The Shifting Sands

The days of build, build, build are well behind the golf-course construction industry. The economic decline of the last several years has, for many firms, meant a shift in philosophy from building new courses to polishing those that already exist.

A New Game

Golf-course construction for much of the past 40 years enjoyed a bountiful run that continued to improve land-use practices and develop techniques and technologies used throughout landscape construction today.

Although in recent years more golf courses have been converted to other land uses, the number of courses in the U.S. remains steady at approximately 15,000.

There are several reasons for this new trend. Many courses built in the 1960s and 1970s:

• Do not drain properly

• Have an inconsistent soil base

• Contain outdated or inadequate irrigation systems

• Have contaminated bunkers, with little or no drainage.

Course operators are now renovating these greens, tee boxes, bunkers, and troubled areas not only to attract more rounds, but also to save in maintenance costs and hand labor.

Do It Yourself Or Hire Out?

In order to actually rebuild or renovate a golf course, one must understand the process. The planning phase--including site analysis and a study--takes about 60 days. The construction plans and drawings require about 90 days, and the bidding process on the construction takes another 30 days. The construction phase covers 6 months to a year, with the grass grow-in phase another 3 to 6 months.

An effective golf-course design firm can renovate a club and keep most of the course playable for several months during the process, but part, or all, of the course may have to be closed for 6 months. However, a new-and-improved design should make golfers happy in the long run.

One of the first decisions facility officials make when deciding to renovate a portion of the course is whether to do the work with staff members or hire a contractor. Oftentimes when a facility attempts a renovation project with its own staff, other areas--such as routine maintenance--are neglected. This sometimes causes other large projects to be shelved, to be completed after the renovation.

With almost every facility already cutting back on maintenance, labor, and equipment budgets, this essentially results in a trickle-down effect--dedicating additional resources only takes away from already-neglected areas of the course. And unless a crew has the experience, knowledge, and equipment to accomplish the project, renovations may not be installed or initiated correctly, perhaps having long-term effects on performance.

One last thing to consider is the cash flow needed for equipment rentals. While the idea might look solid on paper, consider the extra funds needed if equipment has to sit idle for three weeks because of bad weather. The best approach is likely joint cooperation between an experienced builder and an experienced maintenance staff to provide the best use of funds to take projects further.

Renovation As A Capital Investment

As budget strings are pulled tighter, more facilities are turning to qualified architects from the American Society of Golf Course Architects, who have the proven experience to make facility dollars go further, and the ability to assist the owner and superintendent in identifying potential problems and creating a master plan.

Once an evaluation is completed--including an irrigation audit, along with an evaluation of the agronomics of the course--the master plan can move to the bidding process that includes hiring a builder.

It’s a thorough, but necessary process, ensuring the course receives a well-planned, quality renovation that can potentially save money and ongoing maintenance costs, and serve as a capital investment in the future.

Depending on the scope of the work, a variety of specialty companies can be hired to provide the best experience leading to the final product. Builders not only can translate the vision of the designer, but also can provide the expertise to identify problems and adjust to challenges presented in the construction process.

For example, no conceptual design can identify an error such as in topographical mapping, which may not allow for the percentage slope drainage to effectively shed a large rain event, or a rock layer in the soil profile that is exposed in the center of a fairway cut.

This is a new concept for many in the industry--smaller renovations rather than full-scale builds. But the goal remains the same: to provide high-quality course construction that wows customers, and keeps the game of golf thriving for the next 40 years.

Justin Apel is the executive director of the Golf Course Builders Association of America. He can be reached at