factor. Likewise, all of these courses would not have been built today as they are because of the regulatory process. Permitting for wetland impacts alone would have caused larger tracts or lesser golf courses. For these reasons, do not assume that because there is a course near you on 100 or 125 or even 140 acres that you can build one on that size of parcel as well.

My rule of thumb is that in New England we lose 25% of the site to wetlands, and a somewhat less amount of upland to our efforts to avoid the wetlands. How concentrated the wetlands are, whether they are clearly confined and in large areas rather than in small ones scattered around the site, is an important factor as well. At any rate, I like to start with at least 160 acres, and prefer a site with a minimum of 170 acres. This is particularly true in New England and most of the Northeast. A property such as the sites we have designed in Florida, have virtually no wetlands and could be as little as 130 -- 140 acres depending upon the configuration of the parcel.

A nine hole course needs slightly more than half the acreage needed for the same type (Championship, Regulation, etc) of 18 hole course. This is because nearly the same amount of clubhouse, parking lot, maintenance and practice areas are needed as a full 18 hole course has.

An 18 hole executive length course is more difficult to pin down because the course length can vary widely.  According to the National Golf Foundation, an executive course has a total par of less than 67 and a length under 5,200 yards. The number of acres can range from 80 acres to as many as 120 acres or more depending upon the physical character of the land and the shape of the land parcel.

A Par 3 course has all par 3 holes, but can have holes of many different lengths and character.  An 18 hole par 3 course would, of course be a par 54, and less than 4,000 yards in length.  Usually, an 18 hole par 3 course can be sited on as little 60 acres, but again can require much more, depending upon the same issues as above.

How burdensome is the permitting process to golf course development?
The permitting process is extremely variable across the country. However, in the various regions it seems to be more homogenous. Federally mandated permits now inlcude wetland disturbance, and stormwater management and erosion control measures. If you can keep wetland disturbance to under 1 acre, the process with the Corps of Engineers as administered in some cases by the state government should be relatively simple. However, if your site has a significant amount of wetland disturbance, or if the wetlands are closely connected to rivers or lakes, the process could be much more cumbersome. The federal stormwater management and erosion control planning is gradually becoming a commonplace requirement. This is not a complicated process, but from the onset the project design must recognize the ramifications it will present. A civil engineer is usually required to make an assessment of the watershed in pre and post development conditions, and then to mitigate the changes to stormwater run-off conditions and sedimentation through the design of various holding structures usually constructed of earth or relatively inexpensive materials. Some states have had this requirement for several years, while other communities in the Northeast have required a Soil Conservation Service or District review and approval.

Local review is difficult to predict. In some states such as Maine, the permitting process is administered by the State with little more than an informational review by the community, if there are no serious local issues. However, local review can be very "gut wrenching" in some states because of the lack of state involvement. In these situations, local authorities (who are often non-professionals on appointed or elected boards) send you through a series of regulatory "hoops." This can be particularly disconcerting because sometimes the issues that may be holding up your project may not be related to environmental or engineering principles, but to local political squabbling.

Regardless of the permitting scenario, there is no substitute for a sound design process that thoroughly analyzes alternatives. This type of process is required in Corps of Engineers procedures for wetland disturbance, and is the basis for the nation’s original environmental law, the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969. Many of our environmental regulations since reflect the nearly universal acceptance of the principles set forth in that law. Indeed, environmentalists, re-act most favorably to a project that shows a well thought-out process. It should demonstrate familiarity with the site and what makes it special, a thorough analysis of alternatives, and a realistic proposed action that reflects what was learned in through the testing of alternatives.

How much will it cost to develop a golf course?
A nice golf course can be constructed on an average piece of land in the Northeast for about $2,500,000. A course can be built for less if the land is ample, not too severely contoured, and especially if it is sandy.

Today and in the last 10 years, it has not been unusual for golf courses to cost 5 million dollars and more. These "upscale" daily fee courses are so costly that few players can afford to play them more than a few times per year. Given the right market conditions, this can be the best approach, but I believe "upscale" does not equate with higher profits as often as some people think. The following recent survey indicates what factors golfers seriously consider:

Factors in Choosing a Golf Facility

Percentage of golfers who rated these factors "extremely" or "very" important

Cost/price of green fees 72%
Quality of course conditions 69%
Availability of tee-off times 68%
Closeness to home 44%
Speed of play 38%
Course design 33%
Difficulty of the course 20%
Ability to score well 18%
Availability of other amenities 15%
Golf shop quality/service 9%
Restaurant food/service 5%
Clubhouse grounds are well maintained/aesthetically pleasing 2%
Name designer of the course 2%

*GCSAA’s 1996 NGF Study

I want to renovate my golf course, but I don't want to lose revenue in the process. Is this possible?
A lot depends on the improvements that you need to make. A new irrigation system should not interrupt play significantly, but reconstruction of an entire hole and sometimes only a single green can affect the desirability of your course if you must close the hole. Usually, you should weigh the extent of the work against extending the time period for construction versus closing the hole or entire course to do the job all at once.

Most of the time, we do renovation and restoration projects that extend over several years. Our Ardsley CC project in New York is now in its 4th year. To date, we have re-built four greens and about half the bunkers on the course. It is best to prepare some type of master plan for these situations. A master plan will help you organize and phase the improvements so that play will be disrupted as little as possible. Full consideration of all the projects needed to attain the goal of the plan will mean the work can be done efficiently and without needing to disturb a previously renovated area. If enough land is available, building an extra "temporary" hole may be a very good solution to play interruptions that inevitably result from extensive renovations.

Regardless of the amount of work involved, the most significant factor influencing patron and member support before, during and after renovation is the demeanor and attitude of the golf course staff. This is especially true of the pro shop and starter staff. They have the occasion to talk with nearly every patron that plays the course on a given day. Their impact on the players' attitude before he plays and before he leaves is significant. Let's say that the course is rebuilding the 6th green. Let’s look at a an example. The assistant pro says to a member as he was signing in, "Hey Bob we are rebuilding the 6th. The plan is over there on the wall. Man, it really is going to have some nice contours in it. And just think, no more winter kill problems, and we only have to live with a temporary for as long as it was closed for this and every other spring!" On the other hand, too often I’ve heard a staff person say, "Make sure you notice the sign that the 6th is a temporary for the next 2 months. I don't know what they were thinking of when they decided to tear it up now."

Notice the use of the term "we" in the first instance, and "they" in the last. This indicates having an vested interest versus lack of a vested interest. Keeping the staff involved and focused on the excitement of the results will keep your clientele patient, and perhaps even anxious to come back to see the progress. Progress photos, a rendered plan or sketch and perhaps the architects "thoughts on the design" in the pro shop also help to keep the attitude positive. Above all, my most successful projects have been the result of good communications among myself and the client and his/her staff.

I would like to become a Golf Course Architect. How do I go about doing that?
So you want to be a Golf Course Architect. It's what I wanted since I began playing golf. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to achieve. I remind myself often just how remarkable it is that I make a good living at it despite not having had the connections that allow most to get into the business. Even today, the number of people that get into the business without connections is very low. So, the first thing is, are you still going to want to do this if you haven't achieved it in 10 years? 20 years? It took me 16 years after I graduated from college to be able to do it full time. There were times I never thought I could do it full time. But, I still loved doing it, and I picked up this little job here and there and I was always "studying". Don't worry about making a decision now though. If you have the commitment, it's something you won't be able to escape.

Let's start with education. I don't believe there is an undergraduate degree in Golf Course Design. Cornell and I believe Iowa State and Penn State may offer advanced degrees that they are or have developed. Get a Landscape Architecture degree and a minor in horticulture (turf science) or Agronomy. Surveying and Civil Engineering would be helpful, too. If you haven't learned how to write effectively and speak to a group - get practice on that, too. Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) is the wave of the future, and for the next 5 - 10 years as good a ticket as there is to getting a job in Golf Course Architecture. My company has always been CAD based, but it is very difficult to find someone that is into golf design and truly effective on a CAD workstation. Oh, and play the game enough so you know the rules and etiquette. It doesn't matter how well you play, but it is absolutely critical that you understand all aspects of the game.

I'm not done with education. A good part of what you need to know isn't taught in school. Work at a local golf course on the maintenance crew. I know the proshop staff seems more attractive, but you'll learn more of what you need to know from the golf course superintendent. It's not very difficult to create a stunning golf course. The trick is building a course that is beautiful, fun to play, and maintainable at a reasonable cost. Work on the construction of a golf course. You probably won't be much more than a rake jockey, but you'll learn a lot by watching the overall process and asking questions.

Finally, don't let golf consume you to the point that you don't know anything else. Sounds contradictory to my commitment paragraph doesn't it? Well it's not. Your success in designing golf courses, just like almost anything you might do in life is tied to the relationships you will have with people. If you can't have an intelligent discussion with someone about something other than golf, you may not get past a telephone conversation. A hobby that is unrelated to golf is good. If you can't get work for a golf course architect, don't be afraid to do something else. In the end, my experiences with computers and working for 8 years planning National Wildlife Refuges gave me a niche' that brought me work.

It's a cliche, but oh so true, success is a journey not a destination.

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