Brad Nelson leads the agronomic department. His team consists of 100 employees who maintain five courses supporting 160,000 annual rounds. Members are responsible for 100,000 rounds; resort guests the other 60,000.
The PGA Tour’s Honda Classic visit the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., grounds every winter. Or, as residents quip, the PGA Tour visits where players live. It’s estimated that half of the world’s top 150 players own a home in South Florida. A week on the Champion Course, home of a hazard-laden three-hole stretch known as The Bear Trap, represents a matter of competitive convenience.
The resort hosts some form of regular play all 52 weeks. Yes, 20-handicappers from Brooklyn and Boston are playing at PGA National the same time as Rickie and Rory, albeit on different courses. When you have five courses in a warm-weather market, the play and subsequent agronomic work never stops. “It’s churn and burn,” Nelson says.
Nelson and his team, along with Arnold Palmer Design Company senior golf course architect/vice president Brandon Johnson and South Florida-based Superior Golf Concepts, recently burned through a renovation, completing enhancements on the Palmer Course in less than six months. The group endured a common weather challenge, a steamy and soggy summer, followed by atypical weather challenges, Hurricane Irma and 21 more inches of fall rain in a 30-day stretch. The course reopened to resort guests in early November. Less than three weeks after the Palmer reopened, Nelson’s team overseeded the Champion as construction of Honda Classic infrastructure commenced.
Wooden beams supporting trees along the ninth hole of the Champion marked the only noticeable evidence of Irma-related damage during an early November visit. Irma made landfall Sunday, Sept. 10, and Nelson devoted his entire crew to quickly reopening one course. The Champion Course was the first to reopen, welcoming golfers at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13.
Grassing of the Palmer’s TifEagle greens concluded Aug. 1; grassing the Celebration fairways concluded Aug. 15. Even with part of a hurricane touching fragile turf, the course’s reopening coincided with the period customer demand begins spiking. Nelson’s job requires constant delegating and Palmer superintendent Bill Diorio also serves in the same capacity on the Fazio, the second course to reopen following Irma. Assistant superintendent Andrew Wilson “lived” the project from April to October, Nelson says. Johnson lauded the PGA National team for simultaneously handling storm recovery and a grow-in.
“The membership and ownership want to play in their season and rightfully so,” Johnson says. “It’s the best time in South Florida to play golf, and that’s when the club and ownership is going to make money. It compresses your window. You need to be organized and methodical in your approach. It was a very smooth, organized project. The unforeseen thing was the hurricane in the end. All the credit goes to Brad Nelson and his staff for overcoming the hurricane. One golf course is bad enough. They have five. They have to get something open while something is growing in. I can’t imagine the amount of work and man hours they put in just to get back and maintain it, let alone to continue to grow it in and get it ready for opening.”
Planning for the renovation started in 2016. To prepare for the new turf and construction, the course closed for more than two weeks last November so the crew could spray glyphosate on greens, fairways and all other short grass. Members and guests played on an overseeded greens and fairways last winter. Former director of agronomy Lukus Harvey, who now holds the same position at Atlanta Athletic Club, phased out widespread overseeding on all courses besides the Champion during his five-year tenure PGA National tenure. Nelson, who previously worked at Trump Nation Doral, replaced Harvey in 2015.
The Palmer opened in 1984, but year-round play and the necessary maintenance to accommodate the activity fatigued the course. After initial digging and inspecting, they discovered every putting surface had decreased in size. The front right section of the 18th green, for example, had lost almost 2,000 square feet through 33 years of regular maintenance. Slowly changing features are common among Florida courses built in the 1980s, according to Johnson.
“If you think 30 years is a short period of time, you have to really look at it differently,” Johnson says. “Thirty years of not doing anything to a golf course besides regular, routine maintenance means greens are going to shrink, tees are going to morph. Technology in the game also has changed, technology with the types of grasses has changed, technology in mowing equipment has changed. You’re seeing a lot of clubs and courses taking advantage of these advances.”
Bunkers are a major component on almost every golf course project in 2017. Higher sand lines on the Palmer’s 62 bunkers provide golfers with fresh sights and strategic options. White sand in bunkers and coquina waste areas create visual contrasts on multiple holes. Through one wet fall, the rebuilt bunkers have avoided washouts, Nelson says.
Eking the most from each course is critical to PGA National’s success. The number of facilities in Florida has swelled past 1,000, with the region from Miami to Port St. Lucie supporting the equivalent of 268 18-hole courses, according to National Golf Foundation data. PGA National competes with the region’s renowned private clubs for members and resorts with national reputations for stay-and-play customers. Offering enhanced products isn’t merely a goodwill tactic. It’s a business necessity.
“If you don’t keep investing and moving the needle forward and offering what other people are offering, you will get swallowed up,” Nelson says. “We know that. We have to invest to keep moving the product along.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.