What To Expect From A Long Term Master Plan

By Jeffrey D. Brauer, Past President, ASGCA

Golf course renovations start in many ways! Some start with a disaster, like floods or freeze that damages the course. Others start with an owner’s long term commitment to maintaining its course in “tip top shape.” One sign of the commitment of a well-run course, like any well-run business, is having a Long Term Master Plan, anticipating the need to stay current in the marketplace, and where and how to spend funds wisely to meet your goals.

Some clubs don’t recognize the pattern of declining interest in their courses early enough, making it difficult to catch up. Unlike buildings, where shifting foundations or leaky roofs are painfully obvious, golf course problems are often ignored. Many think golf courses are “natural”, and take care of themselves. In many cases, the superintendent masks problems too well by keeping the course in great shape! Clubs that have invested substantially in the past, may mistakenly believe that the course is “set for life.”

If you don’t currently have a plan in place, how do you go about it?

Master Plans are created by golf course architects. You can find one experienced in renovations by contacting the American Society of Golf Course Architects. (262.786.5960 or asgca.org) Choose carefully! ASGCA members are well trained and ethical, but each has unique design and “personal” styles. You’re entering a long term relationship, and “sticking with” one architect throughout the program is always best.

When is the best time to undertake a Master Plan?

As real estate agents say, “There’s never a better time than now.” You know your competition will build a “better mousetrap.” Your Long Term Master Plan will show how to keep up, and where and how to spend funds wisely to meet your goals. You’ll know that now is not just nice, but necessary to do some cosmetic and/or playability upgrades if:

  • Your tees sheets and membership lists aren’t full,
  • You can’t raise dues/fees and attract new members or players,
  • Guests comment, “This course was great in it’s heyday”

Similarly, if your superintendent spends more time fixing your course than maintaining it, you probably need infrastructure improvements. Additionally, your drainage, irrigation and turf types may need improvements simply to maintain the course to today’s demanding standards.

What should you expect from an architect preparing your long term master plan?

You’ll receive a 5 – 10 page letter agreement from your architect, which details their services and your responsibilities as Owner. The course may designate you as its key representative in working with the architect. You’ll start the master plan process by obtaining information required for design, including:

  • A recent scale aerial photograph, topography map, and property lines, including locations of existing buildings, trees; and any rights-of-way, easements and encroachments; etc.
  • Utility Information, including available and planned utility lines both above and below grade.
  • Environmental information if applicable, usually including, wetlands and floodplain information.
  • Testing, including soil tests for lakes, subsurface rock, etc., to know exactly what natural conditions you’ll face.

From there, the golf course architect will guide a sequential process, with input and approvals by you, your green committee, pro and general manager.

Before any design begins, the Golf Course Architect will evaluate your site, goals, schedule, construction options, and budget. He will appreciate knowing your financial situation, to avoid making design proposals beyond its ability to pay! He will determine if any subconsultants like irrigation designers or environmental consultants, need to be added to the team.

Then, he will enter the Preliminary Planning Phase, where he prepares and presents for your review and approval:

  • Schematic Re-Routing Study(s) (if applicable) and upon approval of that,
  • Preliminary Feature Design Studies, illustrating proposed feature designs and configurations of tees, greens, fairways, lakes, hazards and proposed improvements to drainage, cart paths, grassing and landscaping.
  • The Golf Course Architect may also depict the Clubhouse, Maintenance and parking and entry areas, etc. but is usually not responsible for site planning or final design of these features.

You’ll likely go through several plan revisions before the greens committee approves it. Some greens committees have trouble reaching consensus, and it costs money to redraw plans, so most architects have limit on how many studies they’ll do before you a charging for “supplemental services.”

When all is agreed to, you’ll get an Illustrative Plan. This is the beautiful colored plan that you often see in the clubhouse. While someone is guaranteed to say, “They hung the master plan, because they couldn’t find the architect,” by this time, the plan should incorporate the features your club desired most!

Some clubs stop the process here, wanting only to get an idea of what might be “someday.” But, any course serious about implementing improvements should go further, either plunging into a complete renovation, or setting the stage for long term improvements, by completing a full master plan, which should provide:

Written Descriptions of proposed changes, with their reasoning and benefits. A well thought out master plan can help avoid “whimsical changes” made by each new greens committee, which hurt the overall balance, design, and theme of the course.
A Phasing Plan. Renovation programs range from one to ten years, depending on finances. A plan details which and how much improvements should be undertaken. This is usually driven by most pressing need, but can be dictated by construction efficiency.
For example, many master plans call for new irrigation lakes. It makes sense to use that fill to construct other planned nearby features. I’ve seen clubs haul good dirt off the site, and then pay a premium the next year to haul in more dirt for fill. Most phasing plans will identify small projects the superintendent can do while waiting for “big projects” to be funded, like extend cart paths, plant trees, turf nurseries, landscape areas, or even provide “permanent” temporary greens for use when other greens are out of play. You can fix pressing needs, knowing they will fit the final configuration of a particular hole.

Cost Estimates. Most – (not all – its best you know the history of the architect you retain) architects are adept at estimating construction cost by making area or volume estimates, and applying recent unit pricing from similar projects.
Your scope of work, amount of in-house work vs. contracted work, and your phasing program largely determines your total costs. Smaller projects cost more “per unit” than large ones. And, while most superintendents are both eager to help and resourceful, but you’ll still have a golf course to maintain, so don’t over commit! (If you know how to be in two places at once, please email me!)

A Club Presentation or Actively ‘selling” is critical to the success of the program. This requires effort from key club members. The wildest rumors don’t start in Roswell, NM, but in grill rooms!
Most golf course architects are accomplished at explaining the benefits of their proposals, and handling questions. With Power Point, and AUTOCAD allowing 3-D presentations, many architects easily can convey the “new look”, which can be a valuable selling tool. Combined with active “marketing” by the greens committee and board with the membership should allow the presentation to pass.

If so, then construction should begin in the very near future. As superintendent, you’ll be even more involved at that point, being the clubs daily on site representative and working towards a high level of quality with both the architect and builder. Not all superintendents get that opportunity, and it’s one you shouldn’t pass up.