Innovation is the name of the game

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    A 3D image of the proposed ninth green at Vestavia

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    Kinloch’s short-game practice facility

By Shannon Fisher

When contemplating ‘innovation’ in golf, we often picture high-tech golf club technology or new golf balls created for longer flight. From computer analysis of a basic swing to a fully-simulated digital golf experience, there are many state-of-the-art options for players – but there are also many types of innovation that frequently go unnoticed. These technological advances are implemented well before a player reaches the course, sometimes as early as the design development and design phases used by the golf architect.

ASGCA Board of Governors member Lester George is well-known for creative design solutions in his renovations and new course designs. Throughout his 27 years as a golf course architect, he has encountered – and conquered – challenging conditions on a wide range of sites. From adverse site conditions to seemingly impossible design requirements to political battles, monetary limitations, and environmental regulations, George has faced nearly any design test imaginable. Perhaps the most dramatic challenge presented to him was the discovery of unexploded bombs buried under a golf course. Each unique challenge requires the resourceful, imaginative approach to design that has proven invaluable to his clients.

“Lester sees things differently,” says Alan Coshatt, long range planning chairman at Vestavia Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama. “Of all the course architects we interviewed for our redesign, he was the only one who looked beyond the obvious. The first time he came here, he saw things no one else had ever considered. Once Lester developed the master plan for the course, he used innovative visualisation tools to help our membership understand what they would see when the project was finished.”

An unsightly and ill-placed cart storage building at Vestavia would have corrupted George’s proposed golf course if left standing. Rather than simply moving the building, George got creative. “Lester decided to move the cart storage facility closer to the clubhouse, and he came up with the idea of building it below ground,” Coshatt adds. “This allows us to use the roof of the building as a much-needed outdoor hospitality venue. This both streamlines golf operations and gives us the opportunity for more revenue from events at the outdoor venue!”

To help members envision what the new facility would look like, George enlisted Scott Malerbi of The Digital Realm, a Santa Rosa, California-based 3D visualisation firm, to convert his plans into a virtual reality video model clearly demonstrating how the cart storage facility and outdoor venue would appear when complete.

“Scott took my drawings and created a dramatic representation of them,” said George. “The ability to visualizse the final product was instrumental in helping the membership understand my plans.” (That video can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_vqOSReRf4.)

Creating, redesigning, and expanding golf practice facilities is a niche of George’s. For the past four years, George has traveled the country to conduct regional Boot Camps for the Golf Range Association of America (GRAA), an affiliate of PGA Magazine, offering advice on short game loops, driving ranges, short-game areas, chipping areas, practice greens, computer modelling and simulation, clinics, and nearly every aspect of the game that can be addressed without playing a full round of golf. His advice to golf professionals in all areas of the industry about ways to incorporate better practice options into their facilities has earned George the moniker ‘The Practice Guru.’ Many consider his practice facility at Kinloch Golf Club, which opened in 2001, to be the best in the United States.

Kinloch’s head PGA professional Mike Gebhard says: “The flexibility of our indoor and outdoor practice facilities allows my staff to provide our members with everything from warm-up to teaching and learning, club-fitting, video analysis, fitness, and physical therapy – not to mention every practice scenario one could imagine with an array of realistic shots.”

Among the dozens of practice facilities George designed that have been lauded as cutting-edge is the country’s first three-hole learning centre, opened in the early 1990s. George has also planned and built six- and nine-hole courses, reversible courses, and imaginative ranges that include short game areas and indoor areas that provide revenue to the facility via private lessons from PGA professionals. George’s primary focus when advising golf industry professionals is on creative ways to develop practice facilities that will improve the experience for players, thereby improving a club’s market standing.

With practice facilities and up-to-date courses increasingly becoming the determining factor in whether a player or family will join a club or select a public course for play, it is important to keep a course’s offerings up to speed. Spatial restraints, budgetary concerns, environmental issues, and lack of direction often keep clubs from making changes. Many times, though, the challenges are less about a lack of land, ideas, or funding – and more about a lack of willingness on the part of club leadership to take the plunge. This is where the technological innovation clients don’t often see enters the picture.

“A flat plan doesn’t read as a finished product to most people who don’t have experience reading topography,” says George. “Most people without an architectural background are not able to envision a three-dimensional practice facility from looking at a piece of paper.”

About the newly-opened greens renovation at Jamestown Park Golf Course in Jamestown, North Carolina, course superintendent John Crowe says: “When Lester talked about the changes he would make to our golf course, I could feel his excitement – but I just couldn’t picture what he saw design-wise until it all came together during construction. Once the grass came in, and we did the final walk-through, I was able to see what Lester saw all along. It was amazing!”

The tools like those George used at Vestavia Country Club to help the membership envision the final product help rectify this. Developments in visualisation have been evolving over the last two decades, from the overlay of a plan on an aerial photograph to various modelling options using CADD and other programs. Satellite imaging programs and digital mapping technology have made it the creation of a presentation for the untrained eye much easier and faster.

These visualisations can highlight ways to improve a property’s infrastructure and environmental sustainability by showing irrigation, maintenance, and drainage issues – even pointing directly to problematic vegetation or other issues. An architect can demonstrate the important and compelling reasons to renovate or make additions by using imaging tools that show current state of the property.

“If you build the right facility, it will attract players. And if you teach them how to use it, they will keep coming back for more,” said George. “Vision is everything – both in the imagination and to the eye. If you can’t envision it as it could be, find an architect who can show you how. You’ll be glad you did!”

Shannon Fisher is a journalist and broadcaster based in Virginia

This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture

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