New Projects & Musings on Golf Course Architecture

Norby Golf Course Design


I’m sure when we look back in a few years we’ll all remember 2021 for the pandemic but I’m pretty sure we’re also going to remember what a great year this was for the golf industry. The pandemic seems to have spurred a renewed interest in golf as well as many other outdoor activities like biking, boating and camping. Everywhere I go I talk to Board members and golf course owners that are telling me they’re having one of their best years ever. We’re even getting calls again about building new courses. However, just like the housing industry, we’re also seeing some dramatic increases in material and labor costs especially for sod, seed, irrigation pipe, and bunker sand. In addition, contractors are very busy and that has resulted in increased pricing for construction projects. I’ve been telling my clients that we need to be bidding on any future projects 9 months in advance to get the best pricing. Since striking out on my own 32 years ago, this is as busy as I can remember being. We can only hope that this renewed interest in golf continues.


The strong economy and the renewed interest in golf have allowed many owners to contemplate those improvement projects they’ve been putting off for the past decade or two. It’s always interesting that in the dry years we get calls about new irrigation systems and in wet years we get a lot of calls about bunker renovation projects and drainage problems. This year, with the drought in much of the country, we’re getting a lot of calls about new irrigation systems, fairway re-grassing, and green reconstruction.

We’ve also been getting a lot of questions in recent years from superintendents wondering about bunker liners; Which one is the best? What do they cost? Do they really work? I’ve worked with a number of these products and they all seem to have their pros and cons. The good news is that most of these have been on the market long enough now that the pricing is starting to level out and become somewhat more consistent from product to product. I’m still a fan of designing the bunker to minimize maintenance and the need for bunker liners entirely. However, when necessary, there are some good alternatives out there. This is a discussion that is too long to cover here but feel free to call me or email me if you have specific questions on that topic.

It’s also interesting to me that we’re seeing so many people with little or no design experience getting into the golf course design business. Sometimes referred to as “boutique architects” or “shaper architects”, many of these newcomers to the business are really quite talented as equipment operators or shapers but in many cases have little or no real experience in designing a golf course. There’s a lot more that goes into a course than creating interesting greens or sexy bunkers. One needs to consider safety, strategy, maintainability, and the abilities of a wide range of golfers. An owner also needs to consider whether the architect has insurance and the ability to coordinate all the other aspects of a construction project. We’ve had some great results working with some of these shapers and have actually found that the design/build approach has a number of benefits for the owner.


I visited a course this summer that had so many trees that nearly every fairway was lined with a wall of trees. In fact, their fifth hole, a 505-yard par-five, had a large 70-foot tall maple directly in the middle of the fairway at 200 yards off the tee. The Board members actually allowed a second tree to be planted behind the larger tree just in case the larger tree should happen to die or get hit by lightning.

I much prefer to see the strategy of a golf hole defined by bunkers, fairway undulations, or the angle and nuances of the green than by a wall of trees. A course that has hole after hole of tree-lined fairways makes for a monotonous course that’s no fun to play and difficult to maintain. I usually hear comments like “our trees are what makes our course challenging” or “removing trees costs a lot of money”. I typically recommend starting by removing disease-prone, damaged, messy, or otherwise undesirable trees to make room for those trees that are long-lived and provide some strategic or visual benefit. Wide fairway corridors create a strategy. For instance, having one large sentinel tree that overhangs the fairway slightly is a good way to create a strategy and define a specific angle of approach to the green. However, you can only do that if you have enough width to provide an adequate landing area on the opposite side of the fairway.

A.W. Tillinghast loved trees on a golf course and felt that trees were one of the most effective ways to define a golf hole without incorporating a hazard. Tilly stated, “The trick to great golf course design is in using trees as groups to properly frame holes….”

One of my favorite quotes:

Quality, not length; interest, not the number of holes; distinction, not the size in the greens – these are things worth striving for.”

-Robert Hunter


We started work this week on Phase Three improvements at Paako Ridge Golf Club outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jon Schmenk in my office has been leading the project. We’ve been working with former PGA Tour pro Kelly Gibson and contractor Duininck Golf to improve playability and course conditions. The 27-hole Ken Dye-designed course opened in 2000 and has spectacular views and a solid routing. The new owners have elected to take the course private and are intent on making Paako Ridge one of the top golf destinations in the country. They have hired superintendent Chad Waddle, formerly from Mauna Kea Golf Club on the big island of Hawaii, to elevate course conditions and help guide the renovation. So far we’ve been working on leveling and realigning tees and adding new irrigation. Stay tuned for some exciting updates in the coming months. Click here to visit their website.

PAAKO RIDGE GOLF CLUB - Albuquerque, NM Hole 4
PAAKO RIDGE GOLF CLUB – Albuquerque, NM Hole 4


In mid-July Philip Young, A.W. Tillinghast historian, and I toured Golden Valley Country Club to discuss our plans for the renovation of the ninth hole. We also toured Rochester Country Club, Minnesota’s only other Tillinghast design, to see the renovation which Tom Doak recently completed. As the long-time historian for the Tillinghast Society and has authored over a dozen books on A.W. Tillinghast, Philip is widely considered the leading authority on the life and works of “Tilly the Terror”. I just received his new limited edition Chronicles of Tillinghast. Reading books, touring other Tillinghast courses, and working with Philip have given me a new sense of appreciation and understanding of Tilly’s philosophy. I’m intrigued by his “master bunker” concept and how devoted he was to creating strategic yet fair golf courses.

Original 1924 A.W. Tillinghast's Plan for Golden Valley Country Club
Original 1924 A.W. Tillinghast’s Plan for Golden Valley Country Club


Next week we will start construction on a major renovation at Eau Claire Golf & Country Club in Wisconsin. The club was founded in 19o1 and was later expanded to 18-holes in 1928 by Tom Vardon, the brother of golf legend Harry Vardon. Tom Vardon emigrated from England and was the golf professional at White Bear Yacht Club for some 22 years. During his career as a professional golfer and golf professional, he was involved in dozens of projects throughout England and the upper Midwest. Click here to read more about Tom Vardon. There’s not a lot of records of his work but I’ve been doing my research to find examples of his bunker style and green contours. Having completed a long-range master plan in 2018 and has since removed hundreds of trees throughout the course, we are now starting work on a major renovation geared towards reducing maintenance, improving playability, and restoring some of its golden-age characters. We will be realigning fairway corridors and doing a complete bunker and tee renovation. The bunkers will have sharply-sloped fescue grass faces and flat sand reminiscent of classic architecture and construction.

Tom Vardon Photo
Tom Vardon Photo

Thank you to all of you who have taken the time to follow our projects. We hope you have a safe and prosperous year in 2021.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to call me at (952)361-0644 or email me at You can also visit our website at Thank you.

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