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As someone who has been watching and participating in course renovations for three decades now, I’ve seen lots of successful ones, a few that fell short and a couple that failed. These projects have run the gamut – from a club that spent 16 years implementing a $10,000 master plan to courses that have shut down for a year and spent upward of $15 million on a complete restoration. Some entail tweaks in place; others have seen half the course entirely rerouted.

Whatever the project scope, once you open the lid on a course renovation you find there are keys to getting it right and pitfalls to avoid. Unfortunately, most courses and decision-makers only get to learn these lessons in hindsight and they may never get a chance to put what they learned to good use. This article provides insight into 15 key steps of a course renovation that can help your facility avoid the mistakes others have made and deliver the most successful renovation project possible. The projects that inspired and informed the following text include a wide range of facilities, from low-budget municipal courses to elite private clubs that host U.S. Opens.

This article cannot delve into every aspect of these 15 steps – each could be covered in an article of its own. The main takeaway from this text is to understand the basic steps to follow and a few relatively universal tips for success. Once you have that information you can begin thinking about how these steps and insights apply to the unique elements of your course and how to get the best results. Every renovation is different, but if you can learn what works for most – and what doesn’t – that can get your project on the right path.

Architect Selection

1. Short List

So, the green committee chairman has just read the latest web post on hot architects, or a board member knows a guy who’s a great player and is thinking about getting into design. Sorry, but there is a better way. Develop a list of potential architects who would be right for your course. Cast the net wide, get some background information on them and the kind of projects they have done, and talk to industry insiders who know these folks and their work. For those contemplating a restoration, there’s no such thing as a “Ross expert” or “the Raynor guy” – that’s cheap marketing. Classic architects did different things at different courses, so it’s important that the architect you choose is focused on the history of your facility. It’s also important to note that restoration is not always the best solution for a golf course. Sometimes what was done in the past isn’t the best use of your property, so it’s worth hearing some different perspectives on how to approach your project.

2. RFP

Actually, it’s a Request for Information or Request for Qualifications so you don’t need to get too detailed. All you are doing is conveying a basic sense of your facility, some of the issues you hope to address, and asking who out there is keen on taking a look. Forget about fees at this point. Talk about long-term goals and ask them how they work – e.g., learn how long their master plan process takes and how they go about it. Invite them for a look. Make lots of information available – including maps, aerials, USGA Green Section consulting reports and operating budgets. Keep the phone lines open for ongoing engagement so you can assess whether they are serious candidates.

3. Interview

Hiring an architect entails buying into a long-term relationship. Don’t get dazzled by fancy graphics or a thick book of plans. Anyone can do that from the comfort of their office. Judge character, commitment, and whether they help you learn things about the golf course that you didn’t appreciate before. Their fees are the least of it – that should be negotiated later, and it’s important to understand that architect fees are a relatively small percentage of a course renovation budget. Choosing the right architect will help you avoid wasting money on the bigger-ticket items. Also, ask them about the project where they made the most mistakes and what they learned. If they cannot answer they are not being honest. Also, do your due diligence with their former projects and find out from the general managers and superintendents how things really went with budgets, accuracy of plans and extent of follow-up.

Planning Process

4. Appropriate Goals

Things go awry when courses overreach. The most important thing is to understand your current and potential client base and how to serve them well. You also want to make sure that this project will leave your course in a good position for decades to come. Will your plans help meet the needs of your current customers or members as they age, and will it attract the customers you hope to have in the future? Worrying about a 7,000-yard back tee or reaching top-100 status is a backward way of thinking and leads to indulgent pursuits without meeting real needs on the ground. Nearly every course will get more benefit from enhancements like forward tees that allow players with slower swing speeds to reach greens in regulation, improving drainage or irrigation systems, or repairing dysfunctional bunkers and greens. Identify problems that affect the majority of your players and address them.

5. Investment, Not Indulgence

Don’t spend money, invest it. Not every item on your plan will lead to an identifiable ROI, but if you don’t think that way as much as possible and try to see what the likely return will be in terms of increased revenue or cost reduction, then you run the risk of wasting money. Treat your golf course like a business, not like a toy.

"Treat your golf course like a business, not like a toy."

Golfer Engagement

6. Focus Groups

Engage your golfers in the process by giving them some input – don’t keep them in the dark. Small group gatherings that represent different player constituencies can help generate insights for an architect willing to take input. Make sure to include a wide range of people and don’t let the loudest voices or the lowest handicaps take over the conversation. Keep in mind that hearing what people have to say doesn’t mean you need to give them exactly what they want. The goal is to help the architect understand the full range of issues and opportunities while also building a sense of emotional investment and engagement in the process.

7. Education and Avoiding Surprises

The real secret of golf design is that 95% of what it takes to make a golf course work is hidden underground in the form of things like irrigation pipe, drainage, soil quality, water chemistry and root structure. Golfers only see the surface of things, so they don’t usually have a good understanding of all that goes into making that surface function how they want. The more you can explain the value of investments that aren’t visible on a daily basis, the more likely you are to make meaningful improvements. The occasional member presentation can help achieve this. Be honest about needs, cost and how long it will take to fix things. The rule here is “no surprises.” Don’t ever go hole-by-hole on what is planned. Use a few holes as examples and proceed by category. Things will end up shifting and changing through the process so you don’t want to promise something that will come back to haunt you. Make the bulk of the hole-by-hole information available online for golfers to review freely. Focus on what they will get out of it all – a course that is more fun, more functional, more interesting and more appealing.

8. Ask Only for What You Need

For private clubs, be careful to limit voting only to what is absolutely required. Usually that means a spending authorization. If a vote is needed to approve a master plan, make it a straight yes or no choice and never ask voters to select between options or give them the ability to delete pieces of the plan on a line-item basis. If you do that you risk them picking it to shreds. Never rely upon a simple majority to pass a renovation project. A super majority of at least 60% is crucial because you never want to shut down a course or make an assessment on the basis of a 51-49 vote. That’s a sure way to create an unbridgeable rift among the membership.

Contract Bidding

9. Construction Bid

This is often the least-discussed part of a renovation plan and it’s one of the most crucial pieces in a successful project. Soliciting bids and differentiating among proposals presents an array of legal and financial issues. Rely upon a lawyer to vet any contracts. You can also really get into trouble if you have to select the lowest bidder. Municipalities that have this requirement can help themselves by sending out RFQs to prequalify reliable bidders so that the town course does not get stuck with some lowball road builder. Like any craft, renovating a golf course is highly specialized and should only be entrusted to skilled, experienced professionals.

10. Scope of Work

The basic choice here is how much to entrust to a contractor. One option is to hand the entire project over to a veteran construction company, in which case you’ll pay a premium. The other option is to perform manageable parts of the work in-house. Sodding, seeding, tree work and various aspects of construction are often within the capabilities of the maintenance team, which can translate into savings and a higher level of quality control. However, it’s important to balance the potential savings of in-house work with the strain it places on the maintenance team’s time. What are the expectations for course conditioning while key members of the maintenance team are involved in renovation work? What happens if the project encounters delays that extend the drain on maintenance time? These questions need to be answered before you commit members of the staff to direct project involvement. If the contract is billed on time and material rather than on one overall fee, designate the superintendent as clerk-of-the-works to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Always make sure to test materials like sand and gravel with certified labs before installation.


11. Leave Time

Don’t sacrifice construction time for golf. One of the biggest mistakes is allowing the golf calendar to dictate too much of the construction schedule. Wherever your course is located, there are going to be optimal times for building or getting your grasses established and those windows may conflict with elements of the golf calendar. Pushing the limits invites trouble because the project can be completely derailed by just a few bad breaks with weather, material availability, staffing, or any other potential problem. There is nothing worse than running out of time with parts of the course still under construction and having to wait months to fully complete the work. This situation is more expensive, more disruptive and often produces worse results. Working during the best weather windows your facility can afford will make a big difference in the success of your project. Disrupting the prime golf season for a few weeks on the front end can save you months of headaches and unhappy golfers down the road.

12. Flexibility

Be flexible when projects expand. The most carefully detailed plan almost invariably gets bigger during construction. Green expansions start getting larger, the area of disturbance for bunker construction creeps out, cart paths get damaged or end up needing more repair than expected – these and many other adjustments are not “mission creep”, they’re part of getting the job done right. Most courses only get one chance in decades to do a large-scale renovation, so it’s no time to scrimp. Even if it means going beyond the contingency, it is a mistake trying to save money by not going all the way. The rule here is to spend it right, once, rather than regret later that you did not.


13. The Reveal

A big mistake courses often make is announcing the reopening before they’re sure the course will actually be ready for play. All sorts of variables will intercede and create uncertainty until the turf is ready. A good mantra to follow here is “under-promise and over-deliver.” Otherwise, you can disappoint golfers and create a bad vibe around an otherwise successful project. It’s better to surprise people and open earlier than they expected. It’s fine to say you’ll reopen “in the spring” or “in June,” but let the turf establishment process and the weather determine when the course is ready. Even then, don’t plan some gala relaunch right out of the box. Start with course tours – on foot, without carts. Then let golfers back with limited carts and limited tee times to avoid overwhelming the newly established turf. Even if everything looks ready to go, the grass is still maturing so it’s not ready to face a full rush of play. It's great that people are excited about the changes to the course, just don’t let their enthusiasm set the process back.

14. TLC

There are going to be rough spots that need more time to establish than most courses allow for. Naturalized areas are notoriously slow to mature – plan on several years. It takes time for newly expanded green perimeters to play like the rest of the green and tolerate traffic in the same way. Unfortunately, green expansions are often in areas of heavy golfer and maintenance traffic, so they can get stressed out quickly. It will take several years of maturing before these areas are really ready for the full demands placed on putting green turf and there may be some roped-off areas or traffic control signs in the meantime. The point is to be patient and advise golfers accordingly.

15. Promoting

Don’t be shy about promoting the work once it is done. Cultivating relationships with golf journalists and social media influencers beforehand will help generate buzz. Get the story down to a few words and use that as a catch phrase. Then it’s time to encourage articles, discussions on architecture websites and imagery on social media platforms. Get ratings panelists out and let them sample what you have achieved. If good ratings result, fine. The real value of all that branding effort will be the increased esteem of your course among golfers, staff and the public at large – which means you have succeeded.

Golf course renovations are a huge opportunity for any facility to set their future on the right track. A well-planned and well-executed project can increase golfer enjoyment and improve the bottom line for decades to come. Unfortunately, there aren’t many second chances when it comes to large-scale course renovations, so it’s important to invest the time and money needed to do the job right.

Brad Klein is a veteran freelance journalist whose biography, "Discovering Donald Ross," won  the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award for 2001.