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  • Writer's pictureTy Butler

Golf Trail - Course of the Future or Just a Silly Idea?

Evolution of the Concept

Recently I contributed, along with various other architects, to a recent article produced by Golf Course Architecture regarding the skill set required of future designers and how golf course architecture might evolve into the future. It was an entertaining article revolving around the possible advances in technology that could transform the approach to designing and building golf courses. This discussion peaked my interest in not only the knowledge and techniques that architects thought might be required to excel in the future of the profession, but also what golf courses might look like in the future.

The last decade has produced much discussion about the future of golf and the challenges the game faces to remain relevant and grow well into the future. These challenges range from growing the game by improving sagging participation rates to bring new players into the game to addressing anxieties over how environmental factors will impact the game. I feel golf has a very bright future ahead; however, I do think environmental factors will be the biggest challenges the game will face and must be addressed to survive. Heck, it’s an issue all citizens on the planet will eventually face to survive and golf will benefit for being on the cutting edge of addressing these issues. Issues ranging from the amount of acreage needed to build a course to reducing water usage to reduced emissions and chemical use are all critical issues to address.

The Golf Trail is a concept a couple of decades in the making. I cannot lay claim to the original concept. In the early 1990’s, while working for RTJ II, a friend of Bobby’s brought this idea to the office. As I remember it, he had patented the idea of a circular course where golfers made their way around the perimeter playing to specific targets in the center of the range. Beyond this big picture memory of the concept I don’t recall much about the specifics of the concept at this initial stage… my memory is a little fuzzy after 25 years!

Being one the junior staff members at the time and this falling into the category of free work for a friend with little anticipation that it would transform into a realistic, fee generating project, I was tasked with helping him further develop his idea into a viable concept suitable for presentation to potential investors. I do remember the original concept was very geometric in appearance. It was a perfect circle in shape with semi-circular squared tees around the perimeter and perfect circular targets on the interior. This was a rudimentary design he had executed for patent purposes only and he need a dose of imagination in order sell the concept to investors. The idea was to take this concept and easily develop it at various sites around the country.

The concept I developed was much more organic in its form and gave the design a sense of place. The airport in Half Moon Bay, California was the first location targeted for development where he hoped to convince the airport authority to lease him open land on which to build. So, the concept had a seaside character with many sand dune areas helping to frame shots and define playing corridors and targets. I envision a rolling landscape devoid of any trees and littered with dune grasses, coastal shrubs and ice plant. It was christened the Golf Trail because of the circuitous path around the perimeter of the course and the very nature of following a trail from beginning to end.

The biggest challenge of the concept was developing a viable scoring system that could, as close as possible, simulate a round of golf. Much of this simulation depended upon how far and where you hit your ball. However, with multiple players simultaneously on the circuit it was not viable to have golfers venture inside the trail to locate their ball and determine distance and location. So, yardage and final position of any shot was at best a guesstimate which made simulating any playing conditions very imperfect. But the beauty of the design concept was that it could be built on as little as 60 acres of land and would take a fraction of the time required to play a regulation golf course. And maybe more importantly, this reduced footprint and the possibility of using synthetic surfaces in various areas of the trail could reduce overall maintenance requirements such as reducing water usage to reduced equipment emissions to reduced chemical usage. All benefiting the environment.

After developing and refining a design concept as far as possible this idea left my orbit. I never heard from the original proponent, RTJ II was never again approached about developing an actual facility and as the years progressed it drifted from my memory.

Fast forward to about five years ago. The burgeoning shot tracking technology of Trackman and other similar devices, as well as the ability to build technology directly into a golf ball to track distance and position reawakened in me the idea of the Golf Trail. These tracking technologies make it possible to determine the position and distance of each shot and removed the imperfection of determining distance and location in the original concept. I believed this technology could aid in closely simulating an actual round of golf if applied to the Golf Trail concept. The big picture concept was still fresh in my mind after all those years. I did not spend much time trying to pull the small details of the original concept from my memory but took the big picture and applied a fresh look at how to create the most realistic round of golf possible. The concept you see today had nearly been developed years ago, when due to professional and personal transitions I put the project on the back burner once again.

This brings us to today and the final concept. The concept has popped in and out of my mind over the past year and I kept telling myself I would pull it out tomorrow and start working on it again, then something else would grab my attention. Finally, I committed to re-engaging the idea and have spent the past couple of weeks finalizing the concept to its current form. This Trail encompasses +/- 75-80 acres, but as with the original, I believe this concept could be tightened and condensed to fit in as few as 60 acres.

Sorry for the verbose back story of the Golf Trail evolution, but I felt it important to describe where the concept came from and how it arrived in today's form. I wish I could recall the original developers name, and I did, to the best of my investigative abilities, do a search to find if the patent might still be in place. I could not find anything patented that appeared to resemble anything remotely describing any form of golf course. So, if you’re reading this post and had a patent on a circular golf course concept like this one 25 years ago I would to love to hear from you!

So Here Is How It Works

In a traditional course there is typically a breakdown of 4 three shot, 10 two shot and 4 one shot holes. This same breakdown is built into the Trail, although there remains the same flexibility of creating fewer of each hole type and subsequently fewer standard shots than the traditional 72 shots to complete a round.

Around the perimeter of the Trail are fourteen Driving Zones and eighteen Approach Zones from which players hit drives to designated fairways and green complexes within the center of the Trail. On two shot holes a player will hit a drive and then move to the corresponding Approach Zone for that hole. On holes designated as three shot holes the player will hit a second shot from this same Driving Zone, but without the benefit of a tee. The player will be directed to hit from either the tee pad, rough area or bunker depending upon whether they successfully hit the fairway or found a worse fate with their tee shot.

After shots have been executed from the Driving Zone and depending upon accuracy and length of those shots, the player is directed to hit from a corresponding Approach Zone to a green for that hole. These approach shots vary in length depending upon the overall length of the hole. One shot holes originate from a designated Approach Zone and do not have a designated Tee Zone.

Intermixed with the Driving and Approach Zones around the perimeter of the Trail are eighteen individual Short Game Zones. The green complexes which make up these Short Game Zones are exact duplicates of the greens the player just hit their approach shots too. Depending upon the accuracy of the players approach they will be directed to place their ball in the corresponding location, whether this be on the green surface or unfortunately somewhere else such as a greenside bunker or rough area. From this position the player finishes the hole and records their score.

Players continue to work their way around the perimeter of the Trail alternating between drives, approach shots and short game areas until they have played 18-holes and completed the Trail. Play never requires a golfer to enter the interior of the Trail. Entering the interior of the Trail would be as foolish and unnecessary as venturing out into the middle of a busy driving range on a Saturday afternoon! Balls would be provided at each zone for tees and approach shots. Players would only need to carry their own ball of choice to be used in the Short Game Zone.

Length of each hole and the overall course length is derived from using standard swing speed data produced by Arthur Little & Jann Leeming of the Royal Little Family Foundation. Each player hits from the same exact Driving Zone no matter the course length they are playing. Approach Zones are broken into color coded areas based on swing speed. Depending upon the distance the player hits a drive and/or second shot they will be directed to hit their approach from a certain color zone. Color zones are determined by the designed length of an approach shot as it relates to swing speed.

For instance, let us imagine Player A and B. Player A has a swing speed of 95 mph and B a speed of 75 mph. They are playing Hole 2 which is a two-shot hole with distances of 385, 335, 290 and 235 yards. These distances were derived by taking the standard tee shot length based on swings speed in addition to designed approach length. Standard driving distances for 95 mph (240 yards), 85 mph (210 yards), 75 mph (180 yards) and 65 mph (155 yards) are the basis. The approach shot for Hole 2 is designed to be 145 yards for the 95-mph swing speed, thus the maximum distance is 240 yards + 145 yards = 385 yards. So, Player A achieves her standard driving distances of 240 yards on Hole 2, and she is directed to hit her approach from the Red (95 MPH) zone. Should she hit less than 240 yards she will be directed to hit from behind this zone or in the case of a drive longer than 240 yards she will be directed forward for a shorter approach shot.

For Player A with a 95-mph swing speed an approach of 145 yards roughly equates to between a 7 or 8-iron shot. Using this club as basis for creating an equivalent experience the corresponding 7-iron distance for Player B with a swing speed of 75 mph is 110 yards. Thus, his standard driving distance of 180 yards added to this approach distance of 110 yards determines the hole length of 290 yards. Player B hits his drive 190 yards. However, his drive finds the fairway bunker, so he will be directed to hit his approach from fairway bunker just forward of the Blue (75 MPH) zone.

Hitting from the Approach Zone Player A’s approach finds the greenside bunker and she is then directed to place her ball in the corresponding bunker in the Short Game Zone and play out from there. Player B hits his approach onto the green surface and he is directed to place his ball in the corresponding position in the Short Game Zone and play out the hole.

There is also rough area and bunkers placed adjacent to Approach Zones and should a player’s tee shot miss a fairway or hit into a fairway bunker they are directed to hit from this same area on their approach shot.

Here is a detail of the above scenario following each shot.

So maybe that’s as clear as mud! How many have I confused so far? Trust me when I say I have spent a fair amount of time conceiving this idea and at this stage is certainly not perfect. I would not be surprised if many thought it crazy. But if you take a little time to study the plan and the idea it might start to make sense. This is obviously just a conceptual idea and possibly an exercise in futility. Some might determine I have way too much time on my hands! They might be right! But good, bad, crazy or stupid I would love to hear any comments. I certainly don’t see this as something all future courses will morph into. The traditional golf course will certainly always be a part of the game for hopefully centuries to come. But does this idea have a niche in the game, just as Topgolf has filled a niche? And if this falls on deaf ears then I will just file it away for another 25 years!

CLICK HERE if you would like to see the plan in greater detail.

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