Equitable Design in Golf Architecture
If you care to look-up who originally designed the golf course you’re about to play this weekend, it is more than likely designed by a cis-gendered, white, nondisabled man for a cis-gendered, white, non-disabled man. So, if you don’t fall into these categories, do you feel like your golfing needs are being met on the course both physically and strategically? Do you walk off the 18th green with the notion ‘this golf course was made for me.’?
I am of the opinion that one player’s experience on the golf course is not more important than another’s. Consequently, one of the many challenges that I undertake as golf course architect is how to design a course that provides an interesting, pleasurable, and challenging experience for all types of golfers. Equitable design is complex because you must consider and calculate how the course will interact with an infinite spectrum of abilities, combined with the unpredictability of shot outcome, and compounded by the variation of golf course playing conditions, but let’s try to simplify it.
To begin to understand how much design consideration was given to the marginalized golfer we can look to the golf course, because the answers are right under our feet. For golf to be the impartial equalizer for all genders, ages, and abilities, the architectural intention and structure must be capable of providing an equitable playing field. I would like to share some generalized architectural concepts we can consider which might make the game more inviting for a variety of skill levels, without detracting from the experience of better players. If you know what to look for, you can evaluate the course you’re playing and see for yourself how much the marginalized golfer was considered.
Use this checklist to see how the forward tees measure up - have the golfers who use these tees been given the same amount of challenge and enjoyment in the consideration of tee placement and maintenance?
1. Words matter - how are the forward tees referred to by the staff and scorecard – are they the forward tees or are they gendered?
2. Course length – is there at least one set of tees playing less than 5,200 yards?
3. Individual hole length –are the par 3s <140; par 4s <340; par5s <410?
4. Turf quality – Are all the tee boxes maintained in a similar fashion?
5. Tree maintenance – is the tee free from overhanging trees or limbs that could impede your shot or view of the hole?
6. Alignment - is the tee pointed toward the centre of the fairway?
7. Size – is the tee at least the same size as the tee behind you?
8. Location – is the tee positioned at and advantageous angle into the hole (i.e. away from forced carries, bunkers, and water)?
Architecture that requires all players to play up and over hazards is one-dimensional, non-inclusive, and perhaps less enjoyable.
1. Penal hazards – are you crossing 3 or less escape proof hazards throughout the round (i.e. water, ravine, out-of-bounds)?
2. Forced carries – is there an option to go around large hazards that cross the fairway?
3. Distance from tee – are the driving hazards distanced at least 180 yards away from the forward tee?
4. Greenside bunkers - are the bunkers located at the side of the green to provide a chance to run the ball into the green?
GROUND CONTOURING AND FIRMNESS:
Navigating the ground game is a skill in its own right and demands a more creative and strategic approach. Architecture that considers how the weaker golfer navigates the hole and enters the putting surface (often along the ground) will allow for wider ground corridors and broad contouring that encourages the ball toward the green rather than deflecting it away. Landing areas (defined here as 140y-180y off the tee) and fairways that are sharply or excessively contoured adversely affect the weaker player to a much greater extent than the better player because of their dependency on the ground game. Additionally, sharply elevated greens become difficult to reach if you can’t consistently get the ball in the air and become a greater challenge to those who hit hybrids or woods into the green.
The desire for firm ground conditions extends to all areas of the golf course. Firm fairways allow the ball to travel further for shorter hitters who appreciate the extra distance, and firm greens and approaches require players of higher skill level to consider the strategy of the hole and requires accurate execution of length and accuracy to score well.
1. Fairway contouring – is the contouring soft and forgiving in landing areas so as to not deflect or impede the balls forward momentum?
2. Green contouring – is the contouring surrounding the green gathering the balls toward the putting surface instead of deflecting them toward hazards?
3. Green elevation – are there 3 or less severely elevated greens?
4. Ground firmness – is the ground generally firm and allows the ball to run out?
Fairway landing area width must also be considered. For context, the United States Golf Association has long used 28-32 yards wide as a guideline to setting up courses for the U.S. Open, the strictest test of driving in golf. Fairways should be made slightly wider along with approaches into the greens. Wide approaches cater to the enjoyment of higher handicap golfers without effecting the challenge to better players, who typically fly their approach shots onto the greens. We should also consider the start of the fairway in reference to the forward tees, the carry shouldn’t be overly long so as to hinder the forward momentum of drives hit along the ground.
A straighter rough pattern along the perimeter of the hole (rather than a scallop or intricate curvature) will ensure that balls hit along the ground do not get caught up in an arbitrary outcrop of rough. Such patterns often only affect the players who cannot get the ball into the air as easily and have no impact on better players who play the air game.
1. Short cut green surrounds - does the fairway extend up to the edge of the green in some areas?
2. Drive landing width - Is the drive landing area at least 28 yards wide?
3. Green entrance width – is the entrance to the green at least 8 yards wide?
4. Fairway start point – is the fairway no more than 85 yards away from the forward tee?
5. Rough pattern – is it predominantly straight and gently curved?
From my perspective there is less an opportunity, and more a responsibility, to consider how the design of a golf course will impact the experience of all golfers, not just the better golfer. It’s an extension of architecture where forward tees and hazard placements aren’t just an afterthought, but a comprehensive consideration that we include in our design process.
Inclusive design doesn’t have to be boring, easy, or uninspiring - it still demands solid strikes and putts made to score well. Brute force becomes less necessary and a higher demand is put on angles and strategy. The ideal design allows for the inclusivity of less skilled golfers without mitigating the experience of more skilled golfers, this is what we should strive for. When was the last time you evaluated your favorite course through the lens of inclusive design, how did it measure up?