A Growing Priority

Features - Cover Story

As golf evolves, smart facilities are upgrading practice areas to meet new expectations?and stay ahead of the curve.

April 6, 2016

© Kemper Sports

Not all Golden Age architects agreed with the designer of Baltusrol and Winged Foot. ?

Routings from America’s first wave of notable golf course architects show holes bending in multiple directions with hazards and greens tucked in cozy locations. Even 90 years later, the plans click on numerous levels with one curious absence: many lack a practice facility or green beyond a sporadic “practice field” reference. ?

Longevity in the golf market requires giving customers what they want. Let’s not snicker at the thought of golf courses without formal practice areas. Golfers who wanted to practice were once considered anomalies. ?

Today’s golfers are different. Leaving work at 1 p.m. to play a five-hour round and then sipping on scotch in the grille room until 8 p.m. means missing 62 emails, neglecting two children who need rides to and from lacrosse practice, and making a sixth trip in three days to a food pickup curb. ?

When they do pull into the country club parking lot, 21st century golfers want to walk 30 seconds and hit 55 full shots and 22 bump-and-runs on surfaces resembling those on the course. And when they finally make it to the course, they are playing a format representing an afterthought for Golden Age architects. ?

“I read it as going from a match play game to a medal score,” architect Tim Liddy says. “You go to the great, old classic courses … the practice area was just a third of an old polo field because all they were doing was warming up. But now with the medal score, you have to be ready on the first tee. I would say if we were playing more match play golf, everybody would have more fun.”?

Unless the USGA, R&A and PGA combine to make the most sweeping philosophical changes in modern golf history, stroke play isn’t going anywhere. Time-deficient golfers are also here to stay. This means people like Bluejack National director of agronomy Eric Bauer aren’t outliers for suggesting the practice tee plays a bigger role than the first tee in shaping perceptions. ?

“Nobody plays the golf course first,” he says. “Where do they walk? They walk from the golf shop to the practice tee. Unfortunately, it’s just one of those things when resources are tough, I think everybody goes to that first and cuts back from there.”?

Finding space?

After three decades in the business and stints growing in multiple Texas courses, Bauer has landed at a club creating a model for attracting new golfers. The owners of Bluejack National, a new development 50 miles northwest of Houston, are making practice areas a priority. In addition to a regulation course, Bluejack National includes a 10-hole course called “The Playgrounds” with holes ranging from 53 to 102 yards. “The Playgrounds” serves dual purposes, providing a genial environment for beginners, juniors and high-handicappers, and an area for low-handicappers to hone their short games.?

The emphasis on practice facilities often depends on the architect, Bauer says. Bluejack National architect Tiger Woods has at least one design philosophy similar to Jack Nicklaus, the architect Bauer worked with at The Club at Carlton Woods and Spring Creek Ranch. Woods and Nicklaus aren’t afraid to sacrifice land to craft elite practice facilities. Both legends made exhaustive practice staples of their routines during the primes of their respective careers. Golfers who want to emulate their favorite players pump millions into the golf economy.?

But it’s tough to practice like a pro without space. Meeting today’s demands requires at least one acre of tee space per 18 holes, Liddy says. “That’s kind of a minimum,” he adds “Anything more than that everybody appreciates, from the superintendent to the membership to the golf pro.” ?

Double Eagle Golf Club superintendent Todd Voss compares practice areas to storage space inside a house. No matter how much square footage you appear to have, it’s never enough, albeit with one big difference – practice areas are the front lawn or foyer of a golf course. ?

“You used to go out and swing five times to get warmed up,” Voss says. “People now swing for hours and they want to practice on the same type of conditions that are on the golf course. They don’t want to hit off a beat-up area. They want to hit off a nice, clean area that they can beat up. We have in the golf industry beat our head against the wall with the PGA on the proper way of creating and filling divots. But the bottom line is that more space has to be dedicated to practice facilities. I’m not just talking about the practice tee itself, but the whole area.”?

Double Eagle, an elite private club 30 miles north Columbus, Ohio, has a three-tier practice tee, with the third deck being constructed a decade ago after the club determined it needed for space for members. Plans are being concocted for new short-game areas. ?

Maintenance strategies?

Double Eagle members expect to hit off the same surfaces as the ones on the course, so the practice tee features bentgrass, which is slower to recover from wear than ryegrass. A rotation has been established among the three tiers – a different tier is used each week – to aid recovery. Other recovery-boosting tactics include mowing the bentgrass at a height slightly higher than the cut on the course and an additional light fertilizer application to promote growth. ?

Budgeting for practice areas is completed on a per-acre basis “to make sure the range is getting the same type of maintenance as the rest of the golf course,” Voss says. Double Eagle devotes four hours of labor per day to practice areas, according to Voss. ?

Some courses have established positions dedicated to practice facility maintenance, but Bauer determines his budget based on needs per acre. He considers the practice tee, which at Bluejack National means 1½ acres of zoysiagrass, and practice greens like a 19th hole for budget purposes. ?

“Everything I look at is always cost per acre or jobs per acre,” he says. “So if you are going to give me 130 acres, including the practice area, I’m going to justify my staff based on that acreage. If you start separating out the practice facility, it’s easy for management to go, ‘You know what, you don’t need those two guys anymore. Make it work.’”?

Turf conditions on the Bluejack National practice tee and greens mirror those on the regulation course, although Bauer makes adaptations to account for wear. “Whatever I’m doing to those fairways, I’m doing to the practice tee,” he says. “I would be leaning toward more nitrogen or more nutrient input to kind of have recovery expedited rather than relying on my normal fertility program for say the fairways, where you are not beating up a specific area as much.”?

Filling divots daily is a labor-intensive process, but one that can extend the life of a range. “If you don’t, probably in a year’s time you are going to have a very unlevel and uneven tee,” Bauer says. “You are probably going to be spending more dollars and taking the tee out of play if you don’t do that simple practice of topdressing your old divots on a regular basis.” Bauer also recommends adding organic material such as peat moss to a sand-divot mix to enhance the quality of the hitting surface. ?

Superintendent Scot Dey refers to the overseeded Bermudagrass practice tee at Mission Viejo (Calif.) Country Club as the “deck,” and he learned a structural lesson when resurfacing the club’s 1-acre surface last year. After the surface was stripped, Dey noticed large concentrations of sand gathered at the middle of the “deck,” a sign he needed to work with the golf staff to improve traffic distribution on the tee. ?

“We developed a plan to go left to right, then back, then right to left and work it back and forth rather than allowing them to hit out of the middle the whole time,” Dey says. “You really have to take control of it in a way. It’s like the exit and entrance posts into a fairway. Not all golfers are going to follow them, but you can get a percentage of them to follow and they are going to go where you lead them. As a superintendent, it’s the same as managing that surface.”?

Dey considers “flexibility” a critical element to properly managing practice surfaces. Part of the flexibility at Mission Viejo CC includes a synthetic strip across the back, which protects the tee from poor weather and the extra traffic generated by outside events. ?

The Mission Viejo CC crew mows the entire “deck” each Monday and returns Thursday to mow three strips. Dey says, “I could probably always want to devote more time to it, but there’s a balance in what you are able to pull off.” ?

More time, space and resources needed for practice areas. That’s a 21st century problem few Golden Agers imagined. ?

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.