The three Rs

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October 9, 2020

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There’s a reality show on TV called “Botched” that documents the repair work that must be done when plastic surgery goes awry. And every time I watch it (which, I hasten to add, isn’t that often), I think about golf course renovations that were done badly or for the wrong reasons.

Whether it’s a bad nose job or an ill-conceived course project, the results aren’t pretty. Which is especially dumbfounding because in both cases, the work should have been done right the first time — if it should have been done at all.

So, I think it’s time to go back to school and take a look at golf’s three Rs: rebuild, redesign and renovate. What are they? What are the differences? And, most important, when do you know your course needs any one of them?

At some point, every golf course will need to be renovated or otherwise updated. Because just like us, features age or just wear out. Whether these features are natural or manmade, visible or underground, they all have finite life spans, from irrigation systems to bunker sand, drainage pipe to greens infrastructure.

The key to making any of these upgrades successful — and also likely the hardest part of the process — is planning. Here’s a rough checklist that will help you get started when your course is due.

Start with this key question: Is a rebuild, renovation or restoration in order? Yes, if the reasons are right. Here are a few:

  • Keep the course current or playable in accordance with advances in golf equipment technology
  • Favorable economic climate
  • Failing playing features
  • Membership drives
  • Tournament aspirations

But having the reasons is only half the battle; now you have to convince the club’s decision-makers to invest in the project. And the costs can be high and the “reasons” not visible or apparent to the untrained eye. Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but it’s vital to the course’s health and well-being. And if Average Joe Golfer or Mr. Big Shot Committeeman can’t see the problem and doesn’t understand why it’s crucial to operations, your job just got a lot harder.

Here are some important features that will need a hard sell:
  • Drainage
  • Cart paths
  • Bridges
  • Pump station (with or without irrigation system)
  • Roads and parking areas
  • Practice facilities
  • Did I mention drainage?

Before going on, let’s draw some distinctions among the three kinds of projects. Using the right language will help everyone better understand what’s happening.

Rebuild

These are smaller, more limited projects, such as rebuilding greens, teeing grounds or bunkers. When are they necessary?

Greens

  • Older, classic golf courses with soil greens may desire a transition to modern, USGA construction technology
  • Need to change or re-grass surfaces.
  • Install internal drainage systems (do you prefer a short- or long-term result?)
  • Repositioning, enlarging the surfaces or softening surface contours for play

Bunkers

  • The original design intent is lost and/or out of style
  • Re-position, enlarge or shrink bunkers for ease of maintenance
  • Place bunkers to challenge today’s equipment technology
  • Replace sand, install various bunker floor materials
  • Reduce the penalty to the golfer
  • Replace aging sand to improve quality of play

Renovate

A little more serious, this is when playing features are about to fall apart and become obsolete.

  • Putting greens failure
  • Teeing ground size and positions
  • Need to re-grass fairway turf
  • Declining or contaminated bunker sand
  • Poor drainage

Redesign

Now we’re talking a big project, one that will take time and money. How bad do things have to be?

  • Features are worn out and tired (mostly aesthetics)
  • Advances in equipment have made the course obsolete
  • Membership desires a different look or type of course
  • Adding the “wow” factor
  • Desire to attract tournaments

No matter which R you’re suggesting, make your case with facts and avoid emotion. You don’t want to create the perception that this is your pet project. Identify the problem and how to remedy it and at what cost. Explain how much longer you can maintain the current situation before it won’t work any longer. Provide accurate costs of perpetuating constant repairs and make sure the club understands that’s simply putting a Band-Aid on their gaping wound. Finally, in making your case, do your homework: Cite comparable examples from projects at other clubs.

OK. They’re listening and agree it might be time to do something. You need a plan. What follows is pretty generic, which means it’s a good start but far from all you’re going to need to do. Your particular situation must be factored in:

  • Detail and prioritize the need for the project(s)
  • Know the full scope of the project and whether it’s manageable in-house or if outside contractors are needed
  • Educate your board/ownership as to why the project is essential and why now
  • Develop a request for proposal (RFP)
  • Create a financial plan and budget
  • Create a reasonable timeline, especially if golfers are displaced
    • Have an accurate completion date in mind
    • Factor in the time of year when the work will be done
  • Prepare a communications plan for each step of the process
  • Organize permits, bids, vendors and contracts; factor in potential delays
  • Cushion the timeframe to account for unexpected issues
  • Post-project considerations (labor and budget)

The next step is probably selecting an architect and/or builder. Relationships are key. And even if you don’t get to choose the contractors, you’re going to have to work with them, so learn to get along. You and the builder need to be on the same page regarding standards, care and attention to detail. The contractors need to get along and work well together; choose them all wisely.

Consider yourself the project manager. Make sure you understand the full scope of the project. Have a back-up plan and designate someone from your staff to handle your normal duties. Once in the works, this project must take precedence.

Now the project is completed. But you’re not quite finished. Be sure to factor in post-project maintenance. Account for varying labor needs, new maintenance routines, increased acreage to maintain, chemical inputs or cultural practices that may change.

Think it through, then think it through again. Just like that nose job, there’s not much room for making a mistake.

Whichever path you take, it won’t be easy, but it will be gratifying — IF you do it for the right reasons and in the right seasons.

Tim Moraghan, principal, ASPIRE Golf (tmoraghan@aspire-golf.com). Follow Tim’s blog, Golf Course Confidential at www.aspire-golf.com/buzz.html or on Twitter @TimMoraghan