Zen and the Art of Golf Green Building

“Zen and the art of golf green building is based on the time I have spent with a rake in-hand, pushing gravel around until the point when the reality of the gravel, and how it is sloped, has met the best possible intention for how the golf green should play. It’s like playing for hours in a Zen Garden.”

I was super fortunate at a young age to find something I loved to do.  I had a passion for golf and golf design and was able to package them up into a nice little business that brought artificial turf golf greens into people’s backyards.  It may sound silly but, for me, the entire process of conceptualization right through to dropping pins into the finished product was a spiritual endeavour.

I disappeared into my work. Each step allowed me to slow down time and be within a process that I both loved and felt like I was good at.

Meeting the customer was the first step.  It’s always interesting to meet new people.  It’s not easy just to meet a new person so this was kind of a special privilege to be invited into someone’s home and learn about them and see in what way I might be able to help them.

As you inevitably stepped into their backyard, this was a cool moment of seeing where they had envisioned putting a golf green. Based on everything golf that perpetually rolls around in my subconscious mind, coupled with what the customer had envisioned for themselves, the vision for the golf green slowly starts to appear out of the fog; elements of what is to come will begin to present themselves.  The design materializes a great deal through documenting site measurements and elevation changes; you are in your mind, visualizing, conceptualizing. 

With a clean desk and no pending phone calls or engagements, the design begins by scaling out the perimeter of the project area on paper.  The elements that began to materialize on site might begin to galvanize here.  There is no choice but to live in my mind which allows me to disappear, to feel Zen-like; it is what makes this particular part of the overall process a meditation in and of itself. After finalizing the shape and design, I would always hand colour a final copy with marker.  I could have certainly taken the time to learn a computer program that might have made this process look a little more professional perhaps but a direct connection from hand to pencil to paper is a little more natural for me and kept me more in tune with the feel of the project.

Original Design (not polished)

The next step is to begin to create. Breaking ground is fun because it signifies the moment where what previously existed in your head, and then on paper, is about to become a reality.

The part that defines this post the most is the shaping and contouring of the base material; the movement and placement of mixed fine and course stone. It begins with the sound and feel of a shovel going into what is generally a 15-ton pile of gravel.  The beautiful feeling of good hard work.  A time to think, or not think, depending.  Shovel load after shovel load to fill the wheelbarrow full (usually about 20-25 scoops if I recall correctly).  Then comes the run into the backyard with what is the simplest and most beautiful tool that man has ever made, the wheelbarrow.  Hopefully there is no big incline.   Next, you pick your spot to dump.  Get enough piles going and that is where the fun begins.  Where are the low points? Where are the high points?  Where are the hole locations?  Where will the fringe and the golf green meet?  Does the customer want this easy? Hard? Somewhere in between?  Do they play competitively or just for fun?  Is it simply a statement piece, like artwork in the garden?  What was your intention with the design?  One thing is absolutely certain, a golf green cannot achieve its potential if the designer is not involved in the shaping process.  Take it from arguably the greatest golf course architect of our time, Tom Doak who said, “There are not a lot of people who can draw a green in an office and get what they visualized, and get a really good green at the same time…Zero of the greatest golf greens were made from the office.  It was being out in the field.”

My Happy Place

The design is fun, but Zen and the art of golf green building is based on the time I have spent with the rake in-hand pushing gravel around until the point when the reality of the gravel, and how it is sloped, has met the best possible intention for how the golf green should play. It’s like playing for hours in a Zen Garden.”

Not all golf greens call for it but the art of a perfect radius is something I value greatly, and much like a painter with a brush, I use landscape paint to outline the golf green on top of the compacted gravel.  I will honour the original design, or I won’t – the shape is fluid and needs to be held with an open hand.  It sounds silly but I really go inward during this process.  It’s not calculated at all.  It is a flow.

The hole location is something to pay very close attention to.  There should be a balance visually between each hole location.  You must consider the slope of the green and whether a hole location will interfere with any other putt you are trying to make.  You must conceive of every possible putt and discern whether this is a good location.  The amount of time I have spent moving a cup half an inch left or a half an inch right or “in” or “out”, “away” or “towards” is immeasurable to date.  But it’s all part and parcel of the perfect golf green.

Balance… Natural grass to synthetic. Fringe to golf surface. Cups….Balance.

Now, between choosing the hole locations and the finishing touches comes a process that is not so Zen for me anymore.  It is the installation of the artificial turf.  It takes precision workmanship, absolute concentration, a very strong back and healthy knees.  I did it for many years and this is the part where, although I liked the camaraderie, and working hard outdoors, I really did a number on my body.  This is the part that today, aside from my golf green that I just finished in my own backyard, I would leave to professionals to handle for me.  Let it be known that it takes more than a strong back and knees to surface a good golf green, however. A keen eye for every imaginable detail is paramount to a flawless finish.

Exhausted. Delirious. Happy. Missing having a Crew!

And now the finishing touches.  I love this part.  How does the installation look?  Can I help clean up a little more?  In the interest of a schedule and dinner with their families, it is easy sometimes for installers to miss something during clean up or a walk through.  This is my chance to feel important and help brush the grass up in some place or pick up some loose grass blades and so on. But the part I like the most is making a few putts and seeing just how the ball rolls.  Is it the way I intended it to be?  Does it perform properly?  If so, I love the idea of being the one to drop the pins into the cups.  A cherry on top!  Lastly, a fresh sleeve of premium golf balls.  Titleist Pro V1’s perhaps.  It was a huge expense for the customer to trust me with their project, and they paid a very high price for it, it would only be fitting to have a pack of beautiful new golf balls ready to play with once they step foot on it for the first time.

Finishing Touches

Now, I have my own golf green.  As I write a post, or have a theory about my putting stroke, I can simply step away into the backyard and work on my game.  This too is a very Zen-like process.  The nuance of the putting stroke is something only a Zen master could comprehend fully but that might be a blog post for another day.

Below are some pics of my golf green through the process of installation.  It was the culmination of 20 years of design and building golf greens and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.  I would be remiss to say that not everyone is able to spend thousands of dollars on a golf green in their backyard, or even have the space for it.  The reason that I write these blogs and am moving forward with a professional career that focuses solely on golf in public spaces is because of that reason.  Kids deserve the opportunity to try the game and I feel strongly that it could and should be supported on the municipal level as best as possible.  Ride your bike down the street and try golf – why wouldn’t ya!

Bunker First
Base Build
Cup Placement
Go Play!
Night Golf

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