I thought the idea above had made it in to the “Book of Common Wisdom in Golf Course Design” long ago. However, now that I am renovating more older courses, I find not everyone has read that book. Specifically, I am amazed at how many courses with partial paths only at tees and greens have problems that could be avoided with proper design, so I dedicate this column to explaining the concept again.
As shown in the first image, paths that end just after the forward tee experience very concentrated wear. Extending a few feet with gravel or adding a “helicopter pad” after turf has worn bare only extends the problem to another location.
One of my earliest lessons in golf architecture was that walkers and carts predictably take the straightest line possible to their next destination. If there are any vertical obstructions or blockage, they will take the shortest, most level route. If the next tee is on the right of their green, they will drive right (barring substantial curbs), regardless of where your path is. Off the tee, they will stay on the path until they can take a straight line to their landing spot. The second image shows a better – but still not perfect – example of this principle in action. The arc allows carts to scatter naturally to their tee shot locations, reducing wear and compaction at a single point. It would be an even more effective design if it:
- Extended well past the forward tee.
- Had a longer arc and gentler radius. In this case, the tire tracks show almost exactly how much longer it would need to be to spread traffic better. It has a consistent radius. Note the long grass on left is enough of a vertical obstruction to force carts further up.
- Had a maximum angle less than 45 degrees to the line of play. Check the angle of the last cart track on the right - voila, it’s 45 degrees. No one willingly drives more sideways than forward to reach their ball.
- Extends/angles at least 15 degrees left of center line and 22.5 degrees right, mirroring the typical tee shot landing zones.
- Has a constant arc – even short straight areas, one sharp turn, or slight kink in the alignment creates a tempting location to leave the path.
The best wear distribution occurs when the path crosses in front of the tee. Some object to the aesthetics, but it’s is often possible to hide the path from view by sloping it away from the tee, building small ridge, etc. This often requires some drainage work as well.
Owing to the “straight line rule,” an even greater problem arises at greens. There, every cart is heading for the exact same place – the end of the path. Partial cart paths here wear even faster than those leading away from the tee.
For this path, which is actually a bit better than most, it’s still a case of “too little, too late” to adequately spread traffic. Constant movement of stakes and rope is required. Again, the trick is to arc the path to intersect traffic patterns over as much length as possible. This requires a long arc, reaching back to nearly the fairway landing zone. We find that once carts are on the path, a slight deviation from their straight line is accepted. If not, a curb on the green side fixes the problem!
Each hole is different and deserves individual study. Arc length and location can be very site specific to hole length and other factors. In general, shorter holes need tighter arcs closer to the green and longer holes need longer arcs. However, a few things are constant:
- The longer a curved path extends back to the fairway landing zone, the more it spreads traffic.
- As at tees, curved paths crossing the fairway provide more lineal feet of “natural” entry points and spread wear better. I know, I measured!
- “Same side” paths must usually be very close the fairway, which will likely come into view from the landing zone.
- Adding a second partial path on the other path on the other side of the green can divert some traffic from the far side of the fairway, reducing traffic on the main path, which at least slows down the rate of wear on the main side.
The first disadvantage to these paths is aesthetics. However, on some holes, it will be fairly easy to hide the path as you play the hole with a low ridge. Even without that special effort, often, paths more or less perpendicular to play are less visible than one stretching its length. Long flowing paths are acceptably attractive, whereas many zig zags tend to draw – and offend – the eye.
The second downside is cost. Crossing the fairway twice adds 60 to 90 yards more pavement length. Adding a second path also adds cost, but also benefits you in providing additional access points to your green, which also helps maintenance. If adding that much additional path, most will consider simply going all in, paving cart paths wall to wall, which is probably inevitable anyway. They should still follow these principles.
On the other hand, if the additional path adds $10,000 of annual debt to the project, but saves the same amount in roping and staking, it is probably worth it.
The old design axiom is “Form follows function.” When laying out paths, it’s always a compromise between “hidden” and “handy.” Low-play courses can be expected to favor “hidden” paths, but higher play courses should probably favor “handy” to assist turf wear.
If the primary function of paths is to get golfers around the course and save turf, carefully considering that aspect of design will pay long term dividends.