Planning a course for improvement

Golf course superintendents are often frustrated when they have to guess about management's expectations for their courses. The most effective way for superintendents to avoid this guessing game is to have a master plan.

Master planning is the design process undertaken to make improvements to existing golf courses. The resulting master plan is a document that spells out proposed improvements and prioritizes construction projects.

A master plan helps superintendents organize their work. It establishes an agreed-upon plan that defines course set-up, identifies improvement projects and puts them on a timeline. When maintenance or other questions arise, you check the master plan.

Master planning can uncover design flaws that management might have identified inaccurately as maintenance flaws. For example, you may have suggested many times to your green committee that trees be removed around a problem green to improve light and air penetration. When an independent planning consultant, such as an architect, recommends the same action, it enhances your credibility.

Or, when an architect suggests enlarging tees or rebuilding greens due to inadequate size, it suddenly sheds a different light on the superintendent's performance.

A master plan also allows superintendents to take advantage of opportunities. For instance, many master plans include detailed planting recommendations. When a load of plants becomes available for a good price, you can notify the club and install them according to the predetermined plan.

Or, you can schedule work on your course to coincide with construction projects at nearby golf courses. Over a few seasons, you can realize substantial savings.

When you carry out the recommendations in your master plan, one of the greatest benefits is the satisfaction you get from seeing the quality of your course enhanced. And when a club experiences the master planning process, it will have a better understanding of the complexities of the superintendent's job. Nothing is more rewarding than hearing club members, the golf pro and owners praise you for helping to bring their course to the next level.

And, improvements to the course will likely lead to financial gain for the club and a leg up on the competition. These factors should also translate to increased salary, prestige and job stability for key personnel, especially the superintendent.

Types of master plans The type and amount of work in each master plan varies, depending on the condition, financial ability and ambitions of each course. But all master plans should have these elements: * an analysis and evaluation of the golf course; * documentation of proposed improvements; * construction cost estimates; and * a schedule for the phasing of improvements.

The three types of master plans are renovation, restoration, and reconstruction.

"Renovation" projects improve the course in specific areas. This type of plan is for course owners who are generally content with their basic course layout. The course is left fundamentally intact, and minor improvements are limited to a specific element-such as bunkers or tees-or focused upon a particular number of golf holes.

"Restoration" projects return courses to their original design. This type of master plan is for older courses whose owners recognize the unique and historical qualities of their courses and would like to enhance them. It may involve undoing previous alterations that did not respect the historical integrity of the course.

Unfortunately, due to changes in equipment technology, modern liability issues and lack of adequate historical records, it is often not possible to restore a course entirely. However, you can focus your restoration concepts on the design intent of the original architecture.

"Reconstruction" projects occur when a club wants to significantly overhaul its course. This type of master plan could include substantial changes to routing, addition of new holes and rebuilt green complexes. Some clubs, through careful planning and phasing, are able to build a new golf course while keeping a portion of an existing course open.

Getting Started To begin master planning, you must first form a committee. Its size and composition will vary depending on the ownership and structure of your club. The master planning committee should always include the superintendent, golf pro and head of the greens committee. The most effective committees are diverse groups that balance all interests, yet are small enough to make decisions efficiently.

The committee's primary goals should be outlining the potential benefits of a master plan, developing preliminary goals and objectives of the master plan, hiring a golf architect and producing a schedule for completing the master plan.

Each committee member should evaluate the golf course and discuss their conclusions with other committee members. This helps the club identify strengths and weaknesses and prioritize goals and objectives.

Evaluating your course The committee's evaluation should cover many areas.

* Market Analysis. Can the course handle more rounds or increase greens fees or membership dues, given your market area? Is competition from new or improved courses growing in your market area?

* Facility Analysis. Do the clubhouse, pro-shop, restaurant, parking, maintenance, cart storage, and practice areas function adequately and promote both a favorable image and desirable work environment? What needs improving? Prioritize your list.

* Golf Course Analysis. Identify the areas of the course that you feel are unsafe during golf play. Are there adequate and well positioned lightning shelters? Identify other factors that affect safety on the course.

Examine your drainage system. Are there problem areas on the course where water collects and doesn't drain properly? Are the existing drainage features working as they were intended?

Could you improve the aesthetics of the course? Are there unsightly areas that need screening? Could you enhance other areas?

Are there areas on the course being maintained that could become naturalized? Does the club promote an environmental management philosophy? Are the maintenance facilities adequate to store pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers? Is there a well-designed area to store cleaning equipment?

Does the club have a planting plan that documents where plants are to be established and how they are to be maintained? Are there plants on the course you should remove or that are in need of special care?

Does the course have adequate irrigation? Is a water source available to expand irrigation?

Do you need to build or re-build cart paths? Are there areas where you need to remove cart paths?

Does your driving range have sufficient tee space, length and target greens that simulate game-like circumstances? Does the club have a specific short-game area that allows golfers to practice chip shots from 60 yards or less? Is the practice putting green of sufficient size, and does it reflect the slopes and surfaces typical of the greens found on the course? Are there practice bunkers available?

Does the routing of the golf course flow well? Are there areas on the course where play slows down? Are there long walks between holes that you could eliminate? Do the nines balance, or is there a preferred side to the course? Is there adequate length and challenge for the lower handicap players? Is the course playable for all golfers? Are there particular holes that are too challenging for certain players? Are the forward tees placed correctly?

Are there particular holes that stick out as being inferior, out of character or "not up to par" with the rest of the course?

Is there an established mowing plan that depicts exact location (and shape) of cut lines and height ranges for fairways, rough, greens, aprons, chipping areas and natural areas? Is there a hazard maintenance plan that establishes a philosophy of how (and how often) to maintain bunkers and other hazards? Are there agreed-upon schemes for pin placements?

Selecting an Architect Once a club has finished evaluating its course and has developed preliminary goals and objectives, it should hire an architect who will develop the actual master plan.

Select carefully. Golf course architects are not regulated and don't require examination and registration. Little, if anything, is needed for someone to call themselves a golf course architect. However, many states recognize the liability involved with golf design and have laws pertaining specifically to golf design. For instance, New York requires a professional license in landscape architecture.

Once you determine that the candidates are qualified to complete the work, evaluate the education, experience, design creativity, accessibility and cost of services of each individual or firm. Select one or more architects you wish to interview, and have them submit proposals.

The interview will allow the club to further examine a candidate's credentials while providing insight into his or her personality. This is important because you may be working with this person for months or years.

Once selected, the architect will begin the master planning process. The superintendent's input during site analysis and throughout the design process is essential.

Completing the master plan With a properly executed master plan, your course can see dramatic improvement that will reflect well on you as superintendent. Players will recognize the improved playing conditions and characteristics of the course; the golf pro will recognize an increase in the prestige of the course, and owners will appreciate the increase in their bottom line and the added security it provides from competition.

Barry Jordan is owner and principal architect for Jordan Design Associates, a golf course architectural firm in Fayetteville, N.Y.

There are five phases for master planning: project initiation; site analysis and research; design development; construction documentation, and construction supervision. Here's what each phase entails.

Project initiation This will lay the foundation for the entire project and should be completed before moving on to the next phase. Establish contract agreements between the owner and golf architect. Refine the goals and objectives. Provide base information.

Site analysis and research The golf course architect will collect data and establish a thorough understanding of the site. The superintendent is a valuable source of information for the architect during this phase. The master planning committee and architect also should research regulatory requirements that may govern the site. The architect should document the course's natural features, analyze the course and related facilities, and possibly conduct a survey to solicit input from golfers.

Design development The creative work begins. The architect develops design solutions for the club, prepares cost estimates and works with the master planning committee to develop construction strategies. The architect develops alternative design schematics; analyzes potential play disruption; completes the master plan and estimates costs for construction.

Construction documentation The forms and features of the improvements are technically set for construction. (Sometimes this is part of the original master-plan contract but often it is under a separate contract.) The architect produces stamped professional drawings and specifications to bid the project. A typical set of construction drawings will include plans for layout; grassing and planting, and grading and drainage. There should be detailed green sheets as well as details for greens, tees, drainage structures and bunkers.

Construction supervision In this phase, the role of the architect and superintendent varies. Much will depend upon the method and amount of construction. Certainly the architect will be on site regularly to ensure that the construction documents are being followed. The superintendent will often act as another set of eyes for the architect. In addition, the superintendent will likely be responsible for setting up temporary greens and tees, and helping the existing course run smoothly. Once construction is complete, the superintendent is usually responsible for maintaining and "growing in" new areas after they are seeded.

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