Just as some good landscaping touches can greatly enhance the "curb appeal"—and resale value—of any home, a renovated golf course can yield sizeable returns, no matter how bad things may have once looked, or how lengthy or expensive the repairs.
Golf course manager David Brandenburg learned this first-hand when he came to Rolling Meadows Golf Course at the tail end of a huge renovation project in 1996. The course, in Fond du Lac,Wis., had been down for a full two years, as an existing 18 holes were restored and nine more were added. But its experience in the 10 years since reopening has showed the improvements to be well worth the trouble. "Usually you get the people back and more," Brandenburg notes. "You have a new product."
To ensure this kind of happy ending, however, course superintendents must play key roles in renovation projects, from the moment they're first discussed through the critical final days before reopening. In fact, as they work with architects, builders, and other members of their own clubs' management teams to plan and carry out renovations, superintendents need to contribute much more than input on upkeep issues.
Those who have been through these projects say that superintendents are often in the best position to serve as the voice of reason on everything from the redesigned course's playability to the project timetable. And by helping to exercise proper control, superintendents can save themselves a lot of post-project work and headaches— because poorly planned or executed renovations lead to higher-maintenance "improvements." Hurry Up and Wait
The superintendent's toughest task in ensuring order, reason and adequate returns always comes at the end of renovation projects, as patience wears thin and the novelty of playing elsewhere through reciprocal arrangements wears off. Whether a club is public, private or somewhere in between, the longer a course is out of play, the louder the grumbling will get.
That's why Woody Moriarty, Superintendent at Blue Hills Country Club in Kansas City,Mo., ranks opening a renovated course before the grass is ready for play as the greatest temptation that he or his fellow professionals can ever face.
After Moriarty arrived at Blue Hills four years ago, he quickly realized that the private, 18-hole course probably couldn’t avoid a complete renovation of its greens. “Like all old courses, we had a problem with Poa annua and moss infestations,” he says.
Moriarty tried to first fight the problem on a smaller scale, using fertilizers and sprays, and the club also looked into sodding, knowing that if they got rid of the moss, the grass wasn’t there to replace it. But finally, club leaders brought the USGA in for soil tests and decided to go the full renovation route.
Blue Hills shut down from August 2004 through April 2005 to gas, aerify and regrass all 18 greens—about 146,000 square feet of turf all together.
Around January of 2005, Moriarty heard the siren call of new grass, telling him to hurry up and get players out on the course. He had planned to open for the weekend of the Masters tournament in April 2005, and while he did fight off both the internal urge, and outside pressure, to push up the schedule significantly, Blue Hills did manage to find a way to open a week ahead of plan.
“It’s hard taking the club away from the golfers,” Moriarty says. “I think [we did well to only be] down for seven months, with much of it [during the worst of winter]. But that’s still tough to sell to the Board members.”
Watch Your Steps Even before the pressure builds to a boil near the end of a restoration timetable, the constant focus on "when will we be done" can lead even the most careful superintendents to cut corners, or make unintentional missteps, that can end up jeopardizing the entire project.
Over the course of Blue Hill's renovation, Moriarty reports, a couple of slip-ups occurred that were fortunately caught in time. First, on a practice run for renovating a green, too much sand was somehow put into the mix, making it much tougher to get the grass to grow in. Fortunately, Moriarty's crew caught the problem early on, jumped in to fix it, and that green now looks as good as the rest, he says.
Another mistake, he reports, was not keeping careful enough track of the process for verticutting the greens, resulting in the discovery that two rounds of verticutting had occurred without a seeding in between. Fortunately, any damage was quickly reversed, and a flooding rain soon thereafter didn't wash away too much seed.
And even when a superintendent is able to follow each step of a renovation schedule to the letter— and tries to watch The Weather Channel in every spare moment—Mother Nature can still let loose some surprises to severely wrinkle the plans. Moriarty knows that feeling, too: His property got three inches of rain just after he had seeded a great majority of the greens.
"My blood pressure was up then," he admits. But he stayed calm enough to determine the right fix: Don't wait to put down more seed. "We just went ahead and did the whole green again," he says. "We had a good base already there, and seeded right into the grass. It was a huge success." Keeping Play in Mind
Even in the earliest stages of a course renovation, superintendents can help avoid costly pitfalls. Ray Davies, Director of Golf Course Maintenance and Construction for CourseCo. Inc., oversees agronomics from his home office in Petaluma, Calif. for 12 mostly municipally operated courses in northern California. In that role, he's participated in opening four new courses, as well as a project at Foxtail Golf Course in Rohnert Park that earned runner-up recognition in a national Renovation of the Year competition.
Drawing from these experiences, Davies doesn't have much trouble citing instances where expert insights from agronomists could have saved a lot of trouble. He recounts one complete reconstruction of a course where the architect wanted to transplant large redwood trees onto the course for their "strategic" value.
"The trees were moved, but they were too large to transplant successfully, and more than half of them died," he reports. "I learned that just because the tree spade could move it, that didn't determine the right size to move."
From the earliest redesign stages, Davies says superintendents can be valuable in keeping overzealous architects, club pros or members in check. For example, he counsels, all hazards still need to be located so they challenge low-handicap players without holding up the higher handicappers; that keeps everyone moving and allows smoother play on a full course.
Bunker placement, landing areas, fairway lengths, and even the space from the green to the next tee also have an effect on how quickly golfers can get through a game, he reminds. Landing areas also need to be kept large enough and properly located, taking into consideration the ang
le of the green and the hazards, Davies adds.
Of all playability considerations, bunker placement can be the most critical, he notes. Architects often fall in love with bunkers for their aesthetic beauty, leading to what Davies calls "indiscriminate bunkering." In his view, they should be limited to locations where they will challenge the best players on most drives, but not interfere with average players too often.And they should never be an obstacle for the worst players when they are teeing off.
Water hazards can also increase the pace of play more than other impediments, it's noted, because golfers will not waste time looking for the ball as they would in tall grasses.
Traffic is another factor that course renovators often don't consider. According to David Oatis, Northeast Region Director for USGA's Turf Management program, high-traffic areas should be free of obstructions. Squeezing players past trees and shrubs can lead to unmanageable wear problems where grass will refuse to grow. Building in as many access points as possible for carts will also reduce wear. C&RB
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Summing It Up
• A renovated course can yield big returns from its increased appeal—but to fully realize these benefits, superintendents must play a key role not only for maintenance issues, but also as the voice of reason for questions of playability and project timing.
• The final stage of a renovation project (growing in the grass) is where it’s the hardest to resist the pressure to reopen—but where patience and diligence is most needed.
• Even before the rush to reopen builds, the natural and constant focus on “when will we be done” can lead even the most careful superintendents to cut corners or make unintentional missteps.
Making Idle Time Pay Off
Superintendents who have been through course restorations, and lived to tell about it, say these are some of the keys to survival—and success:
• Tune in your network. As an important part of the planning stage, superintendents can learn a lot from others who’ve been down the same road.
• Account for lost opportunity costs. A rule of thumb is that a course restoration, after potential lost revenue is factored in, can end up costing a club double or even triple the project budget. At Blue Hills CC in Kansas City, Mo., for example, Superintendent Woody Moriarty says 18 new greens cost about $150,000, and the club expected to lose about twice that in golf revenues. So when a course is going to be shut down, it’s in everyone’s best interests — especially superintendents — to think of ways to offer club members or players new activities elsewhere on the property that can help make up for lost rounds. Blue Hills planned a lot of special events for the duration of its shutdown, Moriarty reports, and ended up “doing better on food and beverages when we were closed down.”
• Think “the best” about your bunkers. Remembering that today’s balls and clubs allow even average players to drive much farther than when many courses were first built, rethink your restoration plan to determine where the best golfers’ drives will now land, and try to relocate bunkers there.
• Consider the “in-betweens.” The distances and logistical challenges from one green to the next hole are among the biggest contributors to slow play.
• The devil is in the details. Even down to the visibility and location of relocated restrooms.
• Put down roots. The rush to get back out on the course must be balanced with the need for small plants (including grass) to grow strong and healthy.