Golf Course Master Planning

By: Kevin Norby

As a golf course manager or owner, you have probably contemplated or may have already completed one or more renovation projects at your facility. These may have included drainage improvements, the addition or expansion of a practice facility or the reconstruction of tees, greens or bunkers. No matter how large or how small, it is important going into these projects that there is a clear understanding of what the long-term vision for the golf course is and how those improvements might affect future improvements and future operations. The process that golf course architects use to clarify that vision is called "long-range master planning."

Preserve on Rathbun Lake's 11th Hole

What is a Long-range Master Plan?

This usually consists of a detailed plan and a typewritten narrative summarizing the existing condition of the course as well as recommendations for future improvements. We typically start with an aerial photograph and a topographic map of the course and then, through a series of site visits and meetings, we summarize the strengths and weakness of each hole on the golf course. We typically look for problems associated with drainage and maintenance, safety and pace of play or playability. In some cases, we might also look at opportunities to increase vehicle parking and ways to improve cart-staging and circulation around the clubhouse.

10th Hole at Preserve on Rathbun Lake

Once the analysis has been completed, we then prepare a plan showing our recommended improvements for the course. The plan is usually prepared in full-color so that it is suitable for presentations to large groups or for display in the clubhouse to encourage discussion among the membership and guests.

The final phase of the master-planning process involves putting together a cost estimate and a phasing schedule for the improvements. This allows the superintendent, owner or board of directors to prioritize the specific projects on a hole-by-hole basis based on cost and other criteria of there choosing.

Why do we Need a Master Plan?

The real purpose of a master plan is to provide a long-term vision for making improvements to the course and to provide a basis for prioritizing those upgrades. We frequently visit with courses that only a year or two earlier put in new cart paths or new irrigation systems only to find that the new tees they now want to build don't work well with those previous improvements. By stepping back and taking a look at the bigger picture, the master plan process often allows the club to avoid costly mistakes and to save money by phasing projects in a more logical sequence.

Another important benefit of preparing a master plan is to avoid the implementation of "pet projects" or spontaneous projects which often result when new managers, committee chairs or board members are appointed. Oftentimes these projects are done with perfectly good intentions but without a complete understanding of what the course's long-range priorities are.

14th Hole at Preserve on Rathbun Lake

Implementing a Master Plan

Once the master-planning process is complete, the club will need to decide which projects are of highest priority. For some courses, this is a matter of simply trying to improve turf quality and daily playing conditions. In this case, the club might decide to focus on drainage issues, tree removal and the installation of cart paths. At other facilities, the priority may be to improve course playability and strategy by adding tees, rebuilding greens or reconstructing bunkers.

I often recommend that the club try to select a specific hole or area of the golf course and then complete all or most of the work in that area at once, rather than doing numerous smaller projects, such as constructing new tees on three or four different holes. There are a number of reasons for this, but most importantly these larger more comprehensive projects tend to save money by more effectively minimizing disruption to play throughout the course and by reducing the cost of restoring damaged turf and irrigation.

Another reason for this is that the more comprehensive projects allow the membership and golfing public to see the new, dramatically improved finished project in its entirety rather than just seeing smaller individual projects that might go somewhat unnoticed.

Regardless of how you decide to proceed, the master-planning process can be a great tool for providing a long-range vision and for prioritizing improvements at a golf course.

Kevin Norby is the owner and principal of Herfort Norby Golf Course Architects, LLC. He has been a golf course architect since 1991 and has designed over 60 projects throughout the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Their firm recently completed The Preserve on Rathbun Lake which was ranked runner-up Best New Public Course of 2009 by Golf Inc. and Top 10 New Public Course of 2009 by Golf Digest and Golf and Links magazines. Recent renovation projects include Sunbird Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., Island View Golf Course in Waconia, Minn., and Grand View Golf Course in Des Moines, Iowa. Kevin may be reached at 952/361-0644 or via email at The firm's website address is