Improvement Plans And Renovations

By Dr. Michael J. Hurdzan, ASGCA Past President

For most of us, a concept like geologic time is difficult to fathom. We tend to measure all things in relationship to our human experience. So it is understandable that most people view the golf course as a static entity. But in fact, it is a dynamic, slowly evolving organic complex. The growth, spread, and decline of trees, the succession of grasses and other plants, the meandering of streams, the ebb and flow of the edges, shapes, and sizes of tees, greens and bunkers all contribute to the natural processes by which golf courses undergo gradual but perceptible change.

Reasons for Improvement

There are human factors as well that cause a golf course to change and age—factors such as increased play, demand for higher maintenance levels, automatic irrigation, golf carts, the buildup of chemicals, and, sad to say, damage from vandalism.

Moreover, the game of golf has changed over the last century, with breakneck speed the last fifty years. Golf equipment has shifted from wood-shafted clubs and crudely made balls to space-age materials and computer-generated dimple patterns in the search for “the longest ball.” The pitch-and-run shot has been replaced by the wedge shot. Small wonder that the golfer of today wants fast, sure-playing surfaces. The golf course, in turn, must respond to these changes if it is to endure the demands placed on it and serve the golfers who pay for its existence. As the golf course grows old slowly, like all complex systems, it must be rejuvenated, and oftentimes renovated.

Unproductive Improvements

Once the members of a golf course become aware of its needs, a typical pattern seems to develop. Usually a green committee chairman or course supervisor takes it upon himself to alter, add, or delete golf features using golf course personnel or a local bulldozer operator. Decisions about such things as a bunker’s size and placement, tee location and expansion, or fairway width and mowing patterns are frequently made on an ad hoc basis, with each item modified as a stand-alone unit instead of as part of a whole. Sometimes the work turns out acceptably, but more often it is a feeble attempt to improve existing features, basically because most of the people involved are inexperienced. All the while, the rest of the membership indulges these men’s fancies while patiently paying higher dues or green fees. And every time a club appoints a new green chairperson, he or she invariably sets out on his own pet project. There is seldom a plan or a semblance of continuity.

Proper Improvement Planning

Clubs considering structural changes to the design of the golf course need an experienced golf course architect to give them a long-range plan. Yet to suggest turning to “an outside agent” is tantamount to club heresy and usually ignored at least until two or three hair-brained schemes fail or are aborted.

Once the decision is finally made to employ a professional designer, the best procedure for a club to follow is the formation of a long-range golf course improvement committee. It should consist of the golf pro, the course superintendent, the green chairperson, a member from the Board of Directors, a representative from the women’s golf committee, and someone from the seniors golf committee. This committee can be supplemented by as many others as practical, but it should always provide for input from these various constituents. The functions of this committee are: to select a golf architect to prepare a long-range study; provide the architect with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions regarding specific improvements; and approve the prepared plan before it is presented to the Board of Directors or the general membership.

Selecting the Architect

The first job of this committee is to contact several design firms and invite them to an interview. The best time to arrange for such interviews would be just after the first of the year, before the construction season begins. After arranging these interviews, the committee should prepare a list of general objectives in order of importance. It should also locate a recent aerial photograph of the course and an up-to-date contour map.

The interview of the golf architect should be as specific as possible and deal with his past work on improvement studies. It is not unreasonable to ask for specific locations of his work and names of contacts in order to arrange for an inspection of his work. The committee should ask to see plans or studies that were prepared for those projects and the cost of preparation. It should also determine how the work will be done and the function the architect will serve during the renovation. Of course, the committee should inquire about his fees and present his philosophy of design.

The committee may how each architect the most troublesome hole on the course and ask what he or she would do to improve it and at what cost. After similar interviews, the committee can then choose the firm that is best for them. Once the designer is selected, the committee should ask for a written proposal that would include starting and completion dates of the study, the total cost of the study, an estimate on the number of trips to the site the golf architect will make in preparation for the study, the procedure to be used to prepare the plans, and the construction cost estimates for each major element, section, or hole.

When the proposal is in hand and funds are approved to retain the golf architect, the club should arrange to sign a contract or return a letter to him or her acknowledging his proposal and authorizing him to proceed.

Improvement Committee

There are many approaches to preparing improvement studies. The one that follows is a personal method that I’ve found best satisfies the needs of my clients at the most reasonable initial cost. The goal of an improvement study is to provide sufficient detail and rationale for proposed improvements and to communicate the intent of the plan to even the most inexperienced or emotionally hostile parties. I have never done an improvement study without some vigorous opposition from selected members who oppose any change whatsoever. However, after explaining the procedure used to form the plan and the reasons for the proposed change, and paying respect to their objections, I have found only a small percentage of members will steadfastly cling to total opposition. Changing a golf course is an emotionally charged issue that must be handled with patience and understanding. For the process to succeed, politically as well as architecturally, the architect has to rely upon persuasion, and to listen.

Required Base Maps

The club is expected to supply maps including: a new, scale-verified, engineering-type aerial photograph; a topographic map with at least 5- to 10-foot contour lines (1- or 2-foot lines are preferred); a property line map; existing irrigation map; and a map of underground utilities or rights-of-way. All maps should be of a scale of 1 inch = 100 feet.

I begin preparing an improvement study by taking the maps supplied by the club, overlaying them, and redrawing the existing golf course to show the location of each golf feature—cart paths, property lines, trees, contour lines, and other prominent features. Then I return to the course and physically check the drawing against the actual golf course to guarantee that I have included all major items and that no items have changed since the aerial photograph or contour maps were made.

Analyzing the Golf Course Features

Satisfied that the drawing is complete, a meeting of the improvement committee is arranged to walk the course. The committee and I start at the first tee and we discuss that tee for any maintenance problems, location, size, quality, alignment, traffic patterns, and so on. I encourage input from all committee members, especially the senior and ladies representatives. We discuss possible solutions for the perceived deficiencies, and alternate plans, and I offer my personal views. Then we walk down to the first impact area of the seniors or ladies. That impact area is analyzed for golfers of all abilities.

Finally, we reach the green and it is analyzed for maintenance factors, number of cupset areas available, internal and surface drainage, slope, size, integration of mounds or traps, and so forth. Then we consider the entire hole as a unit and discuss what can be done to parts of it to make the hole safer, fairer to poor players yet more challenging for the best players, more enjoyable for all golfers, and a better aesthetic experience.

During the walkaround I summarize most of the collective thoughts of the hole until we have a general, if not complete, agreement on possible improvements. I then annotate my map accordingly. This procedure is followed for the other holes. To do so takes an entire day.

Summarizing Improvement Ideas

Having completed this analytical tour, I am then able to draw the proposed improvements onto a master map, which becomes the basis for the study. In addition, I write a few paragraphs on each hole, explaining the reasons for the proposed improvements. This is sent to the committee for its approval.
After reviewing the initial information we generated at the first walk-through of the course, the committee remarks are incorporated into a second incarnation of the plan, which is again returned for their review. The same procedure is used at another meeting to answer questions or clarify solutions to holes that still lack committee agreement. The committee provides insight into how it views each golf hole, and each group should be satisfied with the recommendations.

This method assumes that the delegate to the committee speaks for the entire group and does not simply give his or her personal opinion. This is especially true of better golfers, particularly the best woman player, who wants to make the course tougher at the expense of 95% of the other golfers. It has been my experience that sometimes the best players provide the most partisan information. The improvement committee is sometimes better served by average players, or by golfers who were very good 20 or 30 years earlier and now have a great deal of empathy for less skilled golfers.

Completing the Study

Having carefully and slowly examined the entire course, I am able to produce a plan that best suits the individual club’s needs. By including a written rationale for the proposed changes, I permit any interested party to understand the problem and propose an alternative solution. This often helps the overall study gain majority approval. However, it is not enough simply to state the changes for all 18 holes, for the committee has no idea where to start. Therefore, I prioritize the holes according to need and I include an estimated cost. By listing the holes in order of need, and by generating an overall estimated cost, the long-range improvement committee can budget intelligently ad phase the work out over a number of years.

With a completed study in hand and a phase and budget plan worked out, the committee is then ready to go to its board for approval. If the board approves the study and phase plan, then these should be presented to the general membership by the golf architect at a special meeting.

Explaining the Study

Without fail there will be many distortions and untruths about the study and plan, especially if word gets out and the media catch hold of the story. By having the special meeting and presenting the study and plan to the rank and file membership, anxiety is allayed, especially when it is explained that every group was represented and heard during the preparation phase. Once the study and plan are approved by the membership, it then becomes the basis for any and all improvements.

The cost of such a study depends upon golf architectural firm, the scope of the study, and what the committee wants for a final plan. The study is not a set of working drawings, but rather a conceptual representation that only shows relative size and location. If working drawings are required, the cost would be five times higher than for the concept or feature plan. Since it is not known if all the improvements will be approved, it is better to wait until the actual work is to begin before creating detailed working documents.

Concept Versus Working Drawings

The kinds of detailed working documents that are needed to do the improvements can range from a verbal or written description of the work to grade stakes in the ground accompanied by detailed scaled drawings and voluminous specifications. The fewer drawings or descriptions used, the greater must be the club’s trust in the golf architect and the contractor, for there is little basis for resolving misunderstandings of what the finished product is or how much it will cost. For simple improvements, such as reshaping a bunker, the club might wish to get bids from capable contractors to work by the hour, with the club buying all the materials. This way the club only pays for the labor and construction equipment, and not for overestimates of time and material. If the project is more complex, then the golf architect should be instructed to produce a written estimate of the total quantity of work involved and a description of acceptable standards of workmanship on which a contractor can bid and bond the work. If the improvement is extremely complex, such as on the sensitive issue of constructing new greens, then the club should pay the golf architect to make detailed drawings and specifications for the project that can be approved by the board before the contractors bid and bond the work.