This article is based upon a piece that first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
A renovation is made easier if a club can afford a multi-million-pound project. But for most, these projects that see almost all course features dug up and rebuilt are no more than pie in the sky, says Adam Lawrence.
The storied Merion club in Philadelphia has just reopened its East course, regarded for many years as one of the ten best in the United States, after a two-year renovation led by Gil Hanse. The project has been one of the quietest major course redos I can remember – neither club nor architect has shown any interest in PR throughout the project. So we do not know for certain what it has cost; but the numbers that have been rumoured are quite vast – one suggestion I heard was a budget of US$18 million.
Merion, doubtless, can well afford such a sum, and it is by no means the only high-end American club to sign up for an extremely expensive course refresh. But for the overwhelming majority of golf clubs the world over, seven or eight figure projects are no more than pie in the sky. Sensible club managers well know the dangers of loading a balance sheet with debt, and members, in the current super-competitive club market, are less likely than they have ever been to sign up to large assessments for capital expenditure like course works.
Architect Colton Craig, who only formed his own practice this year, with the idea of targeting this lower cost renovation market, puts it well. “Over the last five to ten years we have seen a massive overall and renovation boom of the ‘blue blood’ clubs and high-end country clubs across America,” he explains. “It is my belief that in the coming years many of the mid-level country clubs and municipal golf courses will also reinvest into their golf courses, but with much lower access to funding. This is a large reason why I decided to start my own firm back in February. Many of today’s established architects will not be interested in a US$400,000 renovation budget when they have been making that amount in a design fee. I am calling it ‘Blue-Collar Golf Architecture’. Nothing overly fancy or elaborate but solving real problems for the clients and their customers. This will create a market entry opportunity for architects like myself.
“Many courses were built from the 70s to the 90s and are desperate for a blue-collar renovation. Far too many of these clubs have 120,000 square feet of bunkers when the superintendent has a three-man crew. The poor superintendent does not stand a chance in that situation. These courses would be more strategically interesting with 50,000 square feet of bunkers, wider fairways and added short grass around the greens.”
So the question then arises: how do you prioritise renovation work according to budgets available? The best and most effective way, golf architects agree, is to have a long-term master plan drawn up by a suitable architect that identifies potential improvements and allows the club to plan up to ten or more years into the future, executing work as finances and other priorities allow.
Although a master plan is the most organised, strategic way to plan works, it isn’t always necessary. There are times when priorities, at least the highest ones, are obvious to all concerned.
At Richmond Golf Club in Surrey, England, a few years ago, it didn’t take a detailed study to realise that the course’s bunkers were the top priority, so the club engaged with architect Tim Lobb to do a bunker rebuild. Together, architect and club decided that the most cost-effective way to progress the project would be to buy a suitable tilt bucket excavator, and for course manager Les Howkins to act as principal shaper on the job. As it happens, Howkins discovered a natural flair for the work, and the new bunkers were extremely well received, by members and guests alike. Not bad for £120,000 (which included some minor works to one green).
One common reason for looking at renovation work is to change grass species in some way; from bent (and/or poa) to one of the newer dwarf bermudas, or other more advanced strain of warm season grass in transition zones, or to get a more sustainable stand of fine-leaved grasses as was the case on the Old course at Ballybunion a couple of years ago. Ballybunion was able to prepare for, and minimise, the cost of its project by growing the new fescue turf for its greens in part of the practice ground; not every course will have this opportunity. Seeds or sprigs of new, high-tech grass breeds can be expensive, and if there is a desire for a quick return of the course to action, leading to thoughts of sodding with bought-in turf, then the price will escalate very quickly.
Grass supplier John Holmes of Atlas Turf International says there is another, more cost-effective way to go about it. “We have been involved on multiple projects where the turf species have been changed by interseeding a new species into the old species,” he says. “This is very inexpensive compared to stripping old turf out and planting new turf.”
Read more: Christoph Städler tells the renovation story of Burgdorfer GC.
Similarly, architect Kris Spence says it is not always necessary to rebuild greens from the bottom up. “At Sara Bay CC in Sarasota, Florida, last summer we were able to address excessive crowning and restore the Ross greens by removing 12 inches of excess rootzone rather rebuilding the greens – which saved the club US$400-500,000 in greens construction cost alone.
Phasing of work is extremely important (phasing is essentially just another form of prioritisation). Architect Jaeger Kovich cites the example of his work at Suburban Golf Club, an old Tillinghast course in New Jersey, where the club wanted to restore its architectural heritage, but wasn’t flush with cash. “With no advance fundraising or planning, the club hired me to do a three-hole restoration plan as a preview to a full masterplan – getting their Tillinghast heritage is a big deal there – they are ten minutes from Baltusrol and built in the same year, 1922. The club decided it could probably scrounge up US$100,000 to start work in October, so we decided to focus on the two most impactful greens of the three holes we were looking at, the sixth and the eighth.
“For that hundred thousand, we were able to execute plans, shaping, removal of more than fifteen trees, and purchase of materials – that is to say sand and sod that couldn’t be harvested from the on-site nursery, stone and pipe. We were also able to pay for a contractor – Mottin Golf – to install drainage, do finish work on bunkers, core green expansions including installing mix and some sod work. The in-house crew did all the rest with me – moving sod, installing Capillary Concrete in bunkers, compacting greens mix, irrigation, installing sand, basically whatever was needed. The whole project took three weeks, and the results so far are looking great.”
Read more: Sam Sakocius describes the renovation of Victoria GC in Sri Lanka.
The process of value engineering – analysing any project or system to improve the ratio of performance to cost – has a bad reputation in some circles, as many believe that it is simply a way to drive cost out of a product or service, with little attention given to functionality. But done properly, that isn’t the case, and something very akin to value engineering can work well in the context of golf design. Scottish-based architect and shaper Clyde Johnson reports that this sort of approach has paid dividends in his work with the Seacroft links in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England. “That Seacroft maintains a fine reputation as one of England’s best links owes as much to an attitude of preservation as it does to the early architectural evolution of Willie Fernie’s original design,” he says. “Classic links features – deep pots to the flanks and centrally, quiet but subtly-diverse greens abound, and fleeting encounters with rugged terrain – dominate.
“Sensibly, the committee at Seacroft recognised that their course should reflect the playing interests of a ‘membership of mainly older members’. It was important that my recommendations would amount to a modest yet thoughtful refinement. With plenty of ‘bang’ for very little buck, the greenkeeping team has begun by adjusting mowing lines. On fairways, the purpose is to add playing strategy and visual interest to the holes, encouraging players to play to one side off the tee for an easier line of approach. Sometimes a shorter route is offered with the compromise of impaired visibility or poorer playing line. On other occasions, shorter grass allows the creative golfer to use the natural terrain – a small fold/bump or broader slope – creatively for their benefit.
“Where there are areas at the margins flat enough, expanded greens have been mown-out to bring the wing hazards more into play – creating challenging locations for the stronger player, with the benefit of spreading heavy traffic. Significant expansions to the tenth and twelfth greens create variety in type of shot and angle across the wind, strengthening the set of threes. A handful of necessitated irrigation-head adjustments have been made in-house.
“The short natural lifespan of a revetted bunker brings the opportunity to address accessibility, playability, maintainability… with an artistic eye! Rolling the face down to a much lower and shallower revetment – varying from say three to six stacks deep, or none at all in places, for visual diversity – reduces material and labour. Lightly reshaping the three-dimensional form, and the horizon on which they sit, is key to enhancing the existing bulbous pots.
“To make the most of the terrain’s visual drama, I’ve leant on Seacroft’s early expansive hazards for inspiration, setting a handful of naturalised scrapes into dune faces where strategically influential. Bunkers only hurting the player incapable of reaching the green in regulation, or preventing a more interesting alternative line of play, are filled in using the material in situ. Around some greens, at the tenth most notably, a broader range of recovery scenarios and shots is created by bunker removal. This reduction allows us to introduce bunkers elsewhere, where their current positioning or natural ground is largely devoid of interest, such as at the long, straightaway eleventh. Some bunkers are moved to increase their strategic impact, and only where an existing landform allows – naturally not all players will be affected, but across all 18 holes, and with varying wind strength/direction and ground firmness, no round should be devoid of interest or challenge for any class of player.
“The shaping work at Seacroft is carried out by me, so that the issues presented by each of the proposed 66 bunkers are addressed individually – for the cost of 25-30 days labour, eight-ton excavator and three-ton dump truck hire! Spread over five years, this extra time on site allows me to further understand the nuances of the property, continue to tweak mowing lines, and see how new features evolve in the exposed landscape. Under direction, Seacroft’s small but skilled five-man greenkeeping team prepare the work areas and make a start on finishing work, as I shape, before completing over the following weeks as winter weather and time allows. Turf is sourced from the club’s existing revetting nursery.
“Working in collaboration, I have been able to lean on the greenkeeping team’s site-specific knowledge, while efficiently dealing with any of their maintenance concerns. This sense of ownership yields an even better finished product. Given the financial position of many clubs, a similar approach seems best suited to the light-handed refine and refresh of courses going forward.”