Green Design

By John Lafoy, ASGCA Past President

Explaining how to design a green complex is much like an artist trying to explain how to paint a portrait. Technically, it may be easy, but doing it is another story. The curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art once told a professional duck decoy carver that he was the first artist since John Audubon who had the ability to capture something in his bird carvings that no one else could achieve. It would be a safe bet that this artist could not explain what he did differently than other carvers. Even if he could, it would not mean that anyone else could do it. A USGA Green Section Representative once asked an architect how he knew when to elevate a green. The architect responded, “I don’t know; I just do.” That was as good an answer as any. He might have just said “experience,” although all the experience in the world may not translate in the ability to design greens or carve ducks.

We have all seen enough films and presentations to know how to build a USGA green. Technically, it is quite straight forward, and quite frankly, there is no excuse for not being able to build a green complex properly. If that is the case, then the construction part is the easy part. It may be of some interest to seminar participants to know what thought process many architects go through in designing or re-designing an existing greens complex. The word “green complex” is used, because it includes the putting surface, greenside bunkers and grass hollows, and slopes and shoulders. Keep in mind that every architect may have a little different thought process and the following is that of the author.

First, when looking at a set of existing greens, look for those complexes that have redeeming qualities from both and aesthetic and playability standpoint. You probably are already aware that the greens are experiencing turf problems, so it is a forgone conclusion that they need to be rebuilt from an agronomic standpoint. For the sake of this exercise, we will also assume that this course is not a historic course, where we will put the greens back, as is.

At first you will make mental notes to formulate what a possible course of action will be. You may want to look at the following:


Are they attractive? Is there any variety in their placement? All too often, and many clubs do not realize it until pointed out, you go from hole to hole and see a round green with bunker left and bunker right, bunker left, bunker right, bunker left, bunker right, and so on. Very little variety. There is also a good chance that they have lost their shape and sand has built up on the lower margins (the author has witnessed sand build up of 36″) or has made the greenside margins too droughty to support grass.


Is there any variety in the green shapes, or are all the surfaces round? Are there flagstick locations available behind bunkers? It is very rare that I look at a set of old green plans where all of the greens were designed round. However, after a number of years of routine maintenance, they all wind up round. All too often there is just too little variety or flexibility on the putting surfaces.

It is also not unusual to find older courses with green slopes that are no longer acceptable when mowed to modern standards. Greens surfaces that were designed for Common Bermuda grass are just not going to be very playable when planted with Bent grass and mowed at an eighth of an inch.


Is a green designed for 5,000 rounds of golf annually going to continue to support 30,000 or more rounds? How do you keep the character of an older course and dramatically enlarge the putting surfaces? When done properly, it is feasible to enlarge putting surfaces without making them appear too large.


Are the slopes around the putting surface too severe? Are the walk-ups between the bunkers too narrow, causing undue wear? Are there any chipping areas? All too often, designers compromise design due to traffic flow from the cart path to the putting surface. You might conclude that there should be no bunkers between the cart path and the putting surface. Unfortunately, that would mean designing a golf course based on the cart path location. Certainly there are designs that call for bunkers between the cart path and green and we should be careful not to over balance maintenance concerns with design criteria.

After making your initial assessment of the greens, many architects will survey and cross section the complex in order to make base sheets for the proposed renovations. The survey is useful for several reasons. First, it will accurately show you the size of the existing greens. You can almost be sure that the greens are not as large as the course owner or superintendent think. That is true in almost every case. Secondly, it is indispensable when doing the design work. An experienced designer can re-design green complexes by balancing the dirt that is already there. It may not make a lot of sense, on many occasions, to be hauling a bunch of fill dirt to a green site when it is not needed. Additional construction traffic around the course just adds to the damage.

After completing the base maps showing the existing green complex, most architects will discuss the new greens with their client and the course superintendent. The designer may want to know which of the existing greens the members/players like. This may not only have an effect on which greens remain similar, but it gives the designer an idea what the membership likes. You may also ask which greens the members do not like, so you know what to avoid. After some initial meetings, it is time to start some preliminary sketches.

Every architect probably has a different way of starting their preliminary design, but many find it useful to view the green complexes from the landing area to visualize what the new green will look like. Of course, with the base map in hand, showing the topography of the existing green complex, the proposed green should fit into the natural flow of the ground. An experienced designer will make the new green fit in with the site. As the designer looks at each individual green site, he/she may also want to mentally access whether or not too many of the greens are being oriented for the same type of golf shot. In other words, do fifteen of the eighteen greens favor a draw or a fade? A good designer should try and balance the design so that no one golfer consistently has the advantage.

Consider All Golfers

While working in the preliminary stage, the designer will also have to consider that many of the golfers will not be able to execute the preferred shot to a particular green. Alternate routes are always a good idea. Island greens and forced carries may sometimes be appropriate, but whenever possible, you should give the high handicap player a chance to play the hole.

Diagonally oriented greens, with proper bunker placement, can offer great flagstick placements behind bunkers; yet still afford a run-up shot to the putting surface. The run-up shot may be more difficult or impossible to get close to the flagstick, as the preferred shot should be rewarded, when possible.

Continuing that same philosophy, many designers feel that it is always to give players a “bail out” area around the green complex where possible. However, if a player “bails out,” they should not be rewarded with a better birdie opportunity than the player who hit the riskier shot. This is an easy concept to understand, but may not be so easy to execute for someone who has never designed greens. Again, experience pays off.

Playability is Key

Green contouring is about as individual as fingerprints. However, all successful greens must have one thing in common. They must be playable. We have all encountered putting surfaces that are marginal, and probably even unplayable, but those are the exception rather than the rule. While some skilled designers prefer to put most of their movement within the putting surface proper, others like to incorporate the movement on the perimeter of the surfaces and run it onto the surfaces. An example of this would be carefully placing mounds around the perimeter of the green and tailing the mounds onto the putting surface. By doing this, you create some very interesting contours without using up too much of the cuppable area within the putting surface. These “tailing mounds” are also very helpful in segmenting the cupping areas. An ideal green may be a three lobed configuration with a “tailing mound” separating each cupping area. Each cupping area should offer six or seven cup placements. Balls stopping within the appropriate segment should offer a relatively easy putt within fifteen or twenty feet. Balls stopping on the edge of the green or in a different segment of the putting surface may require a double break or putting over a mound. Nothing impossible, but a more challenging putt.

Multiple-level greens have their place and are quite effective when used properly. They are best used to counteract a green site that slopes excessively from back to front. A multi-level green used here eliminates building a putting surface that slopes so severely that players cannot stop a ball close to the cup on downhill putts. It also keeps you from building a one level green where the front is built up so high that it looks completely un-natural. The secret to building a functional multi-level green is in the transition between the platforms. Many of the older multi-level greens use way too much of the putting surface in the transition between levels. It is not unusual to see as much as a third or half of a green un-cuppable due to the transition slope.

It is critical, during the initial grading of a multi-level green, to over exaggerate the slope between the two levels. It is also critical that the slope between the levels be flat and not convex or humped. As the green is built up with the various rock and top mix layers, the slope begins to mellow. What was previously a severe slope is now much more acceptable.

After the top mix has been installed, the designer should work with the superintendent to determine the final contouring, so as to avoid scalping the crown when grass is established.

One final tip: When fine grading the sub-surface or putting the final float on the top mix, do not “work” the slope from one level to the next. Work the top and bottom decks like they were separate greens, leaving the slope crisp, and on the last few passes, tie the slope in.