On a recent flight, the guy next to me asked what I did for a living, and upon finding out, started asking questions, including, “So, just how do you design greens?” He figured it would be an easy answer. This got me thinking. As important as green design is to golf, I haven’t ever covered it in this column, perhaps because of complexity. And, way back in time, I actually wrote such a document to explain the basics of the process to new employees. I dug that old document out, and it still mostly applies, with some humorous time-machine quotes – “pull out pencil and tracing paper” and “maximum green slope is 3.33 percent for cup areas.” LOL. I will recreate it here in updated and less technical fashion, hoping to enlighten those who, like my row mate, have asked the same questions.

The Big Picture

My green designs begin with the big picture – Is it a private, upscale public, resort or municipal course? The varying (assumed) average quality of golfers, rounds played, maintenance budgets create different starting points and limitations. Generally, as expected play levels rise, maintenance issues like microclimate, green size, circulation patterns and speed of play are top priority. With lower play levels and generally higher quality golfers, aim for a more architecturally interesting or challenging course vs. a “golf factory.” In renovations, history might also influence design.


I initially review potential basic designs for all 18 greens, trying to create a general concept that makes each one different. I believe small greens ought to intersperse with larger ones, wide with deep, etc. I also try to vary greens on the same hole type (par 3, long and short par 4, or par 5 holes.) This is one great advantage to plans over “winging it” with field design.

The Approach Shot

Then, I design the green itself. We consider the lay of the land, the approach shot and even the tee shot strategy, if we didn’t consider it when studying variety.

There are several basic types of approach shot challenges. For playability, most greens need the fairway to connect to the front of the green, because many golfers roll approach shots on to the green. I design most greens with an open front, with a “tucked pin” somewhere on the edges or corners to challenge better players when located there. I call these “Sunday Pin” greens, or if there are two tucked pins, “Weekend Pin” greens.

We presume the superintendent will create a cup rotation system for a balanced test on a daily basis. Of course, they can be made easier or harder for special occasions.

A minority of greens can or should have other approach shot concepts, including:

  • Precision Target
  • Multi-Target (two, three or four distinct green areas)
  • Unusual Green – Ribbon Green (narrow width or depth); Center Hazard; Reverse Slope; Ultra-Large

I design the approach shot concept considering both the approach shot and the lay of the land. But good players favor an approach shot that maximizes success, considering:

  • Green axis – Shots mirror green angle - fades fit greens that angle right.
  • Greenside hazards – Aiming away from them, but curving back is safest
  • Wind, usually “riding it” by curving shots the same direction as the wind
  • Ground slope – Hitting fades when their lie has cross downslope right

For as many greens as possible, I try to align those signals to say “fade” or “draw” which sets the shot. However, I have never achieved a course with all 18 greens with axis angled with the wind and lie, because I design to the topography first and foremost. As such, small sites get small greens, topography angling left beget greens angling left, etc. It really doesn’t work well any other way.

I console myself with the fact that wind varies day-to-day and with seasons, good golfers all play differently, and many don’t notice such things. Most sites have a variety of green sites, ranging from slopes that strongly dictate green shapes, angles and sizes, and others flat enough where a green can take on any form, which I use to balance out the green types.

You can see the entire process is both complicated and circular. I need to consider many things at once – pretty hard for the human mind – and often go back to square one in considering just the big picture factors. And, there is much more to consider, as you will see beginning next month.