Wolfdancer Golf Club in Lost Pines, Texas, has not only survived record-breaking heat, historic drought and raging wildfires—it’s actually thrived in the face of treacherous conditions.
Golf course superintendents can be forgiven for sometimes feeling it’s futile to try to fool, or even fight, Mother Nature. But when things seem hopeless, inspiration can be drawn from course maintenance teams that have stood up successfully to nature’s often capricious and cruel ways.
Wolfdancer Golf Club at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa in Lost Pines, Texas, about 12 miles east of Austin and eight miles west of Bastrop, has seen Mother Nature at her absolute worst in the past few years, through the triple whammy of a prolonged drought, record-breaking heat and the devastating September 2011 wildfires that, according to the Texas Forest Service, were the most destructive in state history, after burning more than 1,500 homes and ravaging 34,000 acres in Bastrop County.
Even in the face of these extreme challenges, however, management at Wolfdancer GC says the course is enjoying its best playing conditions since it opened six years ago.
While some associates lost homes to the wildfires, and club revenues declined for a couple of months afterward, the Wolfdancer golf course was not physically affected by last fall’s blazes. “The fires weren’t on our property, but we were worried that the winds would shift,” says Director of Golf Eric Claxton.
Favorable winds, however, are not the only reason the 18-hole golf course is still playing under optimum conditions. Resort personnel attribute part of their good fortune to the location of the course along the banks of the Lower Colorado River, which gives it access to water.
Wolfdancer, named after the land it occupies that once belonged to the Tonkawa American Indians, who performed ceremonial dances while covered in wolf pelts, is also adjacent to a 1,100-acre nature preserve, McKinney Roughs Nature Park.
Key decisions and maintenance practices by Wolfdancer personnel have led to the pristine course conditions as well. The agronomics staff has based some of its inputs on drought contingency plans of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), a conservation and reclamation district in central Texas that manages water supplies in the lower basin and operates six dams that form the Highland Lakes.
“Everything is mandated by the levels of these lakes, and there have been 20- to 25-percent reductions across the board for everybody,” notes Director of Agronomy John Crall. “In 2009, we took the opportunity to become more efficient as a golf course.”
A Heads-Up Approach to Irrigation
Crall, who has been at Wolfdancer since 2008, says the area has endured periods of drought for the last four or five years, and one of the property’s top priorities has been to maximize the use of its irrigation system.
“We went hole by hole, station by station, and head by head, to make sure we had proper run-time percentages,” he reports. “Then we made sure we had the most efficient heads for a particular area, and started looking at nozzles.”
A central computer, located in the Wolfdancer Agronomic Center, coordinates the programming and flow of the entire irrigation system. Crall and his staff rely on the modern technology to pinpoint specific areas where, depending on conditions, they can increase or decrease the run time of individual heads, rather than water entire fairways or holes.
“We monitor the golf course daily to find areas that are too wet or too dry,” adds Claxton. “We maximize the system to minimize water usage. With Mother Nature, we’ll have certain areas that will be hot spots. It’s a game of cat and mouse.”
In addition to analyzing computer data from the irrigation system, Wolfdancer’s General Manager, Steve Dewire, says the grounds crew has applied lessons from personal experience to fine-tune water usage.
“They identified where the problems were and watched them cyclically through a year,” says Dewire. Adjustments have been made because of various factors, he adds, such as rocks underneath the soil, the time of day that certain parts of the course were being irrigated, or the type of head that was being used.
Wolfdancer also tweaked the LCRA’s standard drought contingency plan and submitted its own plan to the authority.
“We’ve been able to keep the golf course going through the worst drought in Texas history,” reports Crall. “We took the standard plan and made modifications to protect our greens. We asked that we could use 5 to 10 percent more water on our greens, and we make it up by saving on other areas. The economy and the drought have caused us to be more efficient in everything we’re doing.”
In another effort to improve water usage, one of the property’s ownership groups made an initial investment to build a wastewater treatment plant on site, and turned it over to the resort. As a result, Crall reveals, 20 percent of the water the golf course uses is effluent, while the remaining 80 percent is raw water from the river. Space is available to build additional wastewater treatment plants, he notes.
“Once the new plants come online, we can generate more effluent water, and we hope to change the ratio [of our water usage] to 80 percent effluent and 20 percent raw,” he says. “We check the effluent water twice a year, and the quality is basically the same as the river water.”
The staff expects drought conditions—and an accompanying requirement to reduce water usage by 20 percent—to continue into the spring.
“We’ll cut back water usage on the out-of-play areas first,” notes Claxton. “As long as the tees, greens and fairways are in great condition, we can adjust other areas of the course.”
Crall says he would not want to go back to pre-drought practices. “We’ve always tried to stretch our greens to the wilting point, but we look at them differently now,” he notes. “Instead of just watering all of the greens, we have more fundamental knowledge of what we need to water when. We’re a lot more specific with our watering schedule.”
As a result, the property has been able to maintain the golf course while reducing water usage by 20 to 25 percent. “I constantly take readings from the pump panel every day,” Crall explains. “I’ve looked at our water totals for the last three years to make adjustments, and that’s where I’m getting my reductions.”
Adjusting the irrigation system has done more than help the staff become better water stewards. The changes also played a big role in Wolfdancer securing Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification last fall. While one of the property owners mandated that the golf course pursue the certification, Crall says the process was second nature, because of the resort’s setting.
The golf course boasts a cross-section of Texas Hill Country geography that includes three eco-systems. Holes one through four occupy rolling prairie land. The fifth through the 12th holes sit on a heavily wooded ridgeline, and Nos. 13 through 18 run along a shaded valley bordering the Colorado River. The layout rambles over a 300-acre stretch of terrain dotted with oak, cedar, elm and pecan trees, and the river frames the right side of the finishing holes.
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“It’s a good talking point and a good selling point for us,” Claxton says of the environmental certification. “We jumped in with both feet to take it to the next level.”
When Wolfdancer started the Audubon process, the property created an advisory committee that included representatives of the McKinney Roughs preserve.
“They were extremely helpful and knowledgeable,” says Claxton. “They helped us come up with ideas that we could use on the golf course, such as mammal habitats in trees that had fallen down during the drought.”
Armadillos, roadrunners, deer and bobcats have now found homes in the downed trees. Other trees have been recycled into split-rail fences, or ground into mulch for horseback trails. The staff also borrowed an idea from McKinney Roughs to create bird-viewing areas between two holes. A walkway lined with fence paneling now lets observers look through slits in the fence, to watch birds lighting on feeders on the other side. The nature preserve staff also brings small animals to the resort, to conduct seminars for resort guests and their children.
The staff has also created an initiative called the Wolfdancer Audubon Experience, which enhances, but does not interfere with, play. With this interactive tour of the course, a screen pops up on the golf cars’ GPS to describe the various eco-systems on the property.
“Being a golfer myself, I was cognizant of making sure the GPS informational screens appeared at tees or in between holes or after putting out, to not interfere with the system’s primary function—giving yardages during play,” Crall explains. “The information is not disruptive, but if you want to know more, it is there. We want to tell a story around the golf course.”
In addition, notes Claxton, “Numerous areas on the golf course have signage that explains environmental initiatives.”
As part of the certification process, the Wolfdancer crew also took a closer look at its chemical applications, and converted many parts of the course that had been maintained as rough to natural areas. “It didn’t require any money. It just required some thought,” reveals Crall.
Close and continuous examination of maintenance practices is a common occurrence at Wolfdancer. Crall and Claxton rely on a detailed agronomics plan to keep their operations running smoothly. They put the planning calendar together at the end of each year, basing it on their actions of the previous year. They start working on the plan in mid-October, finish it in early November, and post it two months in advance of any scheduled work.
“We plan out as far as we can,” reports Claxton. “It’s important for corporate business with the hotel. It helps us communicate with departments such as the sales and catering teams about maintenance operations like our aerating schedule.”
“I detail everything we do during the year,” he adds. “I carry the plan with me every single day and make notes on it. It evolves from year to year, and it just keeps getting better. I use it for everything from placing orders to scheduling vacations for crew members.”
Adhering to the agronomics plan has yielded consistent results, adds Claxton. “We’re not skimping on some maintenance practices for the long-range success of the course,” he notes. For example, Wolfdancer continues to aerate its greens three times a year, where other courses have cut back to once.
The Right Mentality
Careful planning and environmental stewardship are not the only keys to Wolfdancer’s success “We have an excellent team and a good equipment array,” Dewire says.
Crall, who had spent his entire career at private properties before joining the resort, admits he underwent a bit of a learning curve when he first came on board.
“Everything is about the golf course at a private club, but the golf course isn’t the primary focus of everything at a resort—it’s one part of many things that are available,” he explains.
Through a close working relationship with Claxton and Dewire, who holds roundtable discussions for all management personnel, Crall has learned to “understand the resort and hotel mentality.” For instance, he admits he was a little perturbed the first time a wedding was held on the 12th hole. But now he is eager to “help out where I can.”
The staff members know they need to support each other for the golf course to succeed. Crall meets with Claxton every day, and they drive around the golf course together two or three times a week. Sometimes Dewire joins them as well.
“We have the support and the ability to fully enhance the golf experience, which ties in well with the hotel mission,” Claxton notes.
“With the joint and individual tours of the course, we get our own perceptions at different times of the day or month,” Dewire adds. “Then we discuss what to do next,
“The course is highly rated, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that it’s not a typical resort course,” he adds. He’s eager to have the agronomics crew help take the entire property, which includes an additional 240 acres slated for future development, to the next level by applying their talents to other managed areas of the hotel grounds.