So you want to design your own golf course?

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO -- Besides a hole-in-one, breaking 80, and playing Pebble Beach, what's the one thing golf nuts like us would love to experience, do, have? You've probably already done it, at least in your imagination. Maybe you've scribbled this desired experience on a grill room napkin, or doodled it on a notepad during a particularly boring business meeting.

Got it yet?

Design your very own golf hole.

There isn't a golfer among the true lovers of the game who hasn't created the ultimate, coolest, most strategic, hardest, thrill-ride-of-a-golf-hole in his own mind. Maybe it's been a wild, wacky par-4 like the ones on the courses featured in Golden Tee, or an impossible par-3 over the Grand Canyon found in some of the those crazy golf calendars or posters, or maybe, maybe it's the real thing. A true, playable hole you've dreamt of having sculpted into rolling land somewhere in a warm climate.

I've scribbled my share of holes on scraps of paper; just for fun. But then came a chance of a lifetime - a chance to turn those scribbles into a real design, a piece of golf architecture that, imagine, would actually be built as part of an honest-to-goodness golf course.

A landscape architect, I am not. A turf grass specialist, I am not. And although I have certainly paid attention to golf course design, I am far from an expert. I am simply a golf writer, an 11 handicap who plays a fair amount of golf, has seen hundreds of different courses, knows just the basics of the classic and modern course designers, and happens to know the architects at a Chicago area golf design firm who are goofy enough to let me actually do this. How did I get them to agree? Simple, I asked.

Todd Quitno is with Lohmann Golf Designs; the firm that built The Merit Club and has been involved in numerous renovations and new course construction around the Midwest. When I told Todd what I wanted to do, asked him if it could be done, and if he could possibly tolerate a rank amateur on his team, he actually said, "Sure, sounds like a cool idea."

I was floored. Maybe he didn't realize what I was actually asking. So, I made it very clear. I wanted to be the primary designer of the hole, I wanted to go through every step, every process, and call the hole my own.

"We can do that."

I truly thought Todd must be loony.

The project he had in mind was about 50 miles northwest of Chicago in McHenry County, Illinois called Blackstone and the developer, a real golf lover with a life-long dream of building his own golf course, was quite committed to the plan. He had the site, but had some environmental and zoning issue to get through. I figured that would be a couple weeks. Wrong. It took months to just begin the process. There were meetings galore with local officials and politicians with more to come. This part of the process didn't seem like much fun, but I plowed ahead.

"What do you want to design?" Todd asked.

"I love par-3s, but I really have a love for short, strategic par-4s."

"I like the short par-4 idea" said Todd. "I think you'll learn the most about hole design and strategy with that one."

And we were off.

Todd told me to start making sketches, to get some tracing-type paper, a special ruler that would help me keep things to scale, and to have fun.

"Do a whole bunch of sketches. Nothing should be ruled out right now," he said.

That sounded a lot more fun than zoning regulations.

Before starting the drawings, I wanted to walk the land and get a feel for the space and the natural contours. That's what every good golf course architect does, right? So, Todd and I put on our boots, hopped into the Lohmann Designs truck and head out.

The land for nine of the holes was open and treeless. The other nine would be built through a wooded area deeper into the site. We trudged through hip-high grass and weeds, sweating and panting our way to where we both thought the tee box would sit. It was a good view with the land naturally sloping down and to the right.

"Seems to me that's how this hole should layout," I said.

"See, you're getting the idea already," Todd said with a smile of approval.

I went home and started being creative. I must have sketched out 15 holes and read dozens of chapters in the golf architecture books in my personal golf library. A little inspiration, I guess.

While I worked, the red tape mounted. The developer continued to deal with issues of waste water treatment and the system that would do that work. Permits and other documents were still not in hand and the delays on starting the real work continued with little end in sight.

Is all this normal? Could the project be scrapped and would I watch the dream of having my own hole built simply crumble away?

"I wouldn't say this project is either unusual or normal," said Todd. "As for the project falling apart, I'm 95% sure it won't simply because (the developer) has so much already invested in it and I know owning a golf course is his life dream. He has told us numerous times that it will get done no matter what."

I pressed on, continued to sketch away, and met with Todd again with my plans in hand.

"These look good, but let's talk about why you want these bunkers where they are," said Todd.

We worked through elements of strategy, mounding in the fairways, wetlands, and discussed giving the big hitters at least a chance to go for the green from the tee box. How did I want the green to look? Would the undulations match the strategy of getting to the putting surface?

After a number of discussions, a number of re-dos, and a second look at the land, I had satisfied my mentor, and met the myriad of strategic elements that would make the hole playable and at the same time challenging.

My hole, at least on paper, had taken shape - a 325-350-yard par-4. I could see it crudely sketched out and imagine playing it in my head. From here, Todd took over the final drawing of the hole to meet architectural specifications. I was quite pleased.

"So when will we break ground?" I said.

"Well, we hope this fall," said Todd. "But it depends on a lot of things."

As of this writing, there are still delays involving permits, lot sales, and more. But it appears in the spring, the bulldozers will begin their work. And when the land is cleared out, I'm going to do what all the big designers do these days. I'm going out to the site; I'm teeing-up a ball on the soon-to-be tee box and crush one toward the soon-to-be green. I'll probably end up in the soon-to-be bunker, but who cares. This is my golf hole.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • The perfect spot

    Ryan Taylor wrote on: Jul 5, 2005

    Hi my name is Ryan and I live in Milton, KY. I'm tired of sitting around and thinking about my child hood dream, I am ready to turn into reality!! Ever since I was young I have always played golf and have always dreamed about owning my own golf course. Living in Kentucky I have plenty of land to choose from to place a Golf course but I feal I have found "The Perfect Spot" to build one. I wonderful ideas on how to make my child hood dream successful but I need to know who to talk to, to make become reality!! Please E-mail me back or contact me at (502)-347-6393.
    Thank you have a good day.
    Ryan M. Taylor


  • This sounds fun

    Matthew LaValley wrote on: May 5, 2005

    Hello my name is Matt ans i was just reading up on designing golf courses. I have dreamed about doing something with golf because i love the sport. i was just wondering if you had any suggestions about something i could do. I have taken some cad classes and am will to try anything thank you.


  • armchair arch

    Tim Nugent wrote on: Oct 30, 2004

    Well Dave, seems like you've decided to go over to the dark side. Kind of scary - isn't it. Now you may have some sympathy for those of us that have to deal with the regulatory hurdles. Too bad you took such an easy site. No power lines, houses, archelogical sites, gas mains, ajancent roadways, too flat or too steep, protected species habitat, environmental buffers, stormwater compensatory storage, poor soils (peat,muck,marl), no soil, high water table, ledge rock 6" down, etc., or it ma have really become interesting. Now you just get to be criticized by every monday morning wannabe who only experiences the finished product without knowing any of the parameters placed on the design by some of the things listed. That and the budget available. For a few, the gc is the final goal and money is no object, Herb Kohler, Jerry Rich, Donald Trump. The other 99% have to make it succeed as a business. Who is your target market (beides you). Your design says "high-end, good golfer". What lead me to this conclusion? The short hitter is screwed. With bunkers right(where most higher-handicappers go) is double bunkered and flanked by a water hazard. The fairway is crowned, so anything slightly left will end up down in a drain basin (these usually have wetter soil and lusher grass). If the higher handicapper manages to get one in the fairway, the angle coming in forces a carry over a bunker to a green that hase a ridge perpendicular to the ball flight line. Any shot past that ridge (and some landing before it but without a high degree of backspin - something most golfers can't develop) will run off the green, down the slope and into the water. Now where does one drop? If the appraoch come up short, now the high handicapper has one the most frightening shots in golf, out of a greenside bunker to a crowned green with water on the other side. As Mr. Lohman's mentor has repeated sooo many times, "it is easy to design a hard course, it's hard to design one that is challenging to the good golfer but doesn't beat the high handicapper's brains in. Always leave a way for Aunt Sally to get home safely.


  • I have had this dream come true

    Don Cornelison wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    I have went through the same things listed & to the person that has not had this chance I can only say it is a LOT different than being a golfer that has ideas. When all is said & done though it is the greatest feeling ever. I was lucky enough to design all 18 holes. I have been cussed & praised. What can I say. You can't make everyone happy but it is always nice to know that somewhere someone is talking about you (ha,ha,ha).


    • design

      John Brinich wrote on: Jul 28, 2009

      i have always wanted to design a golf course im only 14. but i have designed many designs on paper in my back yard i have a chipping green with 3 bunkers 2 teeboxs and i working on . so email me if you would like to see some of my designs.