Golf course architecture is what separates an ordinary course from something truly bucket list. It's one of the most enjoyable and creative forms of landscape architecture. Done right it not only creates incredible property value but becomes something a golfer from halfway around the world wants to experience themselves.
Golf course architects have become celebrities over the last few decades, particularly after Robert Trent Jones Sr. made his persona larger than life during the boom of courses and golfers following World War II. Shortly after, accomplished PGA Tour players became architects. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus each have very successful, worldwide design firms.
The most accomplished architects will tell you that what a golf hole looks like on land is just a fraction of the job. The construction of what's beneath the surface, from electrical to irrigation and drainage lines, is what will really make or break the playability and enjoyment of the course.
The Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture
Many of the golf courses in the late-1800s and early 1900s were simple without much thought, often times by simple landscape architects, but that changed greatly into the 1910s and 20s when such names as C.B. MacDonald, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie began designing courses in North America and around the world.
In Canada, Stanley Thompson was highly prolific, designing National Parks Courses such as Banff Springs and Jasper Park. In the 1930s, golf course development slowed during the Great Depression. There would still be some would and he would ultimately take a young architect from New York under his wing, Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Many of the best course architects wouldn't be where they are today had it not been for their early jobs as interns or junior associates. Case in point: Gil Hanse originally worked for Tom Doak, who originally worked for Pete Dye. Dye, who can be credited for the founding style of TPC stadium-style design, has a tree of architects that is truly remarkable. No other modern architect has had more influence. Perhaps the most notable architect who fell under his tutelage was Bill Coore, who along with Ben Crenshaw is arguably the hottest team in the business, having designed acclaimed courses at Cabot Cliffs and Streamsong Red, but most notably their breakthru effort at Sand Hills in Nebraska.
What does 21st century design look like?
The massive boom in new courses from the 1980s thru the early 2000s was extraordinary. Top golf course design firms like Tom Fazio, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr. and brother Rees Jones enjoyed lucrative assignments around the world. However, the boom ultimately led to a lot of poorly developed courses that are continually closing year over year. Not enough golfers have been developed to keep all these courses afloat. nevertheless, brand new golf courses, oftentimes part of new real estate communities, continue to open. Sometimes they are built on top of existing tees and fairways but are entirely new experiences thanks to new shaping and redesigned bunkers.
Architecture has recently found a "neoclassic" form in many areas. Sand Hills is regarded as a catalyst of the modern bucket-list golf getaway made famous by Bandon Dunes, whose early designs by David McKlay Kidd and Tom Doak, and later by Coore & Crenshaw, has become a template for what avid amateur golf travelers want in a resort. Even modern golf designs are finding ways to throw back their layouts. Pinehurst undid decades of lushness philosophy to return their Ross No. 2 course back to a single-line irrigation system and installed native, sandy wire grass instead of thick bermuda rough. The move was so popular they called on Hanse to do the same to the modernized Pinehurst No. 4, which reopened.
Renovation vs. Redesign
This segment by Matt Ginella on Golf Channel's Morning Drive is a good primer on the difference between these often thrown-around terms:
The conundrum among golf course architects at the moment is simple: Technology, coupled with continued professional golfer athleticism, is causing the golf ball to go farther than ever before. But land values and natural resources continue to skyrocket, often making it a terrible business decision to utilize more land. At the 2017 U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka scorched the modern Erin Hills Fry-Hurdzan-Whitten layout. In 2018, Shinnecock Hills was brought to the edge by the USGA and Koepka prevailed there as well as two months later at the Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed Bellerive.
In July however, The Open at Carnoustie revealed the timeless principles of links golf course design in particular when applied to the natural environment. A bone-dry course created one of the most unique major events in years and was ultimately won by Francesco Molinari, by no means a "Power Hitter" among the professional golf ranks.
Ultimately, it is the job of the architect to deliver on what the owner of the property wants and to create something that is timeless and enjoyed by the club members or patrons.
How our golf course architects database works
We have the largest golf course database on the internet and we've done our best to assign the proper architect(s) to each golf course. You'll see many older courses have numerous architects of record, and we've put the date in parentheses in which they lent their skills.
Find and visit an architect page to see all the courses they have designed over their career, as well as view their star ratings from everyday golfers. If you would like to update a listing, please contact us.
Be sure to subscribe to our Golf Advisor Podcast, which features our own expert in golf design, Bradley S. Klein, as well as many special guests from the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), including Dana Fry, Jeff Blume and more.