Dolly Bogeyton asks, ‘I own a golf course designed in the 1980s. Golfers object to my big mounds, and often wonder why I would want something so obviously artificial. Why were big mounds so popular in that period?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

Dolly, for some, “big mounding” has always been popular.

In golf design, this traces back to the need to dispose of large boulders. Rather than haul them off, they covered them with soil, making unique hazards. As heavy earthmoving became economical in the 1940s, golf course architects expanded mounding, first using it to provide backdrop for greens, and later, mounding more and more the entire length of fairways. Some had purpose – like spectator mounds built by the PGA Tour at stadium-style courses.

But, the trend extended to other new, non-tournament courses, usually for one or more of the following reasons

• Safety
As safety standards expand, but golf course acreage does not, mounding provides an instant barrier between areas that are too tightly spaced.

• Containment
Good players feel the design should assist holding shots in the fairway, and valley fairways (either natural or artificial) help all golfers, theoretically making courses easier and faster to play.*

• Framing
As aesthetics and photography increase in value, so has artistic composition and framing golf holes to meet perceived aesthetic ideals. And, while great sites frame holes naturally, most sites, especially those where there will be future housing, require a bit more artificial work.

• Green Definition
Greens are both the end point and most important feature of the hole, deserving of increased visual emphasis. If there are no natural cues to its location, mounds behind the green can frame it, provide “enclosure” and contain slightly missed shots, similar to valley fairways. Overdone, they create a feeling of “sameness” when each green should be unique, and missing such greens can become tiresome. Missing by only a few yards results in awkward downhill stances, and missing further requires repetitive lob-wedge recovery shots over the mounds, usually from the rough.

• Recreate Valley Holes
Many early links holes followed deep valleys. Golfers still love playing holes enclosed below the horizon. It isolates them from other golfers – and our built-up world. Moving mountains to recreate this look is often a worthy goal, but most efforts fall well short of nature because there is not enough earth to really make a good copy.

• New Look
American culture seemingly values “new” over ”traditional,” putting pressure on golf designers (among others) to create “new styles.”

• Instant Fairway Separation
The economy of modern earthmoving, the modern need for “instant effect” and abundance of easy-to-build “cornfield sites” made mounds a logical choice to divide fairways. Why wait 20 years for trees to grow?

• Hiding Cart Paths
Long, subtle ridges can often hide cart paths, if located by the paths or somewhere along the sight line between the tees and paths.

• Hiding Tees
A desire to recreate simpler days – when courses had only one tee – leads designers to create multiple tees at varying angles, using mounds and landscaping to screen each from the other.

Mounds are useful architectural tools and increased course aesthetics – at least until designers (including yours truly) got to the point of creating exaggerated earthworks bordering on bizarre moonscapes. They won’t – and shouldn’t – ever be displaced in the golf course architect arsenal.

But, after seeing mounds of all descriptions on literally a thousand courses, often very exaggerated, out of place and sometimes downright ridiculous, most architects have either reduced mounding, or have begun creating softer, gentler mounding, by moving more earth to tie more natural-looking earthforms together.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the next decade sees mass softening of many ill-conceived mounds built from 1980-2000 (it will be too expensive to haul mounds off) in an effort to increase aesthetics, and reduce both mowing time and irrigation required to keep mounds well-turfed.

Most feel the most aggressive mounding of the late 20th century hasn’t aged well, having gone from “cutting edge” to “cut them out” in just a few short years.**

*There are no statistics, and there are golfers who fly the mounds, and slow play, since they can’t tell direction from the adjacent fairway.

** Of course, we always feel our sense of taste is “right on the money,” but eventually, some new style will again take hold.