Minimalist design brings maximum enjoyment

The recent trend in golf is that excess equals success — more expensively-built courses, more sand and water hazards, absurd prices for equipment, and so on.

But the counterpoint to all this excess (does it always spell success?) is the ever-present notion of minimalism in course design. The idea has been around forever, given that the first courses on Scottish linksland didn’t impose themselves dramatically on the land.

It’s worth noting that minimalism remains an important part of course design, and one that we can expect to see gain more adherents as land and construction costs escalate.

I first noticed this development a few years ago when I played the North course at the Talking Stick Golf Club near Scottsdale, Arizona. Here, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and his design associate Bill Coore, came up with a course on land that had only three feet of elevation. But they produced a course that is challenging, visually arresting and playable for golfers of all abilities. And, as I recall, there’s not a water hazard on it.

No more water hazards, bunkers

“Our comfort zone is in areas where we don’t have to move a lot of dirt Coore told me recently. “I did that once in south Texas, before Ben and I got together. It was a housing project and there were many days when I stood there and felt things were getting out of control. Since then I determined I wouldn’t do such a project again.”

Crenshaw and Coore have garnered quite a reputation for their work, which emphasizes strategic rather than penal design. It’s possible to do this when one doesn’t intrude into the course with water hazards or massive bunkers that have to be carried. These situations only make play slower and frustrate golfers who too often have to go into their bags to take another ball out.

Tom Doak is another designer who likes courses that offer options to players — more minimal than maximal. Doak’s fine book The Anatomy of a Golf Course is a primer for anybody interested in the principles he espouses, and also will help anybody understand design ideas.

Recently Doak has been working on Pacific Dunes, a course on the sea in Bandon, Oregon that will demonstrate in a dramatic setting how he thinks the game should be played. It focuses on the principles that make it enjoyable for all. Strategic design does in fact make golf more fun for more people.

Greg Norman also champions minimalism. That’s evident at the Medalist course in Hobe Sound, Florida that he designed with Pete Dye. Fairways bleed into greens, which means that the golfer can run the ball in — it’s a choice that we too often don’t see in modern golf. The nature of the landscape is such that a golfer does have to carry wetlands on many drives, but that’s it for the forced carries. Into the greens we see a course that allows — in fact encourages — a variety of shots.

That’s also true at Norman’s two new courses called ChampionsGate, in Orlando. There’s a feeling of openness about the courses, although the player has to be careful about where he or she places shots. One doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the landscape, which, at first glance, looks unprepossessing. But the look conceals intriguing golf holes. Norman may one day be known as much for his work as a designer as for his play as a pro golfer.

Courses draw on all aspects of game

This emphasis on minimalism can also be found in Canada. I haven’t played the Wolf Creek course in Ponoka, Alberta that Rod Whitman designed. But the many people who have played it tell me it’s a wonderful exercise in minimalism, even though Whitman moved a lot of dirt to create the course. There’s a misconception that minimalism means not moving dirt at all; the opposite is often true, as when designers are given a nasty bit of property and need to remove the excess and shape solid golf holes. In any case, Coore, for one, is enthusiastic about Whitman’s work. I’d like to see what he did at Wolf Creek.

In Ontario Doug Carrick’s Heathlands course at Osprey Valley northwest of Toronto is a marvel of minimalism. It’s my favourite of Carrick’s impressive body of work, and provides that impression of openness that I find attractive in a course. But again the golfer is required to think his way around the course. The lack of many water hazards doesn’t mean there aren’t subtler problems. Carrick has created small mounds in all the right places that set off target areas and that generate a lot of ball movement around the greens. Again, the ground game is important. Possibilities for a variety of shots reside in the design.

“No course should be so obvious as to reveal itself upon one viewing,” Coore told “Any course worth the effort of construction should have enough nuances of character and strategy to hold the players’ interest and maintain a sense of mystery and discovery over a long period.”

Coore’s comment impresses me with its thoughtfulness. And it’s no surprise that Whitman believes that Coore and Crenshaw are doing the best work in course design today. Many other designers are designing courses that hearken back to a simpler way of viewing the game –a minimal way, which still provides a maximum amount of enjoyment and challenge.