The long-term, episodic retooling of the greens, bunkers, cart paths and tees at Crystal Lake Country Club in Crystal Lake, Ill., taught me some truly critical strategies for staging and completing course renovation work in the 21st Century.
My architecture firm, Lohmann Golf Designs, and course construction company, Golf Creations, have adopted these strategies wholeheartedly over the past few years, to the benefit of both companies and dozens of client courses.
Stick with me for a few more paragraphs and I think you’ll see how your club might benefit, too.
I belonged to Crystal Lake for many years and the last dozen or so I served on the green committee, working closely with head superintendent Steve Van Acker and numerous green chairmen. Steve and the committee faced the same issues most clubs face today: All sorts of grand plans for the upgrade and improvement of the golf course, but not enough money or will to tackle it all at once.
We did a master plan for Crystal Lake about 10 years ago, detailing the mother lode of things that could and should be done. But it was basically a wish list, and the enormity of the work (and the cost of that work) meant the master plan just sort of sat there.
About six or so years ago, chronic issues with the bunkers could no longer wait. They had been built in a flashed-sand style; even with new sand, heavy rain events would wash it off these faces and create just a ton of work for Steve and his crew — over and over again, every time it poured. So, we worked up a very attractive flat-bottomed bunker design with rolled-grass facing — a style the members liked and Steve recognized would greatly reduce overall sand maintenance, especially after storms.
No. 11 Before shot
We modified the bunkers hole by hole, over the course of 42 months, completing the work entirely in-house. Each year, we tackled 15 or so bunkers in the spring and another 15 to 20 in the fall. We also did three or four bunkers (usually fairway) in season, when the crew was not as busy. In all, we renovated or added 101 total bunkers.
Remarkably, all of this bunker work was completed within the club’s operating budget, including all sand, sod and drainage materials. Two of Steve’s key crew members — one who’s been on staff more than 20 years — handled all the shaping. Their work (and Steve’s guidance) was tremendous, truly an invaluable commodity. Without the savings realized from their contributions, I know the project(s) would not have been completed.
No. 11 After shot
Eventually, when we saw how well this project-based system worked on bunkers, we assembled a pool of projects (most all of them detailed in the master plan) that we could handle the same way — in house, as part of the annual budget. Steve and the Board at Crystal Lake, like most boards, never know exactly how much extra money will be available in the budget until the middle or late summer. But now, when the leaves start turning each year, we see how much they can take on, match that with a project in the hopper, and get to work.
With Steve and his crew handling the projects, we can do such a thing on very short notice, which is a huge bonus. Of course, everyone has to be on the same page for this approach to work: the super, the Green Committee and the Board of Directors.
But Crystal Lake has made it work, and we at LGD have subsequently applied this approach at numerous different clubs around the Midwest. We’ve worked with each one to mine an existing master plan for a dozen or so smaller projects that can be handled individually, depending on how much money is available at the time.
We’ve written about it in these pages before. We call it the Asset Management Plan, or AMP, and we have Crystal Lake to thank for it.
Why has the AMP model proved so popular and effective? Well, there simply isn’t as much money in club coffers these days — and I frankly don’t see that changing anytime soon. Cost consciousness isn’t new, of course. But clubs today are way more cost conscious than they were even 10 years ago.
I should say here that cost consciousness sometimes leads to a disconnect on cost expectation — a disconnect that gets more and more unmanageable the more expensive and large-scale a project becomes.
A few years ago, we were working at Indian Creek Golf Club in Elkhorn, Neb. We did a quite comprehensive renovation master plan that included some rerouting. However, when we priced the job, it was more than the client wanted to spend — way more. And rightly so, because frankly the investment didn’t make sense in terms of expected returns. This was the fall of 2008, of course, when an investment of any significant size was a big risk. Still, the basis of the work — bunker and greens renovation — desperately needed to be done.
We needed a way to downsize the project to make it affordable, to make the project viable from the client’s perspective. We ended up reprioritizing the plan, breaking it down to its essential parts. Then we phased construction over three years, one nine at a time (always leaving 18 open for play), thereby offsetting cost with the maintenance of revenue streams. In other words, we AMPed it -- and it worked. Indian Creek feels it can now compete for golfers against private clubs in the region, and they were able to do that very affordably without compromising the project’s integrity.
For me, this was the tipping point on the Asset Management Plan -- the proof that we could do this outside Crystal Lake. By dividing these larger projects into more manageable chunks, in fact, we were enabling clients to pull the trigger on projects -- projects that would otherwise have been too costly, too overwhelming from a lost-revenue or lost-round perspective.
Irrigation is a good place to sum up the discussion here, as these systems cost big money, of course, and you’re pretty much obliged to do them all at once. However, contrary to popular belief, you can plan other renovation components with new irrigation in mind. It’s become a very common practice for us, and a successful one, as illustrated at Midlothian Country Club in Chicago.
At Midlothian CC, the club put a new irrigation system in there several years before we relocated and added more than 80 bunkers. In the end, only a single piece of pipe had to be relocated to accommodate all these new and relocated features.
How’d we pull that off? We had a plan.
Bob Lohmann is founder, president, and principal architect of Lohmann Golf Designs and a frequent GCI contributor. Check out his blog at lohmanncompanies.blogspot.com.