Drainage and Construction

Wrapping up our Golf Course Architecture 101 series is drainage and construction. These are the two integral pieces of a course that determine its success.

The 6th green at Santa Ana Country Club during construction

The 6th green at Santa Ana Country Club during construction


Drainage is a fundamental piece of golf course architecture. If a course doesn't drain well it will rarely play well. Therefore, figuring out how to move water off the golf course is one of golf course architects primary worries. There are two ways that an architect can move water; the natural land or through manmade drainage systems. Here is a little about each.

"Pete Dye once told me that 95% of the job is making drainage look good, and there’s a lot of truth to that."

-Tom Doak

Surface Drainage

The most natural and preferred method of drainage is surface drainage. It is simple and entails using the land to move water off the course and into streams and other receptacles. Surface drainage is a factor that architects must consider when routing the course.

Surface drainage was the method used by the Golden Age Architects. Seth Raynor and George Thomas (and his construction partner Billy Bell) were renowned for their abilities in this field.

A great example of surface drainage is Riviera C.C., long time host of the L.A. Open.  When it receives rain (like it did this year) water runs quickly off the golf course into Riviera's ditches. This great drainage allows the course to play firm and fast more often than most courses.

The benefit of using surface drainage is it is the most cost effective method. It delivers the most natural and best visual aesthetics. It will also lend itself to the best playability because of the lack of drains.

Drainage systems

It is always ideal to avoid drainage systems when possible. They cost money and require construction. Unfortunately, not every land site possesses the property to use strictly surface drainage. For these courses, drainage systems become a necessary and critical aspect to the golf course.

Drainage systems can make an architect's life very difficult. Creating a natural aesthetic while using a drainage basin is one of the toughest tasks.

One issue that arises with using drainage systems is the water tends to settle around the drain. This will create a softer area where grass doesn't grow as quickly and firm conditions cease to exist.

Geoff Shackelford put together a nice video on surface drainage and catch basins.


There are many factors that go into the construction of the golf course. The first aspect is understanding the two competing philosophies; Design-Build and Design-Contract.

Design-Build is a philosophy that has had a resurgence at the hands of Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak. These two changed the industry by controlling all aspects of a golf course build. As it’s name suggests, Design-Build constitutes the architects designing and building the course. The architects will work with a group of shapers and associates who work for them to carry out the construction. This is a method that is continuing to grow because it has produced great results with less cost.

The other philosophy made popular by Robert Trent Jones in the post-depression era is Design-Contract. This is method involves the course developer, the architect and a construction contractor. This methodology allows architects to design more courses because there is less time spent on site. Issues can arise with this methodology when aligning three parties. The golf course and architect have to rely on a contractor to execute on the vision. When this vision isn't executed properly it can often lead to extra costs.


One of the more important aspects of construction, is the soil of the site. This will greatly impact cost and what is feasible from a design standpoint. The best soil to build a golf course on is the sandy variety. Sandy soil allows shapers and construction crews to easily move and contour the ground to their desired specs. The sand also plays a pivotal role in drainage and playing conditions. Sandy soil drains better, allowing a golf course to play firm and fast on a more regular basis. The great deal of the world's best golf courses were built on a sandy site.

The vast majority of golf courses in the United States are built on clay or rocky soils. These soils limit the ability for architects and construction crews to shape dramatic contouring. These soils also present much larger drainage concerns. 

A practice which has become popular in recent years is sand capping. This is a process where 4” or more of sand is added during the construction of a golf course to facilitate drainage and firm conditions. This process usually is administered to a courses tees, fairways and greens. While it adds to the overall construction cost of the project, it lowers ongoing maintenance expenses and adds to the playing conditions.

While drainage and construction will never be the sexy topic in golf course architecture, it is the most important aspect of it. The fine detail work and hours of shaping are what make great courses.