Post-pandemic golf: Part 2 – Lessons from the pandemic

  • Lessons
    Staples Golf Design

    Andy Staples has been working in his office for much of the past year or so, with Zoom proving to be an important tool

  • Lessons
    Tom Doak

    Tom Doak entrusted his on-site team of Erik Iverson, Clyde Johnson and Angela Moser to progress the St. Patricks Links project at Rosapenna in Donegal

  • Lessons
    Mackenzie & Ebert

    Mackenzie & Ebert's Chris Huggett is a qualified drone pilot, and can send project teams a flight path routing to get the survey information they need

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

To say that golf architecture has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic is not to minimise in any way the impact of the virus on every sphere of economic activity. In many countries, the effect of the pandemic on GDP levels was the most severe of any event since such records began to be kept.

But, at the same time, golf design and development is a sector that depends massively on travel, which has, of course, been close to impossible in much of the world since early 2020. Golf architects are among the most regular of frequent fliers, and getting to visit prospective and actual clients, and job sites, has varied from difficult to impossible across the world.

“Considering three of my current jobs: the one in Florida I have always been able to get to, the one in California shut down for a while but has now opened up again, and the one in Montreal I still cannot get to,” says Arizona-based architect Andy Staples. “Well, I can get to Montreal, but I would have to quarantine for two weeks when I got there, which really isn’t much use.”

Staples says he has been able to do a great deal of preparatory work on his jobs remotely. But he stresses that once a job gets into construction, he believes it is essential for the architect to be on site as much as is possible. “We’ve done quite a lot of work, and it’s all been via Zoom: historical research, analysis of old plans, initial thoughts,” he explains. “But then you want to get on the ground, meet with the committee, see the members play the course. The biggest change has been the understanding and the openness of my clients to have those sorts of meetings when they’re used to meeting face to face. One of the bigger hurdles was understanding that you could be just as – if not more – productive without being on site. I had a club president tune into a meeting when he was out at an anniversary dinner with his wife. I believe we’ll continue to do a lot more remotely. But there’s no construction going on. I have no doubt – supervising construction work without being on site is not going to cut it.”

Tim Lobb, also a frequent traveller, has had to postpone a substantial number of trips, though at the time of writing, he had had to travel to Egypt for essential meetings on a number of projects – which, as Egypt is a ‘red list’ country on the English list, would have required him to quarantine for ten days in an airport hotel on the way home, had he not discovered that ten days in Israel, a green list country, would allow him to escape that. “Some of the stuff we have been looking at, we’ve been sent drone footage of the site along with the survey, which was unheard of in the past,” says Lobb. “In the future, I think it’ll be a bigger question as to whether or not you should jump on a plane.” But he too thinks that the oversight of construction work necessitates the architect being on site: “Approving shaping is impossible from home. Trusting someone to put your ideas into the ground without you being on site is asking a lot.”

Were Lobb in his native Australia, his life would be harder still: the country has practically closed its borders in an attempt to keep the virus out. Sydney-based architect Harley Kruse is waiting to start a substantial bunker renovation project – along with bunker technology providers Capillary Concrete and EcoBunker – at the exclusive Clearwater Bay club in Hong Kong. But this, too, is waiting for the travel situation to improve. The project is ready to go as soon as the Covid situation enables Kruse to get to the site. “We can do some of the work such as fill-ins with remote monitoring of construction,” the architect says. “But for a job of this importance, it’s vital that I am on site for key milestones of the build. There are times when moving a sand line by just a few centimetres can make a huge difference, and realistically only the architect is going to notice the potential significance of such small changes.”

Few architects have covered as many miles in their career as Dana Fry of Fry/Straka. Now resident in Florida, Fry still has projects on several continents. “My last international trip was to our Yas Acres course in Abu Dhabi in mid-March 2020 – I got home just as things shut down,” he says. “That course was all shaped then and we had finished off a few holes, but they finished the last seven holes without me, though we did lots of Zoom and Skype video calls. The remaining work focused mostly on grass and bunker lines. But it was still perplexing. So much of golf design is done by eyesight. Other jobs that we have in Vietnam, Brazil, and in Cabo in Mexico have shut down. We think Cabo will restart later this year, but we have no idea with Brazil and Vietnam.”

British architects Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert think they have found a technological answer, at least in part. Their answer is to do as much of the work as possible upfront, in the office, and minimise the amount of field work. “Our method of designing fixes the green surface undulations with our plans,” they say. “The shaping of green surrounds, bunkers, and the reshaping of any other areas normally benefit from regular visits to ensure that the interpretation of plans and visualisations fulfils the potential of the proposals. While we produce similarly accurate plans for all other areas to be reshaped, the shapers have more license to show their artistic and imaginative flair in creating freehand contouring in these areas under our direction and, if well executed, these can provide a bespoke finish for the project. We do provide photographs of examples from elsewhere of the detail of the shapes we would like to achieve, and visualisations of the proposals, and these can assist greatly with the shaper’s understanding of the bunkers in particular.

“However, approvals are still a vital part in achieving the best results and, occasionally, minor adjustment to the levels designed are required. For all areas, but particularly for the greens, we are using drone techniques to allow us to make approvals from the UK. Chris Huggett is our Civil Aviation Authority-qualified drone pilot, and he has learnt mapping techniques for surveying courses to provide accurate levels of existing features or newly shaped features. Chris is able to send the project team the flight path routing for the grid pattern that the drone needs to follow to produce the survey information.

“The local drone operator sends the information back and this is processed to produce an as-built green plan, which can be compared with the green design to see how closely the levels agree with each other. The contours produced also give us an excellent impression of the all-important green surrounds and approaches. This process is followed for the green base shaping and the finished rootzone preparation to ensure the closest control over the green contours.”

For American architect Tom Doak, though, great courses are built in the field, not on paper. Doak has, for the last few years, been building his first course in Ireland, at St. Patricks in Donegal. Covid has made it impossible for him to get there for over a year, but, he says, his business model of having shaper-associates with whom he has worked closely for many years, has got him out of a hole. “I just trusted Eric Iverson and Clyde [Johnson] and Angela [Moser] to get it right,” he says. “Eric and I had walked it together a lot before we started, and we had all the greens shaped and seeded by October 2019, so I was happy with them doing the rest. I could have got back last summer when Eric did, but neither of us thought it was necessary.”

However, Doak too is looking at technological solutions to reduce the need for travel – in his case, to allow him a slightly more peaceful lifestyle in future. “On the project to replicate CB Macdonald’s Lido course in Wisconsin, we are using GPS dozers to get the computer game grading plan in the ground, and then ‘restoring’ from there,” he says. “But the sand blows around a lot, so we have been resurveying the areas we reshape, and presumably then the GPS dozer can put it back again as necessary [before or after irrigation installation].

“If that works reasonably well, then my plan is to use the same technology for Te Arai in New Zealand – make one long trip over the winter, shape all of the greens and whatever other bits I want to see while I am there, map them all, and let Brian Slawnik use the GPS to put it back together for grassing. In the past, we couldn’t really do that because the irrigation system takes three to four months to install, and if we got too far ahead of them the shaping would just get blown away – so I would come in to shape three to six holes at a time, and then leave until the irrigation could catch up. Eliminating that step would make my work-life balance much better, with less time wasted going back and forth. And if that works, I will probably do it for most of my overseas jobs in future, so I can travel like MacKenzie – once and done during construction. Then I just need to sort out how to limit my number of trips to get the job and figure out the routing!”

Part 1 of this feature was published on 6 September. These articles first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.