Building a putting course: The designer’s perspective on new Flamingo green at Shadow Mountain in California

First Publilshed by Golfweek

In October my good friend and golf course operator Mark Luthman called with a unique proposition. Luthman and the team at Touchstone Golf had taken over operations at Shadow Mountain Golf Club in Palm Desert, California, and they were looking for a way to engage the community. Luthman wanted to know if I could design a giant putting course for Shadow Mountain and if we could have it built by the end of the year.

He finished the call by saying, “And don’t worry about the Flamingos.”

Anyone in the business will tell you that these calls don’t come very often. More often than not, designers have to compete to win a job, either through a formal public process or a less formal but still rigorous interview competition. In this case, my 15 years of friendship, passion for fun short courses and past work with Mark had earned his trust.

Perhaps more unique was the fast-track schedule, which culminated in the course opening April 9. In golf design, things usually take years, sometimes decades, to actually get to the point where you start construction. Over the past few years I’ve pitched or planned numerous short courses and putting courses for clients. Those projects are likely a year, or many years, away. Shadow Mountain is unique because it has a single owner.

Lindi Biggi is the new owner of Shadow Mountain and one of the most unique people I’ve met in 20-plus years in the golf business. Biggi is 80 years old and has the energy and social life of a 20-something. She is not an avid golfer, but she lives just down the street from Shadow Mountain. She bought the course because she didn’t want to see it go under and become housing.

Biggi is also an animal lover and exotic bird enthusiast. Her nine flamingos that reside in her backyard sanctuary mean the world to her, and she wants them to have a great home after she goes. So not only were we to design a putting course, but a flamingo sanctuary as well.

So what makes a great putting course and how do you go about designing and building one in just a couple months?

Putting courses come in different shapes, sizes and setups. Some putting courses are laid out as individual holes with rough on either side of each hole. Others are just a giant putting green with holes laid out from one spot to another.

A normal green on a golf course might be around 5,000 square feet, and a big practice green at a course might be 15,000 square feet. Putting courses are often 20,000 to 90,000 square feet, with the number of available holes and their lengths varying from one facility to the next. Most putting courses offer contours that might be considered too severe or “unfair” on a golf course. These wild contours will create humps, bumps, spines, swales, bowls, ridges, fingers, hollows, sideboards and other features that are fun to navigate. Because the slopes on the green are severe, they can be maintained at green speeds that are a little slower than might be expected on a full course.

At Shadow Mountain there was a lot to figure out and not much time to do it.

The first thing I did was ask questions and take a look on Google Earth.

I asked about the size of the space, the soils, the grass options, the budget and such. I jumped on Google Earth to get a sense of the space, the course and the surroundings. In this case I had been to Palm Desert many times but never to Shadow Mountain. By using Google Earth, I quickly determined how much space there was for a putting course, the orientation and access, what was adjacent to the space and more.

A linear course wouldn’t work well, but one giant green of about 45,000 square feet could fit nicely.

At the end of the call we knew the fate of the putting course rested on one thing: sand.

Palm Desert sits on sandy soil, and sand is the ideal growing medium for golf. If we could use the existing sand to construct the green, it would simplify the construction (reducing time and potential supply-chain challenges) and would cost less than 50 percent of what we would have spent if we built a typical USGA green with gravel and imported greensmix. We needed to test the sand right away to see if we could use it to build the green.

Knowing the timeline would not allow for us to engage multiple design consultants, prepare formal drawings and have multiple contractors bid the work, Luthman asked if I could find someone who could build the green by the end of the year.

I reached out to Don Mahaffey, head of Greenscape Methods, a golf construction company based in Houston. While there are many qualified course builders around, the key to success is finding the right fit. Don has a background in irrigation, has been a superintendent, loves sandy golf and happened to grow up about a mile from Shadow Mountain. Mahaffey’s team had a gap in its schedule at the end of the year, and he agreed to come take a look.

Within a week, Mahaffey and I were in Palm Desert walking the site for the putting green. We studied the existing irrigation system, the sand, the turf, the drainage patterns and more. We talked with the team about a schedule and budget, and by the end of the visit we had a plan. Things such as reaching agreement on a team, schedule and budget often take months if not years, but in this case we had a single owner who was able to make decisions – and Biggi wanted the green done yesterday.

While Mahaffey and his team tried to find drainage pipe suppliers (supply chain issues made this a major effort), I prepared some sketches for how we would shape the green and direct the drainage.

Our goal at Shadow Mountain was to make it fun. The site had a very gentle pitch to it, so there was no big natural landform to play off. The plan would be to take the gentle plane that existed there and rumple it up to create fun contours for guests to enjoy. We wanted them to experience the contours in different ways, so some areas were bolder and tighter and other areas were softer and spread out.

At the far end we wanted to block some views and bury some material, so we created a big ramp (think of a turn at a NASCAR track). And as a special treat for Biggi, we decided to create the silhouette of a flamingo in the green. The long leg is a big spine, the body is a plateau and the curved neck creates a fun bowl. All these wouldn’t work well on a regular course green but are perfect for a putting course.

Less than two weeks later, Mahaffey’s team was on site stripping the turf and getting started. Because the sand was suitable for building the green, the process was simplified. In this case the steps for building the green were:

  • Remove existing irrigation heads.
  • Strip the turf.
  • Push the top layer of sand off to the side.
  • Shape the green.
  • Install drainage and irrigation.
  • Spread the top layer of sand over the green.
  • Finish prep the green.
  • Sod the green.
  • Grow-in.

It took a dedicated effort from a big team to pull off this work in such a short period. Ultimately the sod went down Dec. 23, and from Christmas through February the green grewin. Before opening in April, we laid out different courses for guests to play and mapped those so the maintenance team could easily setup up the facility. We will also offer kids and golfers the chance to design their own putting course, another way to engage the community.

One of the reasons people like short courses is because score doesn’t matter – having fun does. The same holds true in golf design. As a “purist,” the thought of crafting a flamingo into a putting green is something I would have mocked years ago. But seeing Biggi’s eyes light up when we showed her the flamingo silhouette crafted into the green was as much fun as you can have in golf design. And I’m confident my 3-year-old son will be excited to show his grandparents the flamingo, too. Isn’t that the point?