Forget about supportive wives, loyal dogs, moisture sensors, drones and well-seasoned equipment techs. The superintendent’s true best friend just might be the master plan.
That simple document, which outlines a club’s goals and sets guidelines for course alterations, also prevents supers from becoming a pawn – or cannon fodder – in the struggle between factions within a club.
“I never met a superintendent who didn’t want a guide and some sort of paper trail to guard him against evil forces,” says architect Jim Urbina of Jim Urbina Golf Design.
Brian Silva, founder of Brian Silva Design, is succinct when describing what a master plan can do for superintendents: “It gets them out of the crossfire.”
When done well, a master plan gives the super a voice in what work will be done to the course design and stipulates that he is a vital component in the process.
All the architects interviewed for this story say they would walk away from a facility that did not incorporate the superintendent into the master-planning process.
“If knowledge is power, then get people in there that know,” advises architect Ron Forse, founder of Forse Design.
Superintendents should embrace their seats at the master-planning table. After all, they’re the ones who have to deal with the modifications on a daily basis.
“It’s a chance for the superintendent to have some influence,” Forse says, adding that it is a role the superintendent should want. “The superintendent has to be influential for his own good, his own health.”
Urbina agrees, adding that the person who takes care of the grass must be supportive of the proposed work. “It’s most important to make sure he is engaged from day one. If they don’t buy into the plan then it is useless,” he says.
That means the superintendent must be an active participant from the earliest steps in the master-planning process, as should all those who make up the master plan committee.
“It’s a good idea for everyone involved to listen to everyone involved,” Silva says. “Sometimes, when you listen to why someone thinks X, Y and Z are good ideas, then you think X, Y and Z are good ideas.”
The master plan’s purpose
Ultimately, the master plan lays out a vision for the club. “It’s a road map to success. Without it, what is your standard if you are being successful or not?” Forse asks.
The master plan also assigns a budget figure to each alteration, from rebuilding of tees to construction of a short-game area.
As Forse points out, it provides an answer to an important question: “What is the cost of ownership?”
Getting the membership to agree, according to Silva, requires that the committee be passionate about the end product.
“In the best circumstances, it’s a plan everyone is enthusiastic about. It’s never going to be, ‘Everyone is enthusiastic about everything,'” he says. “It’s critical that the generators of the plan are enthusiastic because they are the salesmen of the plan.”
Selling the proposal is one of the most critical roles for the committee and the superintendent, and there will always be those who oppose the master plan, no matter how sound and well-thought-out it is.
“The members get a say. They can vote it down if they want to,” Forse says.
In one example, he adds, an influential member threatened to nix a project completely because the master plan called for one particular tree to be felled. Because of his resistance, the tree was allowed to stay and the club voted for the master plan.
One area in which Forse most values superintendents is for their ability to inform him which individuals are likely to cause problems along the way.
“The superintendent is a liaison between architect and members. He or she can help avoid land mines,” he says.
The architects, however, want memberships to feel empowered by the master plan. It is their tool to prevent a green chairman, green committee or superintendent from going rogue and making alterations on a whim.
“Nobody’s out there winging it,” Urbina says.
The impetus for a master plan, which deals almost exclusively with the architecture of a course, is varied. Many times, the membership wants to upgrade the existing layout. “Clubs know they want to step it up a notch,” Silva says.
At other times, members realize that ill-advised changes occurred along the way. “The course has been stripped of its original character and there is an intent in getting back to that,” he points out.
A master plan that sells itself
Jon Burke is in his 10th season as golf course superintendent at Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Connecticut. The layout is preparing to undergo a bunker renovation on all 28 of its holes: three nines and one practice hole left over from a previous routing. Bruce Hepner of RGD is the architect on the project.
Hartford’s bunkers are well past their expiration date; the last renovation was made in the late 1990s.
“We got to a point [where] it was like a leaky roof,” Burke says. “You had no choice.”
When Hartford hired Hepner, Burke saw it as the perfect time for the club to determine its long-range goals. “While we have an architect here, let’s get a master plan with all the projects,” he says.
At that point, Burke says the club decided to create a master plan that encompassed all the in-depth work the course needed. The committee was made up of Burke, the grounds committee, the executive committee and the general manager.
First, the master plan committee chose to implement internal drainage in their greens – some of which date back over 100 years – rather than rebuild them all.
Next was the bunker project, but a group of senior players pushed to add forward tees first. The master plan committee nixed that idea.
Burke says the consensus was, “Let’s do the thing that affects all the golfers.” When the plan was brought to the membership, there was little pushback. “We got a groundswell going early. It sold itself. It was an obvious need of the club,” Burke says.
One area where Hepner was instrumental was in helping the club select a bunker style. The golf course was relocated on at least three occasions. At one point, it was bisected by Albany Avenue, but now the entire course sits to the north of the busy thoroughfare.
The existing layout was designed or renovated in part by Donald Ross (twice), Devereux Emmet, the father-son duo of William and David Gordon, Steven Kay, club members and at least one head greenskeeper. Hepner showed the membership photos of bunker styles he thought would work on the property; some were his and some were from other architects. The one selected gives a nod to Ross.
As Urbina points out, if the master plan is going to be successful, the architect has to be the one who shares the club’s vision and goals.
“You have to find the guy most appropriate for what you want to do,” he says.
At Hartford, that meant renovating the bunkers all at once rather than one nine per year. Burke says that spreading out the project over time might cause it to lose continuity. One of his biggest fears would be having three different shapers in three years.
Urbina says his goal is to have all projects on the master plan completed in one to two years.
Silva points out that initial acceptance of the plan that does not mean that all discussion about the architectural roadmap is over. “It has value as a planning tool,” he says. “It’s not infallible.”