By Trevor Ledger
GCM Summer 2002

In the last few years the number of new golf courses being built in the United Kingdom has drastically reduced, most commentators agreeing that this is a sensible trend following the 'epidemic' of the 1980's. At the same time, the number of established golf clubs opting to improve/renovate their courses has increased dramatically. The biggest problem that such golf clubs are faced with is that of choice; who to speak to, what to ask for, where to find the information and when to undertake the work. It is not a matter of merely picking up the Yellow Pages, or even one of the myriad trade journals. Upgrading a golf course can be a mine field.
Following a complete refurbishment of Fota Island Golf Course in Ireland, (ready for the 2001 Irish Open), Contour Golf Ltd. Managing Director, Ingrid Eichler knows all about renovations: "Lack of planning, lack of advice and lack of direction - these factors are most often responsible for dissatisfaction," she added, "Unless the golf club can identify exactly what they want to achieve and to what specification, the job can become a total lottery." In almost all cases the decision to actually change the course, to whatever degree, is the easiest decision that the golf course has to make because the answer is either yes or no. From then on the choices are legion.
For a start, who is going to design the desired feature changes? The committee? The Pro? An architect? The greenkeeper? "If a change is going to be made to a golf course, our first job would be to spend a couple of hours walking round it, discussing requirements with the secretary or greens chairman as we go." said award winning golf course architect Jonathan Gaunt, who continued, "Having done this, there are still several stages to go through (such as specifications, bill of quantities, detailed drawings etc.) - each requiring the club's approval, before the question of who should actually do the construction work arises." While such a detailed approach may seem longwinded and unnecessary, the benefits of 'belt and braces' are clear - in both the short and long term. Eichler again: "Even if a golf club knows what it wants to do; for example rebuilding a couple of tees and greens, it is unlikely that an accurate estimate of cost and resulting quality can be proffered by a golf course constructor. The key word being quality; constructor 'A' might quote 10,000 for the job; 'B' 12,000 and 'C' 15,000 - which is the best to go for? Without a detailed specification of materials and bill of quantities, these three contractors are whistling in the dark." Moreover, the golf club is attempting to compare apples with oranges - 'A' might be planning to use cheap rootzone material and charge a fortune for labour whereas 'C' could be using top spec.', USGA rootzone and charging minimal labour fees. Therefore 'C' would most likely offer best value but, without the original input from the architect, the club would be unaware of this. In the long term, this example of 'knowledge being power' will reap massive benefits; the higher quality initial input results in vastly superior playing surfaces and strategic planning around the course.
Next in Eichler's 'list of common mistakes' is timing. Naturally all golf clubs wish to minimise disruption for their members and visitors, thus working outside of the busy summer months is almost universal. But this could prove to be the biggest mistake of all; a job that starts in October with a proposed finish before Christmas, is so much at the mercy of climate that it might not be finished by the following spring, let alone be satisfactorily matured. Eichler's observations that "grass grows when it is warm and machines don't do as much damage on firm ground" fall on deaf ears 99% of the time despite the fact that both are undeniably true. Indeed in very wet weather, machines cannot operate at all and the job can be halted indefinitely. Therefore, in planning the requirement of the golf club, careful consideration ought to be given to the time of year that the operation is undertaken. "Having temporary greens through warm, dry weather is anathema to golf club management," agreed Daventry based Eichler, "but with foresight it will often prove to be the most sensible course of action. If detailed plans are prepared and all the necessary people in place, a golf course renovation can be incredibly quick and painless. But everybody must be working to the same end. The coordination of plans, materials, machinery and people is the responsibility of the project manager, the buck stops there." And that is the crux of it all, the project manager. It is he, (in Eichler's case, she), who needs to keep 'all the plates spinning' and this is best achieved by ensuring that all parties are respected professionals - preferably with a history of working together on previous projects.
That is not to say that golf clubs cannot possibly achieve good results off their own bat, some have, but the chances of success are considerably improved with the introduction of top class, industry professionals. Naturally cost will form a significant barrier to many renovation proposals, however the barrier is not insurmountable as Gaunt's partner, Steve Marnoch, explained: "Any time a golf club recognises that improvements are due they should call in a professional immediately in order to set off on the right foot. There are dozens of architects in the country and most of us will drop by for an initial meeting at no charge if we are in the area. Work can often be 'phased' with different sections of the course being revised over a period of two, three or even five or more years, thus spreading the cost." Again the emphasis is placed upon planning; if a project starts badly it will be unlikely to improve, yet, with a little forethought, all options can be considered from a position of knowledge. While professional input can be viewed as an unnecessary expense, the converse is indeed true; golf clubs cannot afford to spurn the professional approach when the end result of the work is essential to the continuing success of the club. Certainly skilled greenkeepers are able to undertake many aspects of course renovation but is this the best utilisation of their skills and time? With the maintenance schedules as they are today, can a greenkeeper afford to take two or three months out to rebuild bunkers for example?
With the renovation 'boom' looking set to continue, it is time for a measured approach to be adopted. Architects from the British Institute of Golf Course Architects have been proposing a step by step method for some years now and golf course constructors are in complete agreement. "If we can tender for a job having all the information at our disposal," commented Contour's Eichler, "then the golf club can make a value judgment with confidence. In effect, a 'level playing field' will be created upon which the golf course renovations can be embarked upon with the minimum of difficulties."