Some of the most impressive course maintenance work now being done at club and resort properties never touches any golf hole.
Mark Twain is credited with calling golf “a good walk spoiled.” But Twain, or whoever uttered that famously disdainful line, might have felt differently about the game, given a chance to hone skills at state-of-the-art practice facilities that now distinguish properties across the country.
In recent years, many clubs and courses have paid considerable attention—and devoted significant capital dollars—to revamping and expanding their driving ranges and practice areas. These challenging “mini-holes,” as appealing to scratch golfers as they are to those who are learning the game, often include some combination of bunkers, undulations and elevation changes, water hazards, rough areas, well-manicured greens, and a variety of “turfaces.”
These new areas not only offer an opportunity for golfers to work on all aspects of their game, they are also creating new business opportunities. Well-designed and -maintained practice areas can attract players who don’t have time for a full round, but would still like to enjoy the property by doing more than bang balls into a rutted target area with more dirt than turf.
|SUMMING IT UP
Providing such an appealing new option, however, requires that course and grounds professionals get involved in both the creation and ongoing care of upgraded ranges and practice areas, to keep them looking, and playing, as well as the golf course itself. And as part of these duties, superintendents are finding that the “mini-courses” they’ve created for practice purposes can also serve valuable double-duty as test areas for trying out different turf varieties, new products, and maintenance techniques.
From End to End
The practice area at Old Ranch Country Club in Seal Beach, Calif., offers equal opportunity for members of the golf facility, as well as the surrounding community, to take advantage of all that it has to offer. The property rebuilt its practice area in 1999-2000, moving the range to a different location and opening up one end for the membership and the other end for the public.
“We added the public area to generate more income,” notes Richard Swinhart, Director of Agronomy and Grounds. “There are no other facilities within five to eight miles of us, and we’re surrounded by tract homes.”
Swinhart, who was an assistant superintendent when the practice area was rebuilt, had a great deal of input into the design process. The property also performed most of the work in-house, building the greens and bunkers and adding the landscaping and irrigation system.
“We wanted the public area to be big enough so people don’t bump into each other on the putting surface and chipping area,” he says. “It’s also out of the way of the private practice area.”
According to Swinhart, many people from the surrounding neighborhoods use the practice areas, as well as high- and low-handicappers who want to improve their games or sharpen their skills. “I see a lot of people with clubs in the back of their truck, and guys who should be at work on the practice area,” he says with a laugh.
The Old Ranch CC members also expect the practice facility to be in top condition. “The practice area is usually where the golfers warm up,” Swinhart notes. “It’s the first thing they see when bringing out a guest. The driving range sets up their whole attitude.”
In addition, he says, “A lot of members spend more time on the driving range than the golf course, because they don’t have time to play in the afternoon.”
Continually Honing Their Game
Old Ranch Country Club
Crystal Springs Golf Course in Burlingame, Calif., added a practice area to its 87-year-old course 15 years ago. Certified Golf Course Superintendent Tim Powers says new golfers, those who don’t have time to play a full round, and people who want to improve their games all take advantage of the facility.
“All 24 stalls on the driving range are in use sometimes, and we also have teaching pros there,” Power adds. “It’s an important piece of property because people want to warm up before they play, and they want to work on their games.”
At The River Bend Club in Great Falls, Va., which recently underwent an $11 million golf course renovation and reopened in July to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the property originally had a practice area with a small range, with eight mats on four acres, that was squeezed between the 10th hole and the tennis courts. “We had to put up netting along the tennis courts,” Madden recalls.
When 27 acres of adjacent land became available in the late 1990s, The River Bend Club purchased all of it, specifically to expand its practice facilities. The current practice area, which opened in 2000, now covers 24 acres. “We sold three or four home lots to recoup the money for the land,” Golf Course Superintendent Tom Lipscomb explains.
The expanded area includes “nine target greens that we use as a par-3 golf course for our juniors once a week,” adds Head Golf Professional John Madden. “It’s great to have that flexibility.” The par-3 course was kept open for members while the 18-hole course was being renovated.
Even when it comes to practice facilities, though, The River Bend Club staff has discovered there is always room for improvement. While the expanded practice facility was state-of-the-art 12 years ago, the property plans to revamp the entire area in the next two or three years. “Now that we’ve had 12 years on it, we’ve had a chance to evaluate it and see what makes a good design,” Lipscomb reports.
Lipscomb, along with Madden and the club’s Construction Committee, will have a great deal of input into the new design. The property is currently considering three plans for the upcoming renovation. Possible upgrades include enlarging the short-game area to offer more shot selections, adding heated indoor bays, and putting in a one-acre putting green where members can have contests. “Any changes we make will affect the maintenance side as well,” Madden notes.
A Hit in Many Ways
Features: Nine target greens; six separate bentgrass teeing areas; a 75-yard short-game area; five bunkers; 30,000-sq. ft. practice green; uneven lie areas for low handicappers and scratch golfers; indoor learning center; hitting room; and a 9-hole, par-3 junior golf course.
Even in its current form, River Bend’s practice area gets a lot of use from the membership. “People will come out and bang balls for two hours, instead of playing nine holes,” Lipscomb reveals.
It is also used for demo days where equipment representatives show their new lines, as well as for corporate outings. For example, for Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consulting firm headquartered in McLean, Va., the River Bend staff holds golf clinics for ladies once a year on the practice area.
“[For companies that] understand the importance of golf in business, we have the flexibility to do a lot of programs we couldn’t do before,” Madden notes. “And the practice area became a great selling point because as you drive into the club, you see a beautiful piece of property.”
The total cost of the practice area expansion was about $750,000, which included the construction of a learning center, Madden says. “We’ve been able to do more fun things there, and it has helped us get new members,” he reports. “It’s paid for itself many times over.”
Maintaining the River Bend practice area to the same pristine standards as the golf course has been a challenge since the expansion, Lipscomb admits, but the maintenance crew still mows, waters, seeds divots, rakes bunkers, and controls weeds on the practice turf.
The club uses the same bunker sand and liners in its practice area as on the golf course. “They have the same consistency, but not the same design and shape,” reports Lipscomb. “But as part of the redesign, we will get the depth and faces of the practice area bunkers to be the same as the ones on the course.”
Lipscomb also coordinates his staff’s maintenance activities on the practice area with the golf pro. “Tom gives me his schedule of mowing and spray applications,” Madden reveals. “Most of the maintenance is done early in the morning, or on Monday when the course is closed. The maintenance is done on a daily basis, so playability is the same as the golf course.”
The popularity of the practice area at Old Ranch CC also sometimes presents challenges to its maintenance staff. “It makes it more difficult to maintain the landing areas and target greens, because there’s always somebody hitting golf balls,” says Swinhart. “We have to get out there before first light. We usually see the problem the day before, and take care of it first thing in the morning.”
Gophers and wet spots create the most problems in the landing areas, he adds, and the entire practice facility has the same maintenance schedule as the golf course. “We aerify, verticut, and mow the area to duplicate golf course conditions as much as possible,” he reports. “The greens are mowed and treated the same as the golf course.”
The maintenance crew overseeds the private end of the practice area with perennial ryegrass. From the type of sand to raking techniques, the bunkers on Old Ranch’s private practice area also duplicate the bunkers on the golf course. “We maintain the putting surfaces exactly the same way as the golf course,” Swinhart says. “The green speeds and conditions are the same. It’s important to maintain it the same way as the golf course.”
At Crystal Springs, the maintenance crew mows the target greens three times a week, and cuts the other parts of the practice area once a week. “I don’t have the time or the bodies to do it more often,” Powers says. “We want the conditions to be similar to what the golfers find on the golf course, and we try to get some bounce around the greens.”
Crystal Springs Golf Course
Practice facilities not only provide a place for golfers to warm up before their rounds. Golf course maintenance crews also use the turf to test grasses, products, and equipment.
“I can see how weed control products work, or apply fertilizers to test plots,” explains Swinhart. “In an emergency, I can use [the practice area] for a sod farm. If I need a tee rebuilt, I have sod that I can use right away. I can also use turf from the practice area to repair damage from vandals, gophers, chemical spills, or something unexpected.”
In the past, Crystal Springs served as a testing ground for the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program. For eight to 10 years, a large practice green at the property provided about 20 study plots, to test different varieties of bentgrass.
Lipscomb uses the River Bend practice area to try out new equipment and chemicals that he has never used before. “If I’m going to kill something by mistake, I’d rather do it on the practice area than the golf course,” he explains.
The practice area was also an invaluable resource for turf testing prior to River Bend’s recent golf course reconstruction. In addition, Lipscomb says the club built a nursery area to test “almost every bentgrass known to man” at greens, fairway, and rough heights, before developing its own blend to use on the renovated course.
“Every place should have a nice practice facility,” he says. “But it depends on the land you have.”report