Golf Course master planning

Norby Golf Design October

As a golf course superintendent, 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 which golf course architects use to clarify that vision is called “long-range master planning.”

What is a long-range master plan?

The long-range master usually consists of a detailed plan and a typewritten narrative summarizing the existing condition of the golf course as well as recommendations for future improvement. We typically start with an aerial photograph and a topographic map of the golf course and then, through a series of site visits and meetings, we summarize the strengths and weaknesses of each hole on the golf course. We typically look for drainage and maintenance problems, safety problems, and problems with the 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.

Once the analysis has been completed, we then prepare a plan of the golf course showing our recommended improvements. The plan is 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 manager, owner, or board to prioritize the specific projects on a hole-by-hole basis based on cost and other criteria of their choosing.

Why do we need a master plan?

The real purpose of the master plan is to provide a long-term vision for making improvements to the golf course and to provide a basis for prioritizing those improvements. 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 superintendents are hired or new board members or are elected. Oftentimes these projects are done with perfectly good intentions but without a complete understanding of what the course’s long-range priorities are.

Implementing your master plan

Once the master planning process is complete, your club will need to decide which projects are of the 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 courses, the priority may be improving 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 specific 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 this allows the membership or 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.

Another reason for this is that these larger more comprehensive projects tend to save money by minimizing disruption to play throughout the golf course and by minimizing money that will need to be spent restoring damaged turf.

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 to your golf course.

Kevin Norby is a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and the principle of Herfort Norby Golf Course Architects, LLC. Recent long-range master plan projects include Coal Creek Golf Course in Colorado, Bemidji Town &Country Club in Minnesota, and Sunbird Golf Club in Chandler, Arizona. Kevin may be reached at
(952)361-0644 or via email at Website address is

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