CONTOURS PRESENTS

Impossible Golf Courses

William Watt imagines golf courses in some of the world’s most remote and stunning landscapes through these experiments in AI generated photography. He also speaks to AI enthusiast and architect Rob Wilson about how the technology is evolving and what the future might hold.
Written & edited by William Watt and Rob Wilson with Midjourney AI

PADI HILLS GOLF CLUB

LOMBOK, INDONESIA // 8.6510° S, 116.3249° E

 

PROMPT: /imagine: An 18 hole golf course located in the rice paddies of rural Lombok, Indonesia surrounded by lush rainforest. *

 

This was the shot that started a week-long (so-far) obsession with Midjourney AI and the stunning, almost photo-realistic images it can produce. I had dabbled with the technology a few months back, navigating the clunky discord forum-style user interface, but had been unable to get anything worth showing. But as with any rapidly evolving technology, it pays to persist and try to learn it’s mysterious ways, and after a couple of days of tinkering, it felt like I had hit the jackpot with this image. The level of detail in the topography and vegetation blew me away. I compared it to actual photographs of Lombok and could barely tell the difference. Except of course for the randomly assembled pieces of golf course that had been integrated quite brilliantly into the landscape. Whether or not the holes were actually playable, or if the routing was even vaguely accessible, it seemed like something people might want to see. I was gradually able to work up my hit rate of images that I considered ‘passable as real’ to around 1 in 10, and a ‘worthy of sharing’ to around 1 in 25.

 

*Prompts have been simplified for the purposes of this article. Most locations took 15-20 prompts to gather enough imagery to create a post-worthy destination.

PADI HILLS GOLF CLUB

COYOTE CANYONS

UTAH, USA // 37.5930° N, 112.1871° W

 

PROMPT: /imagine: A stunning par-4 golf hole located at the Many Pools Trailhead in Zion, Utah, United States.” 

 

Once Padi Hills had been thoroughly explored, I began thinking about other landscapes that might accommodate a spectacular looking golf course. I had hiked around Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park on a trip to the US in 2018, and the scenery there had stuck with me ever since. After researching some reference locations and course design inputs, I started generating. The extreme, exposed landscape proved more challenging than the heavily forested Padi Hills, but through primarily a process of trial and error, a style emerged that felt plausible.

After exploring the Canyon floor and water hollows, the temptation to explore the upper reaches of the canyons was inevitable, and some extreme if not impossible holes started to emerge. I kept some of them in the series, and it certainly made good fodder for instagram (by far the highest performing series from the project). Some who discovered the post organically (as opposed to existing followers who knew a little more about the project) thought the course was real, and started suggesting buddies trips to Utah, before being disappointed to learn Coyote Canyons does not (and will definitely never) exist. But for my taste some of these shots dance a little too close to the line of implausibility. As a photographer that is where a good portion of the interest lies in this technology – can something generated inside a server somewhere be as good (or better than) reality? The answer for me is ‘not yet’ – the resolution and finer detail just isn’t quite there yet. But ‘when’ could be a lot sooner than many expect. Advances in this technology are being talked about in WEEKS, not months or years. I fully expect by the end of the 2023 it will be impossible to tell the difference, with the naked eye at least, between a real world photograph and an AI generated image. The implications of which are hard to predict.

COYOTE CANYONS GOLF COURSE

BRIDGEWATER CLIFFS

MORNINGTON PENINSULA, AUSTRALIA  // 38.2854° S, 145.0934° E

 

PROMPT: /imagine: An 18 hole golf course located on the clifftops of Bridgewater Bay on the Mornington Peninsula

 

As a regular visitor to the Mornington Peninsula, I have spent many late summer afternoons walking along the rugged coastline between Rye and Sorrento with camera in hand. In the right conditions, it is a stunningly beautiful part of the world, and I always find myself imagining golf holes in the sandy dunes that sit along the top of the cliffs. The quality of the AI generations for this area surprised me even more than previous locations. Having such an intimate knowledge of the area, I was sure there would be errors or flaws that a local could pick up on in the images. But from the coastal flora, to the distinctive orange colour and shape of the cliffs and sand, and even the harsh quality of light that we get in southern Australia, it was spot on. The AI almost seemed to enjoy routing the holes on this stretch of coastline using the prompts, and it was a pleasure exploring the different coves, beaches and inlets from any angle I wanted during endless perfect afternoon light.

BRIDGEWATER CLIFFS GOLF COURSE

BRIDGEWATER CLIFFS CLUBHOUSE

Rob Wilson Interview

Prior to really getting stuck into Midjourney, I had reached out to a couple of people I had seen posting imagined golf courses on Twitter and Instagram that sparked my curiosity. Rob Wilson, a building architect and virtual golf course designer, was one such person. I caught up with him over email to discuss the technology and gain some insight into how he saw it fitting into the golf course industry in the years (or maybe even months) ahead.

Contours: Rob, what is your background, and where did your interest in golf course architecture begin?

Rob Wilson: My interest in golf architecture started shortly after I started playing golf at 11 years old. My brother in law was a scratch golfer and off-loaded a bunch of old golf books on me and one of them was the World Golf Atlas. I was immediately hooked by the book and spent countless hours studying the course plans and pictures. St Andrews, Pine Valley and National Golf Links were particularly compelling to look at and opened my eyes to a much broader spectrum of what golf courses could be. Throughout high school I filled my art books with sketches of course routings and perspective views. In my later years of high school and university I got into designing courses for programs like Sim Golf and the Jack Nicklaus golf series. At this point in my life I had actually considered a career in golf architecture and after reading Tom Doak’s Anatomy of a Golf Course I went as far as to write him a letter which he generously provided a lengthy reply to. Given the low probability of entering into the field of golf design I decided to enter into a building architecture program and through that got hooked on building architecture. I ended up taking a job with a really good local architecture firm and have spent the last 15 years designing community based buildings and really enjoying the process. A bit of art mixed with a bit of science. I’ve still kept an interest in golf design as a frequent reader of the discussion board at Golf Club Atlas and have made four trips down to Bandon Dunes between 2002 and 2022  where I’ve discovered my love for links golf. In 2016 I discovered a new golf game called The Golf Club that had a course designer and gameplay that was far and away better than the earlier programs I had used, and it reignited my interest in virtually designing courses. 

Can you talk about a bit about virtual golf course design – what software do you use, is there a community around this, what are its possibilities and limitations?

The program I use to design courses virtually was originally called The Golf Club – the newest release called PGA 2K23. Over the last seven years there’s been a great community of designers that share our work through websites like TGC tours which organizes seasons of virtual golf tournaments on our courses, much like the PGA Tour. The design community is a tight knit group who collaborate on courses and organize design competitions. With LiDAR data combined with Open Street Maps (OSM), we can now recreate existing golf courses with a high level of accuracy as well as take real plots of land and route our own golf courses over them. I’m currently working on a version of Capilano Golf Club, one of Stanley Thompson’s great courses up here in Vancouver. I’ve also taken on a fun project where I’m doing a redesign of a course near Vancouver called 18 Pastures. The course is on a wild site but is notoriously difficult, overgrown and in bad condition. I’m attempting to see if there’s anything that could be done to make it more playable and open it up.

AI Generated art by Rob Wilson
Lunar bunkers are not to be trifled with, even if it is a low gravity environment.
Golf carts are essential on the moon – space suits are difficult to walk in and a well struck drive can travel over 2km

How have you seen AI start to impact your work in building architecture, and do you see these potentially transferring across to golf course architecture? 

As the broad scale application of AI is fairly recent we’ve only just started thinking about the potential use of it in architecture. Previous to AI we have used algorithmic programs like Grasshopper that integrate with 3D modelling programs like Rhino and Revit to generate and iterate design options through parametric inputs. I would imagine if AI integrated into these programs we could generate design options at a much higher rate. There’s already AI based software that can spit out simple residential multi family buildings and office layouts from a series of drop down lists. The program claims it can also adhere to building codes and coordinate structural, mechanical and electrical services. This type of technology would seem to be particularly attractive to residential developers who want to generate buildings that have the highest ROI. My firm typically designs community buildings funded by municipalities who care more for the user experience where the measure of success is more qualitative and less quantitative in nature. I’d like to see how AI can design a building taking into more nebulous parameters like light quality and spatial composition.

What drove you to first start experimenting with AI generation models for golf course designs, and what was your reaction when you started to see what was coming back? 

I had seen some images posted on Twitter by a member of the virtual design community Peter Flory (of Lido Fame) and was kind of blown away and mystified by what he was getting. At the time I figured it was some complex software he was using. After some people in my office started experimenting with the program Mid Journey, which runs as a bot through the Discord app, I realized that the generation of these images was really as easy as typing in what you want to see. I figured I would give it a try and was amazed by what it could generate given all the layers of text information I would input.

Can you share some of the techniques and ideas you have used in your prompts to generate these images? 

The main function in MidJourney is “Imagine” where you type in a prompt and it spits out four images. You then select the image that you like and upscale it to a single detailed image. You can also take that image and create variations of it. Each render takes less than a minute so you can iterate very quickly. At first I was typing in some descriptions like “golf hole set amongst sand dunes”. The results were ok but they seemed kind of generic and a bit cartoony. I then continued to add more layers of description like “a hyperrealistic wide angle image of a par 4 golf hole set over rugged rolling terrain along grassy Pacific Northwest coastal dunes with dense cypress trees, long fescue grasses and gorse bushes. Bumpy terrain. Rugged bunkers cut into and blended into natural landscape. Windswept. Barren. Rumpled fairways. Stormy skies. Misty ethereal with diffuse light.” The more info I put in, the more granular and detailed the results were.

There is a second function within Midjourney called “Blend” which I’ve found gives you a bit more control of the output. Rather than a text prompt, you select two images to blend together. For this function you can use both the images created from previous renders as well as  real-world images of golf courses. For example I could take an image of the 10th hole at Pine Valley and cross it with an image of the 12th hole at Augusta resulting in a vaguely familiar hybrid. I’ve also found you can save images of just landscapes from the internet and then blend with an image of a golf hole to allow you to choose the landscape that gets reflected in the image. After many AI renders you end up with a palette of images that you can combine in different ways depending on what you are trying to achieve. For example, I might want one of my renders to have more fairway so I’ll take the original render and blend it with an image of the 18th hole at St Andrews. What’s great about this function is that you can start to manipulate the results rather than simply describing what you want and having the AI do it all. I’m hoping in time we’ll see more AI functions that will give us even more creative control over the images.

The visual impact of the generated images that come back can be quite striking, and perhaps a starting point for some ideas, but this probably has limited use in a practical sense. What do you think is the next step of AI in golf course design (and potentially construction) that will make a truly useful tool in the process?

Beyond purely aesthetic matters I don’t see why AI couldn’t be used for more advanced spatial problem solving like routing a golf course. With the Lidar data available now you would think that it would be possible for it to read the terrain and generate a sequence of holes based on a set of predefined  parameters like number of holes, number of par-3s, 4s, 5s, maximum length of a course, maximum cross slope for a fairway, hole proximity and safety, blindness, orientation to specific views, prevailing winds. It might be a challenging bit of programming for the software to make this work but it doesn’t seem too far off.

That said, I’m not convinced it will spit out something better than what Tom Doak could produce but maybe it could be used as a tool for early exploration of design options. For sites like Sandhills where there were literally hundreds of potential routings you would think it might be a way to generate options very quickly. As I noted above in regards to architectural design,  AI might be limited with respect to the qualitative aspects of the routing and design process and perhaps will never replace the well trained hand and eye of a golf architect completely.  Most of greatest golf architecture is the result of an architect being on site with an intimate knowledge of and hands-on connection to the site and its great to see a new generation of architects carrying on that tradition. When I listen to Bill Coore talk about spending countless days just walking around a site its hard to argue with that approach when you look at the results!

There might be some more technical applications of AI if the course is prebuilt in a digital model, for instance a course could use AI software to look at site drainage resolution and analysis.

Routing a golf course is the sort of deep thinking problem that tends to separate the truly great designers from the pack. It seems to require great imagination and intuition. Is this perhaps where AI could be of greatest benefit? In what practical ways might it help this process?

At this point I think it works well as an idea generator. For example you could take a picture of the raw landscape of a site and blend it with a hole with a bunkering scheme that you like, the result could be an early visual concept for the course. We use the term precedence a lot in architecture and its basically using completed buildings for design inspiration. With AI we can now create a realistic precedence without requiring that the building exist in real life. I think the same could be applied to golf design. Furthermore, in architecture studios one thing that is often done early in the design process is to find ways to break out of your normal way of thinking. For example you’ll be asked to draw a section view of a building and then part way through they’ll ask you to shift your thinking and make a plan out of the section view. The process is disruptive but can lead you down unexpected paths that you wouldn’t necessarily arrive at on your own. Perhaps the AI process could be used to help some designers think about things in a different way and break out of the box a bit.

 

With bulldozers and shaping equipment now offering millimeter level precision, it is feasible that an entire course can be constructed from a 3d model, as we have now seen in practice with The Lido at Sand Valley. What possibilities does this open up in terms of automation and integration with AI?

If the hypothetical software existed to generate an AI course routing from Lidar data you could feasibly create and build a course almost completely via AI with minimal human input; barring the limitations as described in the response above. To be honest, the wholesale AI approach, much like building architecture created from drop down lists, sounds kind of scary and could result in a renaissance of bad golf architecture with AI generated courses delivered efficiently but perhaps lacking the nuance and delight usually brought through the collaboration between the golf architect and their associates on site. Perhaps this would usher in a generation of courses analogous to the post war era where the promise of technological advancement in golf design created a greater detachment from the site resulting in courses devoid of a sense of place. I think AI should be used where it can elevate design exploration and perhaps expedite some of the more tedious technical aspects of golf design and construction.

One of the rejected designs for the Padi Hills Clubhouse

KAKADU HOLLOWS

NORTHERN TERRITOY, AUSTRALIA // 13.0923° S, 132.3938° E

 

PROMPT: /imagine: A stunning 18-hole golf course located near Kakadu National Park

 

The only course so far to illicit some controversy has been Kakadu Hollows, with some fearing the imagined imposition of a golf course onto the sacred grounds of Kakadu National Park to be ‘dangerous and uncharted territory’. I understand the argument, but I think it lacks an understanding of what the AI software is actually doing here. At least in the form that I’ve been using it, none of the images depict actual physical locations. They are one-off, unique generations based on the software’s understanding of the topography and flora of the area, combined with my prompts to incorporate specific golf elements and apply virtual camera directions. Even entering the exact same prompt seconds after the initial rendering will conjure an entirely different landscape. It is possible to upload a specific reference image and have the software re-imagine it and blend it with another image (see Rob’s interview piece below for more on this) but, as far as I know anyway, that is not what is happening in the majority of image generation. In any case, I loved seeing the landscapes of the Northern Territory shown in this way, even if this course is one that will certainly never be built.

KAKADU HOLLOWS GOLF COURSE

LAKAGÍGAR LINKS

ICELAND // 64°03′53″N 18°13′34″W

 

PROMPT: /imagine: A dramatic golf course located near Lakagígar

 

Iceland is kind of an obvious option when it comes to dramatic landscapes, but I had a lot of fun with this one nonetheless. The contrast of the black volcanic soil was always going to be fun to work with, and as someone who hasn’t travelled anywhere like this, some of the ground level shots in particular surprised me with the extremity of the canyons and ridges.

I hope these images and my discussion with Rob sparked some interest for you in the technology and it’s applications to golf. But if not, I hope the images were fun to look at, and that you can dream of some impossible golf when you’re next practicing your swing in a quite moment.

LAKAGÍGAR LINKS

MONTAPERTI GOLF CLUB

TUSCANY, ITALY // 43.7711° N, 11.2486° E

 

PROMPT: /imagine: A subtle and beautiful golf course on the outskirts of Sienna, Italy” 

 

Watching the Italian Open on television, I was reminded of my journey to the Tuscany region nearly 10 years ago where I fell in love with the town of Sienna and it’s surrounding hills. For this course, I imagined a very rustic and natural aesthetic, allowing the Tuscan landscape to take centre stage. The clubhouse was an enjoyable addition, imagining something historic and classic fit out in contrast to the other destinations which all had a modern and minimalist approach.

Please leave a comment below if you had any feedback, ideas or insights into this article – we love hearing from our readers.

MONTAPERTI GOLF CLUB

LAKE COMO COUNTRY CLUB

LAKE COMO, ITALY // 45.991° N, ,9.2278° E

 

PROMPT: /imagine: A subtle and beautiful golf course on the banks of Lake Como, Italy” 

 

Having cancelled a trip to Lake Como earlier this year due to family commitments, I was keen to explore the region from my desk and what better way than imagining a golf course along the lakeside. The rugged terrain of the area made for a dramatic setting, and combined with a light morning haze and classic Italian architecture, this is a course I would happily travel 24 hours to play.

LAKE COMO COUNTRY CLUB

2 Comments

  • Marquis says:

    This page alone could be a standalone booklet of which I would love to have, and be first in line to buy. These are all absolutely beautiful and I love everything about this. Thank you so much.

    • William Watt says:

      Thanks Marquis. Unfortunately the current resolution that the AI generates is not high enough for print. It won’t be long until it is though, so do stay tuned!

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