The American golf business is ferociously competitive. Even in the present market conditions, when, by historical standards, very few new courses are being built, the battle for players and members is fought by course operators with every tool at their disposal.
The US industry pioneered the proprietary owned course – until recently a relatively unusual beast in Europe, where member-owned clubs dominated – and for such businesses, it is profitability or closure.
Although the boom in course openings of the late 1990s and the early part of this decade is now behind us, that period has left a legacy of ample supply in many parts of the US. And this makes the quest for profitability much more difficult, for old and new courses alike. Improve or die is the maxim.
In popular golf destinations such as Myrtle Beach, or various parts of Florida, the situation is especially severe. New courses naturally aim to deliver a better product than their older competitors, and, with advances in club and ball technology, plus the modern golfer's skyhigh expectations as to course condition, the newer players have a significant advantage. Operators of older for-profit golf courses are finding that they must consider any opportunity to improve the standard of their offerings. That's what happened at Deltona Hills, located half an hour north of Orlando in Florida. Designed in the early 1960s by architect David Wallace, the course had entered its fifth decade relatively unimproved, except for a new irrigation system installed in the Eighties. In fact, if anything, it had gone the other way: hurricane damage plus the natural depredations of time had rendered the course rather less attractive to potential members and green fee players than other local options.
But Deltona was not without its advantages. Its natural attributes were the key: the course sits on pure sand, and its rolling topography is ideal for golf. So, when the course changed hands in 2005, the new owners determined to upgrade it, and hired Floridian architect Bobby Weed to mastermind a full redesign.
Weed and his associate Chris Monti have performed wonders. Not only is the new look course a fine piece of work in itself, but they have been able to carve out a 17 acre parcel of land within the site which has been used to build 300 agerestricted condominium units, thus transforming the economics of the club.
The golf course, which from photographs taken before the redesign appears then to have been a fairly typical example of post-war design, has been transformed. The architects, along with Florida-based contractor LePanto Golf Construction, have embraced the currentlyfashionable sandy blowout style, a shrewd decision as this kind of look has mostly been the preserve of top-end private clubs, or high profile public courses such as Pacific Dunes and Tobacco Road. On a course where the midweek green fee is only US$55, to see lacy edged bunkers and severely contoured greens is pretty unusual. It is even more so given how well the work has been done.
Standout holes at the newly-renamed Deltona Club would have to include the tricky little short par fourth eighth. Drivable for many – it is 332 yards from the back tees, which require special permission to play, and less than 300 from every other marker – there is plenty of trouble awaiting the player who has a blast but misses the target. In particular, as well as the large blowouts, there are a number of mean little pot bunkers within forty or fifty yards of the green. Sand escapes from this distance being few golfers' favourite shots, anyone who finds one of these pots will struggle to make the four that seemed so easy standing on the tee. What might make it even harder is the local rules concerning the sandy areas.
Before GCA ventured out on the course, head pro Nathan Wilson explained that there were no 'bunkers' on the course, at least as far as the Rules of Golf were concerned. Rather, all the sand is played as through the green, with golfers perfectly entitled to ground their club or take a practice swing. All well and good, but here's the flipside: these waste areas are not prepared in the way most golfers expect bunkers to be nowadays. There are no rakes on the course, nor do players who take a golf cart get a rake to take with them. CB Macdonald's wish that bunkers should be prepared by having a troop of cavalry ride through them is the way favoured at Deltona.
I have huge admiration for this policy, but I do wonder how long it will stick.
Every golfer knows that prepared surfaces and high-tech clubs have made bunkers less of a hazard for the best players – is there a more depressing cry that 'Get in the bunker?' – but not everyone is a Corey Pavin (who, according to PGA Tour statistics, gets up and down 70 per cent of the time from a greenside bunker). Moreover, while the large waste areas are not as intimidating as they look, some of the greenside pots are downright unkind.
I would not want to find myself stuck in one with the sand a morass of footprints.
Chris Monti explained to me that he had advised his clients to devote a high proportion of maintenance time to raking these pots: I look forward with some interest to finding out how the process goes.
But elsewhere, the golf course is a delight, for player and owner alike. Weed and his team have enthusiastically embraced the 'looks harder than it plays' approach, and even quite modestly-skilled golfers will find themselves making shots that they thought extremely difficult.
There is little trouble in front of most greens, which are generally large. Long grass is gratefully absent: players who miss a green are likely to find themselves on closely-mown turf with a wide variety of possible recovery shots. Nor have the architects been scared of a little judicious blindness – on a number of holes the pin is at least partly obscured, and careful positioning of tee shots is rewarded with a better view. Fairways are wide, encouraging golfers to unleash the driver, but the delightfully firm and bouncy turf makes playing the angles far more important than on any overwatered, soggy course where even an ill-struck iron shot will stick on the green.
The closing stretch is outstanding. The par five thirteenth hole plays up to the highest point on the property, and demands a strong and well placed drive if the player hopes to get home in two. The downhill par three fourteenth – well over 200 yards from all but the front two of the five sets of tees – is similarly pleasing to the eye and demanding. And the short par four home hole offers the golfer an opportunity to have a pot for the green – but severe hazards crossing the fairway will make for a painful finish if the drive is missed.
Really, Deltona is an outstanding piece of work. I am not at all surprised that it has been mentioned in a number of golf course awards programmes: this is a textbook example of how creative and thoughtful golf design can revitalise a tired and failing operation. The fact that the course is still an affordable, open to the public facility is doubly impressive.
From the quality of design one might easily think it a far more upmarket offering. It deserves to succeed, and it deserves to burnish the reputation of its creators to a high degree.
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.