Every Course Needs One

The following is excerpted from Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards, by Forrest Richardson & Mark Fine (©John Wiley & Sons, 2006)

Ideally every golf course should have "a golf course architect." It amazes us how often we find this not to be the case. If there ever were a type of facility within our built environment that truly needs and deserves the continual advice of a design professional, it is the golf course.

Our encouragement to clubs, committees and greenkeepers is to develop an on-going relationship with a qualified golf course architect. You would be surprised how easy it is to find a dedicated individual who will take the time to come by every so often. The enticement might be a delicious club sandwich, a cup of coffee, or simply to play a few holes with a few members. The idea is not to have a golf architect "always on the clock," but to have access to someone you can look to and trust who is capable of offering recommendations and encouragement every so often.

The professional golf course architect has a vast understanding of the game. Their training gives them a perspective into history, strategy, construction, budgeting, and turf matters. Ideally, "your" golf course architect may be the one responsible for the original design. But with so many modern courses reaching the 50-year mark, many of their designers are long since retired or have gone onto that great golf course in the sky.

When and how should a golf course architect be hired?

A common question is "When should we hire a golf course architect?" The idea of maintaining a relationship with a golf course architect provides an obvious head start whenever changes are being considered to your course. Your course superintendent — it is assumed that all courses have one — may be the most logical individual to maintain an on-going dialogue with a golf course architect. Use your superintendent as a resource wherever it makes sense. Other individuals who may serve as the liaison between the course and a golf architect are the greens chairman, general manager or, in the case of a privately owned course, the owner. The question of "when" can be answered by looking at many projects which have, unfortunately, gotten off to rocky beginnings and have headed for trouble. Many times a course has waited far too long before engaging professional assistance, or has gone down a path assuming that it could be done in-house, without a golf course architect.

There are several ways to go about engaging a golf course architect. The "right" golf architect will either come as a result of a recommendation or it will become obvious that a particular individual is "right" because of past experience with similar projects, familiarity with courses by the original architect or courses of the same era, or as a result of strong recommendations from another course, superintendent or course owner.

Occasionally there is a need to consider a few individuals or firms and make a selection from several. In this case the credentials of each golf course architect is secured with finalists invited to an interview. If the travel distance is significant it is often arranged to provide travel expenses to these finalists. Only rarely are golf architects asked to prepare reports, plans or approaches in advance of being contracted. If they are, certainly the course should make some arrangement to pay for this effort. Soliciting speculative work without compensation may seem to be a valid and cost-efficient way to go about getting ideas. But only with significant time and effort will a dedicated professional be able to bring meaningful and useful ideas to the table for consideration. Through interviews, references and past accomplishments a selection panel should be able to ascertain who it will be best to work with on a project.

The role of the golf course architect

The fees paid to a golf course architect are nearly always the least costly part of any remodeling effort. One would hope that having a golf course architect on board your team will ultimately save the time, expenditure and hassle of having to do things over. The golf architect provides many services depending on the nature of change that will be made to a golf course. Indeed, it is defining the extent of change which is so invaluable. No other individual is really capable of seeing all of the many perspectives of a golf course. This is supported by the fact that so few people earn their living within the profession of golf course design. Perhaps fewer than 400 people worldwide practice the art of golf course design.

The primary role of the golf course architect includes:

1. Assistance in the evaluation of needs and in determining the feasibility for remodeling or change.

2. Historical review and interpretation of old plans, aerial photography and "forensic"research into old bunkers, features and areas of a course.

3. Preparing master plans for the golf course, including the factors of strategy, playability, maintenance, turfgrass improvement, drainage, irrigation, and aesthetics.

4. Assistance in determining options based on evaluation and master plans.

5. Preparation of probable cost estimates throughout the planning and design process

6. Agronomic consultation and coordination

7. Observation of construction progress and compliance with specifications and plans

8. Consulting with course superintendents, green committees, management and owners on priorities and the on-going aging and improvement of their golf course.

One of the most valuable assets of the golf course architect is an ability to communicate with members of a club, player groups and local authorities who may need to approve plans and permits for work. An oft overlooked phase of remodeling is taking the time necessary to address all of the constituents of a project.

The master plan - a tremendous asset

Just as all golf courses should have a golf course architect to rely upon, all courses should have a Master Plan. For new courses the master plan may well be the original plan created for the course. In this case it is likely that hazards, features and other details will have been updated in some form to show changes made during construction. (We noted previously that this was typically referred to as an "as-built.")

For older courses a master plan becomes the key to any and all potential changes. It is often referred to as a roadmap. Literally each and every time a component of the course may be considered for a change — even a maintenance adjustment — the master plan, when properly devised, will help those in charge weigh the benefits and detriments of the proposed change.

There can be no better investment by a golf course than a well-thought-out master plan. It is far less costly than nearly any of the physical work done to a golf course and it will last for many, many years. Among the most beneficial attributes of having a master plan is its ability to prevent work being carried out which goes against the more important outcome expressed on a long range plan. How many times do we see effort being expended on a course that has a cloud of suspicion hanging over it? There is usually no bad intention at work in these cases. Everyone is "doing their job." The sad part of this situation is that money and resources are being spent, many times with no regard for a bigger picture. A master plan prevents this. Everyone is forced to look at it and uphold the approved vision that it embodies.

The life span of a master plan will depend on such variables as how often a green committee may change. This can be one of the most frustrating roller coasters a course endures. It is discouraging to go through all of the time and effort of research, the sharing of design philosophies and the planning only to repeat the process once a new green chairman comes into power. Taking a serious and hard look at earlier efforts in developing master plans is always worth the time. Most master plans are not created to appease any one person or single interest. Certainly no decent master plan is created for such a limited audience. Take cover when you hear that a master plan is being changed again and again and again. There can be a combination of things going wrong in these cases; those involved may be too transient in the process or perhaps there are too many people at work trying to get their voices heard. Of utmost importance is having a "champion," someone to stay with the master planning process and see to it that communication is held in high regard. Regular meetings, input and disclosure are absolutely essential in nearly all instances.

Each master plan is inherently different in focus, but all follow the same basic outline. We are providing a typical outline as an example. This happens to be for a 1920s era vintage club which underwent a comprehensive master planning to prepare for major renovation work. It uses seven sections to adequately address the elements which are usually fundamental in any master plan, regardless of the age of the subject course:

I. Course History

This opening section looks at the golf course and its early development. The original philosophy of the strategy and design is covered, as are any of the known architectural intents expressed in the original design. The history concludes with an account of the course's evolution; how has the course changed over the years to get to its present state? With-in this section may be plans, maps, surveys and aerials supporting the original design and the evolution.

II. Hole-by-Hole Analysis

Each hole as it exists in its present-day state is detailed in written form with itemized concerns and challenges. This narrative may be accompanied by drawings or aerials showing current conditions and configurations of each hole.

III. General Features

An appraisal of the course as it exists currently is provided. The routing is studied from a perspective of interest, pace-of-play, yardage and safety. The course is then looked at with regard to individual groups of features; tees, greens, bunkers, water hazards, fairways, approaches, roughs, contouring and trees. Infrastructure, including irrigation and drainage are evaluated. This section will typically cover conditions, deficiencies and goals associated with each area covered.

IV. On-going Maintenance

An assessment of maintenance practices and conditions associated with maintenance are covered and discussed.

V. Profile of the Original Architect

A master plan benefits from incorporating the research of those responsible for the original design, as well as subsequent remodeling/design efforts undertaken throughout the years up to the present time.

VI. Recommendations

The conclusions of a master plan should be presented in clear form and easy to understand. The written portions need to correspond to a visual exhibit. While there are varying styles of master plan presentation, the recommendations should begin to address the extent of work which may be considered. This will allow for budgets and priorities to be derived. Of course the plan will be created and presented in architectural view-i.e., the actual master plan exhibit is created whoever the golf architect feels it best to communicate the ideas.

VII. Budgeting & Prioritization

The final chapter in a master plan is to begin the process of assigning budgets and grouping work into phases which can be carried out over time. Of course, it is always possible to complete all of the work at one time and under one contract. Generally, though, a master plan is a look into the future to be implemented over time. Future considerations become an essential ingredient of the plan.

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