Leaning into the Landscape

Aligning with Nature in Golf Course Design

A lot has been said about golf course design and trying to build courses in a natural way, emulating nature, and creating courses that seem as if they have been a part of the landscape since time began. Tracing golf back to its roots more than five centuries ago, the essence of the game can be reduced to hitting a little white ball into a hole in the ground in as few shots as possible – an idea that on its own would surely not have survived more than a couple of decades, let alone 500 years! The lasting legacy of the sport and what makes it so enchanting and intriguing is the field on which it is played… The constantly changing, raw landscape, teases players with natural hazards and obstacles, contours and sand dunes, blow-out bunkers and gorse bushes, compounded by wind and weather and the often-unpredictable nature of, well, nature.

Mont Choisy 16th hole

The variety, uniqueness, and connection to the land is a big reason why golf is one of the most actively participated sports. The difference of every hole adds to the challenge, as well as the fact that each course is situated in a different landscape over different terrain, providing a new challenge every time you play. This adventure of trying to challenge yourself or your opponent, taking on whatever mother nature puts in your way (through clever course routing and design), sets the stage for so many special moments.

Golf has been intertwined with the natural environment since its inception. Bar a span of around five decades where man tried to massproduce these playing fields in a one-size-fits-all effort (post second World War through to the housing development boom in the early 2000s), the intent of golf course architecture has retraced its steps back to its origins – aligning with nature. But the concept of aligning with nature could have a very different meaning for different golf course projects and architects. ‘Leaning into the landscape’ would require a slightly different approach on every piece of land where a new course is created or golf is played. Today, aligning with nature in golf has become a worldwide effort amongst architects, superintendents, club managers, and players. Organisations such as the GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf are leading the way, providing certification and accreditation to clubs and courses all over the world for their efforts to reduce their impact on their surroundings.

Ebotse 8th hole

For some courses, aligning with nature would be all about respecting and protecting the sensitive environments through which they meander. A good example is Arabella, where the construction process and the daily operation is done to the requirements of the ISO 14001 standards. This measures and recognises that the project was developed and is maintained with nature and the environment in mind.

For another course, it might mean utilising the unique setting while minimising the course footprint to allow the environment to be the star of the show – for example some bushveld courses such as Elements (Bela-Bela) and Bonanza Golf Club (Lusaka). This goes hand in hand with reduced turf grass footprint and targeted irrigation, using local trees and vegetation and softer ground contours as backdrops and design elements to play over or around. Earthworks were also kept to a minimum, reducing the man-made element on such sites.

Pinnacle 6th hole

Some projects are built on previously developed or degraded land, with limited remaining natural vegetation, and instead alien species dominate the landscape. On such projects a golf course is a practical way to restore the natural landscape. A golf course typically requires 30-35 ha of turf grass, but with the open space required around the course it typically provides an area of 35-50 ha of natural flora to be planted and restored. Pinnacle Point along the Garden Route coast is a great example, where the golf course has a limited footprint, but has provided an opportunity to restore a large piece of land to fynbos, previously dominated by alien Port Jackson. Similarly, Mont Choisy in the north of Mauritius was built on old sugar cane farmlands. With limited water, the turf grass footprint was kept to a minimum, and the local flora was restored with the help of master landscaper Patrick Watson.

One of the more extreme examples where golf can be used to align a piece of land with nature is on previously mined sites. A project such as Ebotse in the industrial and mining town of Benoni restored a site filled with mining pits and slime dams. Today, this course is the setting for a vibrant community living on the estate, as well as a variety of flora and fauna living in restored natural habitats and wetland areas across the site.

Mont Choisy 17th hole

Apart from the planning scale benefits and opportunities existing between golf courses and natural surroundings, golf course design can also utilise the smallest details and features to show off the uniqueness and beauty of the natural canvas in play. A design-and-build team which is dialled in to the natural canvas knows that with the right approach, every course can show off the unique natural features of the site, minimising human effort and often costly construction works. This is in stark contrast to the alternative – designing every contour and hazard from an office far removed from the subtle nuances the landscape provides.

With terms like ‘organic food’ becoming buzzwords in modern society, it is easy to forget that organic solutions were the norm a few hundred years ago, and nobody was thinking of growing food any other way… Similarly, in golf course design the term ‘designing with nature’ has also become a buzzword, but perhaps to some of us it is the norm, and the only way we know, the way we believe is best – naturally.

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