2004: Renovation as therapy

Working with a qualified golf course architect is a lot like developing a therapeutic relationship with a shrink. The analogy is even stronger when the golf facility is looking to renovate because the club has to acknowledge an identity problem and find someone to help fix it. No wonder many clubs hide rather than seek counsel.

Think about it. A golf course has been used and enjoyed for years by thousands of people. Suddenly

it submits to scrutiny by a complete stranger. Then the so-called expert has to make solemn

pronouncements in the form of a technical diagnosis, coupled with a rigorous and usually invasive

regimen of structural change that often requires years of treatment. The only question is whether what’s

needed is a superficial tweaking (to deal with a neurosis) or a fundamental character makeover (to cure psychosis).

As any psychotherapist can tell you, the people most in need of treatment are the ones least likely to volunteer for it. Admitting you need help is a good start to getting successful therapy.

To be sure, no one drags a golf course in against its will. Clubs unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of improvement just sit there for decades wallowing in their own misery.

Mismanaged properties with long-term maintenance breakdowns and deeply flawed holes are the courses least likely to acknowledge they are in need of help. Instead, they seem to limp along, content to revel in their own incompetence and able to convince themselves (but no one else) that this is their fate in life.

Decision-makers at such “sick clubs” often compensate for their inadequacies by bullying members into shutting up instead of airing grievances. Meanwhile, the same block-headed committee members take solemn pleasure in making meaningless changes. The drainage might have collapsed and the bunkers reduced to circles of dirt, but the grounds committee will debate for hours whether flags on the pins should be solid or checkered.

Of course, given some of the characters that pass for architects, it’s understandable that clubs would be reluctant to submit to them. These characters run the gamut, from glittery-caped crusaders and

jet-setting celebrities to Milquetoasts and undermedicated depressives.

Not that architects in the classical era of course design (between World Wars I and II) were any less

theatrical. A close look at the careers of Charles Blair Macdonald,

A.W. Tillinghast and Alister Mackenzie suggests that they shared certain personality traits that were

indispensable in their vocation: They were monumental egomaniacs with an unquenchable taste for booze and debauchery who died virtually penniless in pursuit of their profession. (Perhaps I exaggerate here, but to paraphrase one of Sigmund Freud’s followers: “In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true.”)

In golf design, there’s something to be said for being strong willed. It certainly makes it easier dealing with green chairmen and club owners, whom one can quickly dismiss as incompetent. Rare is the club

president who can stand up to a Robert Trent Jones Sr. the way one Midwesterner did two decades ago, firing him in the middle of the 16th fairway when the living legend made it clear he wasn’t going to listen to any advice.

Listening is an invaluable skill – almost as important as appearing

to listen. In either case, this is something the good architect knows how to do, especially in the midst of a Master Plan, where longtime club members effectively are being told that the club they’ve known and loved for years is about to get a face-lift.

Every successful renovationist handles this differently. Some try to woo a club’s affections by telling its members what they think the golfers want to hear. That’s not a good strategy, however, for getting folks through difficult times. Other designers dole out the “tough love” needed to tell a membership that it has to blow up the course and start over. One gifted architect today plays stand-up comedian at board meetings, in full knowledge that the best way to tell people what they are unprepared to hear is to lighten up the moment.

The last thing you want in a designer is a wimp who follows which way the wind is blowing. Being

spineless is never good posture. I’ve seen too many namby-pamby “yes men” wither in the face of the

scalding criticism that is standard at open membership meetings. That’s where designers have to explain why that tree on No. 14 has to go or why the club needs to close down the course after Labor Day.

Most of all, what’s needed from the architect is a lot of hand holding. No wonder many architects for years avoided renovation work. The fees are lower than for an original design and yet in many ways, the work is tougher because it takes more meetings, more behind-the-scenes politicking and lots of patience with people whose egos are fragile or bruised.

Not surprisingly, it’s often the veteran superintendent whose identity is most vulnerable. Grow-in supers have a “go-go” attitude and don’t flinch at the sight of huge dirt piles and tractors ripping up the ground. But veteran greenkeepers who long have taken pride in organizing and scheduling their home ground can be shaken to the core with a renovation project. They need a lot of reassurance throughout the process. If they don’t get it, they may need a lot of therapy – just like everyone else in the midst of a renovation.







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