2006: Courses undergo restorations and renovations

In fits and starts, and sometimes in great leaps, American golf courses are adapting to changing times.

Some of the makeovers are modest tweaks, such as renovating bunkers and adding new back tees. Low key is how everything is done at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. The hallowed design, which originated as a nine-hole, Perry Maxwell layout in 1935, only expanded to 18 holes 20 years later at the hand of Maxwell’s son, Press.

Prior to this year’s U.S. Senior Open there, superintendent P. Stan George worked closely with Dave Axland, a shaping genius and sometimes designer in his own right, to add five bunkers that settled in perfectly with the bunkers already there. The seamless work, along with three new back tees and some minor changes to other tees, was undertaken in consultancy with long-time Prairie Dunes admirer Bill Coore for $95,000.

In some cases, the work is more ambitious, what architects call “blow up and start over again,” virtually a total makeover. Case in point: the $11 million renovation of El Dorado Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., undertaken by Tom Fazio in 2003. What started as a plan for new irrigation and regrassing of greens morphed into a totally regraded course with wider corridors, all new bunkers, drainage, lakes, wells, elevations and vegetation.

There’s a long tradition of courses being prepped, even remodeled, prior to major championships. Congressional, Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines South are among those that have undergone major renovations, all at the hands of Rees Jones.

Congressional got a total facelift before the 1997 U.S. Open and work has begun to reverse the routing of the par-3 18th hole to make it play as hole No. 10 for the championship. If that sounds confusing, just try mapping out the resequencing of hole corridors and green sites done in three phases as Medinah Country Club No. 3 approached the 1990 U.S. Open and PGA Championships in 1999 and 2006. Along the way, Medinah reduced tree clutter, rebuilt half of its putting surfaces, cleaned up fairway lines, reshaped and shored up its bunkers, and gained 400-plus yards thanks to new back tees.

That might be what it takes these days to prep for a major. But the concerns of everyday courses are a whole lot simpler: Keeping fresh and staying financially vibrant rather than trying to attract a national championship. Increasingly, facilities are finding considerable advantage to upgrading, retrofitting and, in some cases, restoring.

In an era of declining new course openings, the volume of renovation work just might be enough to keep architects busy. In competitive markets where facilities are vying for memberships and green fees, a well-planned upgrade can mean the difference between a property that’s thriving and one that’s being plowed under for real estate.

New course openings in the U.S. have been decreasing steadily since 2000, with National Golf Foundation data showing 124.5 courses

(18-hole equivalents) debuting in 2005, compared to 400 six years ago. And yet during that time, the membership roll of the American Society of Golf Course Architects went from 142 to 176 – and there’s reason to believe that only about half of the working course designers in the U.S. are ASGCA members. No matter how you cut it, that means less work for golf course architects. “When the well runs dry, we all start

drinking out of the same watering hole,” said John “Chip” McDonald, president of the Jessup, Md.-based golf course contracting firm McDonald & Sons. Unlike other contractors, McDonald’s company always has focused more on renovation work than new course construction. But he now sees more competition from contractors at pre-bid meetings. “People you haven’t seen for years are suddenly bidding on renovation jobs,” he says.

There simply are no reliable rules to determine the threshold, or extent, of a course renovation. Chad Ritterbusch, executive secretary of the ASGCA, is working with a number of industry groups to see if a reliable index for renovation can be developed. One measure of its growing importance in architect portfolios is that in 2004, the ASGCA revised its membership criteria that specified applicants had to complete five 18-hole equivalent new courses, allowing them to substitute two Architecture “complete remodels” towards the five.

In an effort to support the burgeoning renovation market, the ASGCA established a national series of workshops in 2000 that brought architects into daylong contact with superintendents, club managers, green chairmen and facility decision makers. Dubbed “Remodeling University,” the pilot program of four workshops, held in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York, has led to 40 such seminars, with more than 2,000 attendees getting training in basic aspects of master planning. Starting in 2007, Ritterbusch reports, the ASGCA “will be significantly strengthening the background we provide on financial and business aspects.”

Treating a golf club like a business rather than a toy might be anathema to avid golfers intent on forgetting their work life when they arrive at the first tee. But there’s a newfound sensibility of golf course management out there, one that sees courses as an asset. Some of these assets perform better than others, and almost all need recurring care and upgrading if they are going to stay viable.

That’s why the ASGCA is asking course operators to consider how long a course’s working parts are likely to last before they need replacement. Endurance obviously depends upon maintenance, but there’s also ongoing wear and tear on the component parts of a course, depending upon rounds played, cart traffic, weather, soil type and the quality of original construction.

Sand-based greens built with a subgrade and perched water table according to USGA standards can be expected to last 15-30 years before performance deteriorates, according to the ASGCA. Bunker sand is likely to last five to seven- years, irrigation systems anywhere from one to three decades. Asphalt cart paths have a shelf life of about a decade, while concrete cart paths should last two or three times longer.

Of course greens performance is not simply a function of subsurface drainage. Sometimes, there’s desire for faster speeds or smoother putting surfaces, or the club decides to replace the greens every few years in order to fend off the incursion of undesirable Poa annua. Or Bermudagrass greens mutate, developing undesirable hybrids that are hard to manage.

The advent of new, higher performance turf types also makes renovation tempting. That’s the case with The River Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., which was closed from late May through September 2006 as it regrassed its fairways and greens. The 419 Bermudagrass fairways have been replaced with a smoother, firmer Emerald Dwarfbermuda cultivar, and the greens, formerly Tifdwarf, now are a Champions Bermuda that will allow for lower mowing heights and faster greens.

Veteran architect Jay Morrish, based in the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound, is now at work renovating Cottonwood Valley Course, part of the Four Season Resort in Irving, Texas. Cottonwood, along with its sister course, the TPC of Las Colinas, is home to the PGA Tour’s EDS Byron Nelson Championship, and Morrish was chief designer of both layouts two decades ago. The Cottonwood layout was shut down July 7 after this year’s Byron Nelson, and 15 greens were stripped, gassed and rebuilt with fresh new bentgrass. (Three greens had been done last year.) “The greens were just worn out,” Morrish says.

The course also is getting tweaked with new back tees and bunker adjustments – all to keep it fresh and more competitive, but without altering its basic character as a resort and member course. After all, Tour players only see Cottonwood for one round of the event. The other three rounds, including weekend play, and thus TV coverage, take place at TPC Las Colinas.

If, as hoped, Morrish also gets to redo Las Colinas, he’ll get a little meaner with tighter bunker patterns and longer tee shots. He’ll do so admitting a little bit of confusion in dealing with distance these days – a problem that confronts all architects.

“I don’t even know where to put bunkers anymore,” said Morrish. In looking back at his four decades in the business, he sees a continual evolution of distance, and wishes it would come to an end. Forty years ago, when he supervised construction of Spyglass Hill Golf Club, everything in the industry was calculated on the basis of 750 feet (250 yards). When Morrish worked on Muirfield Village in 1972-73, Jack Nicklaus broke new ground by relying on 800 feet as a turn point for doglegs and for bunker placement, and less than a decade later at Castle Pines, a mile high in Colorado, they went to 850 feet. Now, 900 feet is commonplace.

When Pete Dye was redoing his original design at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass – Dye calls it “the fifth time he’s gotten to rework it” – he settled on 330 yards, which also happens to be the distance Fazio relied upon at Augusta National for the carries required to clear those fairway bunkers.

The average drive on the PGA Tour is 289 yards, up 32 yards from 1980, when standard tee shots were 257 yards. Even though mid-handicappers don’t hit the ball that much farther, they do hit it longer. The result is that courses need to keep getting longer to stay challenging. That means relocating back tees into even more remote areas. It also means moving hazards so they stay in play.

“For everyday players,” said Morrish, “we don’t need to do very much, maybe a little longer in general. But make it too long, like Augusta National, and you just play into the hands of Tiger (Woods) and Phil (Mickelson).”

Morrish’s advice is that “you are only going to defeat these guys with angles and bunkers, not distance.”

For everyday golfers, architects like Morrish are focusing more on presenting quality conditions and good variation in tee placement. Courses that need upgrades in maintenance, more efficient irrigation systems or to cut back tree canopies and allow in sunlight and air for turf growth, are the focus of major renovation work throughout the country. Maybe it’s not as exciting as new course openings. But it happens to be closer to what’s needed to keep golf courses on firm business ground. m

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