Finding Land For A Golf Course

By: Bill Amick

Editor’s Note: The following was written by William W. “Bill” Amick, a past president and fellow of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, who has designed courses in the U.S. and Europe. The article originally appeared in the February 10, 2004, edition of The Wire.

Why build a golf course? There are a variety of compelling reasons and it is usually done for a combination of good reasons. Here are some of the common ones.

• As an amenity for a resort or hotel to attract more golfers and as incentive for golfing guests to stay longer. Noted examples are found from Pebble Beach to Banff, to Arizona to South Florida resorts.

• To boost the marketing of housing in a residential golf community with lots of focus on the landscaped frontage created by the course’s fairways.

• For the sporting and social enjoyment of a club’s members.

• As the site for tournaments of any level of competition.

• As a business by an individual, family, group, or corporation, particularly by golfers wanting to spend more time around the game they love. Family-owned courses for daily fees are found in small and large communities of the “heartland” as well as from coast to coast.

• By municipalities for the healthful recreation of its citizens, while also appealing to visitors or tourists. The links of Saint Andrews started this long ago and continues it actively today.

• By a manufacturing plant for its personnel, or on a base for those in the military.

• In the greenspace portion required for most new office parks, industrial parks and other large planned developments. A golf course adds beauty to those areas that often look rather stark, while helping to lure tenants through their employees.

The basic requirement for a golf course is the land on which it will be built. The nature of that land has a critical influence on the cost of the course’s construction, how future golfers will enjoy playing the course, the difficulty or ease of maintaining it in the years ahead, and ultimately the success of that golf course.

A course developer may already own a suitable site, making this primary step easy. It will likely take more time, some searching and perhaps a good bit of funding if the land must be acquired. Let’s examine a few of the different starting points and basic motives of golf course developers. The following are some general categories.

• Those who have suitable land for a golf course and want to, or must, keep ownership of it.

• Those who have the land and want to utilize it in the most profitable way possible; this could include having more land than necessary for just the golf course.

• Those who presently don’t have land and will buy it.

• Those who are buying land for a reason, other than just for the golf course itself. Such reasons could be for selling the surrounding land to homebuyers or builders, to build a hotel or for other types of large-scale developments.

• Those who don’t own land and might lease it. The land could continue to be owned by private interests or a public entity, such as a city, county, park system, airport, state or an agency of the federal government. Hundreds of golf courses are located at major commercial airports like LAX and DFW, and at private airports all around the country.

Because land is usually expensive in most metropolitan areas, buying a suitable site there for an 18-hole conventional golf course may initially seem impractical. That is unless it is associated with other business activities that will be highly profitable in the long run. In this case, the course must be a key amenity. However, even in populated and established vacation locations, after some research, an opportunity for a course might figuratively be “just around the corner” or at least “down the street.” And, ultimately the cost of the land may be well worth it when analyzed with the overall value of having a golf course.

Leasing the land saves money up front or might be done when the land cannot be purchased. Naturally, the lease must be long enough to (under reasonable terms) justify the capital improvements to be made by the developer. There are a number of examples where the land has been leased for a golf course, thereby becoming a great gain for the landowner, developer and its eventual players.

How much land is needed for a golf course?

An 18-hole conventional-length golf course with the clubhouse and proper practice facilities requires from 140 to 200 acres of usable land, depending on the site. A championship course within a residential community needs the most land, since proper separation must be assured between holes and houses. Also, there must be room for spectator and tournament administration functions. Nine holes with a total par of 35 or 36 should take about half that. If nine holes are to be opened initially, it can be great for the future if there is enough land to design a second nine at the same time.

Are there any other kinds of courses worth considering?

Executive, par-3 and pitch-and-putt golf courses are all smaller than conventional golf courses, so they require less land. These appeal more to less-skilled golfers; beginners; the young; older seniors; families and couples wanting to play together; for anyone desiring a faster round; walkers where nearby conventional courses always require carts; as an ideal place for on-course instruction; and for some people with disabilities. An 18-hole executive course takes approximately 100 acres, an 18-hole par-3 less than 65 acres, and an 18-hole pitch and putt course 25 to 30 acres. Since each of these courses has shorter, narrower fairways and typically smaller greens than for conventional courses, they also all cost significantly less to construct and have lower annual maintenance budgets.

What is ideal for building a golf course?

There are many factors determining if a site is desirable for a golf course. The following are some of the most important considerations.

Characteristics. The property should be large enough so that holes can be separated safely for golfers and fitted properly to the land’s contours. A gentle roll is better than perfectly flat or steep land. Although with sufficient earth moving during construction or enough freedom to design across a few steep places, such sites have been made into outstanding golf courses. Augusta National’s slopes did not allow for holes to run in any direction, but plenty of acreage and a careful routing plan made it a spectacular golf course.

Soil Type. A sandy or sandy loam soil is best because of its good drainage characteristics. However, with soil modification, capping with better topsoil, surface grading for water runoff and/or subsurface drainage lines, a heavy soil, gravelly topsoil or soil with hard rock near the surface can all be handled for a satisfying outcome.

Water and Trees. Because of the way many famous golf holes are presently framed, people often think mature trees are a must on the site of every new course. Actually, construction is easier on a relatively open site and then trees can be planted where they best fit with the holes. A stream, ponds or other water bodies definitely add to the drama and looks of most courses. Although it is not prohibited to use land surrounding natural water, doing so (especially with wetlands) can complicate the regulations under which course development can be done. Instead, if feasible, digging or damming a pond or ponds can often make the permitting process simpler. And, along with wells or other sources of water, the use of ponds could also provide the water supply needed for irrigation. A dependable and affordable water supply is essential for a golf course.

All of these critical factors and others should be examined when determining the suitability of land for a new course or additional holes.

As early as is practical, a field on the site could be cleaned, smoothed and grassed like a lawn. This would allow golfers to hit golf balls on it until regular construction of the course is begun. This way, at a minimal cost, some people could begin coming to the site.

Ways to start searching for land

There are a number of methods of looking for land for a golf course. Below are some tips.

• Ask people who know about or deal in land. These could be owners of large tracts, people who make their living in real estate, and people who simply keep up with what’s going on with land transactions.

• Estates and businesses sell land from time to time, some in distress or by auction, and notices of these appear in newspapers and business journals.

• Some developers have more land than they will need or at least use for a long time. A few might be very cooperative in selling or leasing some of their unused land for a golf course.

• Some farmers keep up on neighboring farms for sale and who their owners are.

• Contact established developers of residential communities, office parks, industrial parks and other large-sized developments to see if they would consider including a golf course in one of their future projects.

• There are economic development agencies in many industrial areas with offices you can contact for land listings. Their staff can be of assistance in locating property for sale or lease and in providing statistical information about those areas.

• Get in your car and drive around looking for unoccupied land. A light plane or helicopter rented for a few hours will cover a lot of ground while viewing land that cannot be seen from roads.

• Aerial maps of large-enough areas, provided they have enough detail, are good starting references.

• Ultimately, you will probably get to county tax rolls to see who owns the properties.

• For leasing land there are a host of sources, both private and public. The public ones can include cities, counties, states, park districts, airports, other authorities like old military bases, completed landfills, old mines, universities, churches, a few federal agencies and others.