If they Cost so Little to Build, Why do Minimalist Courses Cost so Much to Play?

pacific dunes
Tom Doak's magnificent Pacific Dunes
In the 25 years since Tom Doak opened his first solo design - High Pointe in Williamsburg, MI. - and the term ‘minimalism’, as it pertains to golf course architecture, began circulating, the golf world has done a fair job misinterpreting its ideology and principles, creating a number of fallacies that Doak says amount to a straw-man argument.
For starters, it wasn’t Doak that first used the word, but a writer struck by the dissimilarity between artificial, often contrived modern courses and the organic, unadorned High Pointe which Doak had built for less than $2m. On his Renaissance Golf web site, Doak stresses he would not have chosen to wear the minimalist label, but that it stuck so firmly he had little choice but to adopt it.
Second, minimalism is not all about shaggy-topped bunkers. “Those that want to push it off on being all about a look rather than a different perspective on design know they can't win the philosophical debate,” says Doak. “Shaggy-topped bunkers are just a byproduct of that philosophy. They are usually native areas we choose not to disturb. But it's not just the bunkers. The whole course fits the landscape better.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly where consumer golfers are concerned, is the conviction that because natural, lay-of-the-land courses are constructed with relatively small budgets they should cost less to play.
In 2004, using figures he gathered from the Golf Course Builders Association of America (GCBAA), the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), and his former employer Denis Griffiths, Kiwi architect and author of ‘St. Andrews; Evolution of the Old Course’  Scott Macpherson, compiled a table assessing the cost of building different types of golf course. Before architect fees, a minimalist course would cost $521,000 Macpherson said. An average course would cost $2.22m, while an upscale course would set the developer back $5.18m (unless the developer was Donald Trump who spent $264m on Trump National Los Angeles in 2005).
Macpherson acknowledges that, because each site is different and every job has its own set of circumstances, the figures were really just guidelines, and that they would of course be very different in 2014. “There is probably some change in the costs based on the rise in fuel costs,” he says. “But that will be somewhat tamed by the fact construction companies have been sharpening their pencil to provide better value in a bid to win work.”
Assuming Macpherson’s findings were about right though, it means minimalist courses cost roughly one quarter the amount it takes to build an ‘average’ course. So if Pacific Dunes, one of the four courses at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon ranked inside the Top 100 you can play, and a course that cost roughly $2.5m to build, cost one quarter of what it took to create Typical Hills, should it not follow Pacific Dunes’s green fee is a quarter the size?
sand hills
Sand Hills; minimalism's ultimate golden goose.
It’s a nice theory, but sadly one that doesn’t hold up in practice very often. The peak summer green fee at Pacific Dunes and its neighbors Bandon Dunes (designed by David McLay Kidd), Bandon Trails (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw), and Old Macdonald (Doak and Jim Urbina) is a staggering $295 ($250 for resort guests). Florida’s Streamsong Blue, another world-ranked Doak design, which it’s probably safe to assume was built fairly inexpensively, costs $275 a round at peak times.
Initiation fees at private clubs with acclaimed minimalist courses aren’t exactly a snip either.
The land for the superb Sand Hills GC in Nebraska cost developer Dick Youngscap $1.2m. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s design hugged the terrain so closely barely 2,000 cubic yards of dirt were dislodged. The bill for construction therefore came in at under $1m.
Despite such relatively minor start-up costs, membership is by invitation only and those that are invited are only too eager to cough up the joining fee, reckoned to be in the vicinity of $50,000. You need to find roughly six times that much, however, to be a member at Friar’s Head or East Hampton, both minimalist Coore & Crenshaw courses on Long Island, NY.
Though low-income golfers who yearn to play the great public minimalist courses wish the green fees were a better reflection of the construction costs, all good capitalists are familiar with the process that’s afoot here.
“It’s a classic case of supply and demand,” says Matthew Jackson, the William B. Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University. “If suddenly we all decide we love minimalist courses, and those are fairly scarce and in relatively fixed supply, the price will go all the way up to the point at which people are just choking on paying that much for a round, rather than going to a traditional course or staying home.” The very wealthy are insensitive to price, Jackson adds, so when minimalist courses are extremely scarce they suddenly become very desirable and the price can really skyrocket. “The few minimalist courses can charge very high prices given the enormous demand and will still be very popular.”
Such is the case at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort which records over 125,000 rounds every year. The resort’s owner, Mike Keiser, asks how someone can charge $15 for a hot dog. “The Four Seasons hot dog costs fifteen bucks, but they say it’s the best hot dog in the world,” he says. “Meanwhile, you can get one on the street for three bucks. The Four Seasons is going to sell a lot of hot dogs at $15. They can’t really justify the price, but they don’t need to.”
Keiser says his maintenance bill rises about 4% a year, an increase that would suggest a green fee of about $220, given that the resort's first course - the eponymously-named Bandon Dunes - charged $100 a round. “The balance is in demand,” adds Keiser who contends there is no connection between how much a course costs to build and its green fee, an assertion echoed by Doak. “I learned right away at High Pointe the cost of a green fee has nothing to do with how much it cost to build the course, but everything to do with how much people are willing to pay to play it,” he says. “Presumably the Old Course at St. Andrews cost nothing to build, but they charge a lot and it gets over 40,000 rounds a year.”
Gil Hanse, who started his career working for Doak, agrees saying “In our society, people have always been willing to pay more for an exceptional product, especially one that has been hand-crafted with care and skill.”
bandon dunes
David McLay Kidd's groundbreaking Bandon Dunes
David McLay Kidd agrees that courses charge no more or less than the market will bear. “It’s the American way,” he adds, noting also the figures might not actually be as rich as people think. “Many of the minimalist courses don't include real estate to cover the capital cost,” he says. “So the green fees have to cover capital and interest as well as operating expenses and ROI. When you take out real estate and expensive memberships, minimalist golf needs spendy green fees to make financial sense.”
Surely though, budget-minded golfers can find great minimalist golf they are able to afford somewhere in America – some place minimalism exists in its purest form; where courses that were cheap to build are also cheap to play.
A good place to start is Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Wash., a Dan Hixson design that has never received the attention it deserves partly because it’s found in a remote corner of southeast Washington, but mostly because Dan Hixson is largely unknown outside the Pacific Northwest.
wine valley
Wine Valley - a win/win/win situaton.
Co-owner and Director of Golf John Thorsnes did consider hiring bigger name architects, but in the end chose Hixson to save a little money and because the two got on so well. “He’s just a great guy,” says Thorsnes. “And to be honest, I don’t think the course would be any better had Doak or Coore and Crenshaw built it.”
Thorsnes does anticipate houses going up around the course’s perimeter within the next year or two, however, and, on summer weekends, Wine Valley’s green fee does creep above $100.
An even better example of authentic minimalism can be found in wildest Nebraska, just a two hour drive south of Sand Hills. Wild Horse GC in Gothenburg, Neb. was designed by Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, partners in a small design firm called Bunker Hill Inc. but better known in the industry as master shapers and bunker-makers having done much of the detail work at Sand Hills, Friars Head, Bandon Trails, Prairie Dunes, Lost Farm in Tasmania, and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, among others. Proctor also worked alongside Hixson and fellow shaper Kye Goalby at Wine Valley.
At Wild Horse, Axland and Proctor worked very closely with the community which possessed a nine-hole course for many years but wanted something better. “It was really just the ideal scenario,” says Axland. “The City wasn’t motivated by profit, had a sandy site with plenty of water, and we got a lot of volunteer help. Everyone pitched in, and Dan and I worked as City employees.”
Wild Horse, where the economics make the most sense.
The result is a course that appears in national top 100 lists, cost the City just $1.3m, and which visitors can play for $48.50 at weekends.
Wild Horse might be the ideal model for minimalism. It’s enjoyable, within virtually everybody’s means, and anyone can play there. Projects like it come up very rarely, however. Every architect would love to be involved in something similar, but the realities of contemporary commerce usually get in the way. “I think we all want to build courses that are affordable and accessible,” says Hanse. “But at the end of the day, we have to create courses that work for the client and their financial requirements. Plus, I think the contributions minimalist courses have made to the game strategically and artistically, as well as from an environmental perspective, far outweigh the negative impact of high green fees.”

This article first appeared in the fall issue of Links Magazine.

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