Is your course losing its shape?

Golf courses are not static. Changes over time significantly impact design and play.

Few golf courses today are the same as they were even 10 years ago when they first opened for play. It is safe to say that the older a course is, the less it resembles the original design. This is a fact that Augusta, Pebble Beach and Baltusrol attest to just as surely as the local country club or daily-fee course.

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Change is inevitable - even without remodeling. Much of the change that courses undergo is a slow evolution that results from natural vegetative growth, ongoing maintenance practices and a lack of awareness that change is actually occurring.

Unfortunately, the changes that occur over time tend to soften the course and remove much of the original playing strategy. This can turn a visually interesting and exciting design into one that is common and boring. An old course presents little of the original design in most cases. That is one of the reasons why older courses are frequently stereotyped as mundane and boring. However, awareness of this evolutionary process allows golf-course superintendents to take necessary steps to prevent or minimize the change.

Forces of change The change that courses experience primarily is driven by two factors: maintenance practices and increasing play.

- Maintenance. Everyday maintenance practices alter the original course design. Sooner or later, inevitably, greens become smaller and rounder, sand bunkers become less visible, smaller and saucer or peanut-shaped. Putting surfaces tend to become flatter as do the basins of the bunkers. Tee tops often become smaller and less flat. Fairways begin to puddle more often, and worn tracks appear where cart traffic congregates. Fairways are narrower than before, as tree canopies expand with age. The grass near fairway edges, in roughs and often at teeing areas becomes thinner due to ever-increasing shade. More shade also promotes chronic wet areas that become compacted and reduce turf quality.

- More play. Increasing play volume is bringing more traffic to golf courses than existed 10 or 20 years ago. The increased traffic brings additional wear and tear that often emerges as compaction-related problems. More golfers means more revenue - a positive trend in the eyes of course managers. However, the direct relationship between excessive play and turf deterioration is sometimes overlooked. Greater levels of maintenance should accompany increasing volumes of play, but usually it isn't proportional. Too often, recognition of the need for greater maintenance occurs only after damage has become obvious and is beyond the help of simple remedial steps.

Creeping change I use the terms "green creep" and "bunker creep" to describe the most common causes of golf-course evolution. These events occur concurrently and actually begin from the first day of mowing at any new course. Maintenance techniques, climate, the type of grasses, soil conditions and the maintenance budget all contribute to the speed with which the changes occur. However, there is no way to prevent them altogether.

- Green creep. Maintenance personnel keep their jobs by not killing the grass. They're cautious about doing anything that might harm turf or create an unpleasant appearance. Thus, the person mowing the putting greens tends to leave a bit of uncut collar as insurance to prevent scalping the collar. Today's cut tends to be slightly inside yesterday's cut, and so forth, so the putting surface becomes smaller day by day. Eventually, the putting green becomes round or oval, and devoid of appealing shape or individuality. Greens progressively become more alike. Ten or 15 years after opening, greens are mostly the same, devoid of playing diversity or individual personality.

- Bunker creep. Bunker creep can occur more quickly than green creep. Often, superintendents give less attention to the original shape of the sand bunker than to greens; string trimmers and power edgers lend themselves to straight lines and circular outlines more than irregular curves; the person edging the bunkers often does not cut back all of the turf growth that has occurred since the previous edging. At peak growing season, especially with warm-season grasses, substantial growth can occur in a short time. If edging is insufficient, the turf eventually will occupy what was once a portion of the sand basin, especially on concave curves. The opposite effect can occur as well. Continuous edging can reduce or eliminate "peninsulas" of turf extending into bunkers.

Other factors can change bunker shapes. Inattentive bunker raking, especially with mechanized trap rakes, can distort the shape, pile sand at the edges and flatten the basin. Wind can force sand to accumulate at one side of the bunker, raising an edge excessively. Over-filling when topping a bunker with fresh sand can eliminate the preferred concave basin or add to an edge to encourage more grass inward growth.

As a result, bunkers become ever smaller. Such changes can be substantial. Movement of 5 feet or more is not uncommon in the absence of any effort to halt inward growth. Taking 5 or 6 feet off the sides of a sand bunker turns a large and meaningful hazard into an almost insignificant peanut-shaped spot in the fairway. The shifting of shape and position of fairway bunkers can influence, or stop influencing, how and where golfers aim their tee shots.

Perhaps most importantly, the inward growth of turf, raised edges and elimination of visible sand faces turn what was intended to be an obvious visible hazard into an unfair hazard nearly invisible to oncoming players. Blind hazards delay play and can result in lost revenue.

- Tees. As with greens, teeing surfaces also experience inward creep of their boundaries. Because the same traffic is concentrated on a smaller area, golfer traffic on tee tops is more intense than on putting surfaces. Larger tee areas, not smaller ones are the objective.

Inadequate attention to tee outlines also can lead to misalignment of tee markers, incorrectly aimed shots and more balls lost in the woods. Lost shots add to playing time and can reduce revenue. Topdressing divots instead of the entire tee top eventually can create uneven or irregularly sloping tee surfaces.

- Fairways and maintained roughs creep too. Reshaping fairway outlines, reducing excessive bands of rough (or perhaps growing more rough, where applicable) can be beneficial.

- Trees. The growth of trees around a course causes profound change over the years. Playing strategy, sun/shade relationships, air movement, frost problems, drainage problems and exposed roots also emerge as factors as the trees continue to grow and expand. These changes are seldom obvious because they occur so slowly.

Tree maintenance as an ongoing management practice is slim or none at many courses. Pruning and thinning, removal, root pruning, pest controls and periodic fertilization are beneficial but often do not fit into the budget or are just overlooked.

Creep affects play - and revenue

Green and bunker creep around putting greens can have considerable impact on play unless the original golf architect's design drawings are available or someone at the course retains some recollection of the original design. The changes may distort or totally alter what once was a shot-specific design for that site.

Bunkers generally creep away from the putting surface. Putting-green boundaries creep inward. The result are smaller, less-diverse putting surfaces with once-protective bunkers now farther away and much smaller. The change in shape and appearance of the bunkers often leads to obscured or invisible and blind bunkers around the green. At a private club, where most players are familiar with the course, blind bunkers may be tolerable. At a daily-fee, public or resort course, where new golfers are eagerly sought, blind hazards only slow play and increase aggravation. Greater distance from bunker edge to putting surface lessens the approach challenge for better players and continues to hinder those who have difficulty hitting the green surface in the first place.

Smaller putting surfaces yield fewer positions to set the pin. Perhaps the original design provided four or five distinct pin placement areas; now there are but two or three. This reduces the options the superintendent has to spread the golfer traffic around. Wear and tear becomes more obvious. Compaction and turf deterioration increase. Fewer pin positions also reduce the approach-shot options, making the greensite less interesting to play.

Applying the brakes to evolution Actions to forestall, limit or alter the creep of greens and bunkers are easy with some awareness and insight. Total reconstruction is not always necessary. An experienced golf architect can advise superintendents about what to do to counter green and bunker creep.

- Reshaping and re-facing bunkers can be an ongoing maintenance function or one that you can handle with temporary labor for a few weeks each year.

- To slow the process of green creep, superintendents can regularly over-cut the green edge apron by a few inches. A yellowish discoloration will be visible for a few days, so it may be necessary to educate the green committee. However, this tactic helps retain the originally designed shape and surface area. If you have access to original designs, use them to help demonstrate the need for this strategy.

- Tee-top reshaping can be unobtrusive.

- Tree maintenance by an experienced arborist can remove excessive growth and is worth the investment.

Do-it-yourself remedial action is not always the best or most efficient method, however. Situations exist where damage and design changes have become too extensive. Plus, other factors - dissatisfaction with the existing design, changing competitive and market factors - might dictate more far-reaching changes. The decision to implement a total remodel and upgrade may be the final result of evaluating course conditions.

In such instances, professional golf architectural assistance is essential. A detailed master plan to clearly guide the renovation or remodeling work should be the first step. Each remodeling or upgrading project should be customized and site-specific.

Whether your situation calls for modest changes in maintenance practices or complete renovation, the first step is simple awareness of the changes that inevitably take place on golf courses over time. Compare current conditions to the original design, if possible. Then you can decide what your course needs to turn back the hands of time.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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