1

Getting Started in Golf Course Design

Golf course designers are essentially architects. They turn ideas into reality while balancing the needs of golfers, golf course owners, and the physical and budgetary realities that go into making a golf course viable and profitable.

Golf course designers can work anywhere in the world. Golf courses are particularly popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, but there are golf courses in almost every country in the world. For this reason, golf course designers that see constant travel as a "perk" rather than a downside will be much happier in their career choice.

Beyond passion, golf course designers must have a wide variety of skills, including the ability to problem solve, understand construction materials and their limitations, as well as be able to communicate both in writing and verbally with a variety of administrators, bureaucrats, and other interested parties. Designers must have administration skills and sharpened decision-making skills. They must know spreadsheet software, like Microsoft Excel or Mac Numbers, global positioning systems (GPS), how to operate a digital camera, and engineering technology.

2

Learn the Appropriate Skills & Knowledge

There are any number of skills that will be useful for all golf course designers to have when beginning their careers. An understanding of computer-aided design software (CAD) is essential, as is a strong knowledge of blueprints, engineering principles, and graphics software. In addition, a golf course designer must be acquainted with the various construction materials used in golf course design, as well as how to work within and among various administrative bodies. This means that possessing negotiating skills is key.  

Golf course designers also should also understand the needs and wants of golfers, since they're ones that will ultimately be paying the greens fees that make golf courses profitable. Knowing how to deal with local governments and laws, as well as zoning and permitting issues, will make you a far more effective designer as well.

While a degree in landscape architecture is not required, it will make you a far more competitive candidate when searching for a job, and provide you with many of the skills you'll need to be successful. It'll also provide you with a network that will help when questions or concerns arise, or during your search for future employment. Typical coursework in a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture program covers planning and implementation, ecology, environmental design theory, technical and foundational design theory, and visualization.  Students are also advised to take advantage of internship or apprentice opportunities as most employers prefer applicants who have completed an internship as part of their education.

In addition, within a college landscape design program, students can expect to learn about several topics directly related to practical golf course design, including environmental engineering, topography and hydrology, and land surveying. More advanced programs typically will include topics like urban planning, landscape architecture, and, for some, advanced computer design and 3-D modeling courses.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports that unless a landscape architect works for the government, they must be licensed by the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards.  Although requirements vary from state-to-state, applicants must have earned a degree and have between one and four years of supervised experience. Applicants must also pass a five-part exam to gain licensure.

It is also recommended that future designers find work at a golf course, team up with gold professionals, or get a job with a golf course company to gain experience. This may include private clubs, organizations, or communities.

Finally, golf course designers should be avid golfers. If you are spending a lot of time on the golf course already, you know what matters, and what doesn't, when making a golf course the best it can be. Sharing insight with the same audience that will ultimately spend money to be on your course will make you far more efficient at creating the best possible golf courses.

3

Build Your Experience & Industry Connections

Applying for a job or internship with a golf design firm will help you build your skill set and learn from the professionals. Try to find a firm that matches your philosophy, or at least provides you – over time – with the skills and experience you need to branch out on your own. In this field, however, internships can be difficult to find, which is why attending college, earning a degree and industry networking events can be a powerful way to jumpstart your career.

Joining professional organizations in order to meet other people in your industry and network is also a great way to get a start in golf course design. In the United States, the American Society of Golf Course Architects, or ASGCA, is the premier networking organization. In Europe, the European Institute of Golf Course Architects is the first one to consider. In Australia, it's the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects.

The BLS expects jobs for landscape architects to grow five percent between 2014 and 2024, which is as fast as average for all career fields. A bachelor’s degree is the typical entry-level educational requirement, and the median annual salary is listed at just over $63,000. Similar career fields include civil engineers, cartographers, geoscientists, urban planners, and surveyors.

Get to Know Our Experts

Ken Gibson

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Ken Gibson Golf
  • Where:
    Parkville, MI
  • Experience:
    13 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I began playing golf when I was 7 years old.
    • I fell in love with the sport but in particular the courses themselves. Each one was so different that it struck a chord with me.
    • In high school, I decided I wanted to become a golf course architect. I began to research my favorite golf course architects and what educational paths they chose to enter the profession.
    • Most golf course architects pursued a degree in Landscape Architecture. So I began to review universities that offered that degree.
    • After narrowing down my search, I attended Kansas State University, and entered their nationally acclaimed, 5-year, Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program.
    • During my summers at university, I would work on golf course construction crews to learn more about the nuts and bolts of how a golf course is built.
    • My 4th year at university, I accepted a 7 month internship program with an international golf course architect Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates.
    • After completing my internship, I returned to Kansas State University to finish my degree and graduate with honors in May of 2003.
    • Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates offered me a designer position upon completion of my degree, which I started in June of 2003.
    • I worked on over 200 golf course designs during my time with Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, and unfortunately, in August of 2009, due to economic reasons, AHSF cut staff from 15 architects down to just the (2) namesake owners.
    • I started my own business, Ken Gibson Golf in August of 2009.
    • In May of 2010, I moved the business back to the Kansas City area and have been working out of my home office ever since.

    Recommended Organizations

    • ASLA – American Society of Landscape Architects
    • GCSA – Golf Course Superintendents Association
    • USGA – United States Golf Association

    Advice

    On whether or not he recommends a formal education

    I absolutely recommend a formal education. The design and construction courses I completed at Kansas State were invaluable to me as I began my career.

    Get as much construction experience as you can

    Knowing how a golf course is built and what goes into building a successful one allows you to enter the design profession with the knowledge needed to design and build a world class golf course.

    Take a trip to the home of golf, Scotland

    My design philosophy is inspired by my passion for the game of golf as it was played on the classic links courses of the British Isles. The game of golf is just different over there and must be seen!

    Get to know an architect in the industry

    Reach out to an architect in your area, and see if you can do anything to help them- just to learn under them. See what they do, how they do it- pick their brain if you can!

    Jan Bel Jan

  • Title:
    President
  • Company:
    Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design, Inc.
  • Where:
    Jupiter, FL
  • Experience:
    20+ years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • My father and his five brothers were in the golf business as club professionals, so I was exposed to golf as a game, a sport and a business at an early age.
    • In my early teens, I began my career in golf by working on the course my father designed, constructed, maintained and managed. I worked in the Golf Shop in the afternoon and learned the business: planning, finances, relationships, marketing and communication.
    • I learned golf course strategy as I learned to play the game and the rules of golf. I learned even more when I observed how golfers played.
    • I earned a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture with special attention in turf science and horticulture. I worked as an assistant golf course superintendent and then worked for a major residential turf management company.
    • One of my clients took an interest in my career and introduced me to the golf course designer with whom I began my design apprenticeship.
    • After several years, I moved on to implementing on the ground what had been conceived on paper. Every project had new requirements and constraints: land configuration, topography, geology, hydrology, environmental preserves, developer needs and budgets, permit issues, planning disciplines, contractors, etc. Every project added to my knowledge base and contact base. To learn the maximum about field design and construction, I spent months at a time at projects so I could learn the day-to-day aspects of fieldwork. Golf course construction starts at daylight and often ends at dusk. Weather is part of the job – heat, cold, drought, rain, snow, wind: “Opening Day” does not change. Marketing for it accelerates as the day approaches, so working to meet deadlines can be intense.
    • Although it was time-consuming, throughout my career I made the effort to share what I learned with others via presentations and speeches.

    Recommended Organizations

    • The American Society of Golf Course Architects has a wonderful website that offers additional insight on contemporary golf course architects who are recognized by their peers as knowledgeable, relevant and proficient in articulating their passion and ability to make the game better for all.
    • The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America is the leading organization of professionals who manage and maintain the golf courses designed recently or scores of years ago.
    • The Golf Course Builders Association of America is a trade organization for golf course builders and suppliers to the golf course construction industry and is dedicated to advancing and continuously improving golf course construction.
    • The National Golf Course Owners Association is the leading authority on golf course ownership and management. They are a resource for how to operate golf facilities as efficiently and profitably as possible.

    Advice

    On whether or not she recommends a formal education

    A formal education will be most helpful. A Landscape Architecture undergraduate degree provides a solid basis for dealing with the multiple disciplines required in golf course design. Critical thinking, creative solutions, art, sciences, engineering, presentation skills are part of the curriculum.

    Understand the game of golf

    Knowledge of the game of golf is vital and knowledge of the variety of people and their skill levels is equally necessary. The course design should reflect the demographics of the area and the philosophy for the property. The average golfer should have sufficient challenge but should have fun. People may play a difficult golf course once to say they’ve played it, but they will not go back if it is not fun too.

    Expect long days

    Deadlines are frequent. Changes happen. Adaptation is key. Travel is part of the job.

    Be ready for criticism

    Be prepared for everyone who plays golf to be a golf course designer in the same way that everyone who eats is a chef. Expect not everyone will like everything you’ve designed.

    Getting your foot in the door

    Learn to convey ideas graphically and verbally so that they can be used to get permits. Work on a golf course maintenance crew to learn what it takes to maintain what you propose to design. Work with a golf course construction company to learn what it takes to build a golf course and the compressed time frames in which work must be completed. Work in a Golf Pro Shop to learn the clientele and how to design for them. Intern with a practicing golf course architect.

    Golf Course Design Infographic