Is Re-Routing Worth It?

By Jeffrey D. Brauer, Past President, ASGCA

As we have discussed in earlier columns, the first thing a club looking at renovations must decide – in conjunction with deciding on theme – is whether substantial re-routing of the golf course is feasible, necessary and/or practical. Based on my experience, I would say the answer is usually “No.” in most situations.

To start with, most members at most clubs love their course, often ranking it unrealistically high in quality, because they have many good memories of the course! If they didn’t, it’s unlikely that they would have played there as much as they did. These good memories usually stem in equal parts to friendships made, great individual shots, or competitions – friendly or formal – won. These feelings have more to do with other issues than actual design quality, but they are real feelings, nonetheless.

Members may simply fee more comfortable with the status quo over unknown big changes a major renovation. They may believe (rightly) that major re-routings cost more money, which they are naturally averse to spending. They may also worry about trees being taken down, and the course being out of commission for longer than “necessary.”

Not long ago, five architects interviewed for a renovation at an old club that insisted they wanted to reroute extensively to get much needed length. The architect who won the interview was the sole candidate who went against the grain – stating that the big changes would reduce the character of the course than any additional length would add. I go into most renovations expecting club members to have a predisposition against major re-routing of the golf course – and wished I had stuck to that theory in the interview!

Usually, the cost – or more accurately, the cost/benefit ratio, is my objection as a Golf Course Architect to major re-routings, too! I always advise a club to do a cost/benefit analysis before considering a major re-routing. What do they hope to achieve as benefits?

In many cases, re-routing is absolutely necessary because of land loss (or gain) due to highway expansion, ability to sell land for housing, etc. In other cases, clubs want to pursue re-routing to add length, get rid of a long standing unsafe situation, or perhaps even blow up a wildly unpopular hole. (That’s one that is tough to play either by a majority of the members or by the current greens chairman …….)

In these cases, re-routing can be justified, because it represents a vast improvement to the course. In the case of a safety problem, the costs can be quantified fairly precisely – would a lawsuit cost us more than the cost of rebuilding several holes. If the answer is yes, then you should proceed!

Other justifications for re-routing are harder to quantify. Unless you have dozens or existing members clamoring for additional length, or dozens of survey cards from prospective members, or several magazine reviews saying “It would be a top ten course in the state, if only it were longer,” then I would seriously question whether major changes are in order.

The problem lies in the fact that not all golfers really need the extra length, or will appreciate it. It’s fairly typical that the best players will appreciate it, and then, the question becomes, “Do we spend a bazillion dollars to improve the course for our half dozen low handicappers?” For the answer to that, reread my column on club politics! Or, assess just what percentage of your existing – or proposed -membership fits the category, and decide based on that. Sometimes, the need to attract “young blood” is paramount, and distance is an issue. Of course, future members won’t remember the course in its “good old days” but it’s difficult to tear up the course that many current members love for an unknown entity!

The cost side of the equation usually determines whether or not a re-routing is justified. The general rule of thumb is that it is much less expensive to rebuild the course in place than it is to reroute it.

The reason is that your course has a lot of infrastructure that is very expensive to replace. Typical among these are truly irreplaceable mature trees (plus the cost of clearing new hole corridors at up to $ 20,000 per hole), irrigation systems (especially if relatively new – $50,000 – $75,000 per hole) drainage (about $10,000 per hole) cart paths (about $30,000 per hole), and turf (about $50,000 per hole, if sodded), etc.

Greens cost about $50,000 each, and tees and bunkers are relative bargains at $10,000 -$15,000 each, so the cost of re-routing a golf course goes up faster than dry prairie grass with a match when you start re-routing. In essence, it is the cost of a new course. If a hole is basically good, why spend over $200,000 per hole to build a new hole, when you can spend about $100,000 to improve the existing one?

We recently worked through just such a discussion. In this case, a 3 year old irrigation system and many 20 to 100 year old trees truly eliminated re-routing from the master plan equation almost immediately. They had a great course that needs some “tweaks” but no one could justify rebuilding the irrigation or removing the trees to pick up a few hundred yards of length. They are considering “re-positioning” a few tees and greens, while leaving the fairway corridors exactly the same. That is usually a cost effective way to add a bit of length and can often solve some other problems.

I think some members start looking at their course like a challenger to an incumbent – an apt analogy during this election year! It’s easy to start picking on the perceived problems of a course, but it’s also wise to remember that it must have some good qualities if it has lasted long enough to require some renovations! It’s also good to remember that almost any golfer is partly a frustrated golf course architect. In so many cases, the proposed changes are either limited in appeal to a small group of golfers, or don’t provide such compelling upgrades that they are worth pursuing.

Of course, there are always exceptions, but in the club renovation arena, you are not allowed to make that mistake once…….so tread carefully before blowing up a perfectly good golf course.