Typically, every year production of this issue shoehorns us somewhere in between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. Frankly, it’s a nutty time of the year because we’re busy managing end-of-year commitments, holiday vacation schedules and strategic editorial planning for the coming year.
Part of that includes issue prep and planning for the Golf Industry Show. Like in recent years, GCI’s show issue will feature our annual State of the Industry report. And as I write, that research is out in the field. So without a doubt you’ll need to pick up a copy of the January issue.
However, we’re constantly discussing the state of the industry… as we see it.
What we know...
Without a doubt, this industry will continue to wrestle with all matters pertaining to water in not only the coming year, but the foreseeable future. What’s interesting is that water impacts nearly everyone — the have not’s and even the have’s. If you’re not asking where to get it, then you’re preoccupied with how to best manage it in your turf system.
Most importantly, as an industry we need to remain out on the forefront of this issue and not only regulate from within, but do a better job of telling that story to the general public. When politicians feel the pressure from constituents who can’t water their lawns, we need to be ready to tell the story about how the course is operating at optimum irrigation efficiency, that x-amount of rough has been converted to native species, and how the local course is an important economic engine to the community.
What we hear...
In the coming year, expect to hear everyone talking about “precision turf management (PTM).” It started to gain momentum this year, but will be the topic de jour in 2015. Again, like with water, it all focuses on being better stewards of the cards you’ve been dealt, and PTM encompasses everything from inputs, to playing conditions and creating a more sustainable and environmentally responsible golf course.
What we think...
Bunkers, bunkers, bunkers. Everyone seems to have a bunker project on the books. It’s just the latest in what appears (again, this is what we “think”) to be a growing boom in course renovation and construction. We suspect courses are dusting off Master Plans and addressing issues impacting playability and economics.
That’s why you need to check out Assistant Editor Guy Cipriano’s feature “Pulling it all together” (page 20), which provides an in-depth account of the $7.2 million renovation of Ford Plantation. Guy’s story is reflective of what we’re seeing, hearing and thinking in the industry. At the very least, it’s an interesting read about giving Pete Dye a mulligan on a nearly 30-year-old project.
One more thing...
Attention all turf students... GCI is seeking qualified candidates for its 2015 scholarship program. GCI and its parent company, GIE Media, has established a fund to support academic scholarships for outstanding college students focused on leading in the green industry.
This is the fifth year that GCI will be giving away a $2,500 scholarship. To be eligible, candidates must be enrolled at a recognized two- or four-year college or university working toward a degree in horticulture, environmental science or other field related to a segment of the green industry.
Know someone who’s interested? Let them know they can download an application by entering bit.ly/11PXzFc into their browser. Applications must be postmarked by April 15, 2015.
On Nov. 18, parts of all 50 states were covered in frost. Instead of sitting idle that morning, TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm director of golf course maintenance Stephen Britton jumped in his truck and toured the Maryland course with two assistants.
Britton drove. His assistants carried notepads and pens.
By the end of the tour, their winter to-do list had expanded to include work on wetlands, a mucky part of the course easier to tidy when the ground hardens in the winter. “I guess you could say we refurbished the winter list,” Britton says.
Whether it’s enhancing wetlands, refurbishing equipment, improving signage or renovating a bunker or tee, a weather-induced delay to your crew’s routine doesn’t need to be a setback. With proper planning, a delay helps your crew get ahead when golfers return.
“You can only clean the maintenance shop so many times, you can only sit around for so long” says Bryan Stromme, the Midwest/West regional director of agronomy for Billy Casper Golf. “The biggest thing – and most superintendents are really good at this – is not sitting around and waiting for that day and going, ‘Wow, it’s frosty. What do we do?’ It’s about having a plan so you know ahead of time and having the materials and everything ready.”
So you consider yourself a planner, but the weather stinks, you’re keeping some crew around for the winter and you’re stuck in an idea rut. Don’t fret. We’re offering 10 ways to maximize the time while waiting for the most important parts of a course to thaw or dry.
1. Tree time
Tree removal and pruning ranks atop nearly every list of frost-delay projects, especially in regions where golf can be played frequently throughout the winter.
“The No. 1 winter projects trending in the Southeast are pruning along wood lines,” says USGA Southeast Region agronomist Patrick O’Brien. “That’s very popular to improve turfgrass quality along wooded areas. The other thing is the use of 50- to 60-foot bucket trucks to do a lot of trimming alongside the course just to create wider corridors, improve playability and to make the hole more fun to play for the golfers.”
Billy Casper Golf manages 11 courses at the Forest Preserve in Cook County, Ill., and Stromme says superintendents and assistants will meet at one spot and work on various tree projects throughout the winter. “We are fortunate to have so many courses in the Chicago area,” Stromme says. “The guys can work together. It’s not just two guys working by themselves. It’s a crew and we can bust stuff up pretty fast.”
2. Knock down the native
Scraggly branches aren’t a problem at Pronghorn Club in Bend, Ore., because the majority of the 36-hole facility’s trees are small. Scraggly native areas, though, are an issue, and managing them is a poor-weather day priority for director of agronomy David Freitag.
“We have to go in and thin out sagebrush, rabbitbrush and plants like that,” Freitag says. “They get thick as the year goes on and we thin out ones near our high-play and teeing areas.” Brush-cutters and other heavy-duty mowers receive workouts throughout the country this time of year. “Even if there’s a little frost, you can get in and mow your fescue,” Stromme says. “If it’s not a heavy frost, it’s not going to hurt.”
Georgia Southern University Golf Course superintendent Patrick Reinhardt uses his student workforce to improve playing corridors. The golf course Reinhardt and his crew maintain opened last year and brush that wasn’t cleared during construction extends into potential playing areas.
“We are trying to expand our corridors more,” Reinhardt says. “We are fairly tight. Some of those areas we are going back 15, 20 feet. Chinese privet gets real invasive. It will grow right along the edge of the tree line where there’s sunlight. It’s basically one row of plants, but it ends being 15 feet wide, so we go in there and basically take out that row of plants and it opens things up.”
TPC Potomac’s shop often resembles a furniture warehouse during the winter. The club has 250 pieces of wooden furniture and other amenities on the course, and the entire collection is stored for the winter. Each piece is sanded and restained every winter. Using a crew of eight, the project takes six weeks.
“It’s a nice feeling when April 1 comes around and you say, ‘Let’s take everything out,’” Britton says. “You’re seeing all this brand new furniture out and it’s kind of like a nice reset button. You kind of know the season is starting when everything out there is new and fresh.”
The Tom Fazio-designed course at Pronghorn has 275 wooden rakes. In an effort to extend their usefulness, Freitag says rakes are restained each winter. Stromme says creating tee markers and building water coolers using wood from trees removed from the course are popular winter projects.
4. If you build it, they will grow
One of superintendent Justin Ruiz’s long-term projects at Indian Summer Golf & Country Club in Olympia, Wash., involved building a small greenhouse to grow in-house annuals. The project was completed last winter, as a mechanic spent a poor-weather week pouring the foundation and assembling a frame. The greenhouse measures 12 feet by 12 feet and growing annuals in-house could save the club $4,000 per year. This marks the first growing season since the greenhouse was installed, and if everything goes as planned, annuals should be ready to place around club grounds by the spring.
“It was something we wanted to do for a while and the mechanic had some time to do it,” Ruiz says. “It should save us money. We should have no problems growing annuals in there, but it’s also my first year to see how long it takes to grow them. It’s a smaller greenhouse, but it will be enough to get a few hundred plants in there.”
5. Refine a grow-in
James Stow is the superintendent at the 36-hole Ross Rogers Golf Complex in Amarillo, Texas, where frost occurs more than northerners think. “It might be a high of 30 today and then it might be 60 tomorrow,” he says. “It’s a little weird.”
The disparity means Stow uses the winter to aid the grow-in of the complex’s Mustang Course, which recently underwent more than $3 million in renovations. “We have about two-thirds of it grown-in and then we hit this time of year,” Stow says. “We kind of have to baby it through the winter, go in and reseed, and touch it up for the spring.”
Stow’s crew consists of 15 workers responsible for maintaining two golf courses. When there’s a delay, tasks involving the grow-in often take priority. “You need to plan for covers in a grow-in situation,” he says. “You need to make sure you are keeping as much turf there as you can.”
6. Back into bunkers
As the economy improves, many courses are embarking on full-scale bunker renovation projects. But what happens when your course or club doesn’t have the budget to renovate 50-plus bunkers? Stromme, whose company manages more than 150 courses, says trying to pick off a few aging bunkers each winter is a wise in-house practice.
“Typically you can get some of the bunkers done without damaging the turf,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense. When we do our in-house bunker renovations, we will redo the drainage, go down to the original base and clean them out. We don’t change the shape or depth. We clean all of the sand out to the clay or whatever the architect designed at the base and redo the drainage if it’s needed. We put in new pipe and gravel and comeback and put new sand in.”
7. Take it apart
Maintenance shops are busy places during the winter.
“There is always some type of project going on,” Ruiz says. “We’re rebuilding something, fabricating something or the mechanic is making a trailer or something like that. We have some downtime to mess around with things and we have time to wedge something in to help us next year.”
Mechanics at TPC Potomac, which receives its primary maintenance equipment via a lease, attempt to refurbish at least one piece of auxiliary equipment before the new golf season begins. Mechanics improved a 10-year-old fairway topdresser last year. “We stripped it all back, sandblasted it and repainted it,” Britton says. “We then repainted it and put on new melts and spinners. We made it like new.”
Reinhardt pairs his full-time mechanic with students during weather delays in an effort to keep the Georgia Southern Golf Course’s equipment from instantly aging. “It’s a one-year-old fleet,” he says. “We don’t want it to look 20 years old.”
8. Study time
Britton is completing materials required to become a Certified Golf Course Superintendent this winter. “For guys in the Northeast and East Coast, this time of year is a great opportunity,” Britton says. “It’s a lot of work. If you have a family, I don’t think you could ever get it all done during the golfing season.”
Freitag uses winter to perform safety training with employees and complete administrative tasks such as ordering uniforms and devising staffing plans. “You have things that accumulate throughout the year that aren’t the biggest priority, but you need to get them done,” he says. “You make a list of those things and start attacking them when you have the time. We make sure we can be prepared as best we can be for March so as much as possible is done when the course opens.”
Ruiz reviews standard operating procedures for the upcoming season. The reviews are designed to solidify maintenance tactics such as mowing patterns and input levels by the time a full crew arrives in the spring.
9. Fresh it up
The interior of the shop, the mechanics bay, locker rooms and administrative areas are among the areas of TPC Potomac’s maintenance facility that receive a fresh coat of paint each winter. Freitag uses the winter to clean the interior of Pronghorn’s pump station. Ruiz says deep cleaning equipment and organizing the shop are among his first poor-weather projects.
10. Move them forward
Winter might be the right time to add forward tees on your course without disturbing play. “There’s a push to get family tees out there,” Stromme says. “We will build some tee boxes farther up so it’s not just a set of tee markers in the fairway. It actually gives people a real opportunity to play in a tee box even though they are playing a shorter course.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.
What do you think?
How do you make the best use of your time when play is delayed at your course. Send us your tips to email@example.com and we’ll share the best ones in an upcoming Fast & Firm enewsletter.
“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s our super, man.”
That dialogue could be taking place on a slowly growing number of golf courses where superintendents are taking to the skies by proxy with the aid of remote-controlled quadcopters, more familiarly but also more controversially known as drones. As the technology continues to improve, the uses these fascinating devices can be put to on a golf course are limited only by the imagination of the course superintendent. Well, there are a couple of other small considerations, namely the initial cost and what figure to be a growing number of pesky regulations regulating use of the devices, but those are not insurmountable in many cases.
Nearly every superintendent and researcher interviewed had a specific application in mind for their drone when they purchased it. However, after gaining a better idea of what the devices can do, most users have already figured out other ways to use them to help with course maintenance issues. Those range from discovery of turf and irrigation problems or patterns that are harder to detect at ground level to course flyover photography for use in club marketing materials or websites.
Rick Tegtmeier, director of grounds at the Des Moines Country Club in Iowa, experienced his “Aha!” moment when he saw a video posted on the website of California Golf Club of San Francisco superintendent Thomas Bastis. The video showed some of the ways Bastis was putting his DJI Phantom II drone to work at his course. Tegtmeier immediately realized that he had the perfect justification for purchasing a similar device. His club, which will host the 2017 Solheim Cup competition, was in the early stages of a redesign/renovation of its 36 holes, doing nine holes a year. That added up to a lot of site visits by Indiana-based golf course architect Tim Liddy, a Pete Dye Design senior associate who is spearheading the design and construction work on the two Pete Dye-designed layouts.
“We do flyovers of the golf course and then put together a movie of the work as it progresses with both the ground view and the aerial view, and upload it to our blog page,” Tegtmeier says. “That way, our architect in Indiana can see what we’re doing and make suggestions or changes without having to be here. That’s the main reason I purchased (the drone), but it also enables us to see wear patterns from carts on the course. I thought we could also use it to see irrigation stresses, but it rained all summer, so that wasn’t an issue.”
Bastis, whose video ignited Tegtmeier’s interest, got his own inspiration from a YouTube video of a surfing contest taken by a drone above the Steamers Lane surf break in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s ridiculous, it would awesome on a golf course,’” Bastis says. “I had a little slush money in the budget from selling a couple of pieces of equipment, so I bought one.”
Bastis, who started with the DJI Phantom I model and later upgraded to the Phantom II, uses his drone for a variety of tasks. Bastis and his staff maintain as many as 48 different plots of turf for research on the California Golf Club of San Francisco property, and the Phantom gives them a better perspective for judging which ones are doing the best.
“When you’re walking the course and looking at the turf from 6 feet above it, it’s hard to see how the various plots rank and evaluate each product to see which is working best,” Bastis says. “It’s a lot easier to see from the air. There are lots of other uses, too. Is there a problem of patterning with your irrigation system? How far did the cattails move in the ponds from year to year? Is your fertilizer evenly distributed? How’s the roof on the clubhouse holding up? You can find out all those things with a drone.”
In addition to research applications, Bastis uses the Phantom to take pictures of various issues on the course or various projects his crew is working on to share with the club’s general manager. “My boss appreciates it,” Bastis says with a laugh, “because this way he doesn’t have to look at all those graphs and numbers, he can see a picture of what we're doing.”
Adam Garr, superintendent at Plum Hollow Country Club in Southfield, Mich., had also seen some drone views incorporated on other club websites and superintendent blogs, and felt it was time to catch up.
“I originally wanted to add spice to my videos because I was a little jealous of some of the things I was seeing in other places,” Garr admits. “I got a DJI Phantom I last winter and kind of worked the kinks out in February and March while we were still closed. Since I started using it, I see it as having a lot more applications than making movies.
“It’s really helpful in seeing shade issues on greens,” Garr continues. “There are a lot of things you can’t see when you’re walking the greens but you really can (see) from overhead. I can show that certain trees are creating problems and killing turf on greens, which helps me to convince members that we need to take some of the problem trees out. You can also look at winterkill aspects and see how much of a problem it was. We take aerials of all the greens to show to the greens committee and the board. Another thing I use it for is after a heavy rain, I’ll send it up and take pictures of the course and the wet spots. That way when members show up and want to take carts out, I can tweet out the pictures or put ‘em on my blog and it gets people off my back.”
Golf course superintendents are not the only ones using drones to monitor turf conditions. The Turf and Landscapes Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., documents virtually all of its research with a Phantom II, according to field supervisor Brett Welch.
“We can change the lens angle, record in full HD, and the camera is really stable in the air,” Welch says. “The pictures are incredibly clear. We use it to evaluate equipment, record chemical treatment studies, look at disease pressure. There’s really kind of no limit on how you can use (drones)."
All of the people we talked with in the golf and turf industries are using the DJI Phantom quadcopter models, either the Phantom I or the more advanced Phantom II models, although there are numerous other models and types of similar devices on the market, whether they’re called quadcopters, drones or “recreational hobbycraft.” Prices vary, but the Phantom I typically runs just under $500, while the more versatile Phantom II is around $1,500. The GoPro camera mounted on the bottom of the device is extra. Once the device is purchased, the only additional expense is batteries. It may be worth pointing out that several of the superintendents we talked with felt that they might have jumped at the less expensive Phantom I model prematurely, and that the additional features and technology of the Phantom II would have been a better fit for their needs, so it’s probably a good idea to see if the basic model will work for you, or if the Phantom II is a better fit.
While the capabilities of “drones” vary greatly, as Taliban, Al-Qaeda and now ISIS fighters have discovered, the Phantom models used by the superintendents and researchers we talked with typically fly up to 20 mph and are controlled by hand-held remotes with joysticks. While everyone we talked with admitted to having crashed the devices or stuck them in a tree from time to time, they all reported that the Phantoms lived to fly another day, which will be good news for superintendents just earning their drone-flying wings.
The increasing popularity of the devices is bound to create a whole new field of laws, regulations and lawsuits. During a recent report by “Entertainment Tonight” on the use of drones by members of the paparazzi to covertly film celebrities, the show cited a statistic that by 2020, there would be as many as 30,000 drones aloft in the U.S. Although “ET” may not be the most authoritative source, the number is a testament to the fact that the drones are relatively easy to operate.
There are, however, already plenty of regulations regarding their use, and superintendents should be aware of those before they send one aloft. There are typically restrictions on how high or how far they can fly, how much they can weigh, and what specific uses they are put to. In many cases, those vary according to the drone user’s proximity to the nearest airport. The Phantom II that Bastis uses at California Golf Club of San Francisco contains software that produces a tone and won't allow the drone to exceed the prescribed altitude ceiling.
While Bastis was initially concerned that other members of the club staff or even club members might see the Phantom drone as a toy or something to play with, the device has proven so helpful that others are aware it’s earning its keep and leave it alone. And, as Garr says, “It kind of started as a hobby, but now it’s a tool.”
Jim Dunlap is an Encinitas, Calif.-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.
Maintaining an experience that’s as enjoyable for PGA pros as it is for average handicappers is a major challenge for championship golf courses. It’s a balancing act we become quite familiar with at Silverado Resort and Spa (in Napa, Calif.). For the first time in nearly 30 years, the PGA returned to Silverado in October, capping a three-year renovation project overseen by Johnny Miller that received high praise from both tour pros and resort guests.
Here are some insights that helped us successfully manage the process at Silverado:
We were lucky Johnny Miller, who oversaw the redesign process on Silverado’s North Course, had a long history with the property, having raised his family in a house on the 11th hole. He knows our membership just as well as he knows championship golf. He also spent more than 40 days on the property during the redesign process, with much of that time spent just watching how average golfers played the course. This level of commitment to creating a playing experience that works for golfers at every level is evident in the final product.
Consistency is probably the number one requirement of players of all abilities; it creates the perception of “fairness,” which is what all golfers want out of a layout. If you can create that, you’ll be well on the way. For example, we faced somewhat of a unique challenge in that Napa is famous as a growing region, and this applies to grass, as well. Pretty much any seed that finds its way into the ground will grow. When we got here, there were at least five species of grass growing including kikuyu, which is extremely aggressive and plays much different than species more traditional to the region. Sustaining a monoculture – one dominant species of grass – was the biggest thing we had to address to create that consistent playing experience. We opted for a bluegrass/rye hybrid and very deliberately communicated the rationale for that decision to our stakeholders, whose buy-in was essential. It takes a huge commitment financially, and it’s not something you can waiver on or your hard work will quickly be undone, but the necessity of consistency was something that all parties recognized.
Move ‘em back and forward
Manipulating the length of the course – being able to both add and take length away – was a major part of the redesign. We added 22 new tees, and most expected 18 of them would have been back or championship, as we looked towards hosting the PGA tour. But we actually added just as many forward tees as we did back, and those front ones see three or four times the traffic.
Adopt a different bunker mentality
Re-shaping and rethinking how bunkers are incorporated into the layout of the course was the biggest part of Johnny’s redesign. There were a number of bunkers on the course that were doubly punitive to bad shots but never came into play for low handicaps. So we actually eliminated bunkers, going from 70 to 51. There’s obviously a cost associated with bunker maintenance so we’ll save money long term, the course didn’t get any easier for the pros, and the average golfer spends less time in the sand. It was a win-win-win, and I suspect it’s a philosophy that a number of courses originally built in the ’60s and ’70s can benefit from.
Create better golfers
We spend just as much time thinking about creating better golfers as we do creating a better golf course. Through our junior programs, and especially through our senior instruction, we focus on physical fitness and nutrition alongside golf. It allows our members to play better golf as they age, and it builds a fitness foundation for our juniors that extends beyond golf into their other athletic pursuits. The overall effect is we’re helping to build up our players to a point where their games are up to whatever challenge the course poses.
Tim Geesey is director of golf operations at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, Calif.
The land where The Ford Plantation’s current back nine rests offers ideal conditions for growing rice, and the crop holds a prominent place in the exclusive Georgia club’s lore.
The club’s elegant logo is a rice sheaf drawn from a mahogany bedpost. The logo represents a connection to the land’s agrarian roots and a conundrum that regularly flustered the club’s 260 members: swamp-like conditions suitable for growing rice are terrible for maintaining a golf course.
Drainage, playable dates and quality of cut mattered little to ultra-wealth Saudi Arabian businessman Gaith Pharaon in the 1980s. Pharaon wanted a Pete Dye-designed golf course on the land once owned by Henry Ford in Richmond Hill, Ga., 22 miles south of Savannah.
Dye begrudgingly gave Pharaon what he wanted. “The man who built this never played golf,” says Dye, a World Golf Hall of Fame member. “He told me to come up here and build a golf course. I remember standing in this general area.”
Dye is standing in The Ford Plantation’s clubhouse, which features a panoramic view of the back nine. The front nine is hidden amongst the plantation’s towering oak and pine trees. “Everything north was water,” Dye continues. “I said you could build nine holes. He said, ‘I don’t want nine holes. I want 18 holes.’”
Pharaon received the course he wanted in 1986. When Dye returned to the property 23 years later, the club’s members, who are also Ford Plantation homeowners, were spending big money to play golf on a property that had developed into an agronomic nightmare.
Two inches of rain didn’t temporarily halt play. It kept golfers off the back nine for two days. The triple crown of a club’s events – the member-guest, member-member and club championship – became front-nine affairs.
Director of golf course maintenance Nelson Caron, who arrived at the club in 2008, says members lost 60 playable dates per year on the back nine because of flooding. The staff often spent more time pushing water than riding mowers and operating trimmers. Steady rains meant 21 of 26 crew members would be assigned to water-related duties.
“The golf course maintenance staff ended up being a construction staff,” Caron says. “We turned our attention and focus away from applying turfgrass maintenance to a staff that was manning a ship, a ship that had holes in it. By 2011, and in 2012 in particular, we had all of our hands in the ship and it was going down. It was time to make some changes.”
Major infrastructure changes on a golf course aren’t cheap. Convincing dues-paying members why the changes must be made isn’t easy.
Led by Dye, informed by Caron, supported by influential club members and aided by dozens of others, The Ford Plantation opened a new golf course on Oct. 1.
It took five years and produced spirited internal discussions. The final cost of the restoration was $7.2 million. The project has few recent peers on the renovation Richter scale.
“Over the past 10 years, there have been very few major renovations such as this occurring in the industry,” says longtime USGA Green Section Southeast Region agronomist Patrick O’Brien. “This is by far the biggest I have seen in the past decade in the Southeast Region.”
Heavy rains closed The Ford Plantation’s golf course for three days in 2010. The inconvenience led to then-club president Bill Weil giving a sharp directive to greens committee chairman Dr. Bill Thompson – find a way to fix the nagging problem.
A year earlier, Dye and fellow golf course architect Tim Liddy visited the club multiple times. Realizing the poor condition of the course’s infrastructure, Dye requested Liddy to guide the club through a master plan for improving the course. Creating the master plan represented a collaborative effort, as Liddy worked with Caron, the greens committee, Ford Plantation members not associated with golf and the club’s professional staff. The master plan committee listed five objectives for any major golf course restoration effort:
- Restore the detail of Dye’s features
- Make the course more playable
- Address infrastructure issues
- Reintroduce Ford Plantation to the marketplace
- Increase environmental sensitivity of the area by implementing best management practices through infrastructure upgrades
“The infrastructure had to be done,” Liddy says. “This gave them a chance to make the golf course more playable. But it couldn’t be more playable if the infrastructure wasn’t there.”
A powerfully ally
One of the anchors of The Ford Plantation’s $7.2 million golf course renovation says fully supporting a superintendent can help a club complete a major project.
“It’s all about science,” greens committee chairman Dr. Bill Thompson says. “You need to give your superintendent the tools that he needs so he can work. It’s just like a surgeon. You have to have the tools to do the job properly.”
Thompson cultivated a strong relationship with director of golf course maintenance Nelson Caron throughout a renovation process that lasted five years and included some initial opposition. Thompson worked as a liaison between Caron, who was hired in 2008, and the club’s 260 members.
The backing of Thompson allowed Caron to openly discuss course’s structural deficiencies during presentations to the membership. Frank assessments of the course and the strain it placed on Caron and his staff contributed to members passing the renovation project through a club vote.
“The greens chairman’s job is to support your superintendent, get in between the superintendent and the members, and try to get everything you can from your members so he can do the job,” Thompson says. “If you have a good superintendent that’s well-trained and went to a good school, they will produce a tremendous product for you. That leads to more members and member satisfaction. It’s just amazing. There are going to be a whole bunch of naysayers that want to kill the whole thing that don’t have the guts to do it. That’s where a greens chairman comes in. You have to get in there and help your superintendent. You can’t expect him to get out there and do it by himself.”
The club’s leadership entrusted those involved with the greens and master planning committees to educate the membership about the importance of modernizing the golf course. Committee members studied the American Society of Golf Course Architects Remodeling University program before hiring an engineering firm to assess the course’s deficiencies. The committees held small group meetings with members and distributed a DVD featuring Caron discussing the infrastructure challenges the course faced. Thompson says the club was spending close to $300,000 per year repairing broken drainage and infrastructure. The well-spoken Caron understood the back nine’s technical shortcomings better than anybody, yet he knew describing the X’s and O’s of drainage and irrigation wasn’t the best way to sell the project to members.
“I had to put it in terms of golf,” Caron says. “Mother Nature was doing the work for us. It was selling the project for us. The fact that the golf course would go underwater during a not very significant rainfall and would keep them from playing golf … They wanted answers. Sometimes the answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear because of the cost it would take to fix it.”
The renovation’s original cost was pegged at $8.3 million, causing membership trepidation. The committees thoroughly analyzed every piece of the proposed project. They leaned on industry veterans such as O’Brien and fellow USGA Green Section staffer James Moore and MacCurrach Golf Construction CEO and founder Allan MacCurrach when managing costs.
Dye’s interest represented a coup for the committees selling the project. His name recognition, hands-on approach and enthusiasm toward the golf course flipped skeptics into supporters. Dye’s portfolio rivals any living architect, and Thompson had an existing relationship with Dye because of the duo’s involvement with Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind. “Getting him was the final piece of the puzzle,” Thompson says. “That’s what really made it go for the membership. He came in here and embraced the membership.”
The proposed assessment to complete the project was a massive $35,000 per member, a startling sum to even the most hardened industry veterans. “There was some serious opposition,” current club president Paul Wickes says. But the combination of a failing golf course, organized greens and master planning committees, and a willing Dye eventually produced widespread support. Through a club vote, the project was approved by more than 75 percent of the membership.
Construction started on Oct. 1, 2013. Crews had a year to complete the work.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Thompson says. “I said, ‘Boys, I hope this turns out well.’ All of you working here can leave and go to another golf course. But we are here for the duration. I don’t want to hear about it on the first tee. Every time I tee it up, I don’t want to hear guys talk about how awful it is. It’s scary.”
The enduring image from The Ford Plantation’s restoration will be Dye, who turns 89 this month, dropping to his knees and shaping dirt with his hands. The scene became a reoccurring event. Dye spent more than 40 days at the course during the construction, a huge total for a legendary architect possessing the clout to devise his own schedule.
“I was really, really enthused with the enthusiasm he had for this project,” says McCurrach, who has worked regularly with Dye since construction started at TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in 1980. “I was surprised actually. He would come for a site visit and I would say, ‘See you next month.’ And two weeks later, he would call me and say, ‘I’m on my way.’ Then, I would say, ‘I will see you in a month.’ And two weeks later, he would say, ‘I’m on my way.’ He just kept coming in, coming in. He wanted to be here. For the whole job to get its energy from an 88-year-old was pretty amazing.”
Caron calls Dye the “centerpiece” of the construction team and he considers Thompson the linchpin in matters relating to the membership. The project also needed technical leadership, something provided by Liddy, MacCurrach, engineering firm Thomas & Hutton and irrigation consultant Bob Scott.
The team faced a daunting project. MacCurrach says the first step involved understanding the drainage, which he calls a “New Orleans-type” of situation, meaning parts of the back nine sit below sea level and water flows to one spot.
Lake Clara, one of eight lakes on the property, borders three-quarters of the back nine. The nine holes surround wetlands. The drainage system added during the renovation allows water to flow to a central wetland and into a levee. Caron says the drainage system keeps the water at minus-1 sea level. Rain triggers a storm water pump system capable of dispersing 16,000 gallons of water per minute from the levee into Lake Clara. The average storm water pump system can handle between 1,200 and 1,600 gallons per minute, according to Caron. Ford Plantation’s system is designed to handle the 25-year storm, an accumulation of 8 inches of rain over a 24-hour period.
“It’s a massive pump station,” MacCurrach says. “It’s very capable of dropping that area down very quickly. It’s on as soon as the rain starts. It doesn’t have to build to a certain level.”
Although it lacked the glamour of other parts of the project, Caron and Thompson spent long hours on-site, watching the creation of the pump system. Caron and Thompson reported progress to the membership, with Caron posting regular updates explaining construction specifics on The Ford Plantation’s agronomy blog. The club also distributed a publication to members called “The Plantation Press,” which provided progress reports and photos of the work.
To avoid distractions, Dye requested the club control the volume of visitors to the site. Caron, Thompson and golf professionals conducted monthly member tours. The more dirt shifting members saw, the more fascinated they became in the nuances of the project. “I thought they would get tired of it over time,” general manager Nick Cassala says. “What was amazing was that they actually just got more excited about it.”
Four times the fun
The Ford Plantation’s decision to install state-of-the-art infrastructure will allow the maintenance staff to provide a seasonal membership a different golf experience each year.
Director of golf course maintenance Nelson Caron says the renovated course is in the first year of a four-year agronomic plan. The course reopened Oct. 1 following a renovation that included the installation of 1.7 million square feet of Celebration Bermudagrass sod.
“The first year, the grow-in, we didn’t do any overseeding,” Caron says. “Next year we will do a wall-to-wall overseed, which will be 130 acres of perennial ryegrass. The next year we are going to do just our fairway cuts, so it will be a different golf course, no roughs. The following year we will do just roughs. Every year members come, they will get a different golf course. It’s pretty neat.”
The course receives less than 8,000 rounds per year, giving the maintenance staff ample time to alter the course before members make annual migrations to Georgia. Failing infrastructure prevented the course from supporting a strong overseeding program before the renovations, Caron says.
The majority of the club’s members only live on the property in the fall and winter, but the club had to find ways to satisfy entertainment needs during construction. The club developed a program designed to reintroduce members to Ford Plantation’s other outdoor options such as fishing, hiking, shooting, biking, horseback riding and kayaking.
But the club had members who wanted to golf. The professional staff made arrangements with other clubs to conduct events such as ladies day and men’s blitzes at other clubs. Thompson says he played Savannah-area public courses he didn’t know existed. Wickes says some members belonged to other clubs, including Chechessee Creek Club and Secession Golf Club in nearby South Carolina, and they used those clubs more than in previous years. The initial inconvenience bothered some members.
“The downside of that was that it took a whole day to play golf instead of half-a-day,” Wickes says. “When the renovation started, they literally just came in and bulldozed everything to begin with. It ripped the place apart. People were really unhappy.” Attitudes started changing when sod trucks arrived in May. “I happened to be here when the first sod truck came in and I took a picture of it on my phone,” Wickes adds. “When the grass started to appear, people finally started to think that it was going to happen. Your sort of don’t believe it until you see the sod.”
‘A new golf course’
Crews brought a bunch of sod. And pipe. And wire. It evoked memories of the massive construction projects of the 1990s. A year of work left The Ford Plantation with 1.7 million square feet of Celebration Bermudagrass sod, 29.5 miles of drainage pipe, 28.6 miles of irrigation pipe, 280.5 miles of irrigation wire and 3,464 irrigation heads. Completing the project required moving 94,000 cubic yards of soil.
The statistics don’t account for the changes made by Dye, who received a rare golf course architecture mulligan. Dye added 304 yards to the layout, stretching the back tees to 7,409 yards. He repositioned greens, tees and fairways and reduced the number of bunkers from 91 to 51, making the course easier to maintain and play.
Considering the cost and what was at stake, everybody involved in the project experienced angst. Plus, no master plan is safe once Dye roams a site. Liddy and MacCurrach’s familiarity with Dye eased concerns surrounding Dye’s spontaneous dirt-drawn alterations. A memorable change involved Dye moving the 10th green to a hidden piece of available land along Lake Clara.
“Everything was drawn in dirt,” course superintendent Kyle Johnson says. “He would get up to a green and get on his hands and knees, wipe out a spot with his hand in it, and say, ‘This would be the shape of the green and bunker.’ Then, he would go to the next hole. The man saw everything going from pure dirt to grass. Now, we know what he saw. When it was all dirt, it was hard to tell what he was looking at.”
Asked about the construction process, MacCurrach says, “It was every bit as bad as we expected.” The project had its last-minute curveballs, and Thompson says the first six greens were still in grow-in mode when the course reopened on Oct. 1. Seven original workers remained on the maintenance staff throughout the restoration. As the reopening approached, Johnson had to train more than a dozen new crew members.
The post-construction staff will perform different tasks than the pre-construction staff. Heavy rain has occurred since the reopening, and Caron says the revamped course has yet to experience a bunker washout. “Now it’s about us learning Nelson’s theories and practices,” Johnson says. “It’s a new golf course.”
Caron envisions The Ford Plantation developing a reputation as a firm and fast course. The putting greens exceed speeds of 13 on the stimpmeter and members are noticing sudden increases in driving distances. Achieving desirable conditions required an investment. The roots of such investments extend beyond the soil and into arguably the most important places at clubs: meeting rooms.
What would have happened if a communication gaffe had killed the project? Or if members never grasped the value of a functioning golf course?
“I guess if we didn’t do the whole thing, we would have done it piecemeal, a little here, a little there,” Thompson says. “We would have never achieved the goals what the goals of the master plan were if we had done it like that.”