Small touches on the golf course make a huge impression that can influence members’ and guests’ overall feelings about a facility.
Several years ago, a member of West Lake Country Club in Augusta, Ga., had just finished a round of golf with a guest during Masters Week. Director of Operations Bert Morales asked the guest if he’d had a good experience, and the guest assured him he’d enjoyed everything —except for the “awful” cart paths.
“That broke my heart,” recalls Morales. “If that’s the last thing they remember, everything else is for nothing.”
Score an ace for honesty, however. The truthful feedback served as a giant wake-up call for Morales about how little details leave big impressions. The comment also prompted him to approach the club’s committee members and Board about making long-overdue improvements to the cart paths.
“Our goal was to rebuild the cart paths at no additional expense to the members, and pay for it through club operations,” Morales explains.
Undertaking the project incrementally, West Lake replaced the asphalt cart paths on its first three holes with 10-foot sections of concrete in 2011. The $106,000 project also included proper disposal of the old petroleum-based material, cutting out tree roots, removing some pine trees and installing curbing along the paths to provide additional water and drainage controls.
After West Lake benefited from an improved financial situation with the refinancing of its mortgage on clubhouse renovations the following year, the Board decided to finish the project by replacing the cart paths on the remaining 15 holes at the same time. The rest of the project, which cost about $750,000 altogether, began in October 2012 and was completed in March 2013.
Cart paths are not the only subtle detail that determines the amount of enjoyment that, scoring aside, a golfer can get out of a round. Golf course accessories such as flags, flagsticks, tee markers, signs, benches, ball washers, storage bins and trash receptacles tend to get noticed as well. Or, even better, sometimes go unnoticed. Golf professionals are well aware that golfers generally aren’t aware of these items unless there’s a problem.
“We don’t overly accessorize to begin with,” notes Certified Golf Course Superintendent John Gurke of Aurora (Ill.) Country Club. “If something isn’t working or isn’t there, we hear about it.”
When Aurora CC underwent an extensive renovation in the fall of 2007, the club purchased a number of new golf course accessories. The typical setup on the tees includes a bench, steel wastebasket, and ball washer.
The property also received a new set of practice range equipment during the renovation. Station accessories now include a bag rack, waste can and yardage easel/clock. The practice area also features station dividers made in-house, of 4-by-4 cedar, and two 12-inch spikes. In addition, dividers are used at the end of the tee paths, to disperse traffic in varying patterns each day and alleviate worn turf and compacted soil.
Aurora’s renovation also included new bronze plates for the tee markers, which feature the hole number, yardage, and logo. Mounted to landscape brick, the markers stay in the ground all winter. “The brick is buried in the ground, and the edge can be cut around it,” Gurke explains.
Last fall at West Lake, the golf staff put white plastic rings around the lips of the cups to maintain the integrity of the holes. The rings have brought additional benefits as well. “We used to paint the edge of the holes white, but now we don’t have to paint them anymore,” explains Director of Golf Operations Kirk Hice. “And it’s easier to see the hole on long putts.”
New two-seater benches on West Lake’s par-3 holes are proving to be functional as well as aesthetically pleasing, not only offering walkers a place to rest, but also providing a place to wait if play backs up. “We don’t have a lot of frills, but it’s all about the comfort of the member,” Morales says.
Smoothing Out the Bumps
Maintenance staffs can enjoy benefits from course improvements and new accessories as well. For example, West Lake’s concrete cart paths have been much easier to maintain than the asphalt paths, where problem areas had simply been paved over, again and again, since the property opened in 1969.
“Our paths had so many tree roots [underneath], it was almost like riding through a neighborhood with speed bumps,” notes Hice. But now if there’s a problem, he says, “We can just repair or replace that section.”
The cart path project also included installation of a root barrier system made of a biodegradable, canvas-like material, which features herbicide-filled bubbles, in trenches three feet deep along the edge of the paths. “If a root punctures the barrier, it gets cauterized and sent somewhere else,” explains Morales.
An unusually rainy summer after the project’s completion gave West Lake’s staff a crash course in erosion, which could compromise the new cart paths if left unchecked. “One of the things we’re learning, now that it’s been so wet, is we have new areas where we have water erosion,” Morales explains. “A ‘side benefit’ to all the rain is that we’re seeing 10 years of erosion in a few months.” The staff has filled in damaged areas with gravel, clay, and sand.
But “day in and day out, there’s not a lot of maintenance [for the new paths],” says Hice.
Just as importantly, there’s been reduced wear and tear on golf course vehicles. “The maintenance on our golf cart and beverage cart fleets has almost been eliminated,” Hice reveals.
Aurora CC’s new accessories, which are made of recycled plastic, also require considerably less maintenance to keep them in top condition. A weather-protective coating shields the accessories from the elements, so they require little more upkeep than a daily wipe-down of the morning dew. The crew periodically spruces up the metal wastebaskets with a wire brushing and a new coat of paint.
Gurke, who has been at Aurora for 23 years, says his crew used to spend a great deal of time refurbishing wooden golf course benches during the off-season by stripping, sanding and coating them with varnish each year. A 33% budget reduction then forced him to prioritize expenses, however, and the new plastic accessories, despite the initial expenditure, have helped him economize.
“I cut my winter crew from four to two just because of the purchase of the benches,” he reports. The club even sold some of the old benches to members, and put the proceeds in the capital fund for the new accessories.
“After the renovation, one of our missions was to simplify the golf course,” notes Gurke. “We also got rid of our vertical hole signs, and put everything at ground level.”
Posts along Aurora’s cart paths, made of a red granite material, keep golf cars from edging the turf. The posts, which are stuck into the ground with a 12-inch spike, can also be removed easily for mowing. Otherwise, notes Gurke, the paths require little maintenance.
Salute to the Flags
When it comes to maintaining their properties, golf course staffs have given a salute to their flags as well.
Several years ago, West Lake CC replaced its white flags with yellow ones, to better match the property’s black-and-gold color scheme. The club allows organizations to use their own flags for events such as junior tournaments, and the course’s flagsticks have American flags on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. “We have a stand that the golfers can lay the flag on, so it never touches the ground,” notes Hice.
Pelican Point Golf Club, in Gonzales, La., uses American flags on its 36 holes on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and September 11. “I’ve done that since 9/11,” says Director of Agronomy Geoff Sanders. “We put a stake on the collar to lean the flag, so somebody doesn’t have to hold it all the time.”
The property also puts pink flags on the course for its annual Susan G. Komen Pink Ribbon Scramble. “They provide us with a couple of flags they want to use on certain holes,” Sanders explains. “I think it’s a nice touch. The flags are a symbol of their organization and their charity. We try to do anything and everything we can to make the ladies running the tournament feel extra special.”
A Pelican Point crew member also repaints the tee markers (in the property’s normal colors) every year for the Pink Ribbon Scramble. The staff touches up the tee markers every winter, and the property purchases new flags and flagsticks every year.
Sanders also uses organizations’ logo flags for other tournaments, such as PGA or NCAA regional events.
Aurora CC switches flags for special outings if a group provides a set for them to use, and the property purchased special flags two years ago to use during its annual member-guest tournament. Gurke got extras when he had the set made, so the winner of each flight could receive a framed flag as a memento. Aurora is also considering the purchase of another set of flags that would feature a special logo for next year, when the property will celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Before its 2007 renovation, Aurora CC had a color-coded collection of flags for everyday play. Holes where the cup was on the front of the green had red flags, white flags indicated the cup was in the middle of the green, and yellow flags marked holes where the cup was at the back of the green.
Now, however, all 18 holes have yellow flags featuring a black border and a black ACC crest. “We didn’t like the [non-uniform] look [of changing flags],” explains Gurke.
Aurora also added a rangefinder system to the top of its flagsticks, so golfers can point a handheld laser at the flagstick where reflectors are mounted on top, to determine their distance from the pin—and increase their speed-of-play.
More Immediate Satisfaction
West Lake CC has seen improved pace-of-play as well, by rerouting its new cart paths closer to the tees and greens on eight holes where the new locations didn’t interfere. “We made the golf course much easier to play for the members,” says Hice. Pace of play is an especially important consideration during Masters Week, when rounds increase significantly.
The improved drainage from the project has provided another benefit as well: By helping the golf course dry out faster, the number of cart path-only days have been minimized.
“We didn’t even think about those things, but they added value to the entire facility and our reputation, and complement the quality of our golf course and clubhouse,” notes Morales. “We got the maximum from the project.”
And the return on the investment has been immediate, making it unlikely Morales will ever have his heart broken by a negative comment again. Even the West Lake golfers who walk the course agree that the property looks better with the new cart paths, and that their guests are having more fun.
“The round is much more enjoyable,” Hice agrees. “Aesthetically, it’s more pleasing, because everything is uniform.”