When an architect designs, redesigns, renovates or sympathetically remodels a golf course, the modifications and wholesale alterations will invariably lead to wholesale changes in the maintenance practices.

A qualified architect knows that every removed tree, expanded green surface or additional bunker will have to be dealt with by the golf course superintendent. When they propose modifications, architects must rectify the expectations of owners, golfers and committees with the realities of maintenance budgets and manpower.

Often architects find themselves talking their clients out of a proposed design style or change because the money is not there for the required maintenance.

“It’s absolutely something you take into account from a design standpoint,” says Lester George, a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “One of the tenants of good design is the use.”

Architect John Harvey and USGA Agronomist Dave Oatis recently visited Simsbury Farms Golf Course in Simsbury, Connecticut, as part of a program to evaluate public golf course facilities and offer guidance to improve playability and enhance efficiencies of their maintenance practices. Harvey says he and Oatis noticed that Michael Wallace, the municipal course’s certified golf course superintendent, carved out some junior tees on the second hole (pictured here) and other holes that were created by nothing more than a few passes with the fairway mower on relatively flat terrain adjoining the fairway cut. “This simplistic effort to provide teeing areas for juniors has enhanced the pace of play and enjoyment of the golf course for beginners and has been well received,” Harvey said.

At the same time, George strives to make the course as good as it can be within the maintenance parameters. That means what a designer will propose for a high-end private facility compared to an affordable municipal layout is vastly different.

One of George’s most heralded projects is the Kinloch Golf Club in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia, which he designed with noted amateur player Vinnie Giles.

According to George, the original idea the developer had for the facility was that of a high-end, daily-fee layout with bermudagrass fairways. When Giles become involved, he lobbied for a private golf club concept that had bentgrass greens and tees, unheard of in that part of Virginia.

For the bentgrass to survive in the transition zone, George was adamant in explaining to the owner what the design would require in the way of irrigation and drainage. He wanted to know how many people would work on the maintenance crew and how large the budget would be. Satisfied with the answers, he signed on to the bentgrassing plan.

“Maintenance drove the decision of how the golf course was built,” George says.

The same is true when he works on an affordable facility that will have a small maintenance crew. “When you know going in you have X people, X revenue and X dollars to spend on maintenance, you don’t design 68 bunkers,” George says.

Designers may have to show owners that what owners want for a golf course can’t be maintained on the proposed budget and that expectations need to be lowered.

“It’s the architect’s job to explain what that entails,” George says. “If [owners] cross their eyes, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.”

Understanding agronomics

At Island Hills Golf Course in Centreville, Michigan, Ray Hearn took a less is more approach to the design.

Architect Ray Hearn’s path to design was laid out for him by Robert Trent Jones, who Hearn met while still in high school. He asked the famous designer how to become an architect, and Jones’ advice included earning a turfgrass degree. “He was emphatic [about that],” Hearn says.

It is that knowledge he acquired through a turf degree from Michigan State University that has helped him succeed. Hearn is one of a handful of designers who studied turf in college. “I understand the agronomics better than most of my competitors,” says Hearn, an ASGCA member who also has a degree in landscape architecture.

When designing or redesigning, Hearn says his goal is to create an attractive and challenging layout that can be cared for within the confines of the maintenance budget and staff. He tries to fashion maximum aesthetic but in a way that does not call for an overabundance of handwork if the maintenance department does not have the manpower to do that.

On bunkers, Hearn says he has the same goal in part by using modern bunker liner technology. He strives “to get more dramatic impact,” but at the same time reduce square footage of sand while not taking away from the strategy of the hazards.

Hearn’s company focused on this concept when the golf industry took a downturn and spending by facilities dropped off. “What we learned, first off, was to be more efficient with our golf features,” he says.

In some cases, according to Hearn, he was brought in to redo layouts where a previous renovation had detracted from the original intent in an effort to save money by reducing the maintenance budget.

Removing bunkers or other features in an effort to save money can, in the long term, have a detrimental effect.

“What architects call ‘dumbing it down,’ if you do that, you’ll lose play,” Hearn says, adding it’s a common mistake made by management companies looking to cut costs. “They slash maintenance.”

Down the road, a couple of years after maintenance is reduced, the result can be loss of rounds and revenue, Hearn adds.

Ray Hearn’s Renovation on No. 6 at Island Hills Golf

Ray Hearn recently renovated Island Hills Golf Club in Centreville, Michigan, which he designed in 1999. The par-5 sixth hole needed some “drama.” Here’s what Hearn did:

  • Removed a few trees on the left side of the tee area.
  • Transformed a waste bunker, which originally ran down the left side of the hole, into fescue.
  • Reduced fairway square footage.
  • Added a few trees on the right side of the fairway.
  • Added a few bunkers, including one on the right side of the green, which Hearn calls an “exclamation point.”

Making the best of it

According to architect A. John Harvey, when working with a facility with a low-end budget, his goal is to produce a design that gets the most out of the property. One way Harvey does that is to get facilities to remove trees to produce healthier turf, especially on sites that were once wide open, such as farmland, but morphed into veritable forests over time.

Even when he touts better grass and a reduced maintenance budget as a result, Harvey says he encounters resistance. “It can be a struggle when you have a controversial tree,” he says “The difficulty is taking the first step [in getting] the first controversial tree taken out.”

When it comes to bunkers, Harvey advocates making access for golfers and maint-enance equipment easy to avoid wear and tear. He also is a proponent of bunker liners and sees it as part of his job description to help educate clients about the options.

Another area where he gets involved, which might help superintendents avoid problems down the road, is the selection of what goes in a bunker, specifically the color. “Sand can be one of the most opinionated areas, closely paralleling green speeds,” Harvey adds.

He says he tries to direct clubs away from bright white, suggesting more of an earth tone, since in a few years the white sand will be contaminated and have lost its original hue. Unless the facility can afford all new sand in a few years, the discoloration can lead to grumbling and finger pointing by golfers at those taking care of the bunkers.

What Harvey emphasizes, as did other architects interviewed, is his desire to include the superintendent from the beginning in all design projects, “so he has eyes and ears into the process.”

“Nobody knows more about what’s in the ground than the super,” he says.

Inclusion and under-standing limitations, he says, is a recipe for success.

“I like to look at it as a team. I don’t know it all. The superintendent doesn’t know it all. The committee doesn’t know it all,” Harvey says.


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