With some of its holes built on the ski runs of Park City (Utah) Mountain, the challenging resort course of Canyons Golf offers unexpected opportunities for the staff and golfers alike.
Golfers typically go through ups and downs during a round. But the highs and lows—and particularly the highs—are both literal and figurative at Canyons Golf, an 18-hole resort course at Canyons Village at Park City (Utah).
The property, which was built 7,500 feet above sea level in the midst of the ski runs of Park City Mountain, has more than 550 feet of elevation change. The 10th hole has a 297-foot elevation drop from tee to green, and throughout the golf course spectacular views are offered of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains, surrounding valleys, and Park City.
While the first five holes play through the ski resort, the final stretch of the course features open meadows and wooded areas of aspens and pines. The large greens have multiple tiers and quadrants, and the 18th hole has a true island green that is surrounded completely by the Willow Draw Stream.
“It’s really a thinking person’s golf course,” says Director of Golf Maintenance Todd Bunte. “Not every hole is ‘grab your driver and bomb it.’ You have to put your ego away. You have to use clubs you don’t normally use.”
The same mindset applies to the maintenance of the golf course, which requires vision and creativity on such challenging topography. And Bunte and Director of Golf Justin Johnson, PGA, have clear optics of the big picture.
Location: Park City, Utah
While Park City is the largest ski area in the United States, the resort also offers other amenities, including mountain biking, hiking, putt-putt and disc golf, and horseback riding. However, notes Johnson, “Golf is an integral part of the guest experience, and to our year-round operations.
A Sustainable Footprint
Eco-friendly practices are important to the resort’s operation as well, and with 18 holes that encompass only 97 acres, the Canyons Golf layout has a sustainable footprint.
Bunte, who started working at the property in April 2014, was on site during the grow-in portion of the project. “I was able to consult and give opinions on a few areas that would help with maintenance,” he says.
For instance, Bunte advised changing S-shaped tees to rectangles, so the property could maximize the amount of usable turf. He also recommended eliminating short-cut grasses on steep slopes and planting more rough in those areas. The addition of rough on the slopes made the areas easier to maintain, by requiring less upkeep and allowing the staff to walk-mow, rather than ride-mow, the turf.
Short-cut grass on the slopes also made the golf course more difficult for golfers. The higher-cut grass keeps golf balls closer to the greens, making the course more user-friendly.
“Club selection is paramount here,” says Johnson. “We have few flat lies, which adds to the challenge and fun. Tee shots go a long way, and we have several greens with multiple quadrants where accuracy is at a premium.”
Four acres of streams and wetlands were established during construction, and the golf course has no-mow buffer zones of natural plantings around waterways. Bunte also relies on organic, carbon-based materials to maintain the golf course.
“I build carbon and feed the soil, versus feeding the plant,” he explains. “I use organics instead of synthetics. Better soil is going to produce a better plant.”
In addition, Bunte uses fertigation, which allows fertilizer to be injected into the state-of-the-art irrigation system and allows water and nutrients to be placed exactly where they are needed. Other advantages include applications that are more accurate and uniform, immediate availability of nutrients to the plant, improved uptake of nutrients by the roots, and labor savings. Fertigation also leaves more time for other maintenance inputs and increases efficiency by eliminating fuel usage, Bunte adds.
Paths in Play
In another distinctive feature of the golf course, many of Canyons Golf’s holes are framed by soft, playable cart paths. Similar to dirt roads, the paths resemble waste bunkers, and they require more maintenance than typical concrete paths.
|COURSE & GROUNDS PROFILE
Staff: Golf Maintenance—15 total; 12 seasonal (eight full-time and four part-time); Golf Operations—19 total; 18 seasonal (14 full-time and four part-time)
“We need to rake them to keep them playable,” reports Bunte. “They also can get a lot of weeds, which we need to hand-pick.”
In addition to saving costs and playable space, the paths/bunkers keep errant shots from going out of bounds on the tight, 6,256-yard layout. Johnson says golfers have few complaints if their ball lands on a path/bunker. “Play it as it lies,” he says with a smile.
The property also has 40 regular bunkers filled with white sand, and Bunte says maintenance for all of the bunkers depends on the weather. Cleanup after storms is the same for the soft paths and regular bunkers, he adds.
Sustainability continues to evolve at Canyons Golf, which is having solar panels installed on the golf course maintenance building. In addition, the property is pursuing Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification. “I’ve gone through the process with previous jobs,” reports Bunte. “It’s a good show of environmental stewardship, and it’s a good lesson for the staff.”
In recognition of the property’s heightened state of environmental awareness, Canyons Golf received an Environmental Stewardship Award in 2014, in the Private Course category, from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
In addition to typical maintenance duties, the Canyons Golf grounds crew must contend with a special set of challenges on a golf course that is built on ski slopes.
For instance, the fairway on the third hole, which lies at the bottom of a ski run and is at a higher elevation than other holes, takes a lot of traffic from skiers and maintenance equipment, notes Bunte. The staff also has a short window each season, between snow melt and the golf course opening, to get the hole ready for play. “We have about a two-week turnaround [to prepare] the hole,” Bunte reports. The staff aerifies and topdresses the hole, adding extra sand to make it firmer.
The first hole is located next to the maintenance building where a lot of snow is made, Bunte says, and five or six feet of snow can get pushed onto the adjacent cart path. The mountain operators who groom the ski slopes will use a bulldozer to push the snow down to about a foot, to expedite snow melt and give the staff access to the paths. “We have to be creative to have access to this hole,” Bunte explains. “It’s a team operation.”
‘Fun, Fast and Friendly’
Grounds crew members have also made some modifications to their maintenance inputs since the Canyons Golf course opened in the fall of 2014. For example, they have changed mowing patterns and raised the height of cut on the putting surfaces, to keep the greens speed manageable.
Many golfers aren’t used to the strategy and shot-making that’s involved in playing Canyons Golf, notes Johnson, and the property has tweaked the golf course as well. Since the golf course opened, Canyons Golf revised the greens on Nos. 6, 9, and 17 by eliminating some of the tiers on the putting surfaces, to slow the speed and make them more playable.
“A lot of input has taken place in the past two seasons. We have listened to a lot of feedback from golfers,” reports Johnson, who joined the staff in April of 2015. “We want the course to be fun, fast and friendly.”
Adds Bunte: “The original design was really focused on accuracy and hitting to the proper quadrant. We kept the design, but made it more friendly. We don’t want to penalize a good shot. It has helped to speed up play and keep golfers happy.”
Todd BunteTitle: Director of Golf Maintenance
Years at Canyons Golf: 3
Years in Golf Course Maintenance: 22
• TPC Jasna Polana, Princeton, N.J.
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• Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Gainesville, Va.
• Shadow Creek, Las Vegas
“Chair Lift” Meetings
While listening to feedback from golfers is vital to giving them a challenging, but fair, test, Bunte and Johnson also talk frequently to each other to keep operations running smoothly.
When the golf season is in full swing from May through October, they are pulled in many different directions. However, they always carve out time to touch base with each other. They meet every Saturday afternoon to go over the schedule for the upcoming week and discuss planned events, such as corporate outings or weddings.
“Not every group is the same,” says Bunte. “They use different holes, and not all of the events are shotguns. Justin will let me know what holes he needs. If he needs Nos. 15, 18, and 1 first thing in the morning, then we can come up with a plan internally.”
They also get together every morning before play begins to discuss immediate concerns for the day, such as a frost delay.
Communication is just as important—and fruitful—during the off-season. In fact, Bunte and Johnson have found an unorthodox way to brainstorm and kick around ideas in the winter months. They ski together during the off-season, so they have held many a “chair lift meeting” when they’re out on the slopes.
“I would rather do a budget meeting or staff planning on a chair lift than in an office,” says Bunte.
In these sky-high meetings, however, they do more than discuss budgets and personnel.
“It gives us a different perspective in a sense,” says Johnson. “The golf course is covered in snow, and we see it from a different vantage point. It fuels our creativity and our passion.
“It’s the highlight of my week from a business perspective,” he adds. “We’re always thinking about golf. It’s part of our DNA. We come up with some interesting ideas. We want to have a positive impact on the community, and we’re always thinking about how we can make a difference in Park City.”
Making It Work
This season, for instance, Canyons Golf will launch a First Tee program. The property will be one of a select few First Tee locations in Utah, but its topography presents a distinct set of challenges to implementing the program.
“We don’t have a driving range at Canyons Golf, [where] land is a rare commodity,” notes Johnson. “We had to figure out how to have a First Tee program without a driving range on a golf course that’s not walkable and full of resort guests and locals.”
That bird’s-eye view of the golf course from the chair lift gave them the perspective they needed to develop a game plan. They decided that, starting at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, the first hole will be used as a driving range for the junior golfers. The golf staff will use Nos. 12–16, which are walkable holes, for First Tee lessons.
The property plans to offer a series of 10 to 15 sessions for the young golfers in May and June, and depending on demand, in the fall as well. “We’ll block out the tee sheet accordingly,” reports Johnson. There are also plans to share facilities with other Park City golf courses and have the pros from those clubs come to Canyons Golf to teach.
Bunte’s and Johnson’s brainstorming sessions on the slopes have snowballed into a regular practice with others on the golf staff as well.
“We draw our entire seasonal staff from mountain operations, and we have skied with a few of them,” explains Bunte. “We talk about the upcoming [golf] season. It helps us be more efficient and multi-task when we see them during the off-season. Many other courses don’t have that luxury. It’s a nice benefit for us.”
Johnson agrees. “One of the best interviews I ever had was during an 18-hole round with an employer,” he adds. “You learn a lot about individuals when you recreate with them. It helps to develop a strong team, and with staff retention.”
During the six-month off-season, Bunte and Johnson also share an office in the golf course maintenance building.
“It was one of the best business decisions I’ve ever made,” reports Johnson. “Golf pros and superintendents often look at their worlds a little differently. We’re trying to see the operation through each other’s eyes and prioritize accordingly.”
While Bunte admits that sharing office space initially required an adjustment on his part, he touts the benefits of it as well.
“I can listen to some of his phone calls. I hear the questions that event coordinators ask. I see a part of the operation that I didn’t have access to in previous jobs, and Justin sees my equipment manager in action,” he explains. “We work closely together on the budget. It makes a difference when you’re at the same desk looking at the same spreadsheet, rather than sending e-mails back and forth.”
While working in close quarters during the winter has been advantageous for both of them, the arrangement ultimately strengthens Canyons Golf as well. “It has helped us develop mutual understanding and respect for each other,” Johnson says. “That goes a long way.”