2004: Business - Construction slump forces architects to scramble

As the country’s course designers prepare for their 58th annual meeting, April 23-28 in Hilton Head, S.C., a major topic of discussion is going to be work – as in who has it and who doesn’t.

The members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects are not just professional colleagues. They also are business competitors. As the number of new golf course developments declines, architects – even big-name design firms accustomed to being wooed – now are chasing down leads, and at times, even bidding for work.

“There are more architects competing for fewer projects,” says Chuck Hutton, a Cleveland-based agronomic consultant who works with dozens of golf course designers. “The larger firms – Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills – are still busy. But not up to the levels of the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the mid-tier firms are suffering.”

Last year, 38 design teams bid to build SilverRock Ranch, a municipal course in La Quinta, Calif. Among those who made it through the first cut was a team that included Phoenix course designer Forrest Richardson. The 19-year veteran and ASGCA member has a portfolio of courses throughout the West and Mexico that includes 10 completed courses and 15 remodels. He’s currently working on two new designs and two renovations.

Richardson, who employs one full-time associate, enjoys a solid reputation, not only for his design work but also for his technical book, “Routing the Golf Course.” He lacks, however, the marketing firepower or marquee status of some of his jet-setting peers.

The increased competition made it more difficult for Richardson to win the La Quinta contract, which ultimately went to big-name firm Palmer Course Design Co. in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. But even that company hasn’t escaped the effects of the current marketplace.

Kevin Benedict, Palmer Course Design’s vice president and director of marketing, says the firm’s workload is “75 to 80 percent of what it was five years ago.” The company is still among the country’s busiest, with seven to nine openings per year, but that figure is down from an average of about 11 only two years ago. Palmer Course Design is pursuing more work overseas and also looking to do more of what Benedict terms “alternate facilities – nine-holes, practice facilities and First Tees.”

The latest National Golf Foundation data show an unmistakable downward trend in new course development. Course openings in 2003 totaled the equivalent of 171 18-hole courses, the third consecutive downturn since 2000, when industry output peaked at 398.5 new courses. At the same time, the number of architects is growing. ASGCA membership now stands at 158, up 12 percent since 1998. But nearly as many don’t belong to the organization yet still market themselves as course designers, suggesting competition for work in the United States is even more intense.

Course architect Stephen Kay of Egg Harbor, N.J., says “2003 was my worst year in a decade.” Gross revenues for his two-person design shop were $340,000, down from a high of $650,000 in his peak year of 2000.

Less work at home also means more firms are looking globally for projects.

Tim Kenny, executive vice president for Nicklaus Design, says the North Palm Beach, Fla.-based company has been “busier than we’ve ever been,” with 31 courses under construction and nine more about to start. But nearly two-thirds of its projects are international. Landing such business is possible with the support of a design staff of 46 and three offices, including one in Brussels, Belgium, and another in Hong Kong.

His characterization of the industry is simple: “U.S. down, global up.”

For those without a worldwide reach, the restoration market is providing opportunities. But such jobs don’t fetch fees that new projects can command.

Kay, for example, is working on four master plans of existing courses. “You make your money when those plans are converted into construction documentation and field work,” he says. “But they still don’t pay as much as a new course.”

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