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Considering Renovation? Tips for Choosing a Golf Course Architect
by
Scott Ferrell

By Scott Ferrell

Golf courses are “living and breathing creatures,” it’s often said.

But unlike humans and other beings, golf courses can live forever if properly nurtured. Especially when our wonderfully talented golf course superintendents administer that daily TLC. Over time, however, surgery or a makeover may be necessary to keep a golf course “healthy.” That’s where golf course architects come in.

Many golfers fancy themselves as having an “architect’s eye” but typically underestimate the complexities of golf course design. It takes many years to hone the craft, and successful architects often start their careers in the dirt. There’s no substitute for working on a golf course construction crew to understand the design process. Golf course architects are, in fact, both technicians and artists.

If your club is considering a renovation, asking the following questions will help you begin the journey:

1) Are we renovating or restoring? There’s a difference. Renovating may be driven by many factors, such as drainage issues, catching up with club and ball technology, aging turf, or simply to create a better and more playable golf experience. While restoration may include several of those factors, it is generally motivated by the desire to take the course back to its original design. This sometimes occurs when the original designer gained notoriety from a certain style, a la Donald Ross. Some architects have positioned themselves as experts in the restoration of courses done by a particular designer. This may make your architect decision far easier.

2) What are our objectives? Are they simply technical improvements, or are we trying to sell more memberships or real estate? Most designers check the box when it comes to a solid architectural foundation, particularly if they are members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), which is recommended. But not all architects have the notoriety and brand to move the marketing and sales needle. That is why signature architects are often hired as a differentiator for new development projects.

3) What is our budget? Some architects have the reputation of taking an unlimited budget and doubling it. Be careful. A defined budget is a must to keep control of the project. And the finished product must also fit into your annual maintenance budget.

Establish a shortlist of three designers to invite for interviews and final presentations. These questions will help whittle it down:

1) What is your design philosophy? This may seem like an obvious question, but the answer can be very telling. If an architect starts talking about creating landforms, heavy bunkering, or a major re-routing, be prepared for a higher budget. While a minimalist approach is not always possible, moving less earth will create a more natural look and lower budget.

2) What is your design process? Do you produce a detailed set of plans and specifications to guide the golf course contractor? This is important to establish a budget and hold everyone accountable. While “free-flowing in the field” architects often produce beautiful work, it’s harder to establish a budget with that style.

3) How do you assist in the selection of a contractor? The answer should be a bid process of experienced firms that bid to the set of plans. Of course, one does not have to pick the low bid, but you need to put yourself in a position to compare apples to apples. This approach also applies if an agronomist or irrigation designer is needed.

4) How often do you visit the project during construction? Drawings are important, but sometimes the architect can make excellent adjustments in the field if present at key construction milestones.

5) How long will the course be shut down? This has obvious financial implications. The schedule is usually driven by a grassing window that occurs at a certain time of year.

6) What is your view on playability? We all love the great championship courses, but does the everyday amateur want to play them and get bloodied every day? This is a philosophical point, but by and large, you want a playable course that your members and guests will enjoy time and again. This will improve member satisfaction and drive dues or greens fee revenue.

7) What is your view on sustainability? We are all responsible for being stewards of the environment, and if you are going to renovate, you should strive to create a more sustainable golf course. If the architect has courses in their portfolio certified by Audubon International, for example, that’s a plus.

8) Can you provide references from like clubs? This may be the most important question. Talking to clubs that have worked with the architect from start to finish will glean critical information and insight.

9) Where is your office? While this is not the highest priority question, having an architect in reasonable proximity will likely mean that you will get more attention and more affordable visits during construction.

You’ve reached the home stretch! You should be able to narrow the search to three competitors, all of whom have proven that they can do the job. Now it’s a beauty contest. Given the competitive state of the golf course design business today, it’s appropriate to ask for conceptual sketches unique to your course in a final proposal/presentation. These materials will communicate a unique vision and lead to meaningful and relevant design discussions specific to your course, and hopefully, a clear and educated choice!

Good luck!

Scott Ferrell is vice president of development at Bobby Jones Links.  He can be reached via email at scott.ferrell@bobbyjoneslinks.com.

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