It Costs Something To Do Nothing

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

When John or Jane Q. Citizen tees off at the local public golf course, they usually don’t think about how the course was designed or how it’s maintained; they assume design and maintenance professionals have put all that thought and work into the course before John or Jane drive into the parking lot.

Whether designing new golf courses, re-designing old courses, or renovating what is in place, professionals should carefully consider long-term maintenance before the first shovelful of dirt is turned. 

Most public courses are many decades old, and due largely to flat growth in the golf industry and continued budget and staffing challenges, maintenance and upkeep have often suffered.

Getting It Right

“It costs to do nothing,” suggests golf course designer Greg Martin. “The challenge with a 20- or 30-year-old course is that you keep trying to fix what you have, adding Band-Aids; the problem is that eventually it will cost more to get it right.”

Martin, who is Vice President and incoming-President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, compares course design and renovation to maintaining a house. “You need to take care of things, need to fix that leaky roof or the leaky pipes, and often you have to open up the walls to do it. When you do that, you’re going [to] freshen up the walls and maybe more while you’re at it.”

Martin, who has worked in golf course architecture since 1985, owns a design firm. He started his career by doing bunker renovations for public courses, and it grew from there. In recent years, larger renovations for park districts and municipalities have increased. “Renovations have generally outweighed new construction,” he notes.

“Renovation is necessary and often desired if maintenance costs escalate and customer satisfaction vacillates,” he says. “Certainly, it is more complicated to integrate low-maintenance assets into an existing course, but it can be done. In fact, the integration of these assets could be considered a re-allocation of maintenance resources.”

By re-allocation, Martin alludes to concentrating maintenance manpower, equipment, and funding to more relevant and visible design components, items that are visually and functionally important to patrons. For example, some courses have chosen to allow certain areas to remain natural, with minimal mowing, irrigation, or landscaping. Others have chosen to incorporate such areas into the flow of the course and actually make them an element of design. Every course is different due to unique geographic and climatic challenges that can significantly impact maintenance.

“Integrating low-maintenance areas into a golf course is not as simple as it sounds,” Martin cautions. “Low-maintenance, native, or habitat areas require maintenance and a long period of establishment, and therefore a great deal of patience.”

Martin suggests that low-maintenance zones need larger areas for maximum benefits and to ensure the pace of play will not be affected. The goal is to enhance the golfer’s experience.

“Ultimately, if these areas are properly integrated, they can reduce maintenance requirements and can, potentially, provide water-quality benefits, erosion control, reduced water usage, provide native habitat, and may improve golf strategy and aesthetics,” Martin says.

Considering Course Improvements

If staff members at a public course are considering improvements, an objective review and analysis of the facility is required. Renovation costs can be significant, so the first steps should be cautious and thoughtful.

While there will be various ways of doing things, Martin suggests there are three essential phases to the work of a golf course architect.

Phase I: Analysis And Concept Planning

This involves site review, analysis, interviews, project goals and objectives, concept planning, refinement, and initial cost estimates. “Both the client and the golf course architect need to be brutally honest in this phase, as it will serve as the basis for improvement strategies,” Martin emphasizes.

Phase II: Design And Documentation

This includes concept verification, design development, construction documentation, permitting, engineering, and detailed cost estimates. “Long-term maintenance and sustainability are primary to the design program,” says Martin. “Having a keen understanding of the target market, the existing site, and maintenance expectations are vital.”

Phase III: Implementation

This consists of bidding, contract review, on-site construction observation, and a completion review with final punch lists.

“Each step is vital to a smooth and predictable outcome,” Martin says. “The degree of what is included in each step is dependent upon the complexity of the project. There are numerous other aspects of the work that can be included, depending upon need and resources.”

Freshening Up

Martin points out that the maintenance supervisor should be a working member of the planning staff from the beginning.

“The golf course superintendent is a key member of the team,” he says. “His or her expertise is vital to making good initial decisions about maintenance expectations and resources. Personally, I like to have the superintendent on board as soon as possible so that I have a full understanding of the issues confronted in the past and the present, so we can plan accordingly for the future.”

One of the issues facing public golf courses is that the “legacy” golfers, who have been active at courses for the past 20 or more years, are beginning to retire from the game or at least slowing down their pace. Younger players are entering the market with different views and expectations than those of their predecessors. If staff members are considering renovations, the notions and attitudes of the next generation should be at the forefront.

“When you begin to change old infrastructure, you generally want to do something to freshen it up to ensure it is attractive and marketable to the newer generation of golfer,” Martin says. It is often helpful to bring in professionals who specialize in contemporary design to assist with this type of upgrade.

Marketing To The Next Generation            

Certified professionals are credited with guiding major renovations at the Wilmette Golf Club in Wilmette, Ill., a short drive from downtown Chicago. According to Director of Golf Mike Matchen, renovation included drainage improvements, as well as bunkers, greens, and wetland/water-quality enhancements.

Matchen explains that all of the fairways were regraded, and 14 of the 18 greens were rebuilt completely to USGA standards; the others were already USGA-certified so were just re-grassed. Cracked and broken circa-1922 underground clay pipes were replaced. A major goal was rerouting water from the course.

“The biggest advantage for us was improving storm-water management in order to quickly get people back out on the golf course after a rain event,” he says. “Now it drains so much better that there isn’t any flood damage, and that all adds up to less maintenance work and more long-term savings.”

Prior to the year-long project, course closings were common. However, since re-opening in July 2014, Matchen notes, “We haven’t been closed a day since,” which makes for happy patrons.

Matchen says the staff used surface swales, lowered the lake levels to create more water storage, and opened up other areas to create shallow shelves only a foot deep with emergent plants, with room to store significantly more acre-feet of water in a storm.   

“Previously, there were times we would have been closed after a severe storm for a day or two, and now we can get back onto the course in 30 minutes,” he says. 

“Maintenance was front and center during planning stages,” says Matchen, who has a small in-house staff. “One of the main priorities was ease of maintenance and the possibility of saving money going forward. Our architect and engineers took a full year working together to get all the permitting and specs done for this project to be rolled out. … I lost track of how many agencies had to be involved with the storm water going to the river. We left that to the professionals. We can do small projects in-house, but something of this scope requires qualified engineers and planners and contractors who do this for a living. We couldn’t have come close to accomplishing this in-house.”

Another fabled Chicago-area course, Oak Meadows—formerly Elmhurst Country Club—is in the midst of an extensive renovation of a course layout that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1920s.

Routing Storm Water

As part of the 100-year-old Forest Preserve District of Dupage County, Ill., this course covers 288 acres, more than twice the average course size. The land was originally purchased by the district for water protection and storm-water retention, but it also included a golf course.

“Over the decades, we’ve been trying to serve two masters,” says Ed Stevenson, Director of Golf. “We were a recreation asset to benefit the community that kept getting damaged when called into its primary role of storm-water run-off and retention. This dual role became increasingly difficult with more development upstream.”

In 2011, the staff decided to take a fresh look at the issue and see if they could improve and preserve the golf course at the same time.

The result was a massive two-year project that started in July 2015 and is slated to end in May 2017. It will literally elevate the course, reducing it from 27 holes to 18, and using the additional acreage for more open space and bioswales to collect and filter water, and making areas that were prone to flood damage part of the preserve, but not part of the course. Bioswales are landscape and water-quality elements that remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. They consist of a swale with gently sloped sides filled with vegetation, compost, and/or riprap.

“By going to 18 holes, we’ve created broader expanses of wetland areas so maintenance of those areas can be concentrated rather than parceled out,” says Stevenson. He adds that maintenance was at the forefront of the planning process because “one of our goals was sustainability. What can we do to stabilize this constant cycle of recovery from damage to the golf course from flooding? What can we do to stop investing money and energy into fixing damage instead of getting out in front of long-term maintenance needs? What we’ve come up with is a design that will hold water where we want to hold it, and keep it off the playing surfaces to make the course far more predictable from a maintenance standpoint.”

Coincidentally, course predictability also equates to happy customers, and Martin, who was involved in both of these projects, contends that market clarity is vital now, requiring  a more pragmatic approach to design. “Golf course architecture should be devoted to long-term success of a facility, including environmental protection, economic benefit to the community, and operational sustainability. Simply put, all golf courses are not ‘championship.’ Golf should be fun, engaging, interesting, and uplifting.”

Keeping Up

Appealing to a newer generation of golfer was also a planning goal of the Oak Meadows upgrades. “We wanted to try and broaden our customer base,” says Stevenson. “We have created five different tee options for beginning- to expert-level players. These multiple options include the ability for someone to play just three or six holes instead of the entire 18. Some people may not be ready for the entire course, so we want to be able to provide choices, if that is where patrons and the golf industry trends are going.”

A common challenge with any major renovation is making all of these improvements transparent to the public, which is a whole story in itself. However, if proper prior planning is completed by experienced professionals, including maintenance experts, long before renovations begin, John and Jane will get on the course, play the game, and simply enjoy the experience.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email