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Work on Golf Courses Links U.S. Contractors

Tue March 27, 2007 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson



Not every contractor can look with pride on finished work that features undulating surfaces, sunken sand pits and border areas that can only be described as rough. But golf course builders can.

The bad news is that this segment of the construction industry, which creates unique, artful and playable courses for golfers, has hit an economic plateau and is having to scramble just to make par.

“Right now it is kind of stagnant, with as many courses being closed as being built,” said Tom Shapland, president of Wadsworth Golf Construction Company. Shapland also is president of Golf Course Builders Association of America.

“Kind of stagnant” puts a favorable spin on the situation. In 2006, more golf courses closed than opened, the first negative growth pattern in more than 60 years, according to the National Golf Foundation. The closures occurred pretty much across the country.

“This is not an alarming occurrence, but rather a confluence of events — openings returning to more normal levels and weaker facilities being culled,” a first-quarter Foundation report concludes. “The culling of courses is not viewed as a negative by NGF.”

The owners of the closed courses might not share that optimistic view, but it is true that the overall golf course construction economy remains pretty dynamic. Developers are expected to solicit designs for and construct 100 to 120 new golf courses in the United States in 2007 and in each of several succeeding years.

While annually carving out that many 18-hole sets of fairways, greens and bunkers is pretty good economic activity, it is not as robust as the activity of a decade ago. At that time, as the ranks of golfers in the United States swelled, new courses opened at a furious rate, with nearly 400 opening in the peak year of 2000 alone.

Today, an estimated 27 million people swat the little white ball around public and private courses. The National Golf Foundation estimates more than 500 million rounds of golf were played in the United States in 2006 on nearly 16,000 public and private courses.

Golfers tee up in every region of the country. Minnesota has nearly 600 courses of various lengths sprinkled among its many lakes and claims to have more golfers per capita than any other state — including golfing meccas in the Southeast and Southwest.

This pervasive interest in the game translates into a steady, if not growing, market for golf course builders across the country — and it helps that golf course builders are a relatively small segment of the heavy construction industry. The Golf Course Builders Association has 415 members, according to executive director Paul Foley, with just a quarter of them being builders; most are suppliers.

Shapland has been in the industry for 40 years, beginning as a teenager shoveling sand. The company he heads has worked on more than 800 courses in its 49 years of building, two-thirds of those projects being new construction.

Wadsworth Golf also builds courses in other countries, but the United States remains its principal market, even though the foreign market is hot. More courses are being constructed in other countries than here, Foley said. “The biggest growth is international. From Korea to China, India to Dubai — as the countries develop a good middle class and start to get some money, the demand for golf courses grows.”

The supply and demand curves of the domestic golf course industry tell a different story. After the game became widely popular in the U.S. in the 1950s, many courses were built as stand-alone commercial or municipal ventures. Developers would buy property with the sole intention of having a contractor craft a series of fairways and greens, and erect a clubhouse. The completed facility then would be operated from revenue generated by the golfing public. This essential business plan was the same for private and public courses.

Not so today. In 2007, virtually no stand-alone golf courses will be developed. Rather, the courses will wind around and through residential developments as part of a package of amenities, or will be built as an attachment to a magnet commercial venture, such as a casino, an amusement park or a resort. Other courses will be contracted by wealthy individuals as private recreational venues, but such projects are relatively few.

Shapland divides new construction into three categories: private-daily fee (which are privately owned but open to the public), private country club and municipally owned. Most new construction is private-daily fee, he said. Golf course renovation, which is an important segment of the industry, ranges equally among the three categories.

Jumping Into

Renovation

Bob Pinson is a renovator. He jumped from general construction work into renovation of golf courses in 1992, seven years after starting a grading and construction firm.

“At that time, there wasn’t that much competition, especially on the smaller renovation side,” Pinson said, recalling his decision to reorganize his Gainesville, Ga., business and rename it Course Crafters Inc. “There really was no one set up to do a green here or a bunker there. Most of the bigger companies were doing new construction and bigger jobs. Capital improvements on golf courses in the Southeast were, maybe, $30 million. I figured if I could get 10 percent or so of that, I would be all right.”

A typical course renovation, Pinson said, involves rebuilding 19 greens, all the tee complexes and all the bunkers. But the projects range widely in scope. The number of bunkers on a course, for example, might range from 25 to 65, depending on layout. If resodding of fairways is desired, the job could mean 10 acres (4 ha) of sod work or it could mean 50 acres (20 ha).

In any case, dirt work is far less on a renovation than on new construction, where it is not uncommon to move 600,000 to 800,000 cu. yds. (456,000 to 608,000 cu m).

“Unless you are building a new pond,” Pinson said, “there is really not that much dirt moved. Sometimes 50,000 yards might be moved and many times less than that.”

It follows that the machinery employed on most renovation projects is of a different scale than when a new course is being created from virgin property. Pinson dramatically downsized his equipment fleet when he moved to golf course renovation work.

“I went from having some 10 dozers to having a couple of dozers, from having no tired tractors with truck tires on them to having 30 of them,” he said. “We use a lot of mini-excavators, which we didn’t use previously. In general contracting, we used a lot of metal-tracked loaders; now we use tracked skid-steers.”

He prefers 65-hp John Deere tractors, but noted that other popular makes among his peers in the industry are New Holland and Kubota.

“You can’t use large equipment in renovation,” he said. “You might use a Cat D7 on new construction of a golf course, but use a D4 on renovation work. It is hard to move a big piece of construction equipment around an existing course, especially if you are not blowing it completely up. We walk a lot of tracked equipment around on plywood. Trying not to tear up any more than you need to is the focus.”

He added that “accessibility to a specific site on a course always is a problem. The logistics of material staging and equipment staging are pretty much always an issue on older golf courses where you don’t have a whole lot of land.”

Equipment Has Changed

Technology has changed golf course construction equipment — and golf courses. Shapland certainly has seen technical refinement in equipment over the last 40 years, as the advance of technology worked its wonder on construction machinery. Dozers still push around dirt, for example, but they are more apt to be linked to the global positioning system. Their blades now are six-way moveable (up-down, angle and tilt), a tremendous boon to operators molding a golf course.

“The sophistication of the equipment has improved, but the use of basic equipment hasn’t changed that much,” he said. Still, differences are notable. “The shaping bulldozer is the most indispensable machine and the joy stick touch control in small dozers has changed shaping. The use of mechanical rock pickers has changed the mix of how many laborers and how many machines are used. The use of knuckle buckets on hoes has allowed a lot of detail work by machines.”

SEMA Golf is headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. After working with experienced golf course contractor Bob Steele, SEMA Construction started the division in 1997. Steele — who was a course “shaper” for Wadsworth — became president of the division.

Steele believes a shaper is a key employee in any golf course project. “You have to have your qualified shapers,” Steele said of the equipment operators who subtly cut and fill to create a golf course’s irregular terrain. “It looks easy until you get on a machine and try it.”

The moving of dirt on new courses is more extensive than in decades past. This is so partly because technology allows more elaborate shaping of a course and partly because competition for golfing customers has grown intense.

“Years ago,” Steele recalled, “we kind of graded the fairways. Now there is a lot more demand for operators to do more than just grade from point A to point B. We are grading the entire site. The shaping goes from tree line to tree line. It is what the owners are demanding of golf course contractors to try to outdo their neighbors.”

This creative side of the business — the crafting of unique views, shaping of majestic terrain, building of “natural” barriers and perfect putting greens — prompted Steele to jokingly call golf course-building “glorified construction.”

Wadsworth’s Shapland acknowledges this naturalistic side of the industry, noting that golf courses “enhance the opportunity for people to interact with nature. There are a lot of pretty places in the world that people couldn’t get to if it weren’t for golf courses.”

Role of the Architect

Natural settings aside, much of the beauty in golf courses is there by design. Architects have produced some beautiful schemes for courses and then partnered with contractors to turn schematics into reality. In fact, the relationship of architects and contractors in the golf course building industry is unusually close.

“Golf course construction is still a pretty free-flowing program with a lot of field direction by architects,” Shapland said. “GPS is good for a very rough rendition of a new course, but I think the hands-on approach of an architect and a shaper will never be replaced.”

Shapland said his experience is that architects will visit every couple of weeks to make “adjustments” as shaping is under way; some visit more frequently, some less. Some projects have an architect on site nearly every day, he said, though usually it is not the principal architect.

“Yes, the relationship between golf course architects and golf course builders is very close,” said Chad Ritterbusch, executive secretary of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, “perhaps more so than other fields that involve the participation of both architect and builder.”

He attributes the close relationship to the relatively small number of architects and builders working with golf courses. Consequently, the builders and designers tend to team up more frequently than do their peers in some other sectors of construction. Because golf course architects typically are the first ones approached by land developers, contractors also exhibit good business sense by staying in touch with the people with the plans.

“Another reason for the closeness is the highly specialized nature of golf course design and construction,” Ritterbusch added. “It is a very unique process. It is a unique form of design and construction with very unique goals.”

The uniqueness has to do with the myriad ways a fairway can be laid out on different properties, the many places that sand bunkers can be situated, putting greens can be tilted, course hazards made less or more hazardous. In many ways, a golf course under construction is a design in progress.

“Today’s golf course architects need to blend both artistic and highly technical skills, but there is variance in how particular architects will execute and implement their designs,” Ritterbusch said. “Some tend to focus more heavily on plans and specifications that are highly defined with the use of computer aided software and the benefit of their experience. Other architects, while they may have developed detailed plans and specifications, rely more upon field observation in implementing the design.

“Some architects even will go so far as to hop onto a bulldozer in order to shape the small refinements in a bunker or a green or some other feature.”

Pinson, the renovator upgrading courses in the Southeast, doesn’t always work with an architect in his smaller projects. His clients usually tweak an existing layout rather than extensively redesign it. “If you’re just going to put in some fairway drains, it’s not all that necessary to have an architect come in,” Pinson said. “But I recommend getting an architect if you are going to start moving stuff around.”

Ritterbusch was asked if a person has to play the game to design a course. In many cases, he responded, the two activities indeed are intertwined.

“Most architects pursue the profession via a love of the game and the love of the artistic side,” he acknowledged. “While many members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects are fine, fine players — including the best player of all time, Jack Nicklaus — most simply are good enough golfers, knowledgeable enough golfers, to design for all types of players.”

Ritterbusch lavishes praise on some of the classic golf courses around the country, but said today’s new courses are comparable.

“On the whole, today’s golf courses are as good as any golf course that has ever been designed,” he said, “and that’s the result of better technology, better equipment and simply more knowledge that resides within the architects and others involved in the projects.”

Quality of the courses notwithstanding, too many of them are available for playing. Construction of all those excellent modern courses has for the moment taken the edge off new construction planning. Fortunately, a saturated market is not expected to be a long-term condition.

“It always seems that our business trails the economy a little bit,” Shapland said, looking at the golf course building industry as a whole. “It relates to the housing industry to some extent. But I think that golf always will be an important amenity to development. I also think there is an ongoing need to renovate old and outdated courses. The work can be pretty cyclical, but in the long run, building golf courses always will provide steady work opportunity.”

From an Arizona perspective, golf course construction mostly is hampered by water issues and temporary over-building, said SEMA Golf’s Bob Steele. “It has slowed down somewhat, but as long as interest rates stay fine and housing development keeps strong, it’ll be all right. You’ll continue to see courses built.”

During the lull in the growth of new courses, golf course renovation might be the market niche to be in. Pinson of Course Crafters sees it that way, and he is not alone in that view.

“A lot of the companies that did new construction have slipped back into doing renovations,” he said, ruefully. “I see a lot more competition than I used to.” CEG