Mark Luthman, a personal friend and golf course operator, called in October with an unusual suggestion. Luthman and the Touchstone Golf team had taken over operations at Shadow Mountain Golf Club in Palm Desert, California, and were seeking for a way to include the local community. Luthman asked if I could design a massive putting course for Shadow Mountain, and whether we could build it before the end of the year.
“And don’t worry about the Flamingos,” he said at the end of the call.
These calls don’t come very often, as anyone in the industry will tell you. Designers are frequently required to compete for jobs, either through a formal public procedure or a less formal but nonetheless difficult interview process. In this situation, Mark’s confidence had been won through my 15 years of friendship, desire for fun short courses, and previous work with him.
The fast-track schedule, which resulted in the course opening on April 9, was maybe even more exceptional. In golf design, it normally takes years, if not decades, to get to the point where you can start building. I’ve pitched or prepared various short courses and putting courses for customers over the last four years. Those initiatives will most likely take a year or more to complete. Shadow Mountain is unique in that it only has one owner.
Lindi Biggi, the new owner of Shadow Mountain, is one of the most interesting persons I’ve met in my 20 years or so in the golf industry. Biggi is 80 years old, but he has the vitality and social life of someone in their twenties. She isn’t a big golfer, but she lives just next door to Shadow Mountain. She acquired the course because she didn’t want it to be turned into housing if it went bankrupt.
Biggi is also an animal lover and a fan of exotic birds. Her nine flamingos in her backyard refuge mean the world to her, and she wants to ensure that they have a wonderful home after she passes away. So we were tasked with not just designing a putting course, but also a flamingo sanctuary.
So, what constitutes a great putting course, and how can you design and construct one in a matter of months?
Putting greens come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations. Some putting courses are divided into discrete holes, with rough on both sides. Others are little more than a massive putting green with holes set out from one end to the other.
A typical golf course green measures roughly 5,000 square feet, whereas a large practice green measures 15,000 square feet. Putting courses typically range in size from 20,000 to 90,000 square feet, with the number of holes and lengths varied from one facility to the next. Most putting greens have features that would be too harsh or “unfair” on a golf course. Humps, bumps, spines, swales, bowls, ridges, fingers, hollows, sideboards, and other fascinating features will be created by these chaotic shapes. Because the greens have such steep slopes, they can be maintained at green speeds that are slightly slower than on a normal course.
There was a lot to figure out at Shadow Mountain, and there wasn’t a lot of time to do it.
I started by asking questions and looking about on Google Earth.
I inquired about the size of the site, the soils, grass selections, budget, and other details. To gain a sense of the area, the course, and the surrounds, I used Google Earth. In this situation, I had previously visited Palm Desert but had never visited Shadow Mountain. I immediately established how much area was available for a putting course, the orientation and access, what was close to the site, and more using Google Earth.
A linear course would be impractical, but a single 45,000-square-foot green could suffice.
We knew the destiny of the putting course hinged on one thing at the end of the call: sand.
Sand is the optimum growing ground for golf, and Palm Desert is situated on sandy soil. If we could use existing sand to build the green, it would simplify the process (saving time and potential supply-chain difficulties) and cost less than half of what a normal USGA green with gravel and imported greensmix would have cost. We needed to test the sand as soon as possible to see if it could be used to construct the green.
Luthman asked if I could locate someone who could create the green before the end of the year, knowing that the timetable wouldn’t allow us to hire many design consultants, prepare formal drawings, and have multiple builders bid the job.
I contacted Don Mahaffey, the president of Greenscape Methods, a Houston-based golf building firm. While there are many qualified course builders available, choosing the correct fit is the key to success. Don has an irrigation background, has worked as a superintendent, enjoys sand golf, and grew up about a mile from Shadow Mountain. At the end of the year, Mahaffey’s squad had a gap in its schedule, so he agreed to come have a look.
Mahaffey and I were in Palm Desert a week later, walking the putting green location. We looked at the existing irrigation system, as well as the sand, turf, drainage patterns, and other factors. We discussed a timeline and budget with the team, and at the end of the visit, we had a plan. Things like deciding on a team, a timetable, and a budget can take months, if not years, but in this case, we had a single owner who could make decisions – and Biggi wanted the green completed yesterday.
While Mahaffey and his colleagues looked for drainage pipe suppliers (a huge endeavor due to supply chain concerns), I sketched out some ideas for how we might shape the green and direct the drainage.
At Shadow Mountain, we wanted to make it as enjoyable as possible. There was no large natural landform to play off because the site had a relatively gentle pitch. The aim was to rumple up the mild plane that was already there to create pleasant curves for the guests to enjoy. We wanted people to have a variety of experiences with the curves, so some were bolder and tighter, while others were softer and more spread out.
We wanted to conceal some views and bury some items at the far end, so we built a large ramp (think of a turn at a NASCAR track). We also chose to make a flamingo silhouette in the green as a special treat for Biggi. The long leg represents a large spine, the body a plateau, and the curved neck a delightful bowl. All of these would look out of place on a typical golf course green, but they’re ideal for a putting course.
Mahaffey’s crew arrived less than two weeks later, stripping the turf and beginning to work. The process was eased because the sand was perfect for creating the green. The processes for constructing the green in this situation were as follows:
-Existing irrigation heads should be removed.
-The turf should be stripped.
-Push the sand from the top layer to the side.
-Form the green.
-Drainage and irrigation should be installed.
-Over the green, spread the top layer of sand.
-Complete the green’s preparation.
-Forget about the grass.
To complete this work in such a short amount of time, a large crew put in a lot of effort. The sod was finally laid down on Dec. 23, and the green grew from Christmas to February. We built out multiple courses for guests to play and mapped them so the maintenance team could simply set up the facility before opening in April. Another method to engage the community will be to allow schoolchildren and golfers to construct their own putting course.
One of the reasons why people appreciate short courses is that it doesn’t matter how well you do; what matters is how much fun you have. The same may be said for golf course design. As a “purist,” the idea of turning a flamingo into a putting green would have made me laugh years ago. But seeing Biggi’s face light up when we showed her the flamingo silhouette carved into the green was the most enjoyable part of the job. And I’m convinced that my 3-year-old kid will enjoy showing his grandparents the flamingo. Isn’t that what it’s all about?