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Chapter 2: Golf Course Design

Golf Course Design

Building a golf course involves more than hiring a bulldozer, placing some sod and planning a grand opening. Neighbors, potential residents, sustainability advocates and local planners all have a stake in the development of a golf course community. From the very outset, investors and designers should pull together with local community groups, environmental experts, and regulatory bodies to ensure all needs are balanced. With full buy-in and continued dialogue with the community, goodwill is established and serves as a base for addressing issues and resolving potential conflicts.

Determining environmental impact is a critical early step in the process. If the proposed site is too environmentally sensitive or is home to a critically endangered species, it will need to be abandoned in favor of a less sensitive parcel. In some other cases, a well-designed and managed golf course can actually improve the quality of the local environment. Golf courses established on closed landfills, quarries, and other devalued sites are good examples. In these cases, working with concerned parties to designate and protect sensitive sections in their wild state, or establishing generous buffer zones may soften objections and turn opponents to advocates. This kind of collaboration creates an opportunity to make significant and visible improvements to the area while laying the foundation for future cooperation.

The standards and principles of golf course design have changed over time. Courses in Scotland were designed to run along and through undulating coastal sand dunes, unsuitable for farming, but producing excellent turf-type grasses. Happily, these links lands came with grand views of the ocean as well. Taking its name from the landscape, links courses were designed in a sort of chain, one hole leading to the next, with a turn halfway, leading players back to the start on the inland side. The design followed the natural contours of the land and the views and hazards were whatever nature provided.

As golf gained popularity and moved out of Scotland, the ocean was not always nearby, and sites were instead chosen based on their natural suitability. Available technology meant that earthmoving was an arduous process, involving horse-drawn or rudimentary powered equipment, so a well contoured site still offered a considerable advantage. Equipment used in the game itself was also rather rudimentary, with wooden clubs and simply constructed balls, which never traveled far. A relatively short course, designed for walkable distances between holes and including nothing much more than a clubhouse, meant that parcels devoted to a golf course were small. Evolving technology changed everything, of course. A few advancements in golf ball design at the turn of the 20th century, for example, meant that entire courses suddenly needed to be reworked to add distance, while other courses restricted play to the older type of ball.

Today, equipment has continued to improve with steel shaft clubs and advanced golf ball design, allowing some players to launch balls off the tee as far as 300 yards. Since the middle part of the century, most golf courses have also been developed as part of housing communities, which require much larger buffer zones. A high demand for housing parcels fronting the greens and fairways means courses are designed to be much longer, thereby maximizing the number of high value sites. Nowadays, the distance between holes can be a quarter mile or more. Land parcels for a typical golf course community now require several thousand acres.

Such enormous parcels of land in desirable locations are expensive and hard to find but are often cheap and plentiful in remote areas or in less likely environments, such as coastal pine forests or deserts. While it is possible to create stunning panoramas in these locations, infrastructure and development costs are typically higher. In the 80s, the term “manufactured naturalism” came into vogue in golf course design, which was often a euphemism for wholesale ecological destruction and replacement. Bunkers, enormous berms, and water features were regularly built to add interest and a “natural” feel to flat, featureless plains. Native flora was disposed of and a green, tropical paradise instilled in its place, requiring copious water and chemicals to support it in this alien environment.

In the mid-90s, while a very few leading designs refocused attention on minimalist golf in completely natural settings, developers of master plan communities insisted on hiring big name designers that would create ever-more-challenging championship level course. This idea was based around the idea that signature courses would drive premium real estate sales. Unfortunately, this strategy has underscored the divide between professional and amateur players, leaving amateurs on the losing side. Suddenly, every neighborhood course was built to offer a challenge to the latest championship-level player, but guys that just wanted to play a few holes on the weekend were out of luck. Courses had become too difficult, too long and too expensive for their target demographic.

With the turn of the new century, expanding awareness and appreciation for the beauty and value of a pristine environment has gradually convinced developers to attempt a marriage of both beauty and playability in their golf courses. This requires understanding the environment both from within the game and from outside. Responding to this need is a challenge made more difficult by land use restrictions and environmental impact concerns regarding wetlands and important wildlife habitats. Today, developers are finding that housing sites with water views drive higher prices than those with golf course views. This is a crucial change since construction and maintenance of water features is both less expensive and more sustainable than traditional greens.

Aesthetic ideals in golf course design cycle through time, just like fashions in clothes, cars and buildings. It’s exciting to find ourselves, today, in a period of renaissance where defining principles like compactness, limited environmental impact, and an urge toward the casual and enjoyable origins of the game are starting to take precedence.

Water, on a golf course, supplies so much more than a maddening hazard on the 13th hole. In fact, water is such a critical element of golf course operations that entire books have been devoted to the subject of its use, placement, and management.

Beyond increasing the level of challenge with a few pesky hazards, water features on a golf course can provide drainage and irrigation support, greatly improve visual impact, aesthetics, and sound buffering, and can even be a source of material for building bunkers and elevated tees. Less obviously, water features can enhance local water quality, help manage flooding, mitigate erosion issues, and create and improve wildlife habitats; even in urban areas.

Popular water features include naturally occurring or constructed lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, and rivers. Waterfalls, babbling brooks and fountains add sound that can mask traffic or machinery. It’s hard to build an ocean, but if there’s one readily available, that will certainly become a feature too.

Eighty years ago, locating your course near a natural stream was a logical way to incorporate charm and a refreshing energy to your design. Indeed, it was the only practical way to do so until modern engineering reached the point where entire rivers could be rerouted. Today, the situation is turned on its head, and regulations actively discourage placing golf courses near natural streams, requiring large vegetation buffers that can negatively affect the game. Even intermittent and seasonal streams can introduce playability issues with eroded terrain and persistent mud, so designers often prefer to construct artificial streams far away from natural drainage patterns. In fact, a talented designer can create areas that are even more attractive than those normally found in the wild but still serve the needs of the local environment and wildlife population.

Traditional greens, and other parts of the fairway, use specialized grasses that require close management to maintain the typical lush appearance of a great course. This management includes frequent irrigation, which can require copious amounts of water spread across fifty acres or more. The largest lakes and ponds located on golf courses are almost universally used to collect and store water for irrigation. When the annual budget is under consideration, keep in mind that projects like maintaining or improving storage capacity may not be as splashy or exciting as bunker renovations, but the ability to maintain playing conditions and mitigate turf damage during droughts means less strain on the budget and a more reliable revenue stream.

In dry areas or regions subject to frequent wildfires, large lakes can also be tapped for fire control. Using Bambi buckets or snorkels, firefighting helicopters refill their tans midair and quickly return to the lines. Generous storage reservoirs are an increasingly valuable feature, especially when the structures you save could be your own.

It may seem trivial at first glance, but the addition of multiple water features can significantly reduce the cost of building materials while the course is under construction. Soil, sand, and clay excavated to make ponds can be hauled directly to another part of the course and used to create bunkers and berms, saving the expense of hauling in fill dirt. In fact, the soil removed from the site of an irrigation reservoir is commonly used to construct the dam that holds it in.

Consider the glorious photos on the front of nearly every golf course brochure: gorgeous greens, a crisp new golf ball just centimeters away from a hole, an enchanting lake occupying the place of honor and reflecting colors of the sunset. They’re all great images, but it’s the water that really gets you.

The peaceful sounds of a golf course should involve chirping birds, breezes rustling through trees, the occasional thwack of a well-placed swing. Nearby traffic, pump noises, conversations from players over on the next hole, even dogs barking in the yard of a house fronting the course -- these are not included in the list of all-time favorites. Well placed water features, from softly babbling brooks and modest waterfalls to huge regal fountains, can muffle and mask unwanted sounds. Better yet, they can be dialed up as needed.

Public concern for habitat loss for plants and animals around the world is at an all-time high and continues to rise. Golf courses don’t have a great reputation for husbanding the environment, thanks to decades of design and management which demonstrated little concern for the effect of drainage into local waterways, destruction of natural features, high use of chemicals and pesticides, and enormous water consumption. Undoubtedly, inviting wildlife to take residence is still a double-edged sword: golf course managers still prefer not to deal with the inevitable messes left by flocks of visiting geese, and snakes are generally unwelcome visitors to the putting green. Nonetheless, wildlife habitats are becoming an important feature on today’s courses and are widely expected by newer generations.  Wildlife habitats are closely linked to water features like ponds and streams, which may shelter turtles, colorful dragonflies and butterflies, herons and even the occasional fox. This more natural ecosystem may be slightly more complex to manage, but the ambience is preferred by today’s golfers when compared to the green, environmentally sterile courses of decades past.

When designing a new course, the ideal type, size, and location of a water feature is not always easy to pinpoint. It’s not a matter of throwing colored darts at a parcel map, where blue means irrigation lake and orange represents a water hazard. In fact, the ultimate purpose of any type of water must be carefully considered. No matter how conveniently placed it is for aesthetics and construction, if physics, covenants, or other restrictions render it unsuitable for its primary purpose, it’s can become costly. 

Artificial lakes and large ponds are built to store the vast quantities of water needed for irrigating the course and grounds. So, these bodies of water should be both wide and deep to maximize storage volume. Their visual effect is heightened when viewed from above. Drainage patterns, that naturally empty into the basin, serve to maximize the capture of rainfall. Thus, a lower elevation compared to the overall course is ideal. In contrast, water hazards must always be visible to players and should be carefully sized and oriented to provide an appropriate challenge for players of different skill levels. On the other hand, wildlife areas, including wetlands, should be relatively large and pleasing to the eye but are usually located on the periphery to minimize potential for disturbance from foot traffic and the occasional duff.

Requirements for pumping stations and irrigation equipment should be carefully considered when placing storage and irrigation ponds. Centrally located ponds generally require the least amount of piping to reach all points on a smaller course but may not offer the best visual advantage. Low lying ponds are ideal for capturing runoff, but unless the site is relatively flat, powerful and expensive pumps will be required to raise water to the highest points of the course. Lakes located near the clubhouse, for that all-important view, may present a perfect picture but the noise of the pumphouse can be hard to screen. Ultimately, more than one pond may be the best solution when faced with conflicting needs.

An important, but not-so-obvious, consideration in the design and placement of water features is safety. Golf course ponds are considered “attractive nuisances” and curious children, or over-zealous golfers in pursuit of their favorite ball, can quickly get themselves into trouble. In early attempts to minimize danger of drowning, ponds and lakes were generally constructed with a 6-foot-wide shelf around the perimeter of the water at a depth of 3 feet, beyond which was a precipitous drop. Since the drop often couldn’t be seen, this inspired a false sense of security among waders and led to some unfortunate incidents. Today, a gentle and continuous slope to deep water is preferred, since most hapless golfers will notice when the water is getting too deep and can simply turn to walk out. Happily, an extended shallow zone also greatly improves a pond’s wildlife value. 


In the 1970s, growing environmental concerns across the country, and through all industries, led to the introduction of volumes of legislation and formation of new federal agencies. Their purpose was to monitor and correct some industrial practices including the unrestricted use of DDT and release of untreated, toxic waste into natural waterways. Predictably, some of the new rules and restrictions were established to protect local environments from golf course runoff that included fertilizers, pesticides, and substantial volumes of sediment.

Today, golf courses continue to be severely restricted from allowing direct contact between course activities and established natural waterways. Large buffer zones are required to permit biological filtering of water passing between the course and natural areas. Protection and treatment of wetlands, natural or constructed, is carefully monitored. This level of oversight has sometimes led to conflict. Fortunately, in the last few decades, new approaches have been charted that focus more on developing a partnership with golf courses and working towards mutual goals of environmental stewardship and sustainability than on codifying restrictive and punitive regulations.

Golf Course Ponds – Design, Construction & Maintenance E-Book Chapters

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