Reflecting their elevated professional status, superintendents are now getting in on the ground floor to provide brains, and leadership, for golf course construction and renovation projects.
By Betsy Gilliland, Contributing Editor
- Superintendents now routinely take the lead in course renovation projects—but their higher profiles bring a need for expanded expertise.
- No two construction projects are alike; each one must be managed in step with a course’s unique identity—past, present and future.
- Course renovation projects offer a great opportunity to energize assistants and other staff and expand their skills and knowledge, and also to engage colleagues and broaden the club’s support network.
The reasons to renovate or restore a golf course vary from property to property. But one facet of these construction projects, regardless of how small or detailed they may be, is becoming more typical—involving golf course superintendents from the beginning.
Just ask Phil Van Roekel, Golf Course Superintendent of Ankeny (Iowa) Golf & Country Club.
When the property was considering making improvements to its nine-hole golf course last year, members were invited to a meeting to discuss the potential project. Van Roekel, who had never before worked on a grow-in, initially said little during the presentation—until one of the club members said, “We want to hear Phil’s thoughts.”
That request spoke volumes about the increasingly integral role that superintendents now play in golf course renovation or restoration projects. No longer are they relegated to after-thought status, called on to step in only when it’s time to maintain the newly renovated turf. However, their higher-profile role also creates the need to nurture and develop new areas of expertise that will let them contribute effectively to the project.
Kevin Robinson, Superintendent of Course No. 2 at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, has had extensive experience in golf course construction projects. Before resort officials hired him in May 2010 to oversee the restoration of the famed championship golf course, he had spent the previous 11 years as a superintendent on four Pinehurst courses, and had led renovation projects on three of them.
Pinehurst No. 2 had been the site of two successful U.S. Open championships in 1999 and 2005, but resort officials felt that the golf course had come to look, feel and play like other courses.
“We felt like we had lost our identity. We were getting too manicured, treeline to treeline,” notes Robinson.
The restoration was launched to return the Donald Ross design to its natural and strategic character, which had been lost through the years. As part of the project, almost 700 sprinkler heads were removed, leaving about 450 operating heads along the single, center water line to define fairways; other areas would now be defined by weather and natural elements.
“I don’t know of any other courses that are taking heads away, but we didn’t do the restoration to win environmental awards or to save money,” says Robinson. “However, as a by-product, we have reduced the amount of water we use, and reduced fertilizer inputs as well. We got rid of the rough and replaced it with sand and wiregrass, so the course doesn’t require a lot of water. We want to have a green look down the center of the fairway and let it taper off. This gives us the ‘retro’ look that Pinehurst used to have.”
An irrigation system that was in constant need of repair prompted renovations at Leewood Golf Club in Eastchester, N.Y. Golf Course Superintendent Trapper Van Dunk says the property was spending almost $10,000 annually on repairs, before the property replaced the system. The property also created three new ponds, bringing the total to six ponds on-site, to support the new pumphouse.
“We created an infrastructure,” explains Van Dunk. “All of the city stormwater comes through our property and goes into a pond. We increased the size of the pond, and it is also more visually aesthetic. One thing led to another, and with the economy, we were able to get more for our money.”
The need to eliminate poa from the greens prompted the Ankeny G&CC renovation. However, Van Roekel says the golf course, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, also needs to give members the best possible conditions to stay competitive with new courses.
“We wanted to invest in our greens by putting in a current, new variety of bentgrass that is more disease-tolerant and has a faster putting surface,” he adds.
The project included killing the greens, collars, approaches and tee boxes; sterilizing the soil, and reseeding with T-1 bentgrass. “We struggled all last year trying to slowly convert the poa out of the greens,” explains Van Roekel. “That left a lot of bare areas on the greens.”
The More the Merrier
Despite their varying levels of experience with golf course renovation projects, the superintendents all had plenty of help along the way.
Robinson worked closely with the course architects for the Pinehurst renovation, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, as well as top management personnel including the resort’s CEO and Owner, Bob Dedman, Jr., and its Director of Golf Courses and Grounds, Bob Farren. United States Golf Association officials were also regularly consulted, since Pinehurst No. 2 will be the site of both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open Championship in consecutive weeks in 2014.
In turn, Robinson made it a point to involve his two assistants, John Jeffreys and Alan Owen, in the restoration. “We made them a big part of the project, and they embraced it,” he says.
His experience has also taught Robinson that no two projects are alike. “With every project I’ve worked on, I’ve worked with different architects,” he reveals. “The projects are different, and each course has its own identity.”
During Leewood’s renovation, Van Dunk worked with the club’s greens and golf committee chairmen, general manager, golf course architect, golf pro, president of the property, site supervisors, irrigation consultant and assistant, and contractor. He was involved in engineering, artistic and scientific aspects, to ensure that the changes would benefit the turf and golf course playability. The Leewood maintenance staff also performed some of the smaller jobs, such as drainage, sodding and building rock walls.
In addition, Van Dunk depended on his assistant superintendents and mechanics to keep golf course maintenance operations running smoothly while he was involved with the renovation. He attended town meetings to secure permits and to make sure the project was up to code.
“It was a learning experience from day one—and learning on the go,” says Van Dunk, who had worked on a construction project as an intern.
When the club’s members saw his devotion and commitment to the project, he feels, they gained new respect for him as an educated professional. While it was clear that his opinions were valued, he also knew he had to live up to the confidence that was being shown in him.
“Day-to-day, minute-to-minute, I was involved from the beginning,” he says. “I had to be on top of everything, to optimize our budget and playability. The members are not going to give you $3 million and say, ‘Go have fun.’ If I didn’t think something was a good idea, I had to explain why.”
At Ankeny, an outside contractor laser-leveled the greens, but the maintenance staff—and volunteers that included some 40 members—performed most of the other tasks. The members were a welcome, and much needed, addition to the work force—while Ankeny’s maintenance crew has five or six employees during the golf season, Van Roekel only has one other staff member in the fall.
But members were not the only people that Van Roekel relied on for help. Before the renovation got underway, he also sought advice from his peers. “When our greens were struggling last summer, I talked to another superintendent at a course that had converted its greens,” he explains.
Another superintendent helped Ankeny G&CC save money by loaning tarps to the property, to cover the turf for five or six days after granular products had been applied to kill the turf.
Van Roekel also turned to Dr. Dave Minner, an Iowa State University professor, for guidance. “You have to be up-to-date with what’s coming out and new,” he reports. “Genetically, things are changing at a rapid pace.”
Soliciting advice from others also helped prepare Van Roekel and General Manager Brandon Miller for the general membership meeting to discuss the project. “We had established the costs of the project before we went to the board,” says Van Roekel. “We wanted to seed at the optimum time, and we told them about the downtime. We also arranged for the members to have special deals at other courses.”
He also used the opportunity to tell the members he would need help with the project. “I said I can’t be diverted by minor things like flowerbeds, and the members really stepped up,” he says. “I told them I would have to line up contractors, but the thing we would need most is a lot of hands on deck.”
In the end, the Ankeny members not only gave their approval to renovate the greens, they also agreed to redo the collars, approaches and tee boxes at the same time.
Open to Change
Van Roekel, who has worked at Ankeny for nine years, isn’t expecting his job to be any easier with the course’s new turf. However, he hopes to see some changes in maintenance practices. While he plans to “baby” the turf this year, he says he will test it with lower mowing heights next year.
“The bentgrass is still going to require daily care and the same routines such as verticutting and top dressing,” notes Van Roekel. “But I hope it will be easier to maintain green speeds, and I hope that disease and foot traffic will be less of a problem with a stronger, more durable bentgrass.”
Leewood’s Van Dunk says he has yet to see how the changes at his course will affect maintenance practices. “I’m going to be learning the golf course all over again,” he adds.
Robinson can second that notion. With the changes at Pinehurst, his crew, which includes 12 full-time and 20 part-time employees, had to relearn how to take care of the golf course.
“The crew had to go through a big culture change, based on how the course was now going to be maintained,” he reports. “With the help of my two assistants, we’ve come up with a lot of [new] maintenance concepts. It took the crew about a year to get on board.”
For example, since the restoration, the staff has been using turning boards when walk-mowing greens, to protect the surrounding turf from wear and tear. In addition, two-man teams take care of the greens complexes and rake bunkers on four or five holes each morning.
The maintenance staff also assigns one person per nine holes to focus on greens maintenance, with tasks such as fixing ball marks, changing hole locations and painting the cups. Another individual has “tees and trash” duty, in which he blows off the tees and picks up broken tees and trash on nine holes.
One employee oversees spot-spraying with a backpack in the native areas, and teaches other crew employees which plants to spray and which ones to let grow.
“There is a lot more manual labor, versus putting somebody on a piece of riding equipment. There is a lot more hand-pulling of weeds,” reveals Robinson. “Before we had four or five different heights of cut. Now we just have two—the greens height, and everything else.”
The new bunkers, with their rough, jagged edges, no longer have to be edged, and crew members no longer spend time mowing and blowing rough. However, they now aerify and top-dress the fairways more frequently. And rather than overseed in the winter, the grounds crew paints the greens in the colder months, to give the turf a hint of green. The crew also relies on manual labor to repair new sand cart paths.
The increased manual labor has been a trade-off with reduced water and fertilizer usage, Robinson reports. “We didn’t restore the course to save money. We did it because it was the right thing to do,” he explains. “But you like to make good business decisions. Course No. 2 is the engine that drives the resort—and the town, and the county.”
During a restoration or construction project, Robinson says superintendents have to multi-task and deal with different personalities. “Make sure everybody’s on the same page, and know your course identity,” he adds.
In addition, he believes properties shouldn’t cater only to the 1 to 2 percent of scratch golfers that play their courses. Robinson also cautions against adding “crazy features” that add more maintenance, and more money, to their upkeep.
His involvement in restoration and construction projects also has made him more aware of the financial considerations of golf course maintenance. For instance, he reports, “There is a lot of money to be spent or saved in maintaining bunkers.”
Van Dunk advises superintendents to lean on colleagues who also have taken part in construction or renovation projects, to find a sympathetic ear or someone who might have encountered a similar situation. “Use your peers. Call them,” he recommends. “It’s nice to have somebody you can talk to—even if it’s just to vent your frustrations.”
Having patience during the process is also important. “There are so many different personalities and egos involved all at the same time,” Van Dunk explains. “It’s important to listen.”