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What Are The Principles Of Good Golf Course Design? – 13 Principles

well designed golf course
well designed golf course

Designing a golf course is a task of great complexity, so how the best designers imagine and envision some of the most beautiful and interesting golf courses? Fortunately, there are principles created by Dr. A. Mackenzie that can help guide golf designers to make good choices.

Building a good golf course requires good principles to be used, as well as careful planning. Therefore, if you are interested in golf course design, you may wonder: what are the principles of good golf course design?

In this article, we will tell you exactly what the 13 principles of good golf course design are.

What Are The Principles Of Good Golf Course Design?

The 13 Principles of good golf course design, as described by Dr. A. Mackenzie, include elements such as arranging the course in 2 loops of 9 holes, minimizing walking between tees and greens, making every hole unique in character, minimizing lost balls, undulating the greens sufficiently, and more.

Alister MacKenzie was a famous golf course architect who lived from 1870 to 1934. He designed many golf courses during his career and also created the 13 Principles of good golf design.

These 13 principles have stood the test of time, and continue to help golf designers direct their creative efforts effectively.

Down below are the 13 Principles of good golf design, as described by MacKenzie, followed by our interpretations.

#1 The course, where possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes

Arranging a golf course in 2 loops of 9 holes offers a good experience because it minimizes how much you need to walk to progress through the various golf holes.

Essentially, the end of each previous golf hole should be relatively close to the beginning of each subsequent golf hole.

For example, the tee boxes of golf hole #14 should be close enough to the putting green on hole #13, in order to minimize how far people need to walk.

It is common practice to separate the golf course in two loops of 9, with the clubhouse often on the parting line between the two loops. This is useful for many reasons, such as allowing players to only play 9 holes without disturbing play.

#2 There should be a large proportion of good two-shot holes, two or three drive-and-pitch holes, and at least four one-shot holes.

This principle of good golf course design simply states that there should be a good variety of different types of golf holes.

#3 There should be little walking between the greens and tees, and the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards, from the green to the next tee; then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.

This principle is very similar in benefits to principle #1. Limit walking distance, and the golf course experience will be better for everyone.

This principle also mentions that there should be some space reserved to lengthen the golf holes if required. It is impressive that MacKenzie was this forward thinking, as the average carry distance of golfers around the world keeps increasing as time goes on.

#4 The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating, but there should be no hill climbing.

This principle aims to add sufficient difficulty to golf courses in the form of undulation. In reality, no one really wants to play on a flat golf course, as that just becomes a long drive competition.

It is often the topography of a golf course that gives its beauty and difficulty. Each variation in slope and elevation allows for different ball landings, rolls, and so much more.

MacKenzie finally mentions that although slopes are really nice and interesting for golfers, they should not be so steep that you need a pickaxe to climb them!

#5 Every hole should have a different character.

Yes, the principles of good golf course design do have a bit of a repetitive character to them, but they are still all usually important.

If every golf hole on a golf course is similar, it will get dull a lot quicker than if every hole is very unique.

Uniqueness makes golf courses a lot more interesting to everyone.

#6 There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots.

This principle simply claims that good golf course design requires that golfers should have good visibility when going for approach shots. Approach shots are shots taken with the intention of landing the golf ball onto the putting green.

For example, it would be bad golf course design if there were a huge tree arching over the golf course, its leaves hiding the putting green from the view of golfers.

There should be good visibility over the putting green from most spots on any given golf hole.

#7 The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.

MacKenzie believed that nature is one of the most relaxing things on Earth, and that artificial elements could really subconsciously stress golfers and take them out of the big green landscapes of golf courses.

If there were some artificial features required, MacKenzie preferred them to mimic nature, and to be camouflaged. An interesting fact is that Alister MacKenzie learned a lot about the principles of camouflage while in the military, and applied these to golf courses.

For example, par plates near tee boxes are often embedded into stones to not look too unnatural. Electronics towers are often disguised as trees, thanks to artificial leaves. Speakers are also often hidden in big rocks.

#8 There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries from the tee, but the course should be arranged so that the weaker player with the loss of a stroke or portion of a stroke shall always have an alternative route open to him.

This principle basically states that golf holes should be enjoyable for everyone, regardless of skill level.

For example, putting a large body of water flowing through the middle of a golf hole is not ideal golf course design because most amateurs are going to lose their ball in the water at least once.

Some inexperienced golfers will lose their balls in the water more than once per round! That can get frustrating quickly.

MacKenzie argues that good golf course design should minimize extremely frustrating elements that are only beatable through a high skill level. Hazards such as bunkers are fine, because they can be beat by even inexperienced golfers if they take enough strokes.

The point MacKenzie makes is that golfers should not feel like they can never cross a particular hazard, such as a huge body of water with a hill slope rolling balls towards it. If there is an “uncrossable” hazard, a beginner should have a second option, even if it requires more strokes.

#9 There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes—viz., interesting brassy shots, iron shots, pitch and run-up shots.

In other words, this principle states that many different types of shots should be possible to play a hole, giving rise to different strategies employed by different golfers.

For example, one golfer may prefer to drive a golf ball as far as possible over trees, while another golfer may prefer a safer 2-stroke approach with different clubs to get around the trees.

“Viz” simply means “namely”, in British English.

#10 There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.

This principle is self-explanatory, although it used to be a lot more important 100 years ago when Alister lived, as golf balls were less commoditized and relatively more expensive.

Special caddies from the past, called forecaddies, were paid solely to locate golf balls, as lost balls would equate to a considerable hole in a golfer’s pockets.

#11 The course should be so interesting that even the plus man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots he has hitherto been unable to play.

This principle of good golf course design stipulates that a golf course should be so interesting that even the best professional golfers still see improvement in their game.

Even the professionals should feel challenged and stimulated and feel like there are always new approaches and shots they can master to lower their score or to be artistic with.

There may be an easy, obvious & consistent 4 stroke ball path for a pro to take on a par 5 golf hole, but what if there were a consistent 3 stroke path possible?

This is the type of challenge that professional golfers love to dream of achieving, as it would lower their score and push them past their limits.

#12 The course should be so arranged that the long handicap player, or even the absolute beginner, should be able to enjoy his round in spite of the fact that he is piling up a big score.

This principle is very similar to principle #8, as it aims to prevent weaker golfers from getting frustrated at a seemingly “unfair” golf course, from their point of view.

There should not be obstacles that make a beginner golfer stuck in the same place. Instead, a golfer should always be able to progress through the golf hole, even if it takes them 20 strokes.

#13 The course should be equally good during winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect, and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens.

This last principle is a bit optimistic, as some weathers (looking at you -40F winter) simply are not fun to play golf in. Furthermore, finding your golf ball in snow is extremely difficult, unless you play with colored balls in winter.

Furthermore, a hard turf will not cradle and dampen the impact of a golf ball as well as a nice, flexible spring turf.

However, MacKenzie’s principles aim to bring the world nearly perfect golf courses, and not every principle can always be followed to the letter year round.

How To Learn More About Golf Course Design?

To learn more about golf course design, you can consult the works of Alister MacKenzie himself, one of the fathers of good golf course design.

We recommend picking up a copy of Golf Architecture by Alister MacKenzie, as this book talks in further depth about the principles of golf course design, economy lessons, further suggestions, examples of ideal golf holes, as MacKeznie’s perception of the future of golf architecture.

This book is a very interesting read and takes you to the world of the past, as it was written over 100 years ago!


There you go! After reading this article, you have discovered the 13 principles of good golf course design, as described by Dr. A. Mackenzie.

What do you think is the most important principle of good golf course design? Let us know in the comments down below!

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