How to ‘SET-UP’ your golf course for success

This is one of the most important decisions that a golf club committee can make and is one that is often not given the depth of thought it deserves.  In many cases course set-up is not really thought through in any real detail at all and is simply left to the greens staff to decide with no business rationale.

Now, I’m not talking about the conditioning of the golf course, that IS most definitely the Green staff’s area of expertise and I’m taking for granted that your golf course will be presented in the absolute finest condition that your budget allows.  

What I’m talking about is the playability of the course.  Things like the width of the fairways, the length of the rough and what trouble lurks in potential bail out areas.  I’m talking about everything that will determine how easy or difficult the golf course will play.

By making just a slight change to a course set-up, you can quite easily make it play 5 shots or more harder.

Over the years, I have seen many times where the playability of a course has changed significantly from one season to the next, due to only a slight change in its set-up.

In most cases this is not a good thing for your golfers or your business.

The set-up of your golf course, will be one of the most determining factors as to how successful your course will be and it must be clearly documented within your written course specification or business plan.


How SHOULD you set up your course?

There are several things that will influence your decision, but the main two are,

  1. What standard of player is your current core golfer?
  2. What type of player would you like to attract?

Catering for the bulk of your users is absolutely key and you must be very careful if changes are being considered to attract a new target golfer, who’s requirements may differ from the majority of current players.

A course may tweak things slightly in order to attract a new type of golfer, not realising that by doing so they have potentially alienated their current golfers and run the risk of losing them to another course.

In the golf business as in all business, you cannot be everything to everyone.  If you are a club full of mid handicap players, then do not go out chasing after category 1 players, just aim to be the best, most enjoyable members club in the area.


How difficult should your course be?

Unless you are a destination golf course, one that people will play no matter how hard you set it up, why would you set up your course to be more difficult than it needs to be?

If you haven’t already realised, golf is a pretty hard game.  Losing a ball in the rough when it’s just a few yards off the fairway is no fun for anyone!

Dr Alister MacKenzie, (designer of Augusta National) wrote in his ’13 General Principles of golf course architecture’, “There There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls”

These principles were written back in the 1920’s and still stands very true today.

There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls. – Dr Alister MacKenzie

Golfers have ego’s and knocking these by making the course too difficult is not going to encourage them to play more. In fact it will have the opposite effect.

The key to setting up a golf course for success, is to make it look more difficult than it actually plays.  This way you get to massage a golfers ego, by allowing him to tame a course he perceives to be harder than it is.

You want a Championship course look, with a members course playability.  In over two decades of working in the golf industry, I have never seen a golfer come off the course following a great game and complain to me that the golf course was too easy.  Following a bad score…..well that’s a different story.

The key to setting up a golf course for success, is to make it look more difficult than it plays.

Take it Hole by Hole

You need to take each hole of your course individually and go on a customer journey.  I’d suggest setting up a small group, made up of a mixture of handicaps and gender.  This should also include your head green keeper and Pro (if you have one).

Walk the course and then play the course, taking down notes from all involved.  It may be worth just playing 3 or 4 holes in each session, allowing enough time to discuss the views of each player.

A golfer will always see the course through their own eyes and with their own golfing ability in mind.  Being objective and seeing each hole/situation from another players perspective can be difficult and this is why it should always be a group effort.

By involving various sections of your membership, you will also create some meaningful engagement and if the group members are chosen wisely, you can spread this involved feeling far and wide throughout the various wee groups within the club.

My Top 5 tips on golf course set up

Below are my ideas on how to set up the ideal members golf course for maximum enjoyment and resultant revenues.

  1. Fairway width – Keep fairway widths generous.  If you want to toughen for lower handicaps, then consider tapering after 220 yards.
  2. Fairway Cut – Decide on fairway cut height.  Mid handicap players don’t like the fairways too short, low handicaps don’t like too long.  Around 13mm would be middle of the road.
  3. Semi Rough – This should be your main rough and cut to between 25-35mm.  This is long enough to give definition and trick up your next shot, but will not cause you to lose a ball.  Any deeper rough should be kept well out of play, so that only the worst of shots will be punished.  Where possible, keep these more to the left side of the course (We have less hookers than slicers!)
  4. Keep the Right Side clear – The majority of club players slice the ball.  It is the absolute bane of their golfing lives and they hate it!  Despite all their efforts, they cannot get rid of it.  As such, keep the right side of fairway landing areas clear of deep vegetation and too much trouble.  Allow them some respite!
  5. Greens – For the average golfer, trueness of the greens putting surface will win over speed every time.  Yes, we’d like some speed, but a true putting green is a much more enjoyable experience for the average golfer than going for maximum speed.  This also keeps maintenance costs down!






  1. Ricky Bowman PGA Pro. (Retired) · December 14, 2015

    Very good article

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brian Davis, PGA · December 15, 2015

    thank you for this valuable insight.


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