The making of a golf course: Sycamore Ridge

New golf courses typically receive their greatest attention not as they are constructed but when they finally open for play. This is appropriate, of course, because the ultimate goal--a working golf course--has become a reality. However, opening-day fanfare often masks the tremendous effort that was necessary to bring the course to that point. The process starts years before the first golfer tees up and involves planning, coordination and construction activity on a scale that few could imagine. This is the first in an ongoing series in Grounds Maintenance in which we will track the efforts involved in the planning, construction and grow-in of a golf course--Sycamore Ridge--from concept to grand opening. Sycamore Ridge is taking form on land owned by the city of Spring Hill, Kan., a small community in eastern Kansas. Colbert-Burns & McDonnell (CBM)--a recently formed partnership between pro golfer and course developer Jim Colbert and the engineering- and environmental-services firm of Burns & McDonnell (Kansas City, Mo.)--will develop Sycamore Ridge and also operate the course after its opening. CBM enlisted the services of the Houston-based architectural firm of Finger-Dye-Spann (FDS) to develop the technical aspects of the course's design.

Sycamore Ridge is the brainchild of CBM. Spring Hill was an ideal location for the course due to its accessibility, nearness to a major population center (Kansas City), water availability and topography, among other factors. Although Sycamore Ridge is CBM's first venture, it apparently won't be the last. "This will be the first of many courses that carry the Colbert-Burns & McDonnell name," Colbert says.

Finding financing No project can proceed without financing in place. In this case, the city of Spring Hill issued revenue bonds to pay for course development. Revenue from golf operations will pay off the bonds, ensuring that taxpayers do not foot the bill for the project.

Larry Lundine, director of project development for CBM, notes that working with a municipal budget and bond financing put added pressure on the CBM team to plan carefully. "Changes are expensive to make in the middle of a project. Municipal budgets aren't very flexible and don't accommodate many extra expenses, so we really had to plan this project well. If they run out of money, they can't just go out and issue another bond," says Lundine. As it is, $7.5 million is available for land acquisition and course construction--within the typical range for a new course in the United States. With the site and budget determined, the CBM team was ready to create its design.

The details of design After scouting the site and envisioning several possible course layouts, CBM team members met to consider their possibilities. They settled on a final course routing after weighing six possible configurations, according to Lundine. Once the CBM team finalized its layout, FDS set about executing the technical aspects of the design. Their task was to design workable, detailed schemes for aspects such as grading, drainage and irrigation.

It's difficult to pigeonhole the design style of Sycamore Ridge. Accommodating site characteristics resulted in three distinct types of design. Holes 2 through 6 are links-style, appropriate for the open ground where these holes lie. Holes 11 through 16 are best described as "woodland" style and take advantage of the heavy woods that cover this sectionof the property. The remaining holes feature a park-like atmosphere that Lundine describes as "moorland" style.

Of course, there's more to design than accommodating the site. Colbert's deep experience in golf operations--which predates his involvement with CBM by many years--as well as playing the game as a pro, has molded his outlook on course design. For daily-fee courses such as Sycamore Ridge, Colbert strives for designs that are challenging but also enjoyable for all levels of golfing ability. Particularly, he avoids designs that are too punitive to the average golfer. Colbert frequently visits his courses during their development to make layout adjustments that will improve play, especially in ways that equalize the challenge across all skill levels.

Lundine is fond of relating a revealing story about Colbert's design philosophy. One day, standing on a tee, Colbert asked Lundine to identify the landing area of that hole. After rejecting Lundine's guesses, Colbert instructed, "The landing area is anywhere from 1 foot in front of the tee to 270 yards out." Clearly, Colbert respects golfers of all abilities. Because of this outlook, he likes to incorporate generously wide fairways and avoids placing hazards short and right where many less-skilled golfers tend to hit. In addition, he puts fairway hazards 200+ yards from the back tee. This rewards an average player's good drive, which can carry the hazard, but still challenges skilled players, who will need a longer or more well-placed shot to avoid the penalty.

Another way that Colbert's designs accommodate a range of golfing ability is by avoiding hazards directly in front of the green. Many average golfers rely on ball roll to get onto the green and are happy with a 2-putt. Of course, such players would find frontal green hazards troublesome, so Colbert minimizes their use in his designs. However, with pin placement behind side bunkers or at the back of the green, skilled golfers can shoot directly for the pin to go under par.

Breaking ground Along with financing, obtaining the required permits and approvals are necessary steps in course development. Fortunately, as of this writing, CBM--through the environmental-services section of Burns & McDonnell--has obtained all necessary permits without any unusual problems. One site feature that does require some accommodation is an existing lake that supplies Spring Hill's drinking water. Therefore, it necessitated some special features to protect its water quality. Careful contouring and a beefed-up drainage system will collect and divert course runoff to below the dam.

The actual construction of Sycamore Ridge consists of three phases or "tracts" based on site topography. Tract 1 includes holes 2 through 6, corresponding to the links-style part of the course. Tract 2 includes holes 1, 7 through 10, 17 and 18 (the moorland areas--partly wooded and partly open), as well as the driving range and clubhouse. Holes 11 through 16 comprise Tract 3. These are the woodland holes and are Sycamore Ridge's signature holes.

Generally, the sequence of construction includes: line work (bull-dozing lines from stake to stake, providing a reference line for each hole's construction), clearing, mass grading, installing drainage, then final shaping. All of this must occur before irrigation installation, after which grow-in--slated for mid-1999--can begin.

As of this writing, mass grading was complete for Tracts 1 and 2 and had begun for Tract 3. The site was alive with the rumbles of heavy machinery, and the smell of smoke from piles of cleared brush was strong. Although final shaping was still far off, the course was starting to assume some recognizable features--contours that will become tees, greens and bunkers had started to become visible. However, the topsoil that has been stripped and stockpiled will remain where it stands for a while longer. Meanwhile, surveyors continue to canvass the site, ensuring that the grading conforms to specifications.

An unseasonably mild Midwestern fall has helped CBM stay ahead of schedule. Carl Dietz, who has a long history working for Jim Colbert, is the general manager for Sycamore Ridge and will remain in place after the course opens. Dietz is as pleased as he is amazed that the weather has worked so much to their advantage. Declares Dietz: "If you would have told me before we started that we'd be this far along by now [December 1998], I'd have said, 'No way!'"

Involving the superintendent in course construction is widely acknowledged as a good idea, but relatively few courses do so--at least not until nearer to completion. However, CBM already has brought Superintendent Rick Friedemann on board, involving him in the earliest phases of construction. Lundine feels this is an important step. "He can see what's going into the ground now, as it's going in. For example, he'll know where lines are buried. Later on, this will really make a difference," Lundine explains.

CBM is shooting for an opening in 2000 and, so far, the firm is on pace to achieve its target. In the next chapter of this ongoing series, you can expect to see Colbert's design ideas taking tangible shape as CBM moves closer to completion of its inaugural creation.

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