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When I speak with golfers, boards and green committees at courses that are considering a renovation, I always try politely to emphasize that whatever opinions they might have, they really have little or no idea about how the golf course actually works. I illustrate this by explaining the deep infrastructure it takes to give proper form to the golf course surface. Then comes the reminder that they need to respect the expertise of those who really know what’s out there – especially the superintendent.

Much of what it takes to make the course play well, I explain, is hidden under the surface and thus is unknown to the casual observer – including the overwhelming majority of golfers and most volunteer decision-makers at clubs. My job at that point is both to educate and to create space for professionals to help the course managers make informed choices. There’s a lot to be said for humility in the process. Learning about what one does not know is a very enlightening experience.

Golfers judge the course from its surface manifestations: the color of the turfgrass, the quality of cut, how smoothly putts roll on the greens and the uniformity of bunker sand. As for the deep infrastructure of networked mechanisms that make that surface possible, it’s enough simply to start listing them and eyes begin to glaze over. Irrigation pipe, electrical wiring, drainage channels, root structure, water quality, soil type and porosity characteristics, nutrient levels, fertility rates and moisture content all play a key role in course conditions. Most golfers know almost nothing about these things. Why should they? There are experts there to help.

It’s good to remind oneself that the density of networked components in a golf course parallels that of the human body. In that sense, superintendents are akin to skilled internists while most golfers are more like hypochondriacs.

"It’s good to remind oneself that the density of networked components in a golf course parallels that of the human body. In that sense, superintendents are akin to skilled internists while most golfers are more like hypochondriacs."

Thus, the maddening superficiality of most complaints from golfers – and the rarity of a green committee that is beyond dealing with such trivialities. The sand is too firm. The approaches are too soft. The greens are too slow and the hole locations are too sloped.

Drawing the parallel between a golf course and the human body is a powerful way to break through such everyday concerns. It lays the groundwork for superintendents to convey their expertise and be viewed as a skilled technician solving problems analytically and professionally.

Understanding the value of expertise is important in the daily routine of a golf course, but it becomes especially critical when talk turns from everyday maintenance to various golf course renovations. Here’s where most golfers mistakenly think that the matters at hand are subject to their personal opinion and preference – as if the issues of trees, bunkers, turfgrass, water quality and routing were simply a matter of taste and individual judgment. When you’re dealing with the interconnected systems on a golf course, nothing is ever that simple.

The American Society of Golf Course Architects did a big favor for everyone in the golf business – most of all, its own membership – by publishing a helpful little guide regarding the shelf life of certain basic infrastructure elements. The chart was developed in conjunction with the USGA Green Section, the Golf Course Builders Association of America and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America – along with other professional organizations in the golf industry. It lays out the life expectancy of such basic items as bunker sand, greens and an irrigation control system, all with the appropriate qualifiers regarding conditions of variance.

I’m a big advocate for focusing golf course renovations on problem solving and cost-efficient upgrades that have some kind of return on investment – as opposed to a wish list or “wouldn’t-it-be-nice” approach. Understanding the lifespan of basic golf course components is a great way to ground discussions about course renovations in reality rather than fantasy.

I’ve come to appreciate that golfers, boards and facility operators deserve clear, sober accounting as to what the reasons are for proceeding with various renovation plans, as well as a metric of success that can help people evaluate proposals and eventual outcomes. There are a variety of ways to apply this approach to a golf course renovation. Replacing aging infrastructure should certainly be at the foundation of any renovation plan. Then it becomes an issue of what form the golf course features should take to meet the various design, playability and maintenance goals that have been established.

These are crucial considerations when making the case for a renovation. If you can identify the problems you are addressing, then the intervention and expenditure become a matter of necessity rather than mere taste.

On a smaller scale, problem solving might mean reshaping bunkers that wash out, grading fairways that do not drain, expanding greens to recapture lost hole locations, removing problematic trees, or creating forward tees under 5,800 yards that might better accommodate players with slower swing speeds.

On a larger level, issues can transcend routine playability and maintenance concerns to include cultural and market issues. For example, the need to achieve dramatic irrigation savings in the face of water scarcity, trying to retain customers after nearby courses have made improvements, or the need to achieve maintenance efficiency in the face of chronic labor shortages.

"Understanding the lifespan of basic golf course components is a great way to ground discussions about course renovations in reality rather than fantasy."

Superintendents play a crucial role in assessing the needs of a facility. Sometimes their amazing ability to find solutions can actually be counterproductive. I have seen too many superintendents who seem to take a perverse pride in their ability to grow grass under impossible conditions, but doing so is probably not in the best interests of the facility, the maintenance staff or the superintendent’s sanity. At a low-budget, daily-fee course that ekes by on yield from the cash box, such a stoic approach to work might make sense. It’s less appropriate at facility that has access to resources because it makes it seem as if that course has no real long-term needs even though it does.

Even when courses do see a need for investing in improvements, certain approaches are self-defeating. The most egregious mistake I see is undertaking a golfer survey, often conducted by an outside consulting firm, to find out what current customers “really want.” In the absence of detailed education and explanation about infrastructure, site potential and what an imaginative golf course architect thinks is possible, such surveys end up pandering to a myopic perspective that can actually handicap a facility moving forward.

It’s one thing for an experienced golf architect to hold detailed focus group sessions with various constituencies – e.g., seniors, low-handicappers or relatively new golfers – to engage them in a constructive conversation that can elicit creative possibilities. This type of discussion helps the architect understand the various issues at a course and creates an opportunity to educate golfers about things like infrastructure needs and long-term maintenance considerations. Putting up a static questionnaire about whether golfers want “fewer trees,” “more yardage options” or “better bunkers” and asking if they are willing to approve course closure to fix things is not likely to be productive.

Boards and decision-makers should lead, not follow. It takes a certain confidence to do this job properly. Along the way, the superintendent is an indispensable resource. They don’t need to lead the process, but they can certainly provide their own informed professional insights and connect the facility with outside consultants who are experts in golf architecture, course construction, irrigation, engineering and local marketing. That process starts by shifting the terms of course renovation from wants to needs.

Only then can courses begin the process of imagining larger changes that will help a course realize its full potential. The goal, after all, is to provide a golf experience that is more economically and environmentally sustainable while engaging more people than ever in the game. That kind of broad-based, long-term planning requires deeper thinking about all the infrastructure elements that make it possible to present a quality course over time.

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