‘Pecking away’

‘Pecking away’

Sometimes you can improve maintenance, playability and aesthetics while keeping the cash register ringing.

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October 19, 2015

The shadows a long defunct military facility and a construction project where golfers regularly encounter bulldozers are colliding in the same renovation.

The Jimmie Austin Oklahoma University Golf Club occupies a plot of Norman, Okla., land where the navy operated an annex to its Norman Naval Air Station in the 1940s. The end of World War II eliminated the need for a naval facility located nowhere near a major body of water, so the government donated the land to the University of Oklahoma in 1949.

Two years later, the university opened a Perry Maxwell-designed golf course on the land. The course is now undergoing a bunker renovation and construction details might initially appear problematic. Work started on a trial basis in spring 2014 and will likely stretch into next spring – and plans to halt play are non-existent.

Nothing happening in Norman has been pulled from the bunker renovation textbook. “Normally, a bunker renovation we will either do it in two nine-hole phases or everything at one time,” architect Tripp Davis says.

Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club “pecking away” at the renovation as part of a master plan, according to superintendent Eddie Roach. The club is operated by the university, and represents a social hub for alums, donors and community members. It also serves as the home course for Oklahoma’s competitive men’s and women’s golf teams. University decision makers deemed it important to keep the course open to maintain a consistent revenue flow. Keeping the course open also aids fundraising efforts required to improve the 89 bunkers along with other parts of the course.

“It would be a lot easier to close it down and knock it out,” Roach says. “But we’re not trying to upset the membership base. There’s a lot of work to be done. If we had to close down and do it all at once, we would be down for quite a while. We are trying to minimize disruption.”

For GCBAA member Course Crafters, the bunker renovation at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club presents a unique challenge. Chris Hill, president of the Georgia-based company, says goals are short term, as the renovation is being completed in two-hole segments.

“We figured by just doing a couple of holes at a time it keeps the course open, it keeps play going and it also generates quite a buzz,” Hill says. “I think it helps in fundraising and monies being available, and more people being accepting of the project when they actually see what’s going on and where their money is going to. They are able to come out and see each stage of the bunker renovation and what everyone might be doing, and I think it generates enthusiasm. It makes it a little easier to sell the project. It makes it black and white where they can see a blueprint of what they are paying for and in the meantime, they won’t have to shut down and imagine what it’s going to look like.”

Instead of having 25 to 30 workers in Norman, Course Crafters completes segments with eight-person crews. Roach has become adept at balancing the demands of daily maintenance with a lengthy renovation, although he admits the course can resemble a “zoo” at times. Cultivating strong relationships with members of his own crew, the Course Crafters team and Davis are easing the strain on Roach.

“I might have to wear three or four different hats in a day, just trying to oversee construction and trying to oversee general golf course maintenance,” he says. “Having a good staff and guys that can share the load on my end is the biggest key and then ultimately the construction company that we have is top-notch. Guys are here, they know what’s going on and we communicate. They have a major golf background. They know what we are trying to do, they understand what we are trying to do.”

Upfront communication between course personnel and the contractor and an approach that treats the renovation as multiple projects within one umbrella can simplify a project, Hill says. Effective communication with Roach has allowed Course Crafters to work around daily play at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club, which receives 25,000-30,000 rounds per year.

“For example, if we are renovating a right greenside bunker on hole No. 14, I might go to Eddie and say, ‘Hey, Eddie today we’re working on the right greenside bunker. Do you mind putting the pin placement on the left side of the green or the back left?’ These guys will come in and the majority of the golfers are good enough to hit it to the left side of the green, which brings us out of play. It’s things of that nature that goes into coordinating it.”

The bunkers are the “most visual” part of the renovation, according to Davis, an All-American golfer at Oklahoma. They were redesigned in the early 1990s to include deep, round sand faces such as the bunkers at Augusta National and Southern Hills. Maintaining a look typically reserved for elite private clubs on a university budget isn’t always feasible. “It’s hard to keep the sand from getting contaminated on a regular basis,” he says.

The new design resembles the grass-faced bunkering at Maxwell’s renowned Kansas course Prairie Dunes. Besides eliminating the nettlesome saucer-like faces, the bunkers are being constructed with the Better Billy Bunker method to improve drainage. “We have used fabric liners in the past, but with a fabric liner you need a lot of maintenance time in the bunkers to keep the sand depth and distribution where it should be,” Roach says.

Ordering the desired amounts of sand and turfgrass immediately after selecting a bunker design and drainage method has become an important part of the bunker renovation process. The Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club is using zoysiagrass on its faces, and Davis says rising demand for the variety in Oklahoma and Texas are creating challenges securing the turfgrass in a timely manner. Davis also recommends determining whether the greens and tees will remain in their current places before beginning extensive bunker work. If renovating greens and tees are in a course’s master plan, then it might be worth waiting on a bunker project until it fits with the other changes.

When executed properly, a bunker renovation can energize a facility. The one at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club evokes memories of the naval facility and Maxwell while sparking interest in bringing major events to the site. Getting it completed takes the right demeanor, Roach says.

“A lot of it is just patience,” Roach explains. “A lot of patience, a lot of research and a lot planning and thinking ahead, knowing your course of action and what works best for you.”