The keys to building a memorable golf course? A veteran course designer opens his playbook

November 6, 2019

Ed. note: This is the third and final installment in a three-part sponsored series, Pro Perspective, in which experts from various walks of golf shine a light on how they see the game. Read the first two installments here and here

***

It’s funny looking back now, but I didn’t always want to be a golf course designer. I didn’t even realize it was a profession. I was more attracted to the life of a course superintendent. But, after graduating with a degree in agronomy from Iowa State, I was like a lot of young adults — I really needed a job. Jack Nicklaus had an opening on his design team and just two days later I gave up the superintendent dream forever.

We were moving turf, bulldozing dirt, drawing bunkers into existence. I had never done anything like it, and frankly it was bit intimidating. Then Big Jack made a site visit and I was completely hooked. Thirty-six years later, both those things remain true. I love working with the earth to create a beautiful, challenging and fun course, and Jack still comes around to weigh in on all of it. He’s played a fatherly role to all the designers who have learned the trade from him.

Working for Nicklaus for more than three decades, I’ve learned that priority No. 1 is preparation. That’s the same way he approached his playing career, and we all know how that worked out. Jack could ask you anything, and you cannot make up answers on the fly. He’s a stickler for detail. Why is this tree here? I thought this bunker was supposed to go there? You can’t bulls— him. Over time, I’ve earned his trust because he knows we have the same goal: to create something memorable.

The beauty of golf design is that there are a million different ways to accomplish it. People think back-to-back par 3s are a gimmick and must be avoided. Sometimes that’s the proper move! Mother Nature dictates a lot of what you can do with the land, but if the client agrees and trusts us, we are ready to bring those decisions to life. Hand us a flat, square piece of land with a low water table and we can create just about anything. Some of our Florida courses have been like that. It’s a designer’s dream.

"Course design is an ever-flowing creative process that is buoyed by my love for playing the game," says Cochrane (pictured).

Forgive me if I’ve made the job sound a bit like Golf Course Tycoon. Course design is not simple. I spend many hours pouring over rigorous governmental regulations, making sure everything works well with the surrounding environment. And while I love exercising my artistic talent with topography maps, we toss aside countless rough drafts en route to the finished product. So far, the most holes I’ve ever designed on a course that actually ended up as planned was six! Yes, a .333 batting average is phenomenal in both baseball and golf course design.

It’s an ever-flowing creative process that, unsurprisingly, is buoyed by my love for playing the game. I love the game as much now as when I was young, but these days, my designer brain and by golfer brain are intrinsically married. I believe that’s the easiest way to become a better designer: travel the world and play courses everywhere. Jack was the same way.

You can pick up something from C.B. Macdonald here, something else from Alister MacKenzie there. Perhaps you liked how Nicklaus selected landing zones in Georgia or how Pete Dye manicured bunkers in Wisconsin. Mix in your own style and you’ve got something no one has ever seen before. That will be a special golf course.

Nicklaus Companies and GOLF.com are affiliates of 8AM Golf.