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Golf course renovation projects always come with their fair share of problems. Some are unavoidable: equipment breakdowns at the worst moment, delayed arrival of crucial materials, or a run of bad weather that halts progress and damages finished work. However, there are some common pitfalls that can be avoided – or at least mitigated – with basic planning and communication.

With all the thought and money that goes into golf course renovations, it’s easy to wonder why some of the same issues keep popping up on projects big and small. Sometimes they come from lapses in communication or oversights in a complex process. Sometimes it’s an issue of priorities – like putting the golf calendar ahead of the construction schedule. No course wants to miss prime golf and revenue opportunities, but with the success of what may be a multimillion-dollar project at stake, it’s worth thinking about what matters most. Every project has aspects of the plan or schedule that are not going to be ideal, but there are often ways to avoid trouble if a course is prepared to make the right choices.

Broken Weather Windows

One of the most critical factors in the success of a renovation project is the weather. When projects happen during good weather the construction work is faster, cleaner and higher quality. Establishment is also more successful, which means new features are ready for play sooner and new grass is less likely to struggle when stressed. Every location has a time or a season that is best suited for golf course renovations. Unfortunately, projects are often pushed to the margins of good weather windows – or totally beyond them – to minimize impact on the golf calendar. The reasons for this are understandable, but there are consequences and trade-offs involved.

It's hard to do good work during bad weather. Most soils become harder to dig, move and compact when it’s cold or wet. The work slows down and you often have a messier finished product that is vulnerable to settling or erosion. A poor finish on newly renovated areas also means a longer wait for the desired playing conditions and presentation as the maintenance team smooths out and sometimes completely refinishes areas that didn’t turn out quite right.

There is also a lot more collateral damage during wet weather, especially when combined with shorter days and cooler temperatures that prevent soils from drying out. Construction traffic on turf areas can create deep ruts that require stripping and smoothing to repair, which costs extra money and diverts resources from other tasks. Directing construction traffic onto cart paths can help you work through wet weather, but many golf course paths aren’t built to handle countless runs of heavily loaded tractors or dump trucks. The more you rely on paths, the more likely they are to become damaged and require repair – again, at extra expense.

Beyond the construction process itself, weather has a huge impact on the speed and success of turf establishment. It dictates the grassing methods you can use and how well the turf grows in. You may want to seed or sprig areas rather than sodding, but tough timing will take some options away and make it harder to succeed with whatever planting method you use. Even the best renovation work will be poorly received if grassing doesn’t go well and the consequences of poor timing are all too familiar. Turf that was planted too late in the grassing window ends up being weak and/or thin, making it vulnerable to damage and erosion. These areas have to be babied along, protected from traffic and potentially redone. Golfers start asking what went wrong, and explaining that the project was scheduled for a bad time window and this is what you get usually doesn’t go over too well.

"While you can’t control the weather, it’s certainly possible to tip the odds in your favor."

While you can’t control the weather, it’s certainly possible to tip the odds in your favor. When scheduling, work backward from the end of the reasonable grassing window to arrive at a project start date. You also want to allow some establishment time for the last areas planted prior to that “drop-dead” date. What will often happen when trying to schedule this way is that the work window crosses into a preferred time on the golf calendar. Then some choices have to be made. Is your “most important event of the year” really so important that it can’t be postponed or rescheduled to avoid jeopardizing the outcome of a very expensive project that could alter the future of your facility?

Squeezing a little more golf in before a project starts could lead to months of problems and lost revenue down the road. A few extra weeks of good working weather really makes a difference and it’s worth fighting for the time – and timing – your project needs to be successful. Without question, many successful projects have been completed during inopportune times, but that doesn’t mean the same approach will work for your project. They may have had better soils, more resources, or any number of other factors in their favor (including luck) that allowed them to succeed. The question is, do you feel lucky?

Overwhelming the Maintenance Team

Superintendents and their teams are more involved in today’s renovation projects than maybe ever before. Their expertise and knowledge are an invaluable asset to any project, and having them complete various elements in-house can save a lot of money. However, their contributions may come at a high price if not properly balanced against other priorities. Even relatively small projects require a lot of time and attention. If the work is happening while other parts of the course are open for play, the maintenance team can quickly get stretched beyond their reasonable limits. When that happens, the project and routine maintenance will both suffer. Erring on the side of caution when it comes to maintenance team involvement is prudent, especially when you consider the cost and complexity of modern renovation projects.

The first thing to recognize is that the maintenance team is going to get pulled into any renovation project even if they aren’t slated to help at all. There’s just no getting around it. Helping contractors mark and avoid infrastructure, fixing damaged infrastructure after contractors break it anyway, coordinating deliveries and site traffic, and routine quality control will all require time and attention from the maintenance team. How they contribute beyond these basics depends on the resources and expertise they have available and the expectations for routine maintenance of areas that aren’t under construction. Even if decision-makers promise to be understanding about course conditions during the project, that can quickly go out the window when golfers start complaining.

When considering the role of the maintenance team, think about the time of year renovations will be happening, how play is going to proceed during the project, and what the grow-in process is likely to look like. If work is happening during a busy golf season it can mean more staff and resources are on hand, but there may also be more work to do on holes that are open for play. If work is happening during the “offseason,” the maintenance team may be understaffed and they may still have plenty to do – like fall leaf cleanup. How the project is staged also matters. If some holes are fully open, some are under construction, and some are in various stages of being grown-in, the maintenance team can get pulled in many directions at once. A grow-in is a project unto itself and sometimes it’s easy for people to forget that the end of active construction doesn’t mean that the work is done.

Every course and superintendent needs to find their own balance for how the maintenance team contributes to a renovation project. Pre-project planning, grass and material selection, and quality control are essential areas for involvement. Beyond that, it depends on the resources available, timeline of the project, expectations for routine maintenance and many other factors. No matter how much the maintenance team commits to, they will end up doing much more to support the project. Try to keep that in mind as roles get assigned.

"No matter how much the maintenance team commits to, they will end up doing much more to support the project."

Great Expectations

Every renovation project is going to generate some golfer complaints, it’s basically unavoidable. Some people won’t like the new features or the disruption to play during construction, some might be unhappy with the playing conditions on newly established turf or simply feel the project wasn’t a good use of money. If the grumbling is relatively minor, chances are you’ve done everything possible to deliver a good result and can only hope that some time and explanation will smooth things over. However, there are some renovation projects that generate widespread and persistent complaints. In those cases, something probably didn’t go well or golfers didn’t have a clear picture of what to expect. Doing everything possible to set realistic expectations about the process and outcomes is critical if you want the project to be viewed as a success. Regardless of the communication strategy your course chooses, it should always be robust and guided by subject matter experts like the superintendent and consulting architect.

Complaints about new sand after a bunker renovation is a common issue that can be ameliorated – if never fully cured – with some extra education and outreach before the project. Golfers complain about sand quality, consistency and playability even in the best of times, so it’s no surprise that things get even worse when they encounter unfamiliar sand that hasn’t had much time to firm up. Some of this chatter will dissipate over time as the sand settles in and players get used to it, but sometimes complaints about the sand can seriously detract from an otherwise successful project.

One of the best ways to minimize this issue is by building a few test bunkers well in advance of the project to let golfers experience various combinations of sand and liners so they can decide for themselves which they like best. This approach puts the ball in their court – hopefully increasing buy-in for the choice made and minimizing the amount of complaints that follow. Make sure the test bunkers are in place long enough for the sand to fully settle, and that they receive the standard maintenance program.

Setting up advance test areas is also a great way to choose between different grassing options. There are many turf varieties available for any playing surface you want to renovate. Creating test areas well in advance allows the superintendent to evaluate how the options will perform at your site under your maintenance program. At the same time, golfers can experience how the different options look and play throughout the year – again, under the unique conditions of your course. Oftentimes, renovation decisions are guided by what a course nearby did. While it’s a good idea to see how different approaches worked at neighboring facilities, there is no substitute for testing grassing options over an extended period of time at your course. The growing environments, soil conditions and maintenance programs may be quite different at nearby facilities and that can lead to very different outcomes. If golfers and decision-makers know what to expect from different grassing options, they can work with the superintendent to make the best possible decision and there won’t be any surprises when the work is complete.

One of the most important parts of managing expectations is doing everything possible to explain that once the work is “done” there is still an extended period of time – sometimes years – before new areas are fully mature. In the immediate aftermath of a renovation, there is often a lengthy punch list of items that still need to be buttoned up. There will be spots where the turf didn’t establish well, areas that erode or settle, and endless rough or irregular spots that need to be smoothed out over time. Even with the best construction process, these issues are bound to come up and it may be weeks or months before they can all be fixed.

Beyond normal cleanup and repairs, newly established turf needs time to mature, and all it takes is a little bad weather to set things back. It may be quite a while before playing areas are ready for normal traffic or can deliver the desired conditions. Naturalized areas might take years to mature, and it can be a bumpy road to get there. The important message to convey is that a golf course is a living thing, it’s not a product that comes off an assembly line finished and ready to go.

"The important message to convey is that a golf course is a living thing, it’s not a product that comes off an assembly line finished and ready to go."

Hedging Your Bets

Projects mean problems. No matter what type of course renovation you have planned, there will be issues. With that said, there is nothing wrong with trying to dodge a few punches along the way. The issues described in this article are common, potentially very problematic, and largely avoidable with some good choices and communication. If there is a common theme to the solutions laid out here it’s that hedging your bets when planning a project will pay dividends during the work and long after it is complete. It may not be easy to get a few extra weeks of prime growing weather, or to take a few items off the maintenance team’s plate, but when things don’t go perfectly to plan those buffers make it much easier to absorb any issues and keep moving forward to a successful outcome. Tip the odds in your favor wherever possible, the project will be less stressful and the work will come out better.