Deciding When A Golf Course Needs Renovation

By Bob Lohmann, ASGCA Past President

As a superintendent or a golfer, you become familiar with your golf course. It is possible that you have been playing or maintaining the same golf course for years without any significant improvements taking place. Is it okay to continue to maintain your golf course at its current level? Or is it possible that a golf course can become outdated?

How do you know if your golf course needs renovation? You first have to look at the game of golf as it is played today and the people playing it.

The game of golf is changing, and has been for some time. Recent trends in golf course architecture have had a tremendous impact on the playability and maintainability of golf courses. Technological advances in turfgrass, irrigation systems, maintenance equipment, chemicals, and maintenance practices are all changing the face of the game. All of these things are interrelated and affect each other as they are applied to the golf course.

Maintain Playability

As the number of players continues to increase, more and more stress is placed on the turf and on the superintendents to maintain playable conditions on golf courses. The superintendent’s primary job is to provide the best playing conditions possible on the golf course. Unfortunately, every effect the golfer has on the golf course is counterproductive to this effort. As more and more golfers play, the superintendent’s job of maintaining the golf course becomes more and more difficult. If you feel you cannot keep up with the wear-and-tear the golfers are producing, then it is time to look at remodeling as a means of helping you do your job.

There are many ways to address wear-and-tear through modifications in design. For instance, tees can be made larger, bunkers can be located out of the way of circulation patterns, positive surface drainage can be provided throughout the golf course, greens can be made large enough to combat the negative effects of compaction, etc.

Not only are there more players, but their abilities are improving as well. This is partly due to technological advances in the equipment. As a result, the golf ball is traveling farther, requiring adjustments in the layout of the golf course.

The use of golf carts has also had a big impact on golf course design and maintenance. The carts are desirable economically, but place a tremendous strain on the turf, causing compaction and worn-out turf areas, as well as circulation and cart storage problems.

Another factor that leads to changes on the golf course is the popularity of televised golf tournaments. Golfers see tournament golf courses in top condition and expect these same conditions on their golf courses throughout the playing season. Providing these types of playing conditions places a lot of stress on the turf, as well as on the superintendent.

As you can see, the golfers and the way golf is played, places demands on the golf course. We’ve reviewed what some of these are. Now you need to look at your golf course and determine if it is successfully meeting these demands and satisfying the needs of the golfers.

Evaluate Course

Most people desire to make their course one of the best in playability, variety and playing conditions. As the playing season comes to an end in the northern climates, they should evaluate their golf course, remarking on the good as well as the problem areas that were noticeable during the golf season. After the winter retreat from the golf course, the problem areas are somewhat forgotten when its time to “tee it up” in spring. Before the snow falls, the golf course should have a final critique that is recorded so it can be remembered and discussed throughout the winter months. The items to be studied should include problem areas, specific design features, and maintenance procedures that seem to distinguish the golf course.

Some of the areas to be considered would be:

  1. Green and bunker design – size, shape and location.
  2. Size and condition of tees.
  3. Variety and challenge of each golf hole as well as the entire golf course.
  4. Use of detailed landscape elements.
  5. Amount and condition of fairway area.
  6. Types, location and condition of trees.
  7. Circulation patterns.

These items are part of what makes up the character of the golf course. Those who have studied their home golf course and other golf courses have found that character is very distinguishable. It is the essential quality that may make a successful golf course a great golf course.

When remodeling is being planned for the golf course, it should be to improve or modernize some area in either design or maintenance. Remodeling that is proposed to drastically change the course to look something like a Florida resort or a Tournament Players course will affect the character and possibly do more harm than good.

Recognize Integrity of the Course

Hopefully, the club members, superintendents, professionals, and managers realize the integrity present in their golf course and how it developed over a period of years.

All golf courses need improvement or modernization, but before any work is started, the present course conditions need to be evaluated. It is necessary to look back and analyze what is present, what needs improvement and how to implement the improvements without destroying the wholeness of the golf course.

A successful golf club is not one that is continually changing, but one that is changing according to a plan that leaves the course playable during construction and recognizable after the work is completed. A great golf course, be it a new model or an old edition, is a creation and not a copy of good golf holes from various courses.

As we advance through this era of improved maintenance procedures and golf equipment, let’s not forget about design and its importance in the development and existence of the character of every golf course.

Ask Yourself Questions

Is your golf course supporting or drawing the optimum number of rounds or memberships, or are these down because of poor playing conditions?
Can you compete with other golf courses in your area in terms of green fees and the quality of golfers who play your golf course?
What is your golf course’s reputation among area golfers?
Is the general golfing experience a positive one, or would improvements to the golf course make it better?

The superintendent’s job is to provide desirable playing conditions on the golf course. As we have outlined, everything the golfer does counteracts this effort. Often, it is possible to address maintenance problems from a design and construction materials standpoint, in addition to a maintenance approach. A “band-aid” approach to fixing maintenance problems can be avoided by making improvements in the design or construction materials. Maintenance will then become much easier, efficient and cost-effective.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we can recognize when a golf course needs renovating. What do we look for? Aspects might include:


  1. Tillinghast’s Deadly Sins
    • Greens that drain too little
    • Greens that drain too much
    • Greens that are too small for large shots
    • Greens that are too large for small shots
    • Greens that are too freakish for any shot
  2. Compaction
  3. Layering
  4. Shade
  5. Air Circulation


  1. Size/Usable Area
  2. Surface Condition
  3. Turf Condition
  4. Alignment
  5. Shade


  1. Physical Condition
    • Sand Consistency
    • Sand Build-up on Edges/Droughty
    • Sand Depth
  2. Location
  3. Quantity


  1. Surface Drainage/Major Storm Drains
    • Contouring
    • Piping
  2. Sub-surface Drainage/Minor Drainage

Shade/Air Circulation

  1. Trees, Trees, and more Trees
  2. Golf Feature Orientation


  1. Turf Loss/Traffic Concentration
  2. Steps & Walks
  3. Safety


  1. Scale
  2. Plant Materials