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If You Design It, Will They Maintain It?

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Golf Course Design and Maintenance Not Always on the Same Page

Is there a more perfect marriage of art and science than the golf course? The game of golf as we know it was not around during the Renaissance, but wouldn't it have been something to see Michelangelo laying out some upscale track by the Sistine Chapel, while Galileo calculated the courses irrigation needs, drainage slopes and mowing strategies?

No doubt, da Vinci would have taken up the design trade as well, in effect becoming Tom Fazio to Michelangelo's Pete Dye. Fast-forward to Y2K, and the line between art (designing the golf course) and science (maintaining it) is not as blurry as it once was in the days of Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie.

Today, a golf course architect gazes out upon the land that is to be his canvas, envisioning routing, slopes, bunkers, tees and greens. A golf course superintendent stares out upon that same chunk of earth and sees drainage issues, bunker faces that will need to be walk mowed, and greens that will require more maintenance than Pamela Anderson Rock.

When art and science come together to produce 7000 yards of pure golfing enjoyment, recreational golfers assume that architects and superintendents have worked together in a seamless, harmonious fashion throughout the course development process.

Not so fast, to borrow a phrase from ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso.

"I know of instances where the architect designs the course, and the superintendent simply has to deal with the hand he's dealt," says Hilton Head based golf course architect Clyde Johnston. "This was not so rare a few years back. It takes a lot of foresight on an owner's part to go find a superintendent before the course is designed."

In the not so distant past, foresight was thrown under the bus in favor of opulence and the extraordinary.

In the 1980's and early 90's, the supply of new golf courses finally caught up with the burgeoning demand created by the game's increased popularity, and golf course owners with the means to do so sought a competitive edge. This game of one-upsmanship often involved hiring a high dollar architect, such as Fazio or Dye, and demanding the most awe-inspiring course imaginable.

Yes, this competition led to more memorable, challenging golf courses for players. But it also translated into layouts that were nearly impossible to maintain without behemoth maintenance budgets. Tension mounted between superintendents and architects, when in reality, neither was really to blame.

Maintaining Your Mona Lisa

Just as it costs a museum more to preserve and maintain a painting from Salvador Dali, or Pablo Picasso, it is usually more expensive for golf course owner to maintain layouts designed by the preeminent course architects of today.

"Certainly it costs more to maintain a Pete or P.B. Dye golf course," says Paul Kauffman, superintendent at the P.B. Dye-designed Prestwick Country Club in Surfside Beach, S.C. "There is a lot of mounding, centipede grass, and areas you have to walk cut. They do a great job laying out a challenging golf course, but it is challenging for us [superintendents] too."

That is not to say that there are no low maintenance, memorable golf courses out there. Lower budget courses designed by the likes of Willard Byrd, Johnston, and Russell Breeden often require little maintenance outside of mowing fairways and greens, and routine treatments such as spraying, overseeding and aerification. But these types of courses were often eschewed in the 1980's and early 90's in favor or world-beater designs that required "Big Dig" levels of earth moving. The minimalist movement ushered in by such designers as Tom Doak, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore is righting the ship, but its important to remember that no matter who the designer and how enticing the site, there's a third party involved pulling the strings.

Who's the Boss?

If you are under the impression that golf course architects make all the calls when it comes to designing golf courses, then you may also have fallen victim to the illusion that Joe Torre makes personnel decisions without input from George Steinbrenner, or Dave Campo runs the Dallas Cowboys sans Jerry Jones.

The golf course architect is merely the consultant to a client who goes by the moniker of "owner" or "developer." Some may be hands off, letting their architect call all the shots. Others strong-arm their designers into producing the golf course they want.

"The responsibility of the architect is to give the owner what he wants, long term," says Jan Beljan, an associate with Fazio's' design firm. "Part of the job of a course architect is to give the owner what they are paying for. If that requires a lot of detailed maintenance, and that is what he can afford, then that is what the architect will provide."

The owner usually determines the point at which a superintendent is brought into the design process. Many golf course architects depend on the owner to have a superintendent present during the construction of their golf course. Other architects, however, are insisting that superintendents be brought in earlier in the process to stave off any potential conflicts up the road.

"In most of my projects, we just deal with the owner," says Johnston (at right). "But my contracts state that the owner has to have the superintendent on board before the irrigation goes in, and if they want to be around before that, even better."

Of Philosophy and Technology

To the outside observer, golf course architects and superintendents may appear to be as close Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie. But the truth is, the two professions are not as far apart as they appear. Chad Ritterbusch of the American Society of Golf Course Architects reminds us that course design does not take place in a vacuum, and in fact, often seeks to address maintenance considerations from the onset.

"When you talk about the design vs. maintenance issues, you need to talk about the Chicago school of design," says Ritterbusch. "The main facet of the Chicago school is designing courses so they are more easily maintained."

Examples of course architects working closely with superintendents are becoming the norm and not the exception. At Dunwoody Golf Club in Dunwoody, Georgia, Willard Byrd remodeled his venerable layout with the assistance of head superintendent Bill Womac. In Arizona, Scottsdale-based Gary Panks is making a name for himself as a maintenance friendly golf course architect with such design credits as the Raven at South Mountain and the Sedona Golf Resort.

And superintendents are returning the favor.

Golf architecture historian Geoffrey Cornish is quick to praise the eagerness and adaptability of the superintendent when it comes to maintaining the complex layouts being produced by today's architects.

"The game of golf has changed, golf courses have changed, but the only thing that has not changed is the dedication of the golf course superintendent," says Cornish.

According to Cornish, golf course architects and superintendents are intricately bound by the "Triangle of Basic Considerations," - an equilateral triangle that espouses three essential tenants when laying out a golf course: the game of golf itself, eye appeal, and maintainability. As long as the two professions adhere to the basic principles of the triangle, golf course design and maintenance should be able to co-exist in perpetuity.

"Some of the greatest golf courses we have ever seen are emerging from blackboards today," says Cornish. "Technology has helped vastly in terms of maintaining these courses. Just look at the irrigation systems alone."

While philosophy and technology are key components in bringing architects and superintendent closer together, will their intricate relationship grow like healthy bent grass in the years to come, or will it fizzle out under the strain of competitive pressure and over zealous developers?

"The good designers know what we owe those people [superintendents], says Cornish. "We respect the fact that they respect our design and our philosophy, and they respect us in turn."

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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