Friday, February 26, 2010

Golf Architecture's Definition of Insanity

Is anyone other than me shocked and amazed at the number of and extent of changes made to new golf courses and renovations shortly after they open? Many golf course architects just keep making changes, trying to get things right. They appear to be practicing golf architecture. How many times does it take to get it right? As a golf course superintendent I spent a lot of time fixing suspect golf architecture. As a golf course architect I spend a lot of time making sure that we get it right the first time.

Perhaps owners and clubs should ask architects vying for design and renovation work, how many changes and how extensive those changes have been on completed projects. Recently I spent some time on a relatively new course by a "name" architect. After the golf course opened, numerous changes were made and more planned.

We've all heard the definition of insanity- Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Golf Architecture's definition of insanity is- Hiring the same Architects over and over again and expecting a different result- getting it "right" the first time.

Another Drawing

Friday, February 19, 2010

Great Golf Courses are a Derivative of Nature First and Man Second!

Great golf courses are a derivative of nature first and man second. That some may choose to study man first and nature secondly and possibly not at all is short sighted. Even courses that are entirely man-made should mimic nature first.

The Excerpt below is from Anarchist's Guide to Golf Course Architecture- Philosophy of Golf Course Architecture

Probably the most bizarre facet of the study of golf course design to me is that most people start with poor assumptions. The typical route for today’s designers and the budding new designers is to study all of the great Architects and golf courses or even perhaps write and comment about it. People spend years and lifetimes doing this. Maybe if you were designing buildings this would make sense, go look at the great buildings of the world. The buildings were all designed and built solely by man. But when it comes to golf courses, I consider it an inadequate course of study. The great golf courses of old were largely produced by nature and the great new ones emulate the great old ones, so whether or not the land was great, the golf holes are created to have that look, feel, and playability. This course of study, learning all there is to know about the great golf courses, is certainly understandable and it is viewed by virtually everyone but me as the proper course of action to “learn” about golf course design. You too can take the pilgrimage to the Mecca of golf and become enlightened. That’s all you need, a ticket and some time and you too can learn all there is to know.

What we are missing is that Mother Nature by and far built those great courses, not man. The only thing that I don’t like at those great old golf courses is the artificial edifice of man and that occurs mostly in unnatural looking man made fixes of bunker edges. If we want great golf courses, maybe we should go back to studying nature, natural landforms, and erosions caused by wind, water, and animals. At the heart of it all isn’t that what we seek to do? Aren’t we trying to find or create golf as it was discovered in nature? Studying great designers and courses as an adjunct to studying nature makes sense, but we need to spend more time studying nature first and then those designers that came before us. Otherwise the only thing that will have changed is that we will have a new “look” and “playability” that at some point becomes conventional. We have a chance to fight our inborn tendencies to go with the herd or I guess to put it in the Scottish golf vernacular the flock and if we can, then we will keep new golf courses less predictable and more natural than ever. If not, maybe we are sheople. Just say and do what the rest of the flock does.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Design Considerations- Greens' Contour Changes from Maintenance Practices

There is a common maintenance procedure that can and does significantly alter the putting surfaces' contours and raise the overall elevation in relation to the green surrounds. The frequent topdressing of greens to improve putting qualities was popularized in the 1980s and continues today. Frequent topdressing can easily add one quarter inch or more of sand to greens on an annual basis. So in 20 years, putting greens may be 5 inches higher. This significant build up is not noticed because it is fairly uniform over the entire green, applied gradually and therefore virtually undetectable. Any assumption that through core aeration, a lot of material is removed, would be inaccurate. In order for the greens to be acceptable putting surfaces and for agronomic considerations, after core aeration, the holes are completely filled and it takes a little extra sand to be insure that the holes are filled.

Topdressing Math, an old grass guy like me can still do the math!
  • 125 tons of topdressing sand annually = approximately 2,500 cubic feet of sand
  • 2.500 cubic feet divided by 120,000 square feet of greens = 0.02 feet of sand = 0.25 inches of sand annually.
  • 20 years of topdressing would add 5 inches of sand over the existing surface

This kind of accumulation is evident on many great old golf courses' push-up greens. Are we so cavalier with the great masters' works? Any thoughts about Pinehurst #2 greens...hmm.

What impact does this unintended altering of contours and raising of greens up 5 inches every 20 years have on the design and playability of the golf course? The tie-ins to the surrounds may not play as designed and intended. In order to protect the playability of the fairway/green and surrounds/green interfaces, it may be necessary to start topdressing out into the approaches and the surrounds. It may also be prudent to start cutting back our topdressing volume on an annual basis and use less nitrogen and more growth regulators to maintain the putting qualities.

Vigorous monitoring of this issue will be a requirement going forward in order to protect the integrity of the golf course. Changes in maintenance practices can minimize the effects of these changes and renovations can restore the intended design/playability the golf course.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes

USGA Greens and The Emperor's New Clothes
February 2010
Armen Suny

In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, two weavers promise the Emperor a set of clothes that only the privileged or enlightened can see. There is a child that cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all.”

For decades now the USGA with its naked greens construction method has bullied courses and Architects into the most expensive green construction method in common use with no empirical evidence that its method is better. We are supposed to blindly go along with their green construction method despite the fact that with their tens of millions of dollars spent on research that they have not adequately investigated alternative green construction methods. Yes, there have been studies but as we all know, research has become highly politicized and results can, unfortunately, be based upon funding and future funding.

Typical USGA Greens construction can cost anywhere from three to six dollars per square foot more than other construction methods. If we use five dollars for the sake of our discussion and assume 120,000 square feet of greens, they will add $600,000 to the cost of construction. If we use typical “ballpark” golf development and operations numbers, each $100,000 of construction cost equates to $1 of greens fees. So the USGA's pressure on Architects and the golfing public has caused an average increase in green fees of $6 per round. Is this good for golf? The USGA will put forth the suggestion that other green construction methods are unproven and more costly to maintain. It simply is untrue. If USGA greens are truly superior and the only way to ensure success, why don't the USGA's favorite venues for US Opens all have USGA greens?

The USGA is just like the two weavers in Andersen’s tale. The USGA green is just like the Emperor’s new clothes and I am like the child, only my cry is, “But it makes no agronomic sense and cost too much to build.” The USGA has stood by its guns with each version of its latest recasting of the specifications. Let me ask the question, what percentage of USGA greens have been rebuilt? Is the IRS correct in letting us depreciate USGA greens over 30 years? They won’t let us depreciate a push-up green. Can one green construction method be right for the entire world? It may not be right for anything! The USGA keeps telling us that the Emperor’s clothes are beautiful and that furthermore, that if we disagree that we are heretics and bad for the monarchy of golf.

Dr. Michael Hurdzan and I have had discussions for years about his righteous attempts to look at other green construction methods. His has been a lone voice in the industry to challenge the USGA green. What Mike and I have disagreed on was sterile green mixes as a growing medium. He is an advocate of straight sand California type greens and I am an advocate of green construction methods tailored to the specific agronomic conditions and always adding life and nutrient reserves to soil mixes.

Let me explain to you, that I grew up growing grass on push up greens in the Philadelphia area at Aronimink, Merion, and Rolling Green. And that then I had push up greens at Cherry Hills, inferior USGA Greens at Castle Pines, and USGA greens at Shadow Creek. I’ve grown grass in lots of different places on lots of different soil and construction types. I've generally found that if your water was good, adequate surface drainage, and you had lots of sun and air movement, that virtually any green construction method was acceptable.

As a turf consultant, I used to enjoy taking Superintendents to one of their better USGA greens and looking at the collar on the far side of the green that got very little traffic and then looking at the adjacent men’s tee that got a lot of traffic. Invariably the highly trafficked tee turf, that often had the same grass, mowing height, and schedule as the green collar was in far better condition even though it was typically built with less grade, often no drainage, and only 4-6 inches of sand. The tee construction cost 25% of the green construction and was in better shape. I used to ask Superintendents if maybe we should start building the greens like the tees so that they would be in better shape and cost less to build. They would usually pause and then start regurgitating what they had learned in school. Maybe we should teach deductive reasoning as a turf course.

What I am about to expound upon is part conjecture and all opinion on my part. The concept behind the USGA green was to build a green that could be saturated from a rain event or by over-irrigation from man and still provided an acceptable putting surface. They also wanted a green that could be irrigated with low-quality water and still support turf life.

So logically, they piled some sandy materials on top of gravel and assumed that things would drain. Well, it didn’t work. The sand on top of the gravel created a false water table, later renamed a perched water table because it sounded better. So instead of going back to the drawing board, to create a construction method that would drain and not create a false water table, these scientists started touting the virtues of a “perched” water table and how this was the ideal method of growing grass.

Now, nowhere have I ever seen their proof for this statement that we have all come to regard as the “Holy Grail” of green construction. A false water table is not the ideal method of growing grass. In all of agriculture, other than rice patties, I am unaware of any other growth system in agriculture that relies on a false water table.

Many Superintendents have come to realize that in order for a USGA green to drain, that you have to fill up much of the big pore spaces of the sand with water until the weight of the water and gravity cause the false water table to be broken. At that time the green will start to drain and the pore spaces will be filled with atmosphere.

Now we have many courses hooking up vacuum systems to their USGA greens to break the perched water table and pull the water out of the green. So, we designed and constructed a green with a perched water table and then because we don’t want the water there, we vacuum it out. Does my earlier statement about a deductive reasoning class being a requirement in a turf education start sounding more reasonable? Ben Franklin is quoted as saying “Common sense is uncommon.” He spent his time in Philadelphia too…maybe its something in the water there.

The solution to this one construction method fits all, USGA green, is to utilize our agronomic skills and design site and condition-specific green construction methods. The highest level of green construction would be utilized to grow bentgrass greens in the humid south with bad water. This is the most demanding situation that can be arrived at. What method would be utilized for this difficult situation? I would propose that the high performance push up green construction method be used.

High Performance Push Up Green Method

Core Out Green to 8-10 inches below grade
Rough up or rip subsurface
Install drainage, Herringbone and smile drains in all runoff areas
Fill Drainage trenches with pea gravel
Install green mix or sand, amendments can be tilled in.

This method of construction will perform very well under adverse conditions. The tighter the subsoil, the more rainfall received and the poorer the water quality, the closer the drainage spacing.

Lesser environmental demands will require less intensive construction methods. I have built green nurseries on native soils and then topdressed them. They always performed better than the USGA greens. I have seen greens built on native soils which were ripped and then capped with a few inches of sand that have outperformed USGA greens in the same region. Every agronomic situation is different but in my opinion, none of them need USGA greens.

Green mixes need to have life in them. The sterile environment that the USGA has dictated for too long is just bad agronomics. It is reductionism and the application of an engineering solution that is silent and even disdainful of the life that soil must have to be productive. It is hydroponics. We create a sterile soil with no nutritional reserves and then wonder why we have odd patch diseases for the first three years. If we add life and nutritional reserves to greens mixes through the incorporation of composts, natural organic fertilizers, and inoculants, we will have healthier turf and need less pesticides.

Has anybody ever considered the pollutants in the leachates from USGA greens compared to pushup greens? We should voluntarily mandate that we won’t put this contaminated leachate into drainage ways.

And now, many clubs and Superintendents are finding that the gravel/green mix interface is becoming sealed off by an iron oxide or other metal oxides, totally restricting drainage into the gravel. We've been digging these layers out for 30 years, it isn't new, and it isn't a surprise.

Now that you’ve read this, shouldn’t the Emperor put on some clothes? Shouldn’t we as responsible professionals use our expertise and experience to design region and site specific green construction methods that perform better, cost less to build, and pollute less? Perhaps the USGA can worry about rules, square grooves,   anchored putters and the ball and leave the green construction methods to us.

One final question: Does the USGA have any liability for damages to clubs whose USGA Greens have failed? Probably not, since the USGA Green is merely a recommendation, not a specification; still an interesting question.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Golf Sketches and Clay Models versus Photoshop and Topos

Digitally manipulated photos, to me appear to be emotionless and soulless representations of golf. It may be an indication of the left brain dominated thought process typical of engineers versus the right brain dominated thought process of the artist.

I have started sketching some concepts for a potential client and even some existing golf holes like the picture in the prior post of Sagebrush. Drawing is something that I haven't done in the last 40 years. I have been trying to draw 15 minutes or so each day for the last few weeks.

The clay model is another excellent tool to convey an idea of what the golf should or could look like. This can be accomplished quickly and everyone from the client to the shaper, if you aren't doing it yourself, will understand what the form will look like. This is also a tremendous tool for renovations so that the client fully understands the changes as they really will be, versus looking at pretty green grass Photshopped pictures that don't convey the entire concept or worse yet, lack thereof.

The image above is the model that the 13th at Sagebrush was built from. During the shaping when we went back to the tee, it was apparent that we should get rid of the pot bunker in front and make the right bunker larger to keep the front of the green open and encourage the golfer to try and drive this reachable par 4.