EP 19: Golf anyone? Golf course designer, Christine Fraser, breaks barriers to make golf an inclusive sport.

While Christine Fraser loves her golf, she recognises golf needs to be more inclusive. It should be accessible to anyone who wants to play. As a course designer, Christine is on a mission to make this happen. Listen to Christine talk about how golf can be more inclusive and how she has broken barriers to be one of a handful of female designers. Even if you don’t care about golf, Christine has a lot to say about acceptance and inclusion. There’s something for everyone.

More information can be found at Christine Fraser’s site or by visiting St Andrews’ Golf Course.


Manisha: Can the way a golf course is designed be enough to change the way we perceive or play the game? There’s no doubt golf is dominated by men. Today’s guest, however, is one of the few female golf course architects who is designing golf courses to be more inclusive of people and the environment.

Welcome to With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Muru-Ora-Dial people here in Sydney, Australia. And today, I’m so fortunate to have Christine Fraser as my guest. She’s a golf course architect who approaches design with sustainability, equity, and inclusion at the forefront. And in her words, she wants to invite people to the game through accessible architecture. Welcome, Christine.

Christine: Hi, Manisha, thank you so much for having me today.

Manisha: Oh, look, it’s such a pleasure. I was just telling Christine before we started that my foray into golf only started a few years ago. And I never thought that this would be a game for me, as someone who’s somewhat uncoordinated. However, I’ve learnt that golf actually can be for everyone, if it’s designed appropriately.

Christine: Yes, that’s exactly it. And that’s what I’m trying to do, is really take the sort of the sportiness away from golf, and concentrate on different aspects of the game, to make it more inclusive and make it more enjoyable and less intimidating for beginners, and any person who doesn’t feel like golf is a safe space for them.

Manisha: And you see yourself as a therapist, sometimes more than an architect. What do you mean by that?

Christine: Yeah. My experience with therapy has given me the tools to navigate and process the ebbs and flows of life. And I really believe that golf can be that tool for a lot of people as well. And if myself as the architect can create the facilities, that garners a safe space that allows people to become vulnerable and push their boundaries, then that creates personal evolution and abilities to practice not only physical therapy, but mental therapy as well.

Manisha: Golf has often been seen as a game that is actually about the mental as well as the physical. But I’ve never thought about it in that way, and in terms of a safe space before, when we think about the design of the actual space. Can you tell me how that works?

Christine: Yeah, I think I’ve been lucky, because I’ve just been around golf so much of my life, that I’m familiar with the language and the rules and the etiquette. And that’s often a barrier to entry for a lot of people, because they just aren’t familiar with that. But because I have such familiarity with the intricacies of golf, I feel like it is my safe space. And I’m most comfortable on the golf course with a playing partner who is appreciative of just being outside, and able to have meaningful conversations. And allow each other to really come as you are, and be yourself and express yourself, through fashion through music, through language. Which has not always been the case in golf. But I’m very appreciative and excited that I can see the trends moving toward that.

Manisha: And do you think this is a new thing, the trends moving towards some of those things you’re talking about? I know that often when you go to a golf course there’s that big sign on the side that says you must do these things, and you mustn’t do these things.

Christine: Yeah, and not only are there those signs, but there’s that big eight foot fence that borders the entire property, to keep people out. So golf has very much been this kind of entity that is reluctant to change. And it’s always been a little bit behind the rest of society when it comes to cultural shifts, just because of the way that it was established, and the histories that it has.

So I’m really optimistic about where golf is heading now, because there are new perspectives coming into the game all across the industry, not just architecture; within journalism, within management. So it’s really exciting to see these new perspectives come in, and actually begin to create the shift within golf that is more in line with the socio-economic and cultural changes that we’re experiencing.

Manisha: Can you tell me more about the history of golf? I’m really interested. I hadn’t actually thought about where golf came from, and the history of these spaces before.

Christine: I think we can simplify it and say that it originated in Scotland. Links golf was the traditional type of golf, and it literally means the link between the sea and the arable land. So there was a strip of land along the coastline in Scotland that it was essentially unusable. It had no agricultural benefit. And it just became this playfield, this playground for people in Scotland. And that kind of developed into this new game of golf, and it spread inland from there, and eventually across to North America. And that’s when we see this big kind of shift, and kind of boom in golf, when it comes across the sea.

Manisha: And through that whole process, even though there are and have been women golf architects and women players, it’s still a very male dominated profession. What challenges have you faced, and how have you actually overcome them?

Christine: Golf architecture is not unique. It’s the same as any other male dominated industry, where women face bias and discrimination and stereotyping, that essentially excludes them from things. Excludes us from decision making, from resources, from networks. And that kind of built something up in us that makes us persevere, and makes us accept rejection in a different way. And I think that gives us the opportunity to have these different perspectives that we bring to what we do, within an industry that then creates value in those perspectives because they are unique.

Manisha: And so when we think about those perspectives, and actually having a voice at the table, it’s one thing to actually be given a seat at the table. It’s something else to really have a different voice, and have that voice being heard. What are some of the things that have been done, either by yourself or by some of those mentors around you, to make sure that your voice has been heard?

Christine: That’s a great question. And I think because of these experiences that women tend to have as a collective, we become resourceful, in the sense that we open up our own firms, and we create our own networks, and we collaborate amongst each other. So we’re really seeing this kind of collaboration happen within golf. Not only women to women, but also within media and journalism and social media, especially, who has kind of embraced this new wave of perspective, this different perspective that golf really has never seen before. Golf doesn’t have perspective from the margins that have really centred at all. So this is very new for golf. So it’s still being navigated.

Manisha: And when we think about those margins, what are some of the things that people might not have thought about, that are really important? What are some of the changes that need to be made?

Christine: You go into a golf property, and you go in the clubhouse, and they adhere to all of the ADA standards of design. Very strict guidelines of how people with disabilities can navigate that space. But as soon as you step on the first tee, all of those standards disappear. There are no standards in golf for design for people with disabilities. So that’s a really tangible idea that we can consider how people who are using SoloRiders or ParaGolf buggies, to navigate the golf course. So oftentimes, you’ll see stairs leading up to the first tee, or you’ll see pathways with curves long the whole thing. So there’s a lot that golf can learn from being more inclusive, and being more considerate from a disabilities perspective, or an adaptive needs perspective. And you can expand it from there as well.

Manisha: And expand it for me. Tell me more.

Christine: OK, so I don’t know how much you want to golf geek out here with me, but –

Manisha: Oh yeah, I really want to golf geek out with you.

Christine: OK, so traditionally, golf has been designed by men for men. And we’ve had this really great resurgence, thanks to the pandemic, of new golfers. A lot of women golfers, a lot of junior golfers, a lot of senior golfers who have left the game, and come back to the game. So there’s this whole group of people who golf design has never really considered first.

So where I’m trying to come in, my mandate, what I’m looking for, is ways to retrofit a golf course or expand a golf course to meet the needs of those specific groups of golfers, who have previously never been considered. So what that can sometimes mean, is looking at a forward tee program. Because golf course designers generally have a good handle on designing for people who are very good at golf. But for people who are beginning, so generally slower swing speeds, they require different things on a golf course.

So we want it to be – we say playable, which generally means you’re not going to lose 15 balls during your around, you’re going to maintain your pace of play. You’re going to have a specific amount of enjoyment and challenge that is appropriate for your skill. So creating this equitable experience, no matter how good or bad you are at golf, is what I’m focusing on trying to achieve right now.

Manisha: So how do you do that? You have specific knowledge, and you’re obviously also an extremely good golf player. How do you find out where the mismatches are? Do you bring people who have never played on to the golf course? What do you do to actually find these spaces?

Christine: Yeah, that’s a great question. And the one of the first things that I do as a designer is I go to the golf course, and talk to people who know the golf course much better than I do. So if I can speak to a cross-section of the membership, or of the golfers who play that golf course. So the good players, the new players, seniors, juniors, any type of golfer that has experienced that golf course, they have information that I don’t have. And it can often be as simple as asking them what they like and what they don’t like about a specific hole. And that really helps me generate a lot of the quantitative data in the process, in my process of design.

Manisha: And what about the people who can’t actually access that golf course, the people who might never have stepped onto that golf course? Are they also people that you talk to? Or do you feel that if you talk to the people on the edge who actually are at the golf course, they’ll give you the information you need?

Christine: I think that’s a great point. And public golf, so golf that’s owned by municipalities or cities, it’s a service that your town or city should be providing for you. So if that’s the case, then non-golfers have just as much of an input and a say, as golfers. Because it is their space, too. So what we’re seeing in public golf is, as you just said, a shift to including and asking and welcoming, inviting those peripherals into the golf, and say, how can you use this space to maximise its service to the community beyond golf?

Manisha: It’s really interesting when we think back to the beginning of this conversation, when you were talking about how golf was a safe space for you. When something is safe, and we’re used to it, and we grow up with it, we’re used to it being in a particular way, in a particular form. What do you think should change in golf? And what do you think needs to stay?

Christine: That’s such a good question. I think what needs to change is golf being open to this kind of modernisation, of allowing access to people who aren’t traditional golfers, who don’t look like the traditional golfer, and maybe don’t have the mindset of a traditional golfer. And we are seeing that evolution of, golf used to be this very rigid form, rigid sport of 18 holes, 6,500 yards. A certain number of par fives, par fours, par threes. And anything except that was less than –

Manisha: Sorry, I’m just going to ask; what is a par five, par three, par …?

Christine: That’s the standard amount of strokes it takes to get from tee to –

Manisha: Oh, to get your ball in the hole.

Christine: In the hole, you got it, yeah, you got it. So there’s just very rigid guidelines of what makes good golf. And we’re seeing those be dissected. And people are coming into golf design, and asking why do those have to be the way that they are? And so we’re having people ask questions and get curious, and hold golf accountable for its past, and also make changes where it needs to, in terms of being more inclusive, being more aware of its effect on the environment. Allowing environmental justice, making sure the water is cleaner when it leaves the golf course that when it entered, and making sure that people actually have literal access to these facilities, of how are we getting people here? How are we inviting non-golfers in to experience the land as a park, or as frisbee golfers, foot golfer, whatever it may be.

Manisha: I’m really interested in hearing you talk about this, because for me, it sounds like golf activism, really. And at the back of my mind, I keep thinking about that traditional golfer, the one who’s been at this course forever, who sees it as their second home, but identifies that golf course as them. How did they deal with this new wave? And do you bring them along on the journey? How do you ensure they open those doors and let down that big fence?

Christine: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think Croud said this, actually; he’s like those people will always have a place in golf. They’re not going anywhere. And I think your focus is better set on a different target market. Because those people have been considered for the last 200 years. So they have the facilities in place that they need. So how do we change our view and our perspective to invite more people to the game through accessible architecture?

Manisha: So do you use new golf courses? Or do you have to create new spaces for this? Or are there old courses that are actually taking on the accessible architecture mantel?

Christine: Yeah, I’m not sure that the world needs more golf courses at this point. If we can start to talk about natural resource consumption, water consumption, land usage.

Manisha: Absolutely.

Christine: I think that we have the facilities in place already, that can be improved on to meet these inclusive mandates. Which is where most of my work is right now. There are not a lot of new golf courses being built for a number of reasons. So a lot of my job is coming in to golf courses, looking at where they can improve in terms of inviting more people to participate in the game.

Manisha: Tell me more about the environmental side of a golf course. As you mentioned, golf courses take up a lot of resources. How do we make sure that we design golf courses in ways that limit their ecological footprint, and actually support and sustain the environment rather than take?

Christine: Yeah, I think about this a lot, actually. Because if golf was just a game for the few, that takes up this massive amount of acreage, I can’t justify that, in terms of how it’s affecting our consumption, or land usage. If golf is a game that also has some physical benefits, I probably still can accept that. Because there are other ways that we can play games and be physical at the same time.

If golf can be something that is a game that’s physical, that also can address this mental health aspect that we think about, in creating this community service aspect that we’ve talked about, then perhaps it is worthy of its acreage and its usage. So it really has to be more than just a game for me, to find worth in it, to justify its usage.

And apart from that, I think there’s this really interesting correlation between how we consume resources, water in particular, on a golf course, and the cost of that, and how the cost of water and the access to water – the cost of water is going to go up, access to water is going down. We’re already seeing it in California on the west coast of North America, where access to water is just diminishing at a rapid pace.

And so golf has to be ready for that change. Because right now, golf relies a lot on unlimited and inexpensive access to water. And that is bound to change. And so one of your one of the points that we had spoken about is, is golf going to be relevant and/or redundant in 50 years? And I think if we don’t address that water issue, that water consumption issue, golf will struggle and golf will fail.

Manisha: It’s an interesting one as well, right, when you spoke about where golf started, which was the nexus between the water and the land, and this space that was unusable. I wonder if golf is one of these games that can actually address usable versus unusable land?

Christine: That’s a really interesting point. Because that’s exactly the original function of it, is we don’t have any use for this land. What can we do here? How can we make this service to the community where the community can use it for whatever function that they need it to be used for? And so that’s a really interesting point of golf has this actual opportunity to create habitat, create environmental justice, become a service to the community. Whereas a lot of other sports might not have that, because they’re a little bit more rigid than golf, in terms of the playing field.

Manisha: Yeah, absolutely. And when you think about that, when you were talking before about how, when you focus on accessibility, you bring in the people from the edge who can talk to you about their experience with a particular hole. How does that play out when you think about ecology and the environment? How do you create golf courses that are more sustainable and sustaining?

Christine: Yeah, so golfers have this kind of obsession with green. We love things to be green and lush. And irrigation systems didn’t exist 100 years ago. That’s a new concept that technology has given golf. So the original golf was like, whatever your landscape was, that was the golf course. It didn’t have irrigation systems to make sure the grass was green all year round. So a part of it is consumer education of, maybe golf doesn’t have to be green and lush all year round. If we can reduce our water usage and reduce our cost of playing and increase our sustainability at the same time, but we have to plant grasses a little bit firmer and brown, maybe that’s OK. So it’s this really shift in mindset of consumers of, good golf isn’t just green. Good golf can be brown, it can be white, it can be green, if the climate is appropriate for that condition.

Manisha: So can you tell me about a golf course that actually plays into some of these philosophies, whether it’s from an accessibility perspective or an ecology perspective? I think it would be really interesting to actually have a look at some of these golf courses.

Christine: Yeah, and one that your listeners might be familiar with is St Andrews. It’s the home of golf. It’s where golf originates, kind of the Mecca, the pilgrimage that every golfer wants to make.

Manisha: And that’s in Scotland, right?

Christine: And it’s in Scotland. And the difference between North American golf, and golf in the UK, is golf in North America is, it’s a business. We’re trying to make money here. Whereas golf in the UK, and St Andrews in particular, golf is a service. Golf is a community service where the people of the community are able to come and have access to the golf course, and use it as they see fit.

So St Andrews is such a wonderful example of not only how to allow your golf course to brown and evolve through its natural – grass has a natural life cycle of brown, going through dormancy. It does that really well. And we think of golf in Scotland, we think of links golf. So then we call it firm and fast, because they let the ground brown out. They don’t water it, so it gets firm, and it gets fast. And that creates a different style of golf that is not very popular over in North America.

Manisha: Right, so it’s different. So you play differently, is that right?

Christine: Yeah, you do, you really play differently. Golf in North America is considered an air game. So what that means is, players will generally hit the ball up into the air, they’ll land it on the green. It will be soft enough to receive the ball, and then you putt. Whereas if you were to try that in the UK, play the air game, hit the ball up into the air, land on the green, the green would be too firm, and the ball would bounce over the green. So what you have to do in the UK is you have to either use the ground, hit it along the ground, or land your ball short of the green so it then bounces on to the green. So it’s a different style of architecture. And it’s a different technique and skill within golf.

Manisha: So it sounds to me like – not being a golfer here – but it sounds to me like it’s not necessarily the same power that you need either. That it might be more open to different ways of playing, different hand widths, whether you’re standing straight or not.

Christine: You are spot on, you’re spot on. And it allows more people to play the game, play golf. Because no matter what your skill level is, because in St Andrews, you can literally take a putter and putt from tee to green. Where you would never be able to do that in North America, because you have to cross a lake, you have to cross a creek you have to go over bunkers. The green is elevated for whatever reason. It’s a much more penal style of golf in North America, and you’re so spot on.

And so golf in Scotland, links golf in particular, becomes this much more accessible game. Because the best players in the world can go out and play the Open Championship, one of the biggest, biggest tournaments in golf. And then the following Monday, the ladies senior league goes out and plays the same golf course. So it really is the culmination of equitable design.

Manisha: And when you talk about St Andrews, and you say that the community can use this space how they wish to use it, how are they using it? Are they only using it to play golf? Is it about different types of groups of people using the course for golf? Or are they using the space for other things as well?

Christine: That’s one aspect of it. So they have a ladies putting league that has been ongoing for 50 years, where the senior women have their own membership, where it’s just a putting league. So all you have to have is a putter and a ball. You don’t have to invest in a full set of golf clubs. You don’t have to walk 18 holes. So it’s really accessible that way.

But also, you can go and walk your dog across the most famous golf course in the world. And me, being in North America, and having a new dog, I have been looking for golf courses that will allow me to take my dog out on the golf course with me. And it just like, they respond to me like I’m crazy. Like there’s no way you’re allowed to bring your dog out here. You’ll ruin the grass, you’ll interfere with other players. But if St Andrews allows it, there’s probably a way that we can do it too, to allow non-golfers, dog walkers, a different piece of the community, to come and use the golf course.

Manisha: It’s really interesting when we think about golf as a game that’s full of tradition, that the places where the tradition started have actually been able to maintain more accessibility, than the places that golf has gone to.

Christine: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I think golf – I feel like I’ve come into my career in Canada at just such a good time. A very serendipitous time, where golf is experiencing this resurgence, and society is opening up, and golf in particular is opening up to the different perspectives that people are bringing in. And so I’ve had opportunity to take what I’ve learned in the United Kingdom, and those design philosophies and community oriented services, and apply them to golf courses in Canada. And it’s been such a fulfilling experience. And I think quite a refreshing experience for a lot of people, in particular women I work with, and people who sometimes feel like they’re not always considered in these design decisions. So it’s been so exciting.

Manisha: So I have to ask, I’m assuming that those golf courses you’re working on in Canada, now actually have toilets for women on the court?

Christine: If I’m remembered for anything, it’s going to be making sure there’s enough bathrooms on the golf course.

Manisha: Can you tell us about that, because it’s something I’d never considered until I met you.

Christine: 18 holes of golf takes a long time. It takes anywhere from three and a half to five hours. And you don’t always come back to the clubhouse to be able to use the facilities. So especially being a woman, it’s very nice when you have bathrooms placed around the golf course at suitable intervals, with easy access to use the facilities. And that’s really not always the case. Because as we were mentioning before, golf has been designed by men for men. And men don’t need as many facilities as women when it comes to that, because men do what men do. And it’s easy for them to create their own facilities that way. So making sure that they’re at the very basic, the very basic need of women golfers, is enough bathrooms on a golf course. Which is surprisingly not always the case.

Manisha: It’s really interesting how, when you’re speaking, we’re not talking about massive changes when we’re thinking about bathrooms and accessible pathways for people. They’re quite small changes in some ways. They’re things that we’ve been talking about in the built environment for a really long time. And yet, I can just imagine how they really change the landscape of a golf course.

Christine: That’s absolutely right. And I’m not revolutionising golf architecture in any way. I’m simply using traditional golf architecture applied to a different set of people, considering a different set of people. So as you said, they seem quite common sensical. But in golf, it is quite a new concept.

Manisha: And as somebody who’s breaking new ground, I think a lot of the designers who listen to this channel, they might not work in the same space as you, but they certainly are working to change the world. To revolutionise what we do, to make it more accessible or inclusive. And that can sometimes take work. What are some of the things that you do to make sure that you maintain your resilience, and that give you emotional support through this work?

Christine: Go to therapy. Also, I mean, I think about golf a lot. So when I have time to give to myself, and give to my partner, it’s usually away from golf. I love to cook, I love to travel. I love to have people over, and have open, vulnerable conversations. I’m quite an intimate person, I thrive on intimacy. I want you to be intimate with me. So that often is quite refreshing and rejuvenating. Anytime I can interact with new people is quite exciting for me.

Manisha: It sounds like even though golf is something that you’re so passionate about, you’ve actually been able to find a little space for balance in there as well, so that you’re able to fight the good fight. How do you think the next generation of golf architects are going to come through? And what do you think they need to learn? What are some of the things you’ve learnt that they also need to learn?

Christine: Yeah, I think I’ve learned, especially with some of the new roles that I’ve been given, very important roles at historic golf clubs, something that I really never dreamed of getting. I’ve found my voice, and I’ve found power in that, and confidence in what I’m trying to do, and value and what I’m trying to do. And sometimes I make people uncomfortable, and sometimes I ask people to push their own boundaries. And I’ve learned to lean into that, and trust my instinct.

Manisha: That’s really interesting. Constructive dialogue, how does that happen for you?

Christine: Keep – like, open communication is so important. Being authentic. Being my authentic self in golf is I’m not – I have tattoos. I have piercings. I’m queer. Golf is slightly unnerved by me in some ways, and people like me. So I have to be brave enough to come as I am, if I’m encouraging people to do the same thing, and just try to be authentic.

Manisha: I find that fascinating. How was that for you growing up, also having to be and finding solace in this space and this place?

Christine: Yeah, I think it happened late for me. It happened after I stepped away from golf, really. Because golf can be such a constricting and confining environment, with the rules and etiquette, and the way that they tell you to dress, and the way they tell you to speak and where to stand. So it actually happened quite late for me. After I finished my competitive golfing career, I stepped away from golf quite abruptly. And I was able to find myself in that time.

I’m coming back to golf from a different, at a different time, from a different perspective, and finding that golf has also changed, which is which is really exciting to see.

Manisha: So a final question. This is a ‘what if’ question. If something could be redesigned or changed with your insight, what would that be?

Christine: OK, so we have one golfing conglomerate retail in Canada. It’s the only store where you can go to and meet all your golfing needs. And I went to get a brush to clean your golf clubs. So it’s this silly little small brush that gets into the grooves of your golf club to clean the dirt out of it. And so I got there, I was really excited to get it. Super geeky, I wanted my clubs to be clean for my first round of the year. And when I got there, the tag said ‘Men’s golf brush.’ I said, “Oh man, I can’t buy that.” This is the only retailer of golf in Canada.

Manisha: But hang on, how was it a men’s golf brush? Like what did it do that was manly?

Christine: Yeah, exactly. The point being they had just had categorised it, branded it as a men’s golf brush. It was absolutely nothing about it that is specific to men. It’s a brush. It’s a cleaning brush. And so I did this fun exercise of going around the rest of the store and looking at what was gendered in terms of golf product. And there were men’s tees. Men’s golf balls, men’s head club covers. And all of these things have nothing to do with gender. They’re not inherently men, for men or for women. So it just was something that was very interesting to me this happened last year. Like we’re still gendering a brush to use on a golf club. So golf has a ways to go in that department.

Manisha: Oh, absolutely. And I think it’s such an interesting thing that we’re still doing this in 2023.

Christine: I know.

Manisha: There is a way to go. But I think that with people like yourself around, fighting the good fight, and designing beautiful golf courses, they’re actually functional and accessible, and inclusive, I think.

Christine: Yeah.

Manisha: We have more likelihood that this will change.

Christine: Yeah.

Manisha: On that note, I’d like to thank you so much for coming on our podcast. It’s been fantastic having you here. I’ve learnt so much, not just about accessibility and equity, but also about golf. Thank you for sharing your story and your time.

And thank you everyone for listening and being with us here on With Not Four. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au or see the show notes where we’ll make sure that we have some photos of St Andrews golf course as well. So until next time, this is Manisha Amin for the Centre for Inclusive Design