The Drive of Technology
Have today's hotter golf balls and giant clubheads compromised the defenses of your course? Certainly; but according to industry veterans, the answer to restoring the challenge at your course is right under your feet.
Jeffery Brauer has seen several waves of technology in his 25 years of designing golf courses. With an unusual amount of pressure on architects and superintendents to do everything possible to keep their courses from becoming a pitch-and-putt, they are making changes to keep them successful, challenging and fun.
Brauer has been designing and remodeling courses around the country. His design in Minnesota, The Quarry at Giants Ridge, was named the best new upscale public course in 2004 by a major golf publication.
In early 2002 he planned a renovation of the Creeks Course at Indian Creek Golf Club in Carrollton, Texas. The course closed when construction began in April and the more challenging layout reopened July of 2003. Years of technology improvements put it in a position many courses are in now: they are becoming too easy; bunkers are no longer in play; and greens are being peppered by lots of short irons and very few long irons, counter to original designs.
Like many in the golf industry striving to protect the game from a high-tech assault, Brauer used several approaches to bring strategy and skillful shot-making back, while keeping maintenance concerns in mind by doing such things as eliminating bunkers that catch few balls. Although additional length was part of the recipe, that was mainly used to stretch the back two sets of tees by about 300 yards overall. Much of his attention focused on other ways to make the course challenging — starting with the terrain.
“I pushed the limit, I think, on green contours,” Brauer says. You can concede that faster than a one-foot putt because after a round with Brauer at Indian Creek, it's obvious that several greens have some serious swales and slopes. Good players are not fazed by hazards anymore, Brauer says. So he likes to put them inside the green by using big swales to make a player think about where on the green they should land the ball.
“As many holes as I can do, I line up the features with the prevailing wind so that all the shots line up,” he says. He believes good players like clarity and tries to give that to them in his designs. He emphasizes the nature of a hole by routing long holes into the wind and short ones with the prevailing wind. “Of course, you can trust prevailing winds like a riverboat gambler,” Brauer adds.
USING WHAT YOU HAVE
The main challenge in defending a course from the distance gobbling technology of today's balls and clubs is not getting one-dimensional. You must have some length, Brauer says, but other aspects of a good remodeling project come into play as well. They include strategy, beauty and most critically for the superintendent, ease of maintenance as described in the sidebar.
Take bunkers as an example: they are labor intensive and prone to washouts with heavy rains. Putting in improved bunker liners can reduce the amount of repair they need and speed daily maintenance. Also, the challenge of mowing can be reduced by strategic turf grass selection and an irrigation system with computerized soil moisture monitoring capabilities.
Today, with the newer golf balls curving less than before, more of the game strategy relates to the slope of the ground, not how much you work a shot, Brauer says. For instance, on the second hole, several facets of design came into focus. A need for some extra dirt on nearby holes meant moving several hundred yards of earth from the left side of number two. Brauer designed the hole (402 yards from the blue tees) as a dogleg left with a narrow chute of a fairway going up the left side as a short cut. The chute wasn't in the original plans but when it became necessary to move some dirt to another hole, it was a good opportunity to use the flattened hillside as a tempting risk-reward landing zone. A steep bank at the end of the slot means you have to decide which part of the fairway to put your drive in, otherwise you have a brutal recovery shot.
“That's all designed for someone that hits it farther than I do,” Brauer says. “I don't think I could clear that last steep bank there in 100 years.” The hole also has a medium-sized tree about 260 yards out near the bend in the main fairway, which is elevated about 10 feet above the narrower portion.
Birdies come along when the critical shot meets the standard placed on accuracy by the architect. A little luck never hurts either. On this day, the drive on number 2 is ripped down the left side and draws just enough to miss the tree at the dogleg. It bounces atop the crest of the bank and bounds down the sloping fairway to within 110 yards of the green. A crisp 9-iron leaves the ball a dozen feet right of the pin on a side hill. The putt finds the bottom of the cup and, as Brauer puts it, a good drive is converted into a good score. As an architect, he seems pleased that strategy and shot making can come together to make a birdie more enjoyable. Never mind that the drive was hit with a new 460cc driver.
Architect Steve Smyers believes incorporating the slopes and hills of each hole to enhance its playability is crucial because that's where most golfers play — as opposed to the pros who use an aerial assault. Shooting for a nice carom off a greenside slope is part of the strategy many golfers use, for instance.
“Utilizing the ground is what makes the game fun and exciting for a lot of people,” Smyers says. As a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architect's technology committee, he believes better trained athletes and course conditioning have also contributed to better play in recent years. All of those factors have combined to make for drives that fly farther and roll longer than ever. Don't concede just yet. You are not dormie in the match with technology as recent remodeling projects show.
At St. Andrew's Golf Club in Overland Park, Kan., superintendent Terry Rodenberg wanted to increase the size and challenge of the greens. In addition, he says the remodeling project that finished this fall makes the public, daily-fee course more competitive with some high-end courses that opened recently in the area just south of Kansas City. Twenty-year industry veteran Craig Schreiner was the architect who redesigned the greens and Carol Mann, an LPGA Hall-of-Famer, worked on positioning the forward tees.
Rodenberg says the new greens allow more pin placements and are more receptive to bump-and-run shots while still being easy to maintain. The bentgrass fringe and bailout areas, which are easily mown at ⅜ inch, give golfers some options in what type of short game shot to hit. The new drainage put in under the greens makes maintenance easier as well.
Schreiner says his approach is to make it more difficult for a low-handicap player to make birdie without crippling the high-handicapper. He feels greens with subtle break put a premium on reading greens and committing to the speed, which influences how many putts a good player will sink. Since high handicappers aren't generally accurate putters, the subtle break doesn't really hurt their score.
“With all the equipment, the balls, the driver heads, the larger sweet spots, the distance becoming a non-factor,” says Schreiner, “the only saving grace we have are subtly designed putting surfaces just like we did at St. Andrews.”
The area around the 18
“There's a lot more options to actually play the shot out of there as opposed to a flop shot out of the rough,” Schreiner says. With 15 to 20 pins possible on each green, putting on any surface can go from feast to famine in less time than it takes a snap-hook to rocket out of bounds.
At Brauer's Indian Creek course the bunker complex on the first hole is primarily designed for its visual impression. While Brauer also thought it was strategically placed far enough out from the blue tees that it couldn't be carried by a drive — reports from the starter say recently several guys are doing just that.
It's harder by the day for a course to defend itself. So while technology is bringing down scores, take comfort in the fact that it is also reducing maintenance time and costs — making your job just a little easier.
Michael Coleman graduated from the University of Iowa School of Journalism and resides in Olathe, Kan.
Course renovations spurred by new technology, both in maintenance and playing equipment, have two goals in mind — making a course more interesting to play and for you, easier to maintain.
Superintendents want to keep long-term maintenance costs down and certain aspects of renovations address that, such as installing bunker liners to keep sand from washing away and installing turf that makes mowing less burdensome.
Superintendent Terry Rodenberg at St. Andrews Golf Club in Overland Park, Kan., feels the new bentgrass put in place during his current renovation will reduce maintenance because it allows finer mowing. Fewer mowing hassles can have a big impact on maintenance time.
For instance Scott Johnson, superintendent at Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kan., says the new mowing decks available now decrease the amount of damage done during that unavoidable task. The smaller, more nimble decks allow the crew to get into tighter spaces and keep hilly areas nicely mown without the time-consuming repairs to the grounds often experienced with the larger mowers.
Johnson says computerized irrigation systems have made his job of maintaining the appropriate moisture levels on fairways and greens much easier. Without the potential concern of the fairways turning brown, you can reduce watering and as a result, reduce mowing. Less frequent watering also encourages deeper root growth, experts say, which helps roots tap hard to reach moisture.
Adding bunker liners has been a common approach to reducing one of the costliest areas in course maintenance. Liners work with the drainage system to keep rain from destroying the contour of the bunker, which eliminates most costly repairs. They also keep dirt and rocks from percolating up through the sand.
One challenge that arises during renovations is how to overcome the maintenance issues brought on by the renovation itself. Many courses simply close down during major renovations. If the right approach is used for a small project, golfers don't even notice.
For those medium-sized projects, there is no quick answer. Generous amounts of planning are needed to keep project timetables as short as possible. Rodenberg says one big hurdle is trying to keep a course challenging while not alienating the golfers.
“You don't want them to come experience temporary this and temporary that,” he cautions. One strategy he uses is reversing nines when working on the outward half. This gives his crew more time in the morning to work before golfers come through and put a halt to progress.
Another approach to try is doing work around the greens early in the day before most play begins, and then later focusing on areas that don't interfere with play as much. With a little planning, your renovation can be an improvement for your crew as well as your golfers.
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