Making a case for renovation

The irrigation system is the heart of a golf course — without a healthy one, the course will suffer. A system's life expectancy varies from 10 to 30 years, depending on geographic location, but no one knows better than the golf-course superintendent when the end is near and a new system must be considered.

Ironically, because the superintendent's job is to maintain the aesthetics and playability of the course no matter what irrigation problems exist, the true condition of the system often isn't evident to the green committee and board members responsible for approving upgrades. This fact, combined with financial and logistical concerns, can make selling the concept of a new irrigation system a real challenge.

Following are suggestions on how to overcome this challenge, as well as insights from two superintendents who recently completed the process.

Laying the groundwork

You've struggled with an outdated system for many months, probably even years, and you're now convinced it's time to approach your green committee about an irrigation system renovation. Unfortunately, you've also done such a great job of keeping things running that you've effectively “hidden” the problems. If you approach the committee under these circumstances, it could be a hard sell.

Whether your issues are obvious (leaks, broken wires, skyrocketing maintenance costs) or more subtle (wet or dry spots caused by lack of individual head control, or increased water costs due to inefficiency), documenting and visually demonstrating them can be the most important part of the approval process.

Terry R. Bonar, superintendent at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, who successfully sought approval for his club's recent renovation, describes the effectiveness of this approach. When Bonar started pursuing a renovation, Canterbury's system was 30 years old, and the mainlines were even older. While he says they could have “gotten by” with the existing system, the big issue was that the galvanized pipes were deteriorating and there were leaks in the fairways. Initially, he and his staff concentrated on quickly fixing the leaks before they caused further problems.

“We were really good at repairs so no one noticed the problem,” he says. “But when things advanced to a repair every week, committee members started to notice our activity. Even so, it was almost as if no one wanted to say anything because they knew it would cost money to deal with the situation.”

By the second year of steady repairs, Bonar says he started noting every leak in a logbook. Finally, during the third year, after logging an average of 40 leaks per year, he dug up a piece of the corroded pipe and presented it, along with his logbooks, to the committee and board members.

“When they saw the holes in the pipe, it really hit home,” he says. “Between seeing the number of leaks we'd repaired and the condition of the pipe, there was no more denying it was time. We started moving toward a renovation.”

John Zimmers, superintendent at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh, Pa., also applied the “show them” tactic when he approached his green committee. New to the club and charged with managing a system over 20 years old, he started making notes of problems he saw.

“After about one year on the job, I noticed that maintenance costs were exceedingly high and that there were some major issues with leaks, breaks in the wiring and sprinklers sticking,” he explains. “I inquired about past performance and saw it was time for a renovation.”

Zimmers' next step was to show the committee the problems. He says he presented photos of broken pipe, broken wires and other problems, and they were convinced it was time to start planning for a renovation.

Aerial photography is another compelling way to demonstrate the need for a renovation. With an aerial photograph, you can clearly study the course from tee to green and identify problems. It's a small investment for the impact it can have on your committee.

Responding to objections

It's a fact that spending in excess of $1 million to “update” an irrigation system is not on the top of the list for most board members. No doubt, concern over the financial ramifications of the renovation is the loudest objection you'll hear. But there are a number of good points you can make in response.

The most obvious financial benefit of a new system is the savings in labor and maintenance costs. For example, Zimmers says his annual maintenance costs have been reduced by as much as $75,000 since the renovation.

Utility costs also are impacted — a new, more efficient irrigation system uses less water, while a modern pump station can reduce electricity cost 30 to 40 percent per year. Even seemingly trivial items, such as the cost of fertilizer, can be reduced with a new system that offers better control over water placement.

While all of these are important and well worth mentioning to board members, Zimmers has a philosophy on the “return on investment” concept that might have even more impact on your board: “The golf course is the number one asset of a club,” he says. “The best way to protect your investment is to take care of the course.”

Once you've helped justify the cost, there remains the issue of financing the project. Ideally, you've been able to convince your green committee of the importance of long-term planning for just such expenditures and it has set aside a renovation fund. Most clubs, however, must either assess members or obtain financing. One alternative is to finance the project directly through the irrigation manufacturer. This streamlines the renovation process and can be another effective selling point to your board.

Addressing the logistics

If the cost of the new system is the board's first concern, then logistics of the renovation is a close second. Once finances are addressed, the conversation quickly turns to the impact construction will have on members' ability to play the course. This is where the services of an irrigation consultant can prove invaluable.

Hired early in the process, the irrigation consultant can be a key to effectively communicating with your green committee and board. Both Zimmers and Bonar said their consultant was instrumental in explaining logistics and other concerns to their board members.

“We hired a consultant at the beginning of the planning stage, and it was well worth the cost,” Zimmers says. “He was able to communicate with our board and members in layman's terms. He explained that the process was painless and that construction could be done one hole at a time.”

Bonar concurs, “When our board expressed concern over closing the course, our consultant explained to the committee how the renovation process worked and how little disruption there would be. It really put everyone's mind at ease.”

Both men point out that hiring an expert contractor who specializes in golf course irrigation renovations is the only way to ensure the consultant's assurances will stand true.

Reaping the rewards

Both Zimmers and Bonar agree that if you can clearly demonstrate a need for the renovation and accurately address the financial and logistical concerns, your committee and board are likely to do the right thing. Receiving approval may take a lot of documentation, numerous meetings with consultants, a number of well-thought-out answers to questions and a fair bit of time (anywhere from a couple of months to a year is typical), but the end result is well worth the effort.

“Our renovation has made a big difference in our club,” Bonar says. “It's made life easier for me and my staff, and the members have noticed an overall improvement — especially in the roughs.”

Zimmers notes, “While a renovation is a major investment, the irrigation system is just too important to the course and the club to cut corners. Besides,” he concludes, “as a superintendent, a renovation project could be the biggest job of your career.”

It's no mystery that with advancements in irrigation technology, competition among golf courses has increased. Renovating an out-of-date system will not only improve efficiency, lower maintenance costs and enhance aesthetics, it also can give your course a competitive advantage. And this just might be the biggest selling point of all.

Bill Speelman has more than 40 years of experience in golf course irrigation and currently serves as the golf product application manager for The Toro Co.; 800-664-4740. In addition to his 38-year tenure with Toro, Speelman served for more than a decade as a co-instructor of golf course design for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

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