Golf course practice facilities have become destinations with multiple amenities, rather than just places to hit a few balls, and superintendents have adjusted their maintenance of these areas accordingly.
If there has been one given in the golf course industry in the past year-plus of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been that more golfers have flocked to courses to play the game.
“I don’t think it matters where you are. There definitely has been an uptick in golf,” says Jim Myers, CGCS, Golf Course Superintendent of Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland, Ore.
Properties have become a welcome respite for many golfers, whether they’re longtime players or new to the game, and they also have found a home on the range at practice facilities.
And with many practice facilities now offering much more than a driving range, these areas have become destinations in their own right. The additional amenities, along with increased usage, have affected maintenance of these areas as well.
Bells and Whistles
Some properties have received nationwide recognition for all the bells and whistles that their practice facilities have to offer. In 2020, for instance, Columbia Edgewater CC was named one of the Golf Range Association of America (GRAA) Top 50 Private Facilities for the ninth year in a row.
The property’s practice facility includes a driving range with a one-acre grass tee, pre-stacked range balls, a variety of instructional swing aids, and two rain covers. The short-game area features a large target green, a tee box, two fairways and four bunkers, as well as a putting green.
Golfers can play shots on the nine-hole Mason Par 3 course, which is adjacent to the short-game area, from the yardage of their choosing, ranging from 55 to 135 yards, depending on the hole.
The practice facility at the 18-hole River Bend Golf & Country Club in Great Falls, Va., has placed in the GRAA Top 50 Private Facilities for nine consecutive years as well. Its more than 24 acres includes two acres of bentgrass practice tees, two acres of Latitude 36 Bermudagrass practice tees, a four-acre bentgrass short-game facility with a practice putting green and a practice chipping green, and an uneven-lie area.
An indoor training facility includes two bays, which hold two people at a time, with golfers hitting from a tee out onto a practice fairway with six target greens and seven target bunkers.
This year, River Bend will launch a two-phased renovation of the outdoor practice facility, which was built in 1999. The first stage, which will begin in August, will include the expansion of the bentgrass tees and the installation of new irrigation.
“We’ll work on the bentgrass when members are playing on the Bermudagrass,” says Golf Course Superintendent Luke Fisher.
He expects the work to take about two weeks. Once the tees have been seeded and allowed to mature during the growing season, they will be available for use in the spring of 2022.
River Bend will also expand its short-game fairway and chipping area this year. Currently, the outdoor practice facility has about 30 individual Astroturf hitting stations. After the renovation, however, it will become one long, continuous hitting station.
In 2022, the property, which has putting greens adjacent to the main clubhouse, will build an additional practice putting green.
No Reason to Leave
As if the Colleton River Club’s two 18-hole golf courses – the Nicklaus Course and the links-style Dye Course, where scenes of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” were filmed —don’t give golfers enough reason to pick up their clubs, the Practice Park complex offers six additional ways to hone their skills. The practice facilities at the Bluffton, S.C., property have made the GRAA Top 50 Private Facilities list for six years running.
The two courses each have their own double-ended driving range, and the Dye Course practice area also includes various practice bunkers that replicate Dye designs in different settings, as well as a chipping green under live oaks.
With 300 yards of Celebration Bermuda-grass that recreate course-like conditions, the Nicklaus driving range includes four practice greens and target bunkers.
The short-game area features three practice greens, bunkers, cart paths, and pine straw. Designed to complement the Colleton River courses, two Nicklaus greens and one Dye green mimic on-course conditions.
Renovated in 2016, the six-hole, par-3 executive Borland Course is intermingled with the practice facility, so that golfers can plan nine holes. The Augusta-style layout features three ponds, and its holes are 60 to 90 yards in length.
The property also added a state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor 2,200-sq. ft. Learning Center in 2017. Featuring “every electronic gadget you could imagine,” notes Kevin Dugger, Superintendent of the 18-hole Nicklaus Course, the facility includes TrackMan technology, 70-inch TV screens, and a director of instruction.
“It’s a great benefit to the members. They can schedule private learning sessions,” he adds. “It’s a special place for the members so they don’t have to go off property.”
The Halfway Café in the Nicklaus practice area is another popular feature of the Practice Park. Located between the first tee and the main driving range tee, the 2,000-sq. ft. building has a portico on each side.
“The Nicklaus practice facility is heavily used later in the evening because of the café,” Dugger says. “People can eat inside or outside. Guys gather there in the evenings and hit balls, have a drink and tell stories.”
Playing the Numbers
Myers says there has been more wear and tear on the Columbia Edgewater practice facilities in the past year because of increased play. In 2019, the property had 34,628 rounds of golf. That number increased to about 44,000 rounds in 2020.
In December alone, the property had almost 3,000 rounds, where in a typical December, Columbia Edgewater sees about 900 rounds. “Golf was our only escape,” says Myers.
Convenience is another factor behind the high usage. The property is about six miles from downtown Portland, so members frequently come to the course to practice during their lunch breaks or after work.
The facilities attract golfers of different skill levels as well. Three professionals—Dan Miernicki of the Korn Ferry Tour, Caroline Inglis of the LPGA, and Ryan Gronlund of the PGA Tour Canada—practice at Columbia Edgewater. The Oregon Amateur Championship was held at the property in June 2020, and each September Columbia Edgewater is the site of the LPGA Cambia Portland Classic. The tournament, the longest running nonmajor on the LPGA Tour, will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
A lot of low handicappers from among the membership also play Columbia Edgewater, notes Myers, so expectations for pristine conditions are high. “The members are really focused on practicing and building their games,” he says. “They want to practice as much as they play.”
River Bend G&CC, located in a suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood where a lot of young families live, averaged 20,000 rounds in 2019. The number increased to 28,000 rounds in 2020. As a result, the practice facility received more use as well, which in turn led to more divots and more wear and tear on the turf.
“More people are coming to hit balls, then come out to play,” says Fisher.
With the property located in the transition zone, golfers practice on the Bermudagrass from June through September and on the bentgrass from April through June.
The facility has a parking area, so people go there without checking in at the pro shop. However, Fisher says, “The golf shop has to check it every hour to make sure there are enough balls.”
Because of its size, the practice area is sometimes used for events. The property holds a big Fourth of July party every summer where tents are set up on the bentgrass tees and bounce houses for children are put in the short-game area. The property also has an annual fall concert, Back From the Beach, at the end of September.
In addition, River Bend serves as a Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying site in the summer.
The pandemic created significant increases in play at the Colleton River Club as well, and the higher usage carried over to the practice facilities. “We did more rounds this year than the club had ever done,” notes Dugger.
Keeping Up with Demands
More rounds have translated to more use of golf course practice facilities, which has affected maintenance of these areas.
The Columbia Edgewater grounds crew maintains the entire property, and one of the defining features of the practice area is the turf itself. “Our practice area is all real grass,” Myers says.
The practice facility, like the golf course, features primarily poa annua as well as some bentgrass, fescue, and rye grass. The short-rooted poa is more demanding and requires more inputs, including increased fertility, than the other grasses.
Maintenance of the practice facilities includes mowing, raking bunkers, replacing divots, rolling greens, blowing off the turf, and basic cleanup. The maintenance staff also tries to promote turf growth as much as possible with more fertility inputs, topdressing, and cultural practices.
“The conditions on the practice facilities match the conditions on the golf course. We try to keep the same conditions on the practice area year-round,” says Myers. “We try to give the same product to our members that we give to the touring pros who visit our course.”
However, the maintenance staff keeps the greens on the Par 3 course slower in the summertime, when more children and families are golfing together or being introduced to the game.
The practice facilities open a half-hour before the first tee time, and Columbia Edgewater’s assistant superintendent schedules staff to work on the practice facilities, main course, and Par 3 course every day. Rather than assigning specific people to the practice area, however, these duties are rotated among staff members.
The maintenance team members get two days off a week during the winter, and work 12 days on and two days off in the summer. While the Columbia Edgewater grounds crew members typically work half-days on Saturdays and Sundays, they have worked longer hours since play has increased with the pandemic, to maintain the practice facilities and the golf course to the expected standards.
“Maintenance has changed because of the amount of play we have been getting,” Myers says. “We want to keep the same standards. We couldn’t do it without increasing the hours [for] the turf department. [But our crew members] are used to the hours and are dedicated to the club.”
Recovery for the turf has been a challenge during the winter with the increased play, Myers reports, and the crew has spent more time filling in divots. “We’ve implemented more care for high-traffic areas, and spend more time focusing on areas such as foot traffic in and out of the greens complexes,” he says.
Just as the grounds crew has invested in the property, Columbia Edgewater has invested in the maintenance department, by providing state-of-the-art equipment.
“The club made a $1 million investment in equipment,” says Myers, who has played golf in 30 countries on five continents to find ways to improve his turf-management skills. “We have the tools to produce a product that the membership is looking for.”
At River Bend, Fisher estimates the maintenance-department budget for the practice facility is at least $500,000, out of its total budget of $2.1 million for the 18-hole golf course and common grounds. With the location of the practice area, its conditioning is paramount.
“The practice facility is like the front yard of the club,” says Fisher. “It’s the first thing people see, so it has to look good.”
One full-time staff member, along with the help of an additional crew member each day, maintains the River Bend practice area. The full-time employee spends about 50 hours a week on the practice area, and his helper spends about 20 hours a week there.
When the golf course is closed on Mondays, more staff members will devote additional time to the practice area for tasks such as divot repair.
River Bend also aerates the practice facility two times a year. The maintenance staff members topdress the greens weekly, verticut the tees monthly to help with recovery, and make bi-weekly fungicide applications. They mow the greens daily and the tees and fairways every other day. They monitor the turf to water as needed. The grounds crew uses the same piece of machinery to verticut the tees and to vacuum divots and haul them off every day.
The conditions of the greens and short game area are close to that the golf course, notes Fisher. The tees offer a good grass hitting surface, he adds, but they’re not as tight as the fairways.
River Bend closes the practice facility early on Sunday and Thursday nights to do a clean pickup of balls, and the maintenance staff mows all of the rough on Monday and Friday mornings. However, when special events are planned for the practice area, the grounds crew might alter its mowing schedule.
At Colleton River Club, the annual maintenance budget for the Practice Park is $100,000. Dugger says three full-time employees spend 6,000 manhours a year to maintain the Nicklaus practice facility.
The maintenance staff rotates the care of the practice area among crew members, and one person mows the practice area every morning. Other maintenance duties include edging bunkers, pruning azaleas, filling in divots on the range and tees every day, and changing cups three times a week.
“It’s rolled into our normal operational flow. We treat it exactly the same as we treat the Nicklaus Course,” says Dugger. “I want the golfers to be able to practice on something that replicates what they’re going to experience on the golf course.”
The Nicklaus, Dye, and Borland courses have TifEagle greens, TifGrand collars, and Celebration Bermudagrass on the tees, fairways, and rough.
The maintenance staff can use a machine in the bunkers on the golf course, notes Dugger, but not in the practice-facility bunkers. “There’s a challenge because, with a practice facility, the bunkers are so much smaller,” he explains. “We have to spend a little extra time there to make sure the bunkers are in good shape.”
The Colleton River maintenance staff topdresses the practice area every two weeks, and give it weekly foliage spray and growth-regulator applications. In addition, wetting agents and soil-fertility applications are used bi-weekly, following the same regimen used on the golf course.
Crew members start on the practice facilities, which are located near the clubhouse, at 6 a.m., and tee times begin at 8 a.m. “The practice facilities are the first thing we do every morning,” Dugger says. “We only have about an hour to get them ready. It takes some logistics and some thinking, but they make Colleton a special place.”
One of the best tools that golf course superintendents have to keep their practice facilities in top condition doesn’t reside in their maintenance shops. They stay in close contact with their memberships to educate them about proper turf maintenance.
“Education has been huge to combat the number of rounds and play we have had to preserve the turf as much as possible,” Myers says. “By educating members, it’s amazing how much more they have been caring for the golf course.”
He sends out a Friday report and e-mail blasts to golfers to recommend that they practice a certain way such as by hitting in-line divots. Director of Golf Bryan Tunstill, PGA, and Head Golf Professional Adrian Burtner, PGA, help to educate the membership as well.
This year, Columbia Edgewater also has formed a new committee dedicated to golfer education. The committee is conducting a marketing campaign about caring for the golf course and promoting the care of the property.
“It will be nice to have the committee,” Myers says. “These members are dedicated to excellence.”
At River Bend Club, three large poster boards on tripods remind players to take practice shots in a linear pattern to speed up recovery of the turf.
Last year Fisher and Head Golf Professional John Madden, PGA, made a five-minute, professional, introductory video to River Bend. They played several holes and went over proper golf course care. They also visited the practice facility, where they demonstrated how to fix ball marks, hit linear shots, and properly rake bunkers.
In addition, River Bend holds a golf course social in the spring, summer, and fall where 50 people will come to the property in the evenings to help fill divots.
The divot repair mix for the fairways contains 2-inch fescue instead of bentgrass to keep the bentgrass from getting into the rough. The mix also includes sand with organic matter, which holds water and helps the seed grow.
Fisher takes the Greens Committee on a course tour once a month as well. In the monthly newsletter, he reminds golfers to repair ball marks and divots. A card about golf course care also is posted in each golf car.
The educational efforts at River Bend have been particularly effective in the past year with all of the new golfers that have taken up the game.
“The popularity of golf is great for the business and the sport,” Fisher says. “I’m looking forward to the next generation. Being able to get outside has brought joy to the membership. They have been able to come out and get away from everything. It’s very rewarding.”
Dugger also sends out weekly e-mail blasts to Colleton River Club members, and he encourages golfers to hit “bacon strip,” or linear, divots instead of random divots as well. Of course, he also tells them to “enjoy yourself and have fun.”
The property has gotten a lot of new members because of the pandemic, says Dugger, and, having 700 homesites within the property, fulltime residents or those who have second homes at Colleton River Club are staying there year-round.
Most of the new golfers have been conscientious about taking care of the golf course, Dugger says. “We’re having more turf issues because of single-use golf carts,” he adds.
The superintendents agree that practice areas and member expectations about the facilities have changed through the years.
Fisher, who has worked in golf course maintenance for 20 years and been the Superintendent at River Bend for three of his 16 years there, says practice facilities used to be located on “leftover land” on a property. “No thought was put into it. People would just go out and hit a couple of balls before their round,” he says. “Now they have become a destination for people to go and spend time on their game. We have full-time teaching professionals, and we do club fittings.””
Dugger, who has been in golf course maintenance for 34 years and at Colleton River for 23, says practice areas have become more than a driving range. “They replicate the shot experience that you would see on the golf course,” he says.
Myers has seen similar changes in his 28 years as a GCSAA member. “Practice areas were used just as a warmup area,” he reports. “Now, golfers use practice areas to sharpen their games. There will be more demand for them. The practice facility is going to become just as important as the golf course itself.”
Summing It Up
> With more amenities and increased usage, golf course practice facilities have increased in importance and require more time and maintenance inputs from grounds crews.
> At upscale properties, the practice-facility conditions try to replicate the turf conditions of the golf courses.
> The education of their memberships is one of the most effective tools that superintendents have
to keep practice areas in top