On a cool morning after a hard overnight rain, Pat Daly ventured onto the golf course at Framingham (Mass.) Country Club to check on its newly renovated bunkers. He was nervous and concerned at what he might see. But after surveying the bunkers, Daly, the course’s superintendent, breathed a sigh of relief.
“There wasn’t one bunker that was washed out,” Daly says. “The bunkers looked like they had just been raked.”
Before the renovation, what Daly saw in the bunkers after a similar rain made him feel ill. They weren’t only washed out, but the sand in the bunkers was contaminated with soil.
“The manpower required to put the bunkers back together after a storm like that required about eight people working for two days to make them playable again,” Daly says.
Framingham Country Club embarked on its first full golf season with the new bunkers, not to mention one happy superintendent. While the renovation was a long time coming, it was worth the wait. The project at Framingham provides a solid glimpse into the anatomy of a bunker renovation.
Knowing the need
From the moment Daly took the job as superintendent at Framingham in 2000, he heard members beefing about the bunkers. The complaints increased as the years went by. Daly, and most members for that matter, knew the bunkers needed to be renovated.
“The bunkers were horrible,” Daly says. “They were the one weak link on the course.”
Framingham, which opened in 1902, features small greens with challenging undulations. Hence, solid bunkering is crucial to the green complex from a playability standpoint, not to mention aesthetics.
“Everybody knew the renovation needed to be done,” says Paul Stanton, Framingham’s green chairman during the renovation.
In 2008, the members decided to secure a master plan for improving the golf course, with a bunker renovation at the top of the list.
The right architect for the job
Framingham had hired several architects to perform various projects over the past several years. But the course had become a “hodgepodge” of styles, Daly says.
With the bunker renovation – the main component of the master plan – the club decided it wanted an old-fashioned look to go with the course’s “classic” status, which it had lost over time. The search for an architect was on.
Daly headed the search and discovered Bruce Hepner of Renaissance Golf Design, based in Traverse City, Mich. Hepner, who recently began his own firm called Bruce Hepner Design, had a reputation for performing excellent bunker renovations on classic courses and for being a superb bunker shaper.
Hepner was invited to Framingham to meet with Stanton, Daly and others who wanted to see what ideas he had for improving the course.
After touring the course and studying its nuances, Hepner told Daly and Stanton that the bones of the course were in good shape, and that a bunker renovation would upgrade the course immensely.
Daly liked Hepner’s philosophy, which was based on refining, not a total overhaul.
“He’s not one to come in and do a lot of earthmoving,” Daly says.
The Framingham brass also liked that Hepner wasn’t the type to hit them over the head with costly change orders.
“A $3 million project wasn’t going to fly here,” Daly states.
Daly was also impressed that Hepner was sympathetic to the impact the bunker renovation would have on future maintenance.
The architect and the super
When he interviews for a job, Hepner says he often finds himself interviewing his interviewers, especially the superintendent. The best bunker renovations often result from a solid working relationship between the architect and the course’s superintendent, Hepner says.
“I look for a hands-on, hardworking superintendent who has a good knowledge of his golf course,” Hepner explains. “I lean on superintendents for input.”
The architect and the superintendent don’t have to agree on everything, but they must have the same goals for the project, Hepner says.
“There’s a give-and-take between the two of us,” he adds.
Above all, Hepner wants superintendents to be happy with the completed project.
“If a superintendent isn’t happy with what I’m building, he’s not going to maintain it very well,” he says.
All aboard. Then what?
Daly, Stanton and other Framingham officials did their due diligence with members, explaining the nuances of the project and encouraging them to ask questions.
“Everybody has to buy in to what you’re doing,” Daly says.
In the end, club members voted 49-1 to approve the master plan. Members also “uniformly and enthusiastically” embraced Hepner, Stanton notes.
The club signed a contract with Renaissance Golf in 2009 to upgrade the golf course and renovate the bunkers. The club formed a committee to head the master plan, which included members from the green committee, the board of directors, senior members and the president of the club’s women’s association. Daly says it was important to involve representatives from all segments and to address their concerns.
“The vision of the club was to continue to move forward with the project, even if it meant taking five years to get it done,” Daly adds, noting the master plan also included tree work and some miscellaneous cleanup around the course.
The club’s board of directors and green committee looked to Daly to coordinate the project.
The super’s role
What Stanton and Framingham officials wanted from Daly was to embrace the project, which Daly did wholeheartedly. Sometimes superintendents don’t get onboard with renovations simply because they don’t like change.
“Pat was as excited as anybody to get this going,” Stanton says. “He worked hand in hand with Bruce and was intimately involved with the project.”
To keep project costs down, Hepner often relies on the superintendent to secure materials, such as sod, sand and pipe, which saves the course money.
“If a contractor buys the materials, it’s just going to add 15 percent on top of the price,” Hepner notes.
Daly did his part to keep costs down, pricing out sod, topsoil and searching for the perfect sand. For golfers, sand is the most important component of a bunker renovation, so it was the most important purchase.
Daly sent emails to green committee members and the board of directors, asking them what bunker sand they liked from other area courses.
“We came to a consensus on what to buy,” Daly says. “We spent more money on it, but we [purchased] what they wanted. The most important thing is to give members what they want.”
Daly and his crew had another important responsibility – to give members as good and playable a course as they could during the renovation. The club also offered a discount on green fees to members and guests because the course was torn up during the renovation.
While Hepner empowers superintendents to play a major role in the project, he tells superintendents to trust him and the golf course builder with getting the work done. Hepner advises them to concentrate on maintaining the course.
“If a superintendent gets too project oriented, he might lose sight that his actual job is to maintain grass,” Hepner says.
Down and dirty
If a superintendent has never been through a bunker renovation, Hepner warns that it can come as a shock.
“I tell superintendents, ‘I’m going to destroy what you’re here to maintain, and you’re going to freak out a bit,” he says. “It’s counterintuitive to what their jobs are, which is to grow good grass.”
Daly understood the rules. In fact, he and his crew got the project going last September by digging out the irrigation pipe below the bunker complexes. After that Jones Hill, Pa.-based Frontier Golf Course Builders took over.
Selecting the right builder for the job is also crucial. Hepner has built a mutual trust with five builders, including Frontier Golf, and he works with them on a regular basis.
Frontier Golf stripped the sod and sand from the bunkers before turning over the shaping to Hepner. Frontier Golf then installed drainage, irrigation pipe, soil and sand before a local company laid the sod.
Once the sod was down, it was the club’s job to keep golfers off it to prevent damage while it was growing in. “We roped off everything,” Daly says, noting that ball retrievers were placed near bunker complexes so golfers could get their golf balls if they hit them there. The bunker complexes were closed for the entire fall.
The bunkers, keeping with a 1920’s style, have no sand faces, which is a departure from the previous style. But that’s fine with Daly, who grew tired of the bunkers’ sand faces washing out after every storm. The bunkers’ new grass faces are built so they won’t erode.
“They should be fine for the next 20 to 30 years,” Daly says.
Hepner mounded the bunkers to keep water out of them.
“The elevations were checked so all water will drain to daylight,” Daly says.
While Daly and his crew don’t have to rake and repair bunkers nearly as much, especially after rain, they must mow them more often because of the grass faces.
“We had to buy a few hover mowers,” Daly notes.
But that’s nothing compared to the maintenance work they had to perform before. There are also fewer bunkers to maintain: The project called for them to be decreased from 74 to 47.
Things to remember before delving into a bunker renovation:
- Knowing the need. A golf course’s key personnel must agree that the bunkers need to be renovated, and they have to be on board with the project.
- A golf course superintendent must embrace the project. If a superintendent isn’t on board because he doesn’t like change, the bunker renovation could be destined for failure.
- Finding the right golf course architect and golf course builder for the job. Do you want your bunkers to reflect a classic design? Then hire an architect and builder that specialize in those areas.
- The architect and the superintendent need to get along. A good architect wants to hear a superintendent’s ideas. The architect and the superintendent don’t have to agree on everything, but they must have the same goals for the project.
- A superintendent must stay focused. During the renovation, a superintendent needs to concentrate on taking care of the golf course, which is his main job.
In the loop
Stanton and Hepner were impressed with Daly’s communication skills to members about the renovation, especially through social media.
Daly used Twitter and his blog to communicate where the construction crew was working on a daily basis. He also posted multiple photos. In addition, Daly kept the pro shop staff informed so they could communicate the information verbally to golfers.
Daly’s solid communication kept most everyone in the loop. “In 80 days there were a few complaints about construction,” Daly says. “I’ll take that number anytime.”
Daly says he’s heard nothing but positive reviews from members about the project.
“It helps that we came in under budget,” he says.
The project, which had an $800,000 budget, was completed for about $550,000.
But even though the bunkers are in place and the sod around them has taken hold, the project isn’t over.
“We have to maintain the bunkers the way that Bruce wants them maintained for an entire year,” Daly says.
The new bunkers feature a “roll” where the grass meets the sand, Daly says.
“There are 3 to 4 inches of grass that moves vertically down into the sand,” Daly explains. “This grass needs to stay exposed, and there will be no edging because this grass seals off the topsoil and keeps any soil from contaminating the sand.”
But Daly and his crew will tell you that the new maintenance sure beats the old maintenance.