The litany of massive failures when golf courses decide to go it alone for a renovation or restoration project is a long and tragic list.

The decision to forgo the expense of an architect in an effort to save money often leads to significant costs down the road that far exceed what a designer would have cost in the first place.

“If you have enough [money] to do it two or three times, why not do it once the right way?” Florida-based architect Bobby Weed asked rhetorically.

1. The risk is real

There is a photograph of a man, golf club in hand, standing in what appears to be a fairway bunker. The sand, however, looks like hardened concrete.

“Poorly constructed,” the architect who took the photograph says, not wanting to name the layout. “Runoff into the bunker, bad drainage and the bunker liner was installed wrong. That’s why you hire an architect – a competent architect.”

Pittsburgh-based architect Jim Cervone cites a litany of problems he has had to fix at facilities where an accomplished designer was not involved.

“Crushed pipe … not enough outfall for proper drainage … using old bunker sand creating droughty surrounds …,” all of which he summed up as “shoddy work and corners being cut.”

The Dublin, Ohio-based firm of Fry/Straka Golf Course Design was called in to salvage a golf course build that was in its infancy, laid out by someone purporting to be an architect. What they found was mindboggling.

The grow-in superintendent had alerted the owners to the problem. For instance, effluent water was running into protected streams.

“The EPA would have taken them to the cleaners,” architect Jason Straka says.

When Straka set foot on the site, clearing was underway but it was discovered what was thought to be golf course property was in fact house lots that had already been sold. The result was irate landowners, easements having to be drawn up, and money having to be returned, since, in some cases, the size of the lots were reduced and buffers of trees were gone.

By the time Straka was done creating the layout, existing holes had been com-bined, others were split or moved, some were abandoned and others created.

The mistake came about because a successful real estate developer who fancied himself a golf course developer decided to go at the project alone.

“All the work that had been done up to that point was essentially null and void,” Straka says.

2. Why an architect makes sense

Even with all these tales of woe and pain floating around the golf industry, there remain those who think of hiring an architect as almost a luxury, which baffles an enormous majority of those in the golf business, including golf course superintendents.

Jason Straka

“Oh God, no,” was the response of Jeff Johnson, superintendent at The Minikahda Club, who oversaw a reworking of the Minneapolis club. The project entailed bunker renovation, massive tree removal and a new irrigation system.

Along with Philadelphia-based architect Ron Prichard, irrigation and agronomic consultants were involved, in part, to educate the membership about why the proposals had been put forward. The experts also made it clear that it wasn’t a pet project of the superintendent or a member.

“It takes you out of the equation,” Johnson says.

At Spring Lake Golf Club in Spring Lake, New Jersey, member Chris Carton is succinct in describing the club’s decision to put a renovation in the hands of professionals, meaning Norman, Oklahoma-based architect Tripp Davis, turfgrass consultant Aspire Golf and the USGA green section.

“We did it right,” Carton says. “When the membership hires the right people and gets out of the way, the results are usually spectacular.”

Carton also echoes one of Johnson’s reasons for letting others explain why the work is necessary.

“It’s not coming from the green committee or from the superintendent, so they aren’t the bad guys,” Carton says.

Many clubs don’t grasp the concept that the architect isn’t just there to design or redesign the course. The architect is the one who helps the club produce bid documents, assists in the hiring of irrigation and construction companies, and oversees the work.

Jim Cervone

“Our role is as the client’s representative,” Cervone says.

That means making sure what is being built is done the right way, and as Cervone points out, that is not something members or owners are trained to do. It’s not in their skill set for them to realize work is substandard or corners are being cut as some contractors try to increase profits, even if that means the results are not what were promised, he says.

On one project for which Straka was called in to rectify problems, he discovered nothing was to the standards the contactor signed on for and for which the club paid. The superintendent’s inability to grow grass on greens was a result of substandard materials being used, not his ineptness.

“Nobody knew that the greens weren’t built to spec,” Straka says. “What they paid for didn’t go into the ground.”

Cervone is the one who gives final approval on every step of the process on his jobs.

“They can’t move past a milestone until I sign off on it,” he says.

He’s quick to add that most golf course contractors want an architect involved.

“It’s few and far between that I’ve found that don’t want you in there,” Cervone says.

3. What about bunkers?

More often it is a bunker renovation, and not green construction, where golf facilities forgo hiring an architect, which is a mistake, considering that many courses spend more man-hours on the upkeep of bunkers than they do on greens, Weed says. In the last 15 years, Weed added, the cost of maintaining bunkers has risen more than any other aspect of golf course maintenance. Following right along with that is the rising expectations of how bunkers should be kept.

Weed says he sat in one committee meeting and listened as members lamented the condition of their sand hazards while at the same time pushing for more consistency. When they were finished, Weed said he informed them, “You know what you are asking is not possible?”

A poorly built bunker is not hard to spot.

He said they failed to realize that aspects such as which direction a bunker face is pointed has an impact on its condition – south facing and north facing can be very different.

With the increased expectations of bunker conditioning as well as the advances in bunker liner technology, reconstructing or building bunkers should not be left to superintendents or contractors.

Weed says one course where he was called to undo years of poor bunker work was “memorializing poor design and throwing good money after bad and not realizing it.”

In some cases, facilities make the correct step and purchase high-tech bunker liners, but every other part of the renovation is substandard, even something as simple as the proper installation of the liners.

Those clubs will continue to get it wrong until they have good specs, oversight and the right contractors.

“Nothing gets resolved other than the club that paid good money is left holding the bag and now doesn’t even have the money to get it done the right way,” Weed says.

Weed, who was the first person to achieve certified golf course superintendent status from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and membership in the American Society of Golf Course Architects, cautions superintendents against taking on large construction projects themselves. He says there are plenty of superintendents who are qualified and have talented enough staffs to do renovation or restoration jobs, but they should avoid large-scale projects.

A bunker built to correct specifications is easy to spot.

“If the super is taking it on in-house, there is a good chance that some other aspect of the golf course is going to suffer,” he says, a fact members or golfers will not easily accept.

Johnson, the Minikahda superin-tendent, said the club looked into the course renovation after realizing the maintenance staff was continuously fixing irrigation leaks and a few bunkers were rebuilt every year.

“It was just a short-term solution for a bigger issue,” Johnson says.

In other cases, according to Cervone, he was hired after the superintendent was given the responsibility of the renovation work.

“They bite off more than they can chew and fail halfway through,” Cervone said.

4. Keeping supers in the loop

While the superintendent might not want to act as construction boss, he should have input on the alterations since he will be the one who has to maintain them.

“That’s part of my job,” said Spring Lakes Superintendent Josh Reiger, who lauded Davis for keeping him in the loop during the restoration. “Although his name is on it, he’s not going to be here every day. I’m going to be here every day.”

To the Point

Why it makes sense to hire an architect

The decision to forgo the expense of an architect in an effort to save money often leads to significant costs down the road that far exceed what a designer would have cost in the first place.

Poorly planned projects done without an architect can lead to bad drainage, runoff and other problems.

A good architect will not cut corners.

Hiring an architect for in-house projects should be viewed as a necessity, not a luxury.

An architect also helps a club produce bid documents, assists in the hiring of irrigation and construction companies and oversees the work.

Weed agrees.

“The bond between a superintendent and a consulting architect is very important. It protects the superintendent and it protects the club,” he says.


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