Nearly every golf course architect can recount a job where the golf course superintendent was a bump in the road, or worse, a potential roadblock to the restoration or renovation of a golf course.
In many cases, the course designer butted heads with a longtime super who was averse to change, often legitimately so. A “new” golf course can mean alterations in how a layout is maintained, a fact that golfers or owners don’t take into account.
Not surprisingly, a problem with communication is at the heart of the matter.
“Most of them who push back have a reason and it’s usually a lack of understanding,” architect Lester George says of superintendents who have fought against his efforts. He added that when adequately educated, they drop their objection. “I’ve never had one push back in the beginning that wasn’t totally happy in the end.”
Adding to the frustration for longtime superintendents is that a restoration can be the undoing of something the club implemented during the superintendent’s tenure.
About 15 years ago I was on-site for the early stages of a bunker project at a Charles Banks design, and talked with the superintendent and the work. The existing bunkers in no way reflected the original style, as proven by photographs taken during construction and in the early years after the layout opened, and the new ones would be built in a way Banks might have built them.
The super, though, was all for the alteration, as he had been some 20 years before when the original bunkers were “modernized,” in essence, doing away with what, in part, made the course a Banks’ design.
He could have been frustrated or flummoxed at the club’s desire to put back what it took out, but grasped the reasoning. “We didn’t know,” the superintendent said. “Back then, no one cared about the original design.”
The idea of modernizing golf courses came about after World War II, primarily from the architect Robert Trent Jones who when he was called in for work such as bunker renovations had often blatant disregard for the designs of anyone who came before him, including the likes of Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast or Seth Raynor.
A number of regional architects followed the lead of Jones, who was the most sought-after course designer in the world for the better part of 40 years. They, too, eviscerated classic era layouts without hesitation.
It was one of Jones’ followers that had overseen the creation of the ill-fitting hazards that were being removed from the Banks’ course. A few years later I spoke with the architect who was responsible for undoing Banks’ work. What he told me was that he was doing what the club wanted. He didn’t feel the need to lobby for maintaining the intent and style the club had embraced since its inception.
So it is valuable for superintendents to understand why architects move, remove or place a bunker, mound or tee.
With a sympathetic restoration, the motive is often to restore the original intent, especially when it comes to overplanting. Trees that were not part of the original design can actually negate how the architect intended the hole to be played by taking away options or routes. The same with bunkers – adding or removing them can alter how a hole is played.
In recent years, architects have found themselves repositioning features on a golf course to account for the greater distance that golf balls now fly. While it may seem trivial to move a bunker 60 feet down a fairway, doing so can bring back the risk/reward scenario that had been lost.
Even moving tees can restore lost options and angles. Something as simple as modifying fairway mowing patterns can recapture runoffs, shelves and other features that were gradually overtaken by rough.
For those looking to have a better handle on what goes into the design of a course, there are some wonderful books that explain the process, perhaps none better than “Golf Architecture in America,” by George Thomas, and “Golf Has Never Failed Me,” by Donald Ross.
Featured photo: iStock/littlehenrabi