From Pixels to Putts

The Evolution of Golf Course Design in the Digital Era

Amidst the ever-evolving world of technology, the realm of golf course architecture has experienced its own transformation, with digital tools reshaping the design process and the way we interact with the natural beauty of these landscapes. Tom Doak’s precise recreation of The Lido course at Sand Valley has opened a window to the bold designs of eras past and Lukas Michel asks – is modern golf design being too safe?

Written & Photographed by Lukas Michel


Nestled amongst the suburbs of growing cities, or in popular vacation spots, lie timeless gems of golf course design. Here, legendary architects including Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt and Donald Ross, applied their creativity like master craftsmen and etched their names in the annals of golf architecture history. However, creating this legacy wasn’t an easy endeavour, and just as US President Woodrow Wilson described golf as a game that used “weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose” golf course construction technologies in this era limited the creative expression of these geniuses. 

Over the last 30 years or so, we have been lucky to witness a renaissance in the theory of golden age golf course design and, coupled with modern-day construction methods, new names have emerged to carry the torch of golf architecture and guide it into the future. When playing the modern designs of Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Mike DeVries or Bill Coore, I often find myself asking a question that feels a little taboo: are all those great classic courses really any better than this?

Modern architects benefit from a growing resource of information and an abundance of living examples of great golf architecture, so it stands to reason that they should be more educated in golf course design than those who came before. Rather than having to rely on limited literature or long journeys by boat or train, modern architects have the books of MacKenzie, Hunter, Simpson, and Doak; and hundreds of revered courses just a short plane trip or drive away. 

Additionally, we have a plethora of other information available at our fingertips. A quick search of any course reveals Google Earth images and topographical maps, which can be used to study the best courses and understand what makes them great. For instance, a 4K drone flyover and LiDAR scan of the 4th hole on the Old Course is available in mere seconds if we want to visualise the exact scale and shape to the famous bump in front of its green. 

A 0.2m interval contour plan produced from a 2m resolution LiDAR scan of the 4th/14th greens at the Old Course of St. Andrews. The arrow indicates the direction of play for the 4th hole, with its iconic bump indicated by the concentric contours near the head of the arrow and just short of the green. 5m grid squares.
Mike DeVries surveys his construction of the 13th green at Seven Mile Beach.
Royal Melbourne’s Horse Drawn Scoop & Plough on Display

These same technologies aid immensely in the design and construction of golf courses. Historically, architects would need weeks or months to find the ideal layout for a new site. However, these architects were often limited to a few days of walking the property, inevitably resulting in suboptimal course routings. Then, whilst building greens, slopes were eyeballed and rudimentary techniques used to ensure surface drainage and playing interest. By contrast, the modern architect can use detailed topographical and geological surveys of a large site to quickly identify the desired areas to build golf. Afterwards, they can traverse the site quickly with an ATV to map out the ideal routing. Finally, when shaping and finishing a green, it can be quickly surveyed using a drone or rover unit to check for surface drainage and pinnable area.

All this is without considering the earthmoving equipment at the disposal of modern-day designers. Anyone visiting Royal Melbourne will have driven past the horse drawn scoop and plough on the entrance drive. These rudimentary tools were used to construct all 36 green complexes of the East and West courses. It’s difficult to imagine the hours Morcom, Russell and their crew spent meticulously shaving contours to achieve their and MacKenzie’s joint vision of perfection. By comparison, whilst working on the Seven Mile Beach project in Hobart, we used bulldozers, an excavator and dump truck to carry out the bulk of the earthmoving in a fraction of the time it would have taken in MacKenzie’s era. On the 3rd and 4th holes, where the natural terrain was far too dramatic for golf, we moved around 50,000 cubic metres of sand in just a few weeks to create playable golf from unreasonably steep dunes. In the past, the routing may have avoided this land altogether, but at Seven Mile Beach these two holes will be genuine highlights.

Drag the centre line to view the heavily undulating approach to the 4th hole before and after rough shaping. The land here was softened drastically to improve the playability of the hole.

However, even this amount of earthmoving pales in comparison to other modern designs. While working as a construction supervisor on Tom Fazio’s ambitious design at Hudson National, Mike DeVries recalls the stunning sight and sound of clearing 100,000 cubic metres of rock using explosives alone. Several years later, when DeVries had his opportunity to build a course on a similar site, in Marquette, Michigan, he made a point of designing to minimise environmental disruption. Skilfully routed through dramatic terrain and metamorphic rock, the aptly named “Greywalls” course at Marquette Golf Club is spectacular, with several holes using exposed rock as strategic features or stunning backdrops. Of course, modern earthmoving capabilities were still used on this difficult property. Indeed, much of the front nine was sand-capped and shaped with material transported from the back-nine, but the design and construction work is indistinguishable from the natural terrain. Tom Fazio and Mike DeVries’ respective designs, although different in style and construction philosophy, show the capabilities of modern construction techniques to create playable courses on extreme properties.

With all these modern tools and technologies, how is it possible that just 5 of the world’s top 50 courses in’s latest rankings, were built after 1940? Data available from the US shows that approximately 3,000 golf courses existed by 1940, with more than 10,000 added since. The numbers don’t seem to add up. The simple answer is that almost all of those 10,000-plus golf courses genuinely aren’t as good as the early courses. Paradoxically, much of the problem with many of the modern courses was the new tools, technologies, and indeed the architects themselves. Since modern earthmoving equipment enables the transport of huge quantities of dirt, the prevailing belief was that golf no longer needed to be situated on beautiful, undulating and free-draining terrain in order to be great. With clever design and modern technology, that could all be created – or so everyone thought. As housing demand pushed development away from the cities and into barren and soulless pastures, what better way to beautify a landscape and generate higher housing prices than by routing a golf course amongst a neighbourhood? Off the developers went, and this continued largely unchecked until the housing crisis of 2008. This situation accounts for that incredible number of new, and primarily bad, golf courses designed in what some have called the “dark age of golf design”.

With all that said, there have been a number of truly great courses built in the last 30 or so years. The modern names you’ve heard of – Sand Hills, Bandon Dunes, Friars Head, Tara Iti, Castle Stuart, Barnbougle  – all share something in common, and that is great land. Unlike the thousands of housing-development-style-courses, the modern greats are all centred around outstanding golf sites. This all started with Dick Youngscap’s development of Sand Hills Golf Club in remote Nebraska, and was further validated with Mike Keiser’s Bandon Dunes and his later projects with Richard Sattler at Barnbougle, Ben Cowan-Dewar at Cabot Links, and his sons at Sand Valley. Others have copied this model, and they have all discovered there is indeed money to be made from pure golf so long as it’s good enough.

However, one further question remains: in ranking lists, how do Pine Valley, Cypress Point, St. Andrews, and Royal Melbourne consistently rate higher than anything built in the modern era? 

I’m not sure they should.

The 245m par-4 4th hole at Woodlands GC in Melbourne, with a tiny green perched 6 feet above its surrounds, is admired by players and critics alike. Below: Mike Clayton’s 280m 13th hole at The Lakes in Sydney (designed in 2006), near identical in character to the Woodlands hole, has proven less popular by players and is purported to be redesigned.

At historic and classic designs, I’m frequently shocked by the boldness of the architecture. This reflects the original spirit of the game, which had little reverence for modern expectations of ‘fairness’. North Berwick’s unpredictable and wildly contoured 16th green, Prestwick’s blind par-3 5th hole up and over a dune, and (closer to my home) Woodlands’ narrow and perched 4th green come to mind here. While walking off these holes I inevitably say to myself, “good luck building that today!”. At these older courses, there seems to be a broader acceptance of extreme features that would be objected to on a modern course. This has precisely unfolded at the Lakes Golf Club in Sydney, where Mike Clayton built a hole inspired by the aforementioned 4th at Woodlands. While some critics have praised it (Tom Doak included a photo of the hole in his most recent ‘Confidential Guide to Golf Courses’), it has proven less popular with golfers, with the hole rumoured to be redesigned soon. Whether it’s because the architects of historic courses are long passed (“don’t speak ill of the dead”) or there’s an understanding of the limited technology at their disposal, there’s a tendency to look past, or even praise quirks that may otherwise be highlighted as flaws in courses of the modern era.

This philosophical peculiarity reminds me of a quote from the remarkably prescient ‘Spirit of St. Andrews’ by Alister MacKenzie. When describing the construction of his course at Alwoodley, MacKenzie describes the goal of deceiving golfers “into believing the artificial features we had made were by Nature,” which would allow him to “get away with it and escape their hostile criticism”. Evidently, MacKenzie’s attraction towards design features that look natural was that he could use the land as his scapegoat for bolder design work. In contrast, the difficulty the modern-day architect faces is the assumption that almost all of what is on the ground was either shaped or left in place with intent. The challenge of playing golf against the quirks of nature has been all but removed from the toolset of the contemporary designer. 

When describing the construction of his course at Alwoodley, MacKenzie describes the goal of deceiving golfers “into believing the artificial features we had made were by Nature,” which would allow him to “get away with it and escape their hostile criticism”

The par-5 17th hole at the Lido has severe cross hazards to clear both off the tee and on the second shot.

The Lido

This all leads to the most confounding reaction to a golf course I’ve ever had. In late 2022, I was fortunate to have a preview look at Michael and Chris Keiser’s recreation of the Lido Golf Club in Wisconsin – likely the most revered course to ever close. On this unique project, Tom Doak was enlisted to “restore” the CB Macdonald masterpiece, 80 years after it shuttered, and some 1000 miles from its original location. Using a combination of historical imagery, modern video game software, and state of the art GPS construction technology, Doak and his team (notably Peter Flory, Brian Schneider, and Brian Zager) have been able to produce a true replica of the original Long Island, NY golf course. The design is bold and provocative, with a number of forced carries and ubiquitous, penal bunkering. Like Macdonald, I studied at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, so could see the resemblance and inspiration from the famous Old Course, which I’ve played countless times. Despite this familiarity, I struggled to come to terms with the course. On one hand, I was seeing a golf course built in the modern era, and viewed it with the baggage and expectations of modern golfers and modern design. On the other hand, this was an authentic recreation of a course from the early-golden age, representative of its era, and should be viewed as such. Initially, I thought many of the severe bunkers and contours at the Lido were exaggerated to account for changes in modern equipment, or even a mistake. Surely the course wasn’t that hard given the equipment the course was originally played with? However, in researching and understanding the length Doak’s team went into ensuring the accuracy of the design and construction of the course, the mistake was on my part. I had underestimated the evolution and change in golfer expectations. Golf, in Macdonald’s era, wasn’t fair or predictable to appease the golfer trying to break their handicap. The game was a wildly difficult, yet fun adventure, where the point was to beat your opponent, no matter how many strokes it took.

The Lido also provoked deeper thought about the state of modern golf course design. If Royal Melbourne, Pine Valley and Cypress Point are yet to be unseated by a modern course, perhaps modern design is lacking something. Much like how good courses fit their topographical landscape, they also tend to fit their historical landscape. It is impossible to separate the story of a course’s design from the factors surrounding its conception. Could the watered-down design preferences of present-day golfers be holding golf course design back? 

These beautiful grass-faced hazards diagonally traverse the 7th fairway
The pin, barely visible over the bunkers here at the 400m 12th (photo taken from 80m short of the green). I can only imagine how a hole of this character would be received by an average club golfer who drives it 220m!
The 13th at Barnbougle Dunes – an homage to Mackenzie’s famous Sitwell Park green, which was bulldozed not long after its opening for being too severe
Barnbougle’s 7th and 13th with design features reminiscent of years gone by.

I think so, but there are exceptions, with the very best of modern design still pushing the envelope. Barnbougle’s 112m 7th hole, aptly named ‘Tom Little Devil’ (after Tom Doak, its co-designer) is one such example. The tiny 270 m2 green, elevated and protected by gaping bunkers on the left, and deep swales at the back and right, is a formidable target in the seaside winds. Even MacKenzie may have taken his foot off the proverbial accelerator here. Speaking of MacKenzie, 6 holes later at the 13th, the putting surface is an homage to the good doctor’s famous Sitwell Park green, which was bulldozed not long after its opening for being too severe. Thankfully it lives on in spirit in North-East Tasmania.

200 km south of Barnbougle, at Seven Mile Beach, I’m curious to see the public’s reaction to several holes which I think will challenge the ‘fairness brigade’. The three par-3s that are grassed thus far – 2, 14, and 17 – all present as challenging targets despite a total of 2 bunkers across the three holes. While hitting balls on a recent site visit, it took me 4 shots to hit the 14th hole in regulation (a downhill 170 m par-3). I was left with several demanding pitch shots from within and around the sharp marram covered dunes that eat into the putting surface like no other hole I’ve ever seen.

Ultimately, the challenge for golf course architects moving forward is to take advantage of current and future technical innovation, respond to golfer expectations and tastes, while respecting the spirit of the game and its origins. It’s a fine balance, but the truly great courses of golden age design – the likes of Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne – have proven able to transcend changes in the game and remain as the most inspiring examples of great golf. I think future design-work could better showcase the original spirit of the game and respect the architects that set the stage for golf, as the very best courses of the modern era – Sand Hills, Barnbougle, and Friars Head – have. Whether these contemporary classics can take their place in the very top echelon of golf design will only be answered with time. My bet is they do.

BELOW: The 14th green at Seven Mile Beach presents a demanding target nestled amongst marram covered dunes.

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