Cost-cutting superintendents looking for quick savings can start by eliminating waterfalls and other nonessential components of their courses, according to architect Jay Blasi, who in 2012 founded Jay Blasi Golf Design in Los Gatos, California.
“Artificial elements are one area where most golf courses can really be improved,” Blasi says. “Flower beds, lakes, waterfalls, signage, benches, ball washers and cart paths all have the same impact: They require a great deal of maintenance and they don’t have anything to do with golf. The more we can eliminate these artificial elements, the more you can save time and money and focus attention on the more important aspects of the course, such as tees, greens and bunkers.”
Change for the sake of change is what led to the presence of artificial elements, Blasi says. Most golf courses evolve over time, but as often as not, they do not change for the better.
“Rotating green committees feel compelled to add stuff to the course,” Blasi says. “The primary addition in the United States has been trees, and while trees are natural, their addition to the course is not. Thousands of courses have added trees to any open space between holes. The trees compete with the turf for air, sun and water, and add greatly to the maintenance challenges – all while taking away from the strategy of play and eliminating long views.”
Fortunately, this tendency seems to be waning. “Many courses have seen dramatic improvement after recent tree removals. This is a trend that will hopefully continue for years to come,” Blasi says.
Some facilities are tightening budgets and looking for savings, while others are expanding budgets, he says. Regardless of whether a course is spending or saving, Blasi says fiscal awareness has set down roots in the industry.
“As we all know, golf is a tough business, so we need to be smart about where we spend. In the Western region, with the recent drought, there has been heightened focus on water use. The cost of water is high and the resource is scarce. Courses are looking to reduce water use to be good stewards of the environment but also to save money,” he says. “Elsewhere, it is probably economics. There is a lot of competition, and in order to survive you must spend money wisely.”
Blasi has been the lead designer on numerous projects, including Chambers Bay, the Puget Sound-based site of the 2015 U.S. Open; Patriot Golf Club outside Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex at Stanford University in California.
Lowering a client’s maintenance costs starts with an audit of the existing facility, Blasi says. He then works with the course or club management to learn about their goals for the future.
“Strategic planning is where we can add the most value,” he says. “Golf courses will need to invest money over time to stay healthy. How you spend that money and the return on investment is a direct result of good planning. A good golf architect should be able to assist greatly on these fronts.”
Aside from stressing water-related savings and the elimination of artificial elements, Blasi makes the following recommendations for design-related maintenance:
- Bunkers. “Again, these are site-specific. In certain areas a liner is helpful, while in others a liner is a waste of money. Certain bunkers are meant to look natural, and others are highly defined. One common problem I notice is sand depths. Regular probing and adjusting to ensure proper sand depths is universal.”
- Turfgrass. “Because each site has its own microclimate, I try to work with the local golf course superintendent to determine what the best turfgrass types may be. The local superintendent will have the best knowledge of the unique site attributes. Oftentimes, the superintendent will coordinate with a USGA agronomist or other agronomist as well. Time permitting, test plots on the property can be an effective way to determine best varieties.”
Golf courses rarely go too far in terms of designing for ease of maintenance, Blasi says, noting that the bigger issue involves courses that are too hard to play and too expensive to maintain.
“There are probably 100 golf courses that are designed too tough for maintenance for every one that is designed too easy. It isn’t a problem I worry about,” he says. “The vast majority of courses don’t have enough great architecture where you need to really worry about the maintenance preserving the architecture. Many facilities would probably benefit from a simpler maintenance program.”
Still, Blasi can cite some examples of overcorrected incidences.
“I think the most common situation that you see is rounding off of greens, narrowing of fairways and filling in bunkers,” Blasi says. “Many courses’ greens shrink over time. This happens when mowing the green in a circular pattern – you end up rounding off a tight corner. Over time, the impact is magnified and oftentimes a designed hole location is lost. If you look at much of the restoration work being done around the country, oftentimes green expansions are part of it.”
Blasi believes that architects and superintendents, who are generally on the same page about what is important on a course, should confer on design and cost-related discussions. The architect wants the super to succeed, he says, because that makes the architect look good, too.
“The architect is responsible for design solutions, but they should be making responsible design solutions based on input from the super. It doesn’t make any sense to offer up a design solution if the super can’t maintain it. That isn’t sustainable,” Blasi says. “But the architect should be able to help prioritize what is important from a design standpoint. So perhaps the green expansion is sustainable if you remove the flowerbeds.
“The architect and other consultants need to be prepared to work with the super to advocate any changes in the program. Change is hard for owners and members, so education is important.”
However, convincing the owners can be challenging. “Ultimately it is their facility, and they are in charge. I find that education is the key. A client is far more likely to make a good decision if you invest the time and energy to educate them as to what aspects of the design are important, and why – and also as to what aspects of the maintenance are important and why. If you can do that and outline the financial benefits to them, you will have a great chance for success,” Blasi concludes.