After a multi-million course renovation put the famed Southern California resort back in the game, Superintendent Steve Auckland and his course and grounds staff are making sure the investment will pay long-term dividends.
For ten years, Steve Auckland must have felt like he was fighting a losing battle. No matter how hard he tried, or how considerable his knowledge, experience and expertise had become, the Superintendent at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif., could do little to prevent the puddles that kept reappearing on the resort’s two golf courses.
“We are situated on a flood plain and have very heavy clay soils,” Auckland explains. “We don’t get a lot of rain here—maybe 10 to 11 inches a year—but when it did rain, the playing surfaces would stay wet for several days.”
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And, because the resort has 36 holes that were built in three different decades—the original 18, designed by Dick Wilson, opened in 1965; Joe Lee then added nine holes in 1973 and nine more in 1984—La Costa essentially had three different types of greens. “Plus, some greens were watered with fresh water and others with reclaimed water,” says Auckland. “So they were never really uniform in appearance, and did not share the same playing characteristics.”
The surface drainage was also laden with salt, which was not tolerated well by the rye grass used to overseed the Bermuda in fall. “The result was that, despite very intensive efforts to save and nurture the turf, we lost some every year, and the surfaces became inconsistent,” says Auckland.
Getting It Right
La Costa is owned by KSL Capital Partners, which purchased the 400-acre property’s $400 million in debt at a highly discounted price from Citigroup in March 2010. The property had seen $200 million worth of improvements since 2001, but that clearly wasn’t enough. The courses were rarely at their best, and the hotel’s reputation was in decline. After deciding another sizeable investment was necessary, early in 2011 KSL embarked on a $50 million project aimed at restoring the hotel to its former greatness and elevating the quality of the golf experience.
“Not only were the courses draining poorly, it was evident some of the native grasses had encroached onto the playing surfaces,” says La Costa’s General Manager, Paul McCormick. “Plus, ‘North’ and ‘South’ didn’t sound very inspiring. There is so much history at La Costa, we wanted to reposition and rebrand the North course and turn it into a much more memorable experience. We wanted to take it into the 21st century.”
The North course was thus rechristened the Champions Course—but the name change alone wasn’t enough, says McCormick. “We had to back it up,” he adds. “We had to make it a course worthy of the new name.
“The initial plan was to work on both [courses],” McCormick adds. But, because less than one-tenth of the total budget was set aside for the golf course work, “it soon became clear that wouldn’t work financially or operationally, so we focused on the North/Champions Course,” he says.
Damian Pascuzzo and his partner Steve Pate, a six-time PGA Tour winner and member of two Ryder Cup teams, were selected as the redesign team for the North course from a group of a dozen applicants, primarily because of the good work Pascuzzo had done at properties operated by ClubCorp, which KSL had purchased in 2006. Pascuzzo brought in long-time friend Jeff Brauer as a consulting architect.
Auckland had worked with four golf course designers prior to Pascuzzo, and found the man who had trained under Robert Muir Graves the best of the lot to work with.
“He obviously had his own ideas,” says Auckland. “He was very keen to retain the essence of Dick Wilson’s design. But he was also very supportive, and listened to all my issues and concerns. The very nature of the architect/superintendent relationship can be delicate, but Damian certainly wasn’t a ‘my way or the highway’-type person.”
It’s no surprise that at the top of Auckland’s list of priorities was drainage. “The best way to improve surface drainage is to add sand, of course,” he says. “We brought in 3,000 truckloads and capped the entire course to a depth of seven inches. In total, we used about 43,000 tons.”
All 18 holes of the Champions Course were treated, along with the four holes of the South Course (1st, 9th, 10th and 18th) that were closest to the hotel.
Besides improving drainage through the green with the application of sand, and also re-grading the fairways to encourage surface run-off, a number of other boxes needed to be ticked.
The fairway bunkers—many of which Pascuzzo wanted to reposition to challenge players hitting super-charged golf balls with 460cc titanium-headed drivers, rather than the lifeless wound balls and 190cc persimmon drivers they were using back in Dick Wilson’s day—needed to drain as well as the fairways. Because La Costa sees relatively little precipitation, a fairly conventional approach, with standard four-inch pipe in a gravel trench covered with bunker sand, was sufficient.
“The drainage was cut into the sub-base of the bunker, and the gravel was placed over the drainage lines,” says Auckland. “Four to six inches of sand were then placed into the bunker.”
Updating the irrigation system was another major part of the renovation. A new controls system that now allows the staff to manage water use effectively at the click of a mouse was installed, along with a total of 1,500 new irrigation heads.
To further decrease water consumption, 35 acres of what had been mown, irrigated ground was turned into native areas that now require little or no water.
“The resort has made a huge commitment to being more environmentally friendly,” says Auckland. “So that influenced a lot of my thinking.”
Another important part of the effort to become “greener” was the installation of a new food waste decomposition system, through which La Costa’s kitchens can now turn food scraps into nutrient-rich compost that can be used from tee to green on both golf courses, as well as in plants and flower beds elsewhere on the resort.
At a temperature of 180 degrees, the machine dehydrates the 182,000 pounds of food waste the resort produces each year and turns it into a humus-rich soil. About 40 pounds of compost is produced each day and made available to Auckland and his team (which now also runs its fleet of mowers, aerifiers and all-purpose vehicles on biodegradable oil).
Quick and Dramatic Results
After breaking ground for the renovation on February 19, 2001, the Champions Course reopened on November 5, 2011 (the South Course had remained open for much of the time). “We completed the job very quickly, but also very efficiently, I think,” says Auckland. “We had to re-sod the course in October, which was very late. And because of a cold November, the 419 Bermuda that we laid didn’t quite take as quickly as I had hoped. In fact, some of the turf was only 75 days old when we opened, and it still isn’t where I’d like it to be.”
Even so, the results have been dramatic. It’s difficult to assess the effect in numeric terms, as the course hasn’t yet been open twelve months since its re-introduction into the Southern California golf scene. But there’s no doubt the finished product has created a good deal of buzz.
The feedback from members and resort guests that Auckland, Pascuzzo, and Dave Doerr, La Costa’s Director of Golf, have been getting has been entirely positive. An added bonus is the amount of additional wildlife Auckland has been seeing as a result of the Champions Course’s new “nature.”
“I spotted the first deer in my 11 years at La Costa in August,” he says. “The numbers of nesting birds is noticeably higher, and we have two owls now. There are more ducks, herons, and waterfowl, and we also have possums, raccoons and skunks. It’s making my job more pleasant, and having a positive effect on the resort as a whole.”
Ready Again for the Big Time
The most telling result of all the changes, however, may be that La Costa is, once again, in a good position to attract a major professional event. The resort has hosted major championships before, including The PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions (which Steve Pate won in 1988), WGC Match Play Championships and the LPGA Kia Classic, which it still hosts. (In previous years, the Kia Classic was held on both the North and South courses. In 2012, competition was confined to the South Course to avoid a mix of its poa annua greens and the new A4 Bentgrass greens on the Champions Course.)
To be sure, the resort can handle big-time golf, and there’s little doubt the pros would appreciate the improvements that have been made. Auckland certainly isn’t counting on having to get the new Champions Course tournament-ready just yet, though. He knows better than anyone how much better the new course is and how much potential it has—but he is also acutely aware of how critical the next year or two are going to be.
“After so many modifications and alterations are made, it takes a while for the course to settle and mature,” he says. “There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when it will be far less demanding.
“But for now, there is a lot of tweaking and hand-weeding going on, and the course needs almost constant attention. We have to make sure the work done last year has the desired effect over the long-term.”
One person who has no doubt that Auckland is the right man for the job is McCormick, who worked with the Canadian native at the then KSL-owned PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., in the late 1990s. “Steve was working there as the construction superintendent on the Norman Course,” says La Costa’s GM. “So I got to see how talented and dedicated he was, and what he was capable of. He leads by example.
“The Champions Course is going through a very important phase right now,” McCormick adds. “But I’m confident Steve will help make it great again.”