Vera Green asks, ‘Does design style affect maintenance budgets?’

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer

Average golfers appreciate maintenance most! While good maintenance results mostly from good attitude, staffing and funding, design style impacts maintainability forever – and that’s a long time! I consider the proposed maintenance budget, program and machinery very early in design.

While there is need for expensive clubs and resorts, there’s a much larger niche for moderately priced golf, and there always will be. The 1990s were a positive economic aberration. Most of the time, the economy is average, not accelerated, and designing for easier maintenance will be critical now, assuming I prefer my designs last forever, rather than be bulldozed away in a decade.

In some competitive markets designing high visual impact, yet high maintenance features may be necessary to attract attention – in the short term. Over the long term, it’s almost certain that most courses will experience both good and lean economic circumstances. I learned this while searching for a wayward tee shot in deep woods on a “Roaring 20’s” era course, when – like the 1990s - money was no object. I lost my ball, but found the remains of a bunker. That hole originally had three fairways! While dramatic, during either the Depression or World War II gas rationing, the club decided that maintaining one fairway per hole was quite enough!

History repeats. It will happen again, and may be happening now. A good defense against lean economic years is a golf course that’s easily maintainable. So, I design for maintainability, at least as well as I can predict it!* It’s one thing when you can charge high fees, but quite another when you have to in a down market.

The original superintendent will strive to maintain design intent, having worked side by side with the architect during construction. But, superintendents move on, and future superintendents may have other priorities. When – not if – budget cuts come, any difficult to maintain features will be eliminated or modified – and soon, in the name of better maintenance.

With rising maintenance expectations, it’s no longer possible to justify poor conditions in the name of economy – even at moderately priced courses. We now insert the word “properly” on the end of, “I want bunkers that are easy to maintain” . . . which often changes that statement entirely! It’s easy, but not “proper” (or popular) to maintain a bunker with unraked sand, weedy edges and an improper lip, but both aesthetics and playability are compromised beyond today’s expectations.

Environmental expectations also rise. High maintenance features like large mounding and steep banks cost more in not just money**, but in environmental resources, like water, fertilizers, and pesticides at a time when these are being reduced by government regulation. They are also harder for golfers to play and walk. And, while dramatic, they can become tiresome and dated to view, while nature never does. Softer slopes accomplish many goals simultaneously.

My crystal ball is often cloudy, but none of these expectations going away soon. Design helps meet these expectations, and as they change, design principals – while seemingly constant, must change with changing conditions.

Next time, I will give some specific suggestions on designing for ease of maintenance.

*I didn’t predict new grasses, equipment and techniques that allow roughs to be smooth, and greens, tees and fairways to be cut half as high as they were a decade ago – with greens shortened from 0.25 to 0.125 inches, tees from 0.75 to 0.5 inches, and fairways from 1.5 inch, to 0.75 inches.)

** Mowing flat sloped goes at least twice as quickly as steep slopes, eating up labor hour, requiring more and specialized machines, etc.