By Jeff Danner

Golf Course Architects get to work in some exciting and unique locations. I get asked all the time which are my favorite, or which are the most challenging. In the case of Anchorage Golf Course, both apply. Having worked in some remote locations, including India and parts of Southeast Asia, it is interesting how a place like Alaska can feel so remote but also make you feel at home.

On every golf project, we try to maintain a certain level of quality control via our detailed drawings and specifications. But what happens when following the specifications becomes impractical? Exercising this flexibility can mean plunging into the unknown and being creative in how you achieve a quality golf product when what we usually consider a given becomes anything but that.

Our work in Anchorage has taught us just that over the past few years. The challenge of preparing Anchorage Golf Course for the 2022 USGA Women’s Senior Amateur Championship required a non-traditional construction plan. That pressure, along with a shorter construction season, harsh environment, and selective windows throughout the year to execute the work, meant we had to exercise patience, flexibility, and creativity to get the job done at a high level. Looking back on our time working with Anchorage Golf Course so far got me thinking. What lessons can we take from this experience to ensure every project is successful? Below is what I would call a non-exhaustive list of lessons learned from Anchorage that might just help you with your upcoming project:

Know Your Constraints

Regardless of your scope of work, there is no substitute for a thorough Site Inventory and Analysis process. In the case of Anchorage, knowing the climatic, physical, and fiscal challenges well ahead of time allowed us to formulate a plan to work within the constraints effectively. However, maintaining flexibility in our approach allowed us to navigate unpredictable weather conditions, logistics and an ever-tightening tournament schedule.

Knowing we had to be ready for the tournament by a certain date drove the rest of the process. Factoring in extended, then reduced daylight hours, weather history, growing schedule and current staffing needs allowed us to work backwards from the tournament date to create a schedule with milestones that kept the work efforts on track.

Create Your Road Map

Plan early and often. In all cases, the Preliminary and Master Planning phases of a project make up the smallest percentage of consultant’s fees but provide the best value. Building the proper framework for a project is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to set yourself up for success. For Anchorage, a detailed Master Plan allowed us to prioritize what work needed to occur ahead of the USGA tournament to ensure the most significant impact.

With the Master Plan as our guide, the team determined that bunker would have the greatest impact not only on strategy and challenge, but also the way the course presented itself for tournament play.

Maintain Quality Control

The devil is in the details. The little things make or break a project. When a designer shows up and “does his thing” without providing details to help control costs, the Owner loses. Having a detailed set of drawings to bid not only gives builders clear direction up front but also helps control the quality of the end product when the Architect can’t be present every day. Unless you are prepared to house and feed your Architect for the duration of the project, a detailed set of drawings is the best way to close the loop of the interpretation by a contractor while also providing a baseline to track the project’s budget.

Once we agreed on our goals and objectives for execution prior to the Senior Women’s Amateur, R|D created a working Design Sketchbook that included detailed drawings for every work area complete with grading, drainage, and grass lines. This became the day-to-day reference for the client and construction staff who were present on the site every day. Complete with quantities and specifications, tracking and controlling the budget was streamlined allowing for instant feedback and the ability to address any issues much more quickly.

Depend on Trusted Allies

Ensure the Architect can place a Shaper they trust on the project. Shapers are the Architect’s eyes and ears and the artist’s paintbrush. Shaper, Jay Smith, played an integral role in our success at Anchorage due to his talent and knowledge of golf course construction that he passed on to local laborers and staff to help get the job done. In Anchorage, placing an entire construction outfit on the project was cost prohibitive and impractical.

Having Jay there for us to lead the team paid dividends in the long run because our previous relationship on other projects instilled the trust that is needed between Architect and Shaper. Jay’s understanding of how we approach projects and his buy-in for the vision were the glue in bringing the on-site team together to execute.

Be willing to Improvise

Specifications are gospel until they’re not. In today’s economic climate, the labor shortages, and logistical problems with obtaining materials and equipment are exacerbated by the fact that a place like Anchorage is thousands of miles away from everything. The likelihood of finding your USGA, Augusta National white sand for bunkers is a pipedream. Speaking of pipe, the Superintendent in Anchorage cleaned out every Home Depot and Lowes within driving distance before even obtaining enough drain tile to meet our spec. We had no choice but to settle for a different type of drain tile that would later be modified to perform the way we needed it, and it worked beautifully.

Waiting for the specified pipe would have not only delayed the project, but also would have misaligned us with what was already a very tight budget. It is always critical to discuss such alternatives with your client and construction team. Everyone must be in agreement before such measures are taken. The moral is don’t settle for lesser performance but maintain flexibility in how you reach your end goal.

Plan for the Worst, Manifest the Best

Build-in contingencies. Not just financially, but in your time and resources. The weather in Anchorage can turn for the worst much earlier than anticipated. Using as much of those 22 hours of daylight in the summer as we could, was key. Then preparing for continuation in the spring allowed us to finish well ahead of the tournament.

As we approached September, we knew the weather could change any day. With that in mind, we took a step back and assessed what could realistically be accomplished, while redirecting resources to winterize the remainder of the course. This allowed for seamless restart of the project when the drier spring weather arrived. In turn, this allowed us to hit our timelines before the tournament.

Communication is Key

Keep everyone informed. Whether you are a public course or a private club, renovation projects always go smoother when your clientele is involved early and often. Design by committee can be dangerous, but in most cases, your golfers just want the opportunity to be heard. Their sense of involvement, along with providing updates and photos of progress, will ensure the complaints are minimal when it comes to disrupting their course.

In Anchorage, the disruption provided a sense of progress and exciting things to come for the golfers. As a result, the sense of support and pride as the tournament approached was overwhelming. The community showed up in droves to watch some of the best amateur golfers in the world. From the taxi stand at the airport to the local restaurants most people knew about and were excited for the tournament. It takes a village. When we involve the community in the process, special things can happen.

I believe the above will apply to any golf course project. Some of these lessons seem very simple and almost what should be a given. However, every project has different dynamics, which can affect the process. Regardless of the project schedule and budget, it is always worth taking a step back to assess the big picture. The above seven lessons should always be a part of that picture.