By Dr. Michael J. Hurdzan, ASGCA Past President

There is no such thing as a “typical” case study for golf course improvements or remodeling.  Each project has it own unique blend of factors and conditions that require a tailored approach to bring about the work.  There are, however, some generalities that do apply and are worth noting as a preface to this section on case studies.

 One general truth about remodeling is that it is more difficult to do than new construction.  In remodeling an existing golf course the goal is to correct someone else’s mistakes or design, within a limited work area, with a limited budget, in a limited amount of time, under the watchful eyes of lots of people who may not have been strongly in favor of the remodeling to begin with.  New course construction, however, gives the designer the freedom to adjust surface drainage over long distance, doesn’t require new tile or irrigation to tie back into old or existing but serviceable systems, and there is no special significance placed on certain existing features be they trees, hazards, or golf landforms.  The analogous situation is like trying to remodel a home or office with the residents around every day, versus building a whole new structure.  Most contractors will tell you it is usually easier and a lot more fun to build new.  So there should be no expectation that everyone is going to like the remodel.  My personal goal is 51% no matter what I do, so anything above that is gravy.

 Another generality is that golf course turf should really have 10-12 weeks of good growing weather before it sees the return of golf.  This means that projects with warm season grasses should be planted by early July and golf courses with cool season turf should begin grow-in by early September.  With these end dates in mind, then a backward planning sequence should take place to determine a reasonable start date.  Occasionally, a project gets completed later than the ideal time and with a usually long and extended growing season.  They do all right.  However, the odds are against it and therefore allow adequate time to complete the work and grow it in.

Generally there should be a contingency fund of time and money to allow for unforeseen circumstances such as bad weather, undiscovered problems and other miscellaneous occurrences.  A minimum of 5% contingency is wise, but 10% is better, and if it is not required so be it; however if it is needed and not there, then expect problems — perhaps big problems.

Hire experienced professionals to handle the design, construction and administration of the project.  Don’t assume that your golf course superintendent and green keeping staff will do any of the work, unless they are consulted in advance.  As was pointed out earlier, renovation is a very complex and politically charged process and it may be unfair to put inexperienced or ill-equipped staff into an area that is not their specialty.  Some golf course superintendents are fully capable of doing remodeling work, but the majority are not.

The last generality is to be patient.  Don’t have any unrealistic expectations about the project until it has had time to mature.  Early criticism and panic attacks accomplish little, whereas good planning and lots of patience yield outstanding results.

Case Study One

En-Joie Golf Course, Endicott, New York. Public Golf Course, Total Remodel – Two Construction Phases

En-Joie Golf Course has been the site of the PGA Tour stop B.C. Open for 29 years, and will continue for the next few as well.  The original golf course was built in 1927 on the floodplain of the Susquehanna River.  Several times per year most of the golf course would be flooded by the river with up to eight feet of water.  Clearly flooding was not a problem that could be solved but could be planned for.  In addition the requirement to remodel the course to PGA Tour standards, the work had to be done after the tournament was played in mid to late September.  This meant no construction work could begin until the day after the tournament and had to be completed before the heavy snows of winter or after the late floods of spring, yet was expected to meet tournament playing standards by the next tournament date.  This was a formidable challenge.

Since it is a city owned, public course, the total renovation budget was set at a modest $1.6 million, but swelled to $2.1 million, by unforeseen problems, and the critics who weren’t necessarily in favor of the remodel were not only citizen golfers, but also many tour players who had attended the event for 15-20 years.  The project was being watched closely by a lot of folks including golfers, non-golfers, play professionals, PGA Tour, The Golf Channel and all of the tournament supporters.

Again, respecting the general principles discussed above, a lot of detailed planning took place before work began that included lots of contingency for time (allowed for three phases but hoped for two), and a 10% financial buffer.  Lastly, none of the work was to be done by the green keeping staff until grow-in.  Everyone was careful not to promise a firm re-opening date and steadfastly maintained that at least twelve weeks of good growing weather after planting was required.  The selected contractor was local to the area, was willing to work from dawn to dark, and had a very large workforce of experienced craftsmen who could be dedicated to the project for the short construction schedule.  Weekly meetings were held with the contractor, designer, owner’s representative, golf course superintendent, golf course staff, and city representatives to review progress and resolve problems.

The first fall (Phase I) saw a late winter, so nine of the holes were entirely rebuilt and somewhat established before snowfall, although three days after planting about 50% of the area was briefly flooded; but without substantial damage.  After a good spring grow-in, the course opened for limited play prior to the tournament.  Some tour players didn’t like the changes and said so publicly, which the sports reporters loved.  So Phase II was an even scarier event, especially since bad weather rained out the final day of the tournament, and construction had to begin in the mud.  Winter also came early and so Phase II didn’t finish in the fall.  Over the winter, it was decided to close the course for the entire next summer.  This didn’t sit well with the citizen golfers of Endicott, but they didn’t have much choice.  The golf course renovation was completed in July and was in perfect condition for the golf pros at the September tournament.

  1. The objectives of remodeling were to:
  2. Control floodwater where possible and restrict its silt deposition to manageable areas.
  3. Improve shot making quality of the holes.
  4. Rebuild all greens to modern root zone architecture.
  5. Install a new irrigation system.
  6. Make En-joie one of America’s greatest affordable public courses.

At the conclusion of the tournament after all remodeling was done, everyone, including local critics, both from the PGA Tour and golfing public agreed the operation was a success and the citizens of Endicott can boast having not only one of the best public golf courses in the country, but they can also play the course the pros play at a modest green fee.

Case Study Two

Private Country Club, Total Remodel – One Construction Phase

In 1930, Donald Ross designed the Burlington Country Club in Burlington, Vt. and for almost 80 years it was regarded as the best club in the state.  With that reputation and being frugal New Englanders, the course was virtually unchanged except for the natural successions of trees growing and dying, green and bunker lines ebbing and flowing in and out, and more people playing the course and demanding faster, shorter turf conditions.  Soon the stresses that accompany cutting grasses down to a fraction of anything Donald Ross ever conceived of started to show in the form of poor turf, slow drainage, more disease, and a greater requirement for intensive labor consuming counter or corrective measures.  Then a new, modern, celebrity-designed, country club course was proposed only a few miles away, and the folks at Burlington Country Club decided they better do something to keep their prestige and position.

Now Vermont Yankees are very slow to accept new ideas, and even slower to spend money, so even though they knew they had a problem and the solution was remodeling, their attitude was “show me;” especially on their greens.  To demonstrate how good their greens could become, a new practice green was built and they played on it for one year.  They were hooked, for the practice green putting surfaces were faster and truer than anything they had experienced before.

Problem is that everyone seems to think that every Donald Ross golf course is a treasure, but his courses, like courses of today, are only as good as the site, construction budget, and building techniques would allow.  At Burlington Country Club, the golf course was built inexpensively, with horses and mules, so there were some limitations to earthmoving that left some built in problems.  One was a safety issue of blind shots over hills, and another was golf features being forced too close together given the amount of golf now played. The practice facilities were small which forced the use of practice mats for much of the year.  Parking was limited by the golf course and other facilities, and many of the golf holes were poorly drained and uninspiring to look at.  Despite those weaknesses, it was still a Donald Ross course, and so many of the members (usually older ones) opposed to the project (and assessment) claimed this was a sacrilege.  Nonetheless, the project was approved, but it had to be done in two phases over two years, always giving the members nine holes to play.

The spring of Phase I was exceptionally dry and warm (El Niño) and the construction was going so fast, the club reevaluated and decided to close he entire course for the balance of the year and complete all 18 holes at once. This further irritated those members already irritated and they even threatened lawsuits to stop the work, but the board persisted and the course opened the following spring to rave reviews. Even the harshest critics now agree. The club did the right thing.

Between master plan presentation and the grand opening of the remodeled course, were lots of acquisitions about destroying a Donald Ross masterpiece, especially the greens. This grillroom grumbling was silenced when copies of the original Donald Ross greens drawing and photographs were provided to a member meeting that showed that the new designs were indeed inspired by 70-year-old Ross drawings, but without the excessive slope common to that era.

Subsequently, during construction at Burlington Country Club it was found that some greens laid on solid rock and had no drainage, others were built on mucky type soils that stayed excessively wet, and still others were built out of sand or clay depending what was found naturally at that individual green site.  Virtually every one of the Ross greens played differently from all of the others, whereas after construction, they now all play consistently the same and more in line with what the members wanted.

Ross built small tees and no forward tees because they were not needed in 1919, but were badly needed now and so an extensive tee enlargement program was undertaken.  Also the course received an extensive drainage treatment on part or all of 11 fairways, new bunker sand, improved irrigation system, and a unified and functional path system.  The driving range was doubled or tripled in size, and there is lots of room to expand the parking lot.

The total cost of the project was $1-2 million, not including the irrigation that was installed by Fred Martel, the course superintendent, and his crew.

The net result is that the golf course nor the country club lost any of their heritage, tradition or charm, and they have a much more fun to play and easy to maintain golf course with some of the best greens in all of New England because of their willingness to remodel. They will remain the best private club in the state for decades to come.

Case Study Three

Private or Public Course, Partial Renovation – Multiple Phases

Many clubs or courses need neither a total remodel nor have the budget to do one, but can be significantly improved with pinpointed projects unified by a master plan.  The usual phasing is to do all of the work over three to five years, although some projects have been worked on for 12-15 years allowing one or two small projects a year.  The preferred method is to do the remodeling in the shortest time possible for there is a great economy of scale in reducing total costs, as well as a marked reduction in aggravating non-supportive people.  In addition with fewer phases, there is better uniformity of the playing surfaces for the turf is the same age, the same construction crews could do all of the work to the same standard of workmanship, the construction materials would be more uniform, and there will be fewer seams or scars between old and new golf features and turf.

However, for a variety of reasons, some golf course remodeling must be extended over a long period of time.

This approach is to set priorities on all of the improvements to be done, and then establish a unit price for each improvement and finally establish a list of work that can be done, in order of priority, for the time and money available.  Prioritizing should follow these guidelines in this order:

  1. Address all safety problems.
  2. Address all potential habitat problems.
  3. Correct drainage and long-term maintenance problems.
  4. Improve playability for the greatest number of golfers.
  5. Address special interest group concerns.
  6. Aesthetic improvements only.

Experience has shown that it is usually better to do entire golf holes at once, instead of trying to do all bunkers, tees, etc., in each phase.  Doing a complete hole means never having to disrupt it again, whereas doing it the other way means tearing up a hole multiple times, which strains the patience of golfers (bill payers).  What follows is an example of a protracted remodeling process.

Although case studies allow you to learn from others, remember one of the generalities mentioned in the preamble is that all projects are unique and allow for contingencies.