Golf Course Renovations And Master Plans: Why And When?

By Steven P. Forrest, ASGCA Past President

If you are a member of an older, traditional country club, you may have heard the terms “golf course master plan” popping up in general conversation recently. With all the “country-club-for-a-day” public courses that were created in the late nineties, many private clubs have felt the pressure to upgrade their golf courses and facilities in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. Almost everyone knows what a renovation is when talking about upgrading the kitchen or bathroom in a house, but may not fully understand why a golf course should ever be renovated. Throw in the term “master plan” and things can become even less clear.

A “golf course master plan” is simply the common term for a renovation or improvement program at an existing golf course. At a private club, it is typically the culmination of a series of exchanges of information between the membership, the governing board, a long-range planning committee or green committee, and the golf course architect. At a public facility, the process is usually less formal and is developed in response to the owner’s goals.

The actual “plan” usually consists of a colored drawing at a scale of 1” = 100’ that shows both the existing golf course and the proposed improvements. Accompanying the plan is a text that explains the basis for improvements along with a cost estimate and an implementation schedule.

The reasons why a golf course master plan should be developed are varied. They can range from a desire to restore or enhance the character of a classic course to a need to establish uniform playing conditions on a daily fee facility. Often, there is an acute problem such as dead or extremely poor turf on greens that were built using less than ideal materials or construction practices. There may be a desire to create a high-quality practice facility by re-routing a few holes to create space. Perhaps a separate set of tees for seniors is needed. Whatever the reason, a golf course master plan program can be a very useful and effective method of achieving the goals for the golf course.

In most cases, the golf course architect will begin with a complete course analysis. He will look at all the components (tee, fairways, greens, etc.) of the course and develop an overall program that will provide variety and balance relative to the game of golf. Issues of safety will be addressed. The benefits of natural elements such as vegetation and water features will be accentuated. The efficiency of functional elements such as the drainage, irrigation and cart paths systems will be maximized. The aesthetics and beauty of the course will be enhanced by highlighting attractive focal points and by screening undesirable views. Ease of maintenance is usually another important consideration.

If there is a desire to restore the character of a classic course, the golf course architect will relate the design features or strategic principles from the classic era to the modern game and its improved technologies. Existing bunkering will be refurbished and the green complexes will be studied to make sure that the putting surfaces haven’t atrophied over the years. A skilled architect can even take a mediocre hole on a classic course and turn it into something that is truly memorable.

It is not unusual for a golf course master plan program to establish tee and course length options that are suitable for all users. Hazards are placed to establish strategy and challenge the best players, while safer, alternative routes are provided for less-skilled players.

At some private clubs, the rotation of members on green committees results in a series of revisions to the golf course that are contradictory over a period of years. An approved golf course master plan can foster consistency for the future by establishing guidelines that are in keeping with the long-term vision for the course and that are maintained throughout the tenure of each new committee.

Uniform playing conditions can be developed by adhering to the United States Golf Association’s specifications relative to the construction of greens, bunkers and tees. The introduction of optimum turfgrass varieties can further improve the playing experience. Consistent agronomic standards and maintenance practices can also be developed, generally with the aid of a qualified agronomist.

A tree program is another aspect of the master plan for improvements. The golf course architect will evaluate the impact of existing trees on strategy, playability and turfgrass maintenance. Overgrown or inappropriate plantings will be removed. Trees may be added for framing, backdrop, separation or screening purposes.

There is no set schedule for a golf course master plan for improvements. However, it is always best to consider the need for a master plan before replacing a major component (such as the irrigation system, the greens or the cart path) of the golf course. Otherwise, the golf course architect’s options may be severely limited in the upgrading of one of the major items, they are usually very reluctant to go in and rip out something even though the architect may have a fantastic idea for an improvement.

Most renovation construction work at private clubs is done in the late summer after the major tournaments have been held. The best time to start a golf course master plan program is about one year prior to the start of construction. That will provide sufficient time to obtain aerial and topographic mapping, gain member input, prepare the plan, receive feedback, make revisions, prepare construction drawings and put the work out to bid. The sooner that a project can be bid, the better the prices submitted will be. Contractors like to plan their work well in advance, and a timely bidding process will yield benefits.

During the planning process at a private club, it is vital that the improvement committee and the board of directors keep the membership well informed relative to key aspects of the program. An understanding of the timing, costs and basis for improvements by all users will foster widespread acceptance of the plan. Preparing a master plan that establishes direction for the future and adheres to the membership’s vision can be one of the most challenging aspects of the golf course master planning process, but experienced golf course architects have the knowledge and expertise to meet such an objective.