As renovation continues to sustain the North American course design and construction markets, water and labor shortages increasingly inform that work. Water restrictions have obliged clubs and properties to reduce turf acreage throughout California’s golf-rich Coachella Valley and elsewhere. In concert, many clubs — like the 36-hole Hideaway Golf Club in La Quinta, California — have simultaneously addressed surrounding landscape beds, because it follows that every acre of eliminated turf is an acre that must still be managed somehow.
Hideaway director of agronomy and grounds Gerry Tarsitano II, CGCS, is approximately 25 percent finished with a turf-reduction project he’s been tackling alongside the landscape architects at Pinnacle Design Company. Like many superintendents, however, especially those working in semi-arid environments, Tarsitano views the turf-reduction exercise as an excuse to address a range of issues in his outlying areas, from irrigation-efficiency to Bermuda-creep to seasonal-bloom cycles.
“We’re slowly picking away at it, but it’s coming along nicely,” says Tarsitano, who has looked after the Pete Dye and Clive Clark courses since The Hideaway opened back in 2001. “Pinnacle provided us a design for the first five acres this past January. Within three and a half months, we had removed the turf, re-vegetated and converted that space over to drip (irrigation). We did another five acres from May to August.
“We’ve been slowly converting from an overhead to a drip system, alongside maybe six more acres of turf reduction over the last five years. But (Pinnacle Design Company founder and president) Ken (Alperstein) has stepped in to help us over the last 18 months. Basically, we first have to go in and prep the beds completely back down to bare dirt. Then we come in and lay out the new landscape design, install the drip irrigation, plant and mulch.”
Tarsitano’s turf-reduction goals remain, of course. But the water and labor savings resulting from The Hideaway’s new landscape reality, along with the aesthetic benefits, have proved their own rewards.
“I just love the new, enhanced landscape overall,” he says. “The original design was a wildflower mix of gazanias, annuals, perennial and biannuals. The new look is just more aesthetically pleasing from both a golf and homeowner standpoint. And we’ve minimized our labor. The overhead (irrigation) would allow all sorts of Bermudagrass encroachment — just more weeds in general coming into play. The labor to keep those areas clean was pretty intense. It would take crews weeks to tidy them up, but then we’d go back to watering them and they would just come back. We could never get ahead of it.
“The drip system means we control water and weeds better. I’d estimate we’ve reduced weed encroachment by 95 percent in the converted areas. This is something Ken had brought up with me before, and he was right. The conversion was about water use, because of where we are and the amount we use. But what we’ve seen is lower water usage and labor for landscape purposes overall. Other clubs have converted from similar designs, going from overhead to drip. I wouldn’t call what we’re doing here ‘cutting edge.’ But for us, it is a big deal.”
Alperstein knows what you’re thinking. His firm, based in La Quinta, was there to create the original Hideaway landscape plan prior to opening in 2001. Now PDC is back to redesign it. What has changed?
“When we worked with the original developers at The Hideaway, they hired us to create the entire environment from scratch, as the golf course and surrounding community was a completely empty site with not a single living thing on it after mass grading,” Alperstein says. “We were hired to provide the most stunning landscape and water features at a modest budget. At the time, in the early 2000s, water and labor were cheap. So, when we proposed a landscape palette of large wildflower beds with hand-planted shrubs and trees — and a second zone of grasslands beds — the client loved the idea because it was quite reasonable to install vs. large mass plantings of drip-irrigated, hand-planted shrubs. And the original look was beautiful.”
Warm-season bunchgrass varieties were chosen to populate the grasslands, according to Alperstein, so that during winter there would exist a stark, dormant contrast adjacent to the ryegrass fairways and the golden colors of weeping lovegrass on the hillsides. To complement the grasslands zones, Pinnacle introduced large areas featuring a mixture of seasonal wildflowers, a perennial groundcover that bloomed yellow and orange alongside hand-planted shrubs, trees and palms — “to give some vertical elements to the wildflower landscape beds,” Alperstein says.
“Well, for the first four to five years, the landscape was stunning. Then, around the economic crash of 2008, budgets were cut — as they were cut at so many clubs between 2008 and 2018 — and less attention was given to the landscape zones,” he adds. “The first year, they had some weeds, which went to seed. The next year, they had 100 times the amount of weeds, and so on, until the weed/seed population just took over the wildflower landscape zones. In the grasslands zones, Bermudagrass runners invaded. The club had tried to clear some of the wildflower beds in the beginning of the summer and re-seed the beds — but they were never successful. They never had enough time to kill the weed-seed population that was in the soil. From afar, the landscape beds and grasslands beds were still semi-acceptable for a high-end course, but up close, for residences that backed up to the landscape beds adjacent to the course, not so much. The landscape was not up to snuff, and definitely not what was originally designed.”
As the economy improved, and the homeowners purchased Hideaway Golf Club from the developer, the club hired Pinnacle to assess the landscape and water features. An irrigation specialist was subsequently retained to review the golf course system, and an agronomist to review the health of the golf course turf, drainage, bunkers and greens.
The consensus? Turf reduction, replacement of the wildflower and many of the grassland beds, and redesign of outlying plantings fed by drip irrigation and hand-planted shrubs to reduce water usage and the emergence of broadleaf weeds.
No landscape designer has done more high-profile work in the Coachella Valley than Pinnacle. The company’s portfolio in the region includes Madison Club, The Vintage Club, Tradition Golf Club, Eldorado Country Club, Sunnylands Golf Course and The Quarry at La Quinta. Pinnacle has completed more than 25 separate turf reduction projects paired with drip-irrigation-fed renovations since 2016. Alperstein agrees with Tarsitano that the approach is not new.
“And this is not only a desert phenomenon,” Alperstein says. “We just did a similar project at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles where the perimeters were mainly spray-irrigated flower landscape beds. We’re currently working at The Valley Club in Montecito, Thornburgh Resort in Bend, Oregon. I think this work is actually more applicable at parkland courses where Bermuda creep isn’t so rampant, but where there’s typically so much more wall-to-wall turf.
“On the Clive Clark course, Clive had us originally design lots of streams, lakes and waterfalls. We were using a more lush flowering palette there, too. On the Pete Dye course, we went with more ornamental grasses and less color, letting the golf be more of the feature there. It’s nice to have both, to have completely different landscape feels in the same development. Many folks refer to this work as turf reduction, and that’s a big part of it. But we at Pinnacle affectionately call these projects landscape enhancement projects.”
Tarsitano wasn’t born to the desert. He’s an Illinois native who moved with his family when he was 10 to lush, green Carmel Valley, where they settled into a house between the seventh and eighth tees at Quail Lodge. That’s when he started playing the game. His maintenance career took root four years later, when Quail Lodge superintendent Scott Jergensen gave him a summer job removing filamentous algae from lakes — with a rake and pitchfork. In time, Jergensen suggested his young charge explore college turf programs. After earning his turf management degree from Oregon State, Tarsitano landed a job with Landmark Land Co., as an assistant superintendent at Carmel Valley Ranch. Four years of apprenticeship and the Landmark connection led him to PGA WEST, where soon he was looking after the Palmer Private and Nicklaus Private courses. He logged five years as a regional superintendent for Arnold Palmer Golf Management before returning to the Coachella Valley.
“Gerry and I started at The Hideaway at the same time,” Alperstein says. “We’ve both been there since Day 1. Our job at Pinnacle is to make Gerry’s life as simple and straightforward as possible. But he and I both have to be responsive to the developers and to the members. Our goal is always to work with developers to meet their goals, and superintendents to meet theirs.”
Indeed, Tarsitano credits the members for one aspect of the changes now underway at The Hideaway.
“The original Pinnacle design here looked great — just beautiful when it was all in full bloom,” he says. “One problem was the labor cost associated with such a high level of maintenance. But another was purely aesthetic: the original landscape mix looked best in the springtime. Members arrived in the winter and there wasn’t a whole lot of color to be seen out there. As we moved through winter and spring rolled around, it would bloom and look spectacular — just as the members were all leaving. They remembered these beautiful blooms but didn’t see them when they returned. That was a letdown for members and a challenge for us.
“With these new landscape plantings, we’ll have year-round color. I really like the way it looks: attractive, easier to maintain and a consistent look. It’s really the best thing we could be doing to enhance the landscape.”
“By that I mean the color aspect. You have a clean landscape look out there,” Tarsitano adds. “I’ve been places where one week you’re looking at some grass, flanked by some nice color, then a week later there’s a cluster of weeds and maybe it’s something else intruding as the season moves forward. So, just knowing that it’s going to have a nice clean, consistent look all year sure appeals to me as a superintendent.”
Year-round blooms are nice, but the roots of this renovation — the roots of so many turf-reduction and subsequent landscape enhancements — are rising water costs. These issues have traditionally been less acute in the Southern California desert, where access to an expansive aquifer meant golf course water bills might total $120,000 annually, compared to $800,000 to $1.2 million over the mountains in Greater San Diego.
Not surprisingly, however, Tarsitano and Alperstein both report that the regulation climate is changing, even in the desert.
“Over the last four to six years, the CVWDB (Coachella Valley Water District Board) has asked us to reduce use by 20 percent,” says Taristano, who reckons the club will spend $3 million to $5 million on turf reduction and conversion of all 100 acres. “So, we’re jumping on the bandwagon right now, trying to get ahead of the issue. We’re holding at right around 12 to 13 percent in our water savings. By converting, we’re going to get much closer to that 20 percent goal. That’s the biggest benefit of the landscape renovation, in my view.
“I haven’t put the numbers together on how much we’ll save in water cost. That’s always going to be a moving target going forward. But based on numbers from a couple years ago, we’ll be looking at up to 40 percent in water-use savings. Once we convert all 100 acres, then it goes over 50 percent. It’s hard to say how long it will take to get the $3 to $5 million back in water cost savings. But I think it’s a pretty good deal for us regardless.”
Turf reduction has indeed become something of a course-maintenance mantra nationwide, as water becomes more and more commodified. Alperstein is quick to advise clubs and superintendents to plan carefully around what exactly will be done with all this space created by reductions in turf cover. Which areas are eliminated is vital — as are long-term maintenance and sustainability of the formerly turfed space. But all factors must be considered in the context of scale.
“I always warn supers not to design those new landscaped areas like your grandmother’s front yard,” Alperstein says. “Any landscaped area must have enough scale to be believable. Proportion is so important. It has to be big enough to make people think, ‘Oh, they routed the golf course around that.’ Not, ‘They obviously just dropped that pod of landscaping beside an existing golf hole.’ It becomes natural looking, not necessarily when it’s been outfitted with the right plantings, but when it’s large enough to fit the space.”
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