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  • Writer's pictureTy Butler

Future Courses? Multi-Configuration, Reversible Loops, Short or Fewer Holes

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the past few years about the type of design, and/or type of golf courses that will help bring new players to the sport and sustain the game of golf well into the future. Many predict if nothing changes the game we know will virtually disappear, while others think the strength and health of the game is not in as bad of shape as all the doomsayer’s are predicting. Pace-of-play is cited by most as the pressing issue which needs addressing, as well as reducing the amount of time it takes to play a round is a must. There seems to be a majority that feel golf courses have become too difficult and too challenging to play for the average golfer, and by improving playability it will take less time to play a round and the overall experience will improve. On the other side of this debate there are advocates calling for increased development of an entirely different type of golf course to address the ills plaguing the golf industry.

There seems to be a growing contingent advocating for a completely different type of golf experience. There have been louder cries over the past few years for an increase in the number of alternative course type offerings. Whether it be an executive, short, multi-configurable course or venues such as the wildly popular Topgolf driving ranges, we are seeing more of these alternative options popping up around the globe. Those promoting these types of courses seemed convinced they will provide the playable conditions and more importantly shorter rounds, which is deemed pivotal to attracting the coveted millennial generation. And they might be correct. Others point out the glut of existing courses struggling to make ends meet and eschew these calls for additional courses no matter their type. And they might be correct as well.

All this chatter has me wondering… what truly is the best approach to keep the game healthy and bring new players into the sport? I don’t think anyone has the silver bullet solution to this mystery, but it is certainly an intriguing, and at times entertaining debate!

At the core of the debate is playability and pace-of-play, and improving these aspects of the experience are paramount. I think most would agree these two elements, for the most part, go hand-in-hand, and if a course is deemed playable it will more likely have very good pace-of-play. Although, I feel pace-of-play has more to do with attitude than with playability…. but that’s for another discussion! What intrigues me more is the call for alternative types of courses, and whether these offerings are truly the direction the industry should take. Certainly the traditional 18-hole course will never disappear…. right? To be replaced with what a recent golf writer tab the “Course of the Future” when writing about the recent opening of a highly publicized multi-configuration course.

The multi-configuration course is just that, a course that offers differing configurations ranging from full length holes, to an assortment of executive course arrangements or a par-3 short course with varying number of holes all embedded within a comprehensive single design solution. Some of these configurations can be played simultaneously, depending upon your preference, and other configurations require a dedicated time for all players to utilize. It would appear this type of facility certainly provides a tremendous amount of operational flexibility, and the differing choices very advantageous based on the amount time one has dedicated to playing. Given all these advantages are there drawbacks to these types of courses, particularly with regard to the full length course? Depending upon the number of full length holes, it may take a minimum of three trips, and maybe more, around the loop for those wanting an 18-hole experience. This certainly tests the designer’s imagination in order to craft a distinctive and creative experience with each trip around the loop. Just as in some 9-hole courses, this is achieved by including multiple tee complexes offering a slightly different angle, but no matter how skilled the designer there is only so much variation that can be achieved. Multiple hole locations per green is another way to create variety. However, does this limited number of holes ultimately impact the quality of the experience and make the game less appealing? After all it’s the enhancement of the experience we should be focused on to create interest in the game and retain existing players, as well as draw in new would-be golfers. Or is time and convenience the driving force of the sport going forward?

Even though there is flexibility of playing options, I wonder what operational challenges exist, if any, with these types of facilities. The varying configurations, and more importantly shorter versions of the game tout reduced playing times. But with all the configurations that exist, and some being played simultaneously, is there potential for conflict regarding the flow of golfers onto and around the course? Back to the dreaded pace-of-play conundrum. This is obviously a challenge for some the best run courses offering a single experience. And what if you want to play a configuration that is not available on that day? Is inconvenience certain to turn off most who have grown accustom to having practically everything at the convenience of a click?

There would appear to exist big advantages to building and operating this type of facility. The costs to build and operate this type of course could certainly be far less than a full length 18-hole course. And given you have multiple configurations included in a single solution, costs should be far less than if you built each configuration independently. Maintenance costs obviously can range across the spectrum of possibilities based upon the desired quality no matter what form the course takes, however in theory, this type of course should have the ability to offer quality conditioning for far less cost considering the reduced amount of turf area and feature maintenance required.

Standing on the threshold of this type of course development I think these are important facets worthy of discussion. I certainly like the concept and in my opinion definitely worthwhile to explore developing more of these types of facilities, or better yet, explore how some existing facilities that might be struggling could be transformed to fit this model. Certainly the greatest aspect of the game is the variety of playing fields offered. In this aspect, golf is unlike any other sport and is what makes the game so endearing. I certainly would not advocate for this model to be the future standard, forsaking the experience one can have playing an 18-hole course, but it can be part of the continued evolution of the game. Friend and fellow ASGCA member Jeff Brauer discusses in his recent Golf Course Industry magazine article the different approaches to improving a course through restoration, renovation or remodeling. Jeff ultimately concludes that each historical era of design was the embodiment of modernizing the game. His parting thought says “Historically, every design is/was done in the then “modern era.” Most embodied “modernization” as Golden Age architects modernized pre 1900’s design, post-WWII architects modernized Golden Age designs, and we generally keep modernizing today. In fact, many architectural historians believe retro/nostalgia design is merely a placeholder for the next great design era, but not really great design itself. Maybe it’s time to move on completely. Times change, but one eternal strength of golf is our wide variety courses. If we strive to make every course it’s very best — whatever that is — we will achieve that variety and help keep golf strong”. I certainly wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments, but would offer only a slightly different thought in the context of this discussion by saying “If we strive to make every course - whatever that is - it’s very best we will achieve that variety and help keep golf strong”.

I’m wondering how everyone else feels about alternative courses, and whether these types of courses are good for the game? Should the next era of modernization include these types of courses and might they become the “Courses of the Future”?

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