Long on Design
“All architects will be a lot more comfortable when the powers that be in golf finally solve the ball problem … If the distance to be gotten with the ball continues to increase, it will be necessary to go to 7,500 and even 8,000-yard courses and more yards mean more acres to buy, more course to construct, more fairway to maintain and more money for the golfer to fork out.” - William Flynn, golf architect, 1927.
Technology's influence on balls and equipment has always challenged those caring for the game and the grounds it is played on, documented by Flynn's statement in Geoff Shackelford's architecture book, “Grounds for Golf.” But there are honorable ways to combat technology trends by keeping maintenance issues in check while being fair to golfers. Developments in ball and club manufacturing have led to changes in the architecture of new courses. Think of how these factors affect your course while you see how superintendents have overcome the most common changes in design in recent years.
Length has long been the weapon of choice for architects in the battle to create a “championship” course or maybe simply the finest layout in the area. Many architects contend that a course striving for respect must have noticeable length from the tips. It's one of the signs that puts a course on the map. In the past, 7,000 yards was the benchmark figure defining a long course. Those days disappeared with steel shafts.
In Muscle Shoals, Ala., one layout opened in July 2005 stretches beyond 8,000 yards. That's right, golfers plan on playing essentially two extra par 5s if they hit from the tips at the acclaimed Fighting Joe course. One year older, the Schoolmaster course is no dunce, either, measuring 7,971 yards. Both were designed by Roger Rulewich and Bobby Vaughan.
Courses built only 15 years ago are seeing some of their once-intimidating lengths being overcome by the hotter balls and clubs that hit them ever straighter. At Shadow Glen Golf Club in Olathe, Kan., superintendent Scott Johnson has noticed the phenomenon. But the balance still favors the challenging layout designed by Jay Morrish Sr. along with Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf.
“This course still plays fairly well, even though they're hitting further, and the guys are keeping their handicaps down,” says Johnson. “Fifty-year-olds have a lower handicap now than when they were 40 because they're hitting it further.”
Superintendents like Johnson are dealing with longer holes in several ways. With more turf requiring maintenance, one huge factor is additional mowing time. The rough at Shadow Glen is kept fairly long, which reduces mowing labor a bit. Its impact on golf shots makes the course play a bit longer because balls do not roll far in the rough. The somewhat penal rough puts a premium on hitting drives in the fairway, which can shorten the length off the tee if golfers pull out a 3-wood instead of a driver on tighter holes. Every superintendent knows course setup is half the equation in calculating the difficulty of a layout.
In the mowing realm, there are other tricks of the trade in use at some courses. Ever try mowing the fairway strictly from the green toward the tee? Superintendents say the tactic can take up to 10 yards of roll off drives, depending on turf conditions. Another approach is narrowing the fairways a bit in the landing area and bringing more rough into play. Of course, there is only so much that can be done when combating today's clubs.
“They're now playing with golf clubs that look like a mailbox tied onto a fishing rod,” says Morrish, a veteran designer.
Where you have length, you must have width, Morrish says. Wider fairways and corridors are another way technology is influencing designs of new courses and, ultimately, your day-to-day activity as a superintendent. Because of longer-flying balls, many new courses have widened hole corridors for safety reasons. Old Memorial Golf Club superintendent Trent Inman says work on fairways has really increased over time.
“Now, your fairways are getting so much maintenance that they're probably maintaining fairways like they were greens 20 years ago,” Inman says. His team in Tampa uses smaller deck, lightweight mowers on the fairway — something akin to a green-style mower, he adds. Inman's crew mows the fairways at ⅜ inch.
With wider corridors, some courses have used more natural vegetation and low-maintenance grasses to reduce costs. Still, by the time crews are done with a day's work, most courses are in such great shape that it lowers scores, Morrish believes.
“I think that maintenance is certainly responsible for some of the improving golf scores — not necessarily the distance on the golf course — but you never get a bad lie,” Morrish says. “There's no hazard that you can't play out of; all the sand is perfectly raked and it's all the same consistency.” Morrish notes that he has tightened up fairways on some recent projects to make golfers think about strategy and keep the ball in play.
Not all architects believe wider corridors are required. Old Memorial's architect, Steve Smyers, believes with today's hotter golf balls, players also can hit shots straighter and don't need as wide a corridor as one might think. With less spin imparted on the ball, even drives flying 320 yards land on or near the fairway for many golfers.
But even where wider corridors are used, they don't always require more maintained turf — not if you have enough strategically-placed sets of tees. At The Shoals two courses, the architects reduced the area needing maintenance by spreading out the tees such that most golfers playing the appropriate tee for their game are hitting to one main landing area on each hole. The natural area surrounding fairways is sizable, superintendent Doug Tinkham says, giving the course a spacious feel while keeping maintained turf at a manageable acreage.
“It's deceptive because it looks enormous,” Tinkham adds. “It's still a lot to mow, but it's not near as much as some of our other properties.” There are 100 acres of Bermuda to be maintained on each of the courses, he notes, out of 440 total at the site.
At 8,000 yards, there isn't a chance you'll leave anything in the bag. Alluding to the non-stop increase in distance lately, Tinkham is reluctant to say how long is long enough. Today's monster is tomorrow's executive course.
“I hate to say we built this to stand the test of time …” Tinkham says, “but we built this to stand the short-term at least. The way it's teed, there are holes with maybe 100 yards difference from the tips to the front tees.”
CHALLENGING GREENS COMPLEXES
When a golfer does find the fairway, the next challenge is landing the ball on the green. And just anywhere on the dance floor may not be good enough because more slopes and faster speeds are the norm, as superintendents know. Many architects have used aggressive slopes in recent years to counter the increased distance players have acquired, thanks to technology. Those factors mean more work and cost involved in keeping greens in top shape. In addition, greens complexes packed with features make daily maintenance harder.
“We have so much maintenance on greens whether it be mowing, spraying, top dressing, aerification … the more hazards you have around that green the harder it makes it to be able to turn,” Inman says. He notes that Old Memorial has several entry points to most greens, thanks to good planning and a concern for maintenance issues shown by Smyers. While he keeps ease of maintenance in mind during designing, Smyers is also known for his dramatic bunkering. Drama and maintainability can coexist — if planned for well enough.
Even less dramatic bunkers can take some major funding to meet approval of golfers. At Shadow Glen the 30 staff members during the summer keep busy with raking and other bunker work.
“This is very labor intensive,” Johnson says of bunker care. “We probably spend more labor on the bunkers than any part of the golf course.”
One of the technologies that boost the superintendent's ability to maintain a course better is advanced weather monitoring capabilities. Storm cells can be tracked hundreds of miles away with high accuracy.
“They are so good with the radar nowadays and they put the GPS map underneath it so you can see it come right up Interstate-35,” says Scott Johnson. That visibility can help save you in more ways than one.
“Normally you see some rain, you might send some people home,” says Inman. “Well, (now) you know on the radar it's going to blow through, so you might still be able to get some stuff done later in the day.”
Predicting the weather also allows superintendents to optimize use of their favorite high-tech tool — the computerized irrigation system. Many of you know the time savings possible with today's remotely accessible, fully integrated and calibrated irrigation systems. They monitor moisture, evapotransporation and other factors. Simply put, it saves time and worry. Now that's technology you can feel good about.
Michael Coleman is a freelance writer based in Olathe, Kan.
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