What does a superintendent do when a golf course irrigation system was designed and built on the assumption that 40-50 percent of the water would come via effluent, from adjacent home lots, but only a fraction of those homes have been built? GCI's Bob Lohmann explores this scenario.
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So here’s a question: What does a superintendent do when a golf course irrigation system was designed and built on the assumption that 40-50 percent of the water would come via effluent, from adjacent home lots, but only a fraction of those homes have been built?
We’ve recently been in touch with the ownership and management teams at Blackstone Golf Club, where we’ve all put our heads together to find solutions to this problem. Blackstone is a high-end daily-fee course my firm designed in the northern suburbs of Chicago. The golf course portion of the venture has done extremely well, even in these tough times. But 95 lots were planned and only 13 have been built. So we’ve been strategizing all this spring, in close consultation with Blackstone, to determine alternative water resources and alternative design/grassing strategies to reduce the facility’s overall thirst.
Blackstone opened for play in 2005 but the reality is, course architects maintain a life-long relationship with the golf courses they design and help build. While course owners can and do change (and superintendents change with even greater frequency), the course designer is and always will be the course designer — until such time that a layout is renovated. Even then, unless the routing is completely blown up and replaced with an entirely new design, the original architect remains attached to a course in a way that is both unique and resourceful (literally).
There is an emotional connection between course and architect, but don’t worry: I’m not going to waste any space (or your time) writing poetically about how designers view finished courses like their own children… But wait a minute. Maybe that analogy does work, because kids and courses don’t always turn out exactly the way we planned them (!). Look at Blackstone; who knew the housing market would tank? Kids and courses evolve according to economics, technological leaps, environmental factors and plain old luck (good and bad).
Sometimes a parent is the last person you want to consult when things go wrong. Other times, they are exactly the resource you need, superintendents especially.
We find the latter is more true than not. Superintendents inherit golf courses from the folks they’ve replaced, and they serve existing owners as stewards of the property. But in another important sense, superintendents inherit the course from the architect. Accordingly, when something isn’t working, or something doesn’t make sense, that architect should be put to work! Find him. Pick his brain. Get him out to your property so he might explain what the hell he was thinking when he put that bunker there, or preserved that line of trees, or contoured that green in such a way to prevent cupping on 25 percent of the putting surface.
We at Lohmann Golf Designs have always made a point of staying close to past clients, and we’ve found these relationships to be far more constructive than adversarial. We’ve actually developed a checklist of things to discuss with past clients, so we might better realize original design goals along with new goals based on modern influences. These ongoing relationships invariably result in improved efficiencies, playability and maintainability. We’ve also found that current superintendents, with our input, are better able to allocate money from less- or non-essential areas to essential ones. That’s been the case at Blackstone, and here’s that checklist:
- Analyze the impact of current equipment and maintenance technologies on the original design. What still works, what doesn't? Rare is the design that truly anticipates agronomic innovation, for example.
- Review those parts of the original design plan that were not built — due to budget or previous owner bias, etc. You wouldn’t believe what gets sacrificed just to save a tree…
- Review design elements, i.e. green slopes relative to current green speeds, available pin placements; variety in teeing distances, on a hole by hole basis more so than overall; width of landing areas, i.e. where are people really landing the ball, what's really in play?
- Review pace of play, i.e. where are the pinch points? What's slowing golfers down?
- Review maintenance issues that have presented over time, i.e. excessive sand maintenance, drainage problems, material failures (greens mix, bunker sand), limited irrigation coverage, poor cart circulation, etc.
- Review efficiency of maintenance practices, i.e. effective use of cultural practices (top-dressing, aerating, etc.), hand-raking versus machine-raking, bunker face management (hand vs. machine), tree management, poa annua management, water management, etc.
- Assess environmental and economic impacts, i.e. unused land for housing, stormwater management, water quality, water sources, etc.
- Assess age and durability of specific features, mainly greens, tees and bunkers, with an eye toward eventual replacement, because they do wear out.
- Be proactive regarding future regulations and restrictions, i.e. energy use, water use, etc.
This is stuff that supers and in-touch owners assess every day, but rarely with the original architect. We’re currently working through this process with Blackstone and, as per usual, it’s proving incredibly instructive. Finding new sources of water is a big ask, admittedly. But we’re aiming to identify several acres that can be reasonably converted to non-irrigated areas. This “turf-reduction” we’re recommending involves the replacement of manicured turf with fescue plantings, and/or the re-grassing of areas with more drought-tolerant varieties.
No one knows the grassing plan at Blackstone like Lohmann Golf Designs, because it’s our grassing plan! We know, better than anyone could, which areas can go non-irrigated, what aspects of the grassing plan were entirely aesthetic (and therefore can be sacrificed or repurposed). Those 82 units of housing aren’t going to be built anytime soon, meaning no new water sources, but we reckon the measures we’ve proposed will reduce the client’s water needs by 5-10% percent.
It’s important for readers to understand that while architects like to stay in touch with past clients, it’s the clients who request and drive the process. It’s our job to keep the door open, but the clients have to walk through it.
“There’s been good communication from the start but I do think I approached you guys,” Dan Weck, the owner at Blackstone, told me. “There was that big hump in the putting green. We didn’t think it was representative of the greens on the course and it was tough to maintain. I talked to you about that last fall, Bob, but that was a project we did in-house.
“Prior to that we had expanded a tee box on one of the par-3s, but it was the bunkers that really got us thinking. There are certain ones out there, just a couple, that just don’t come into play too much, so the cost of maintaining them was tough to swallow.”
We went from there. Some bunkers at Blackstone are indeed slated for removal, but not until we ensured those removals would have minimal impact on aesthetics and strategy, probably none at all. We’ve also proposed to the owners some additional design tweaks:
- Expansion of the 5th green, which is the most complained-about putting surface on the course, apparently. (I don’t know why… Narrow and angled around a deep hollow — with a lovely Biarritz-like swale at the midpoint. It’s a beauty!) Even so we’ve proposed filling in the hollow to create a lower tier, allowing the green to be hit in regulation more often, while still providing a stern, fun putting challenge.
- Removal of a fairway bunker on the left side of no. 10 and expansion of the fairway, allowing better players to draw the ball around or carry a pond, thereby setting up the best angle into this par-5 green.
- Opening up the green-entry on 14 by shrinkingt or moving a greenside bunker, providing a better opportunity to run it onto the green at this long par-4.
“That change on no. 5,” Dan explained, “will really improve the golfer experience on the hole. I think I initially brought up the idea [of expanding the green into the hollow] but an actual design solution? That needs an architect. I don’t know the height of that tier, what it should be, how it should transition... I’ll leave all those specifics to you guys.
“My goal is to make the course more enjoyable for the golfers. That’s the biggest part of it, and that’s why the relationship with the original designer needs to continue beyond opening. The whole operation here is driven by, ‘What can make the experience better at a certain price point?’ Because we want to improve, we want to be talking to the architect continually, to enhance the experience, but also to improve our maintenance situation from a conditions standpoint and a cost standpoint.”
It’s not clear when exactly all these design improvements will be implemented at Blackstone, but the new grassing plan and bunker reductions are definitely a priority. We’re hoping to mitigate a big problem for the club, and save it a ton of money. As the original architect, it’s something that only our firm could have achieved; we visited the course but we could have done it without a visit — such is our knowledge of the property. That sort of familiarity is invaluable, and the original architect is the only one who has it. Put it to work for you.