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A Simpler Game

As the current model of wall-to-wall green becomes less sustainable in this economic climate, golf courses face a future of fewer frills and rougher edges and that is great news for golfers

By: Geoff Shackelford

For decades, the model for golf course aesthetics has been Augusta National Golf Club. The annual telecast of the Masters has shown a seemingly impossible range of shades of green on the grounds, from the pines to the greens to the fairways.

But what the television doesn’t show is how much it costs to create this Eden. As course owners and greens committees around the country have tried to emulate what they thought was the ideal golf experience, course superintendents wound up spending more and more on water, fertilizer and labor to attain a certain color for their courses, as if they were painting a room.

Until recently, that cost was acceptable in the era of bigger clubhouses and other extras like contiguous cart paths from the 1st tee to the 18th green. Especially since golfers were willing to pay for it.

But in the current economic climate, the maintenance of lush, pristinely manicured 7,500-yard layouts has become less sustainable. In addition, increasingly restrictive water regulations in much of the country and the growing awareness of golf’s environmental impact have made Augusta's model even further out of reach.

All these layers atop the basic golf experience have helped raise green fees, initiation fees and dues. Now, as golfers are unwilling to open their wallets as much, facilities are bound to start unpeeling those layers, so courses will look less green, less meticulous around the edges and a lot less soft.

“If there hadn’t been an economic downturn, we would not have seen an end to the chase for longer courses,” says Todd Eckenrode, one of the younger architects already in the business of retrofitting existing layouts to use fewer resources. “But now people are looking at golf courses differently and realize there is nothing wrong with 6,500 yards if it means 10 percent savings to build, a lot less to maintain and faster to play.”

While a direct correlation exists between the length of a course and maintenance cost, other design elements, largely developed over the past couple of decades, have added to the bill.

Two examples are multiple tee boxes and cart paths. It takes a lot of time to hand-mow six tee boxes every day. And in addition to the significant cost of installing paths, modern architects have had to go to extreme lengths to hide them, routing them well away from the fairway and constructing mounds to keep them out of view. That’s a lot of extra turf that has to be maintained.

FAST AND FIRM

Some golfers are already familiar with this type of fast-and-firm natural golf, which is the norm at overseas destinations like Scotland and Australia, and at a handful of American courses, like the courses at the Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon. But the vast majority of golfers, who have come to equate conditioning and visual stimulation with the quality of the golf experience, likely will find it difficult to accept this shift.

But there is little to fear. There is plenty for golfers to embrace at the golf course of the future, especially if you consider the differences.

In the old model, you would hit a drive and get in your cart, which you have to keep on the path because the call for green turf is keeping it off the fairways. Then, upon reaching the approximate area of your shot, you would have to estimate the distance, grab three or four clubs and walk to the ball. Once arriving at it, you see that the ball is actually behind the mark created by your drive on the lush fairway. You lash at a hybrid, and the shot lands short and right of the green, into the rough. You then spend several minutes looking for it in the thick, over-maintained grass before chopping it out.

In the new model, your drive would bounce along the firm, minimally watered fairway, upon which you could drive your cart. The extra roll would leave an approach with a 6-iron instead of a hybrid. You then land your shot short. But instead of being swallowed by the rough, the ball bounces on the turf then rolls along the subtle slopes around and on the green, feeding toward the hole—just as the architect intended.

Which type of golf would you prefer to play?  

The game thrived for 400 years on seemingly inferior attributes: firm, brown, natural. Ultimately, no matter how much we love to look at a rich color palette, our senses are dulled by man-made concoctions. We love golf because it’s us versus nature—and the leaner the turf and more rugged the hazards, the more satisfying it is to overcome the obstacles they present.

'NOT ONE COMPLAINT'

Already, many developers are embracing the less-is-more meme. Jim Taylor and Chip Hanly originally set out to develop Clear Creek Tahoe as a private golf community with 384 lots around the Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw layout. But when Clear Creek opened last year, Taylor and Hanly mothballed the real estate component, primarily to keep costs down.

“Recently established high-end clubs are going to be under a lot of pressure to make ends meet,” says Taylor. “If they are stuck with an expensive-to-maintain player-architect course and a big clubhouse and a big staff, it will be challenging for sure.”

Clear Creek can keep down maintenance costs, which normally make up more than half of a golf facility’s budget, because it features just 55 acres of turf (the average 7,000-yard layout requires 150 acres, much of it maintained), including a practice area, and uses recycled water.
Yet the lack of turf has had no impact on the Pine-Valley-meets-Castle-Pines aesthetics or the capability to hit heroic shots—two main factors that make Clear Creek so memorably fun.

While the Clear Creek layout was designed from the beginning to require fewer resources, other courses have had to make changes due to the economic downturn. At Cuscowilla, a resort and real estate community located on Georgia’s Lake Oconee, superintendent Rusty Mercer cut more than 15 percent of the $1 million maintenance budget.

The effect was a course that was scruffier, especially in the rough and transition areas. Because Cuscowilla is in a highly competitive area with plenty of golf options, Mercer worried that members would balk at the less meticulous conditioning.

“We didn’t receive one complaint that suggested anyone was bothered by the change in practices,” says Mercer. “A few noticed the rougher roughs or some of our converted native areas, but they pulled me aside to say that it had made them a better golfer and made them more appreciative of what we have as a golf course.”

In addition, Mercer, who only raked the bunkers several times a week to save money, also has noticed a long-term trend in the acceptance of more-rugged hazards since Cuscowilla’s 1997 opening. He believes this bodes well as course operators look to reduce the extravagant amounts devoted to fertilizers and other additives, not to mention the labor needed for daily primping of the rough and sand.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE PAST

Ironically, the course of the future resembles the classics of the past, which are less expensive to maintain. In 1922 A.W. Tillinghast built two courses on 280 acres for Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. By contrast, the 18-hole Concession Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida, which opened in 2006, sits on a 520-acre site.

Ask any golfer which round would be more memorable, and the answer will be nearly unanimous. The reasons for choosing Winged Foot have little to do with how many sets of tees it has, how green the fairways are or whether the bunkers were hand-raked that morning.

Rather, Winged Foot’s appeal is the design of the holes, which ask players to make risk-reward decisions and execute satisfying shots that are at the heart of the game. Sitting in the grill room after a round on the West course, players can reflect on whether they should have gone for the green on the short par-4 6th or how the tee shot on the par-3 10th was just a little too aggressive.

These core design principles will not go away in the course of the future. Architect Bruce Hepner of Renaissance Golf Design, a firm with a philosophy rooted in the past, spends a lot of time consulting at smaller-footprint courses, simplifying maintenance demands while accentuating the most satisfying design features. In short, he eliminates the “silly things that have everything to do with cost and nothing to do with what makes golf fun.”  

Hepner envisions a future with more courses like Renaissance’s recent transformation of an old course for the Colorado Golf Association. Renamed CommonGround, the $4 million layout outside Denver has $40 green fees and has proven to be wildly popular, thanks to a combination of affordability and classic design elements inspired by Renaissance’s love for ultra-simple Chicago Golf Club.

While the recent trend in the industry has been to build courses in increasingly far-flung locales, the success of CommonGround hopefully will start another movement: sprucing up existing courses near metropolitan areas to produce no-frills, low-cost layouts that are fun, in order to both attract new golfers and—more importantly—keep them in the game.

For a small investment, these easily accessible facilities can offer large rewards for a game in need of sustainable solutions.

“We need to remember the kind of golf we all played as kids,” says Hepner, “and how we learned the game through things like caddying or playing public courses. Just because it is not perfectly maintained doesn’t mean you can’t make good golf out of it. That’s a mentality that has to change—and will.”

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