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Golf Architects See Light at the End of the Tunnel

By: Steve Habel


There has been a readily accepted notion during the past few years' economic slowdown that the second Golden Age of golf course architecture has come to an unceremonious end. With the dearth of new courses under construction and little, if any, money being loaned by banks for any golf-related developments, the business of course design is at a crossroads.

Many golf architects - much like some of the courses they built - will not survive this downturn. "We are just not building very many new golf courses because the banks won't loan any money to make that happen," noted "Open Doctor" Rees Jones said in a recent interview with CNBC. "The golf industry was not included as part of the national stimulus package, but just about everyone else was.

"Overseas there is a lot of activity - especially in the Far East - but things are very slow in the United States," Jones added. "The golf course architecture industry is not as good today as it was a few years ago, that's for sure. The business is stagnant here."

In some circles, there is a belief that the United States just has too many golf courses. There have been predictions that up to 1,500 courses might close in the next few years, while some even say a course a day could close and that the industry would need even more shuttered to be on the right track. Not all clubs will remain open for business, but those that do will survive because they are the fittest, as in the Darwinian Theory. Courses are competing for dollars from people who have more choices and less time than ever before.

Some architects, including Champions Tour player Tom Kite (who lists Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J., and the Club Comanche Trace in the Texas Hill Country among his 13 courses), think rock bottom for the industry is very close, if it hasn't hit already.

"There is not much further the design industry can drop, and there are signs that it might be coming back somewhat," Kite said. "But there is still an oversupply of golf courses in much of the U.S. and that supply must be absorbed before any meaningful growth can occur."

Even in places where the economic downturn has had less of an effect than others - like Central Texas - golf facilities are feeling the pinch. In the past three years, two highly-ranked courses, ColoVista Country Club in Bastrop east of Austin and Spanish Oaks Country Club west of Austin in Bee Cave, have closed and several others, including the potentially superb Club at Waterford near Marble Falls, have been left to sit fallow before they could officially open.

But some in the industry will survive, and perhaps even thrive, bolstered by new ideas, emerging markets for the game overseas and, maybe most importantly, a return to tried and true practices driven by common sense and an adherence to the environment and water conservation.

Is That a Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Jeffery D. Brauer, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, says there is evidence that the industry is beginning to rebound. "At least I know my phone isn't broken," Brauer said. "I will need to focus on either international work or the renovations market. Upper-end privates make up most of last year's remodels, with mid-levels next and then publics, but even some public courses now seem to be considering renovations."

Heading overseas for design work is always a possibility. "China and Vietnam certainly provide opportunities if you are an architect that is willing to travel and set up operations over there," Kite said. "Redesign of courses in the U.S. is always a possibility, and architects and contractors are beating the bushes to try and find those opportunities."

"The industry is growing across the globe," Jones remarked. "With the Olympics including golf in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and the many international players involved in today's biggest events, the PGA Tour is looking to expand into markets all over the world."

But some designers are not interested in eating the cost of establishing overseas offices, or spending hours and days flying to far-flung locations and dealing with governments that could stall permits for course construction, not to mention developers that take their time to pay off debts.

The demand for new courses is all but nonexistent, but Brauer's work at Firekeeper Golf Club in Mayetta, Kans., for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation will debut in 2011. But even Brauer missed out on the contract to design a new course in Laredo, Texas, that - despite a total budget of just $6.6 million - drew bids from 31 design teams that each included a golf course architect and builder and featured names like Nicklaus, Palmer and Fazio, among others.

The initial meeting at Laredo's Webb County Courthouse was overflowing, with more architects and builders in attendance than at the 2010 Golf Industry Show. The contract to design the course was eventually won by Robert Trent Jones II, with Landscapes Unlimited earning the right to build it. The new 18-hole track is expected to be open for play by 2012.

With new courses on hold and construction teams wringing their hands, the time is ripe for renovation and rethinking the profession's old principles. Many clubs and courses are taking advantage of the lack of business and getting some really good cost savings on long-awaited capital projects.

Randy Heckenkemper, a Tulsa-based designer of such noted courses as The Territory in Duncan, Okla., and renovator of both the TPC Champions Course in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Ark, has spent the past months working on greens-renovation projects at several Oklahoma courses.

"We have been fortunate that some of our previous clients have decided to use this slowdown to their advantage and to update their courses while construction costs are lower than in previous years," Heckenkemper said. "Our clients feel that the upgrades will maintain their current levels and hopefully gain market share in a highly competitive time."

Dollar Drives the Cart in Golf Design & Construction

Golf course architects are not market leaders; it's the money guys and management companies that control the purse strings.

According to Brauer, most golf architects have always had renovations be 30 to 90 percent of their work, and there are many other types of work, including the preparation of master plans, landscaping, specific hole remodels, retrofitting courses with new tees, or to help flood protection, both on-course and peripherally.

"Irrigation-related work is hot," Brauer added. "Not only are courses looking for new systems, but some want turf reductions, so we work together with the irrigation designers to accomplish that."

Brauer has been recommending the shortening of golf courses, with forward tees down close to 4,000 yards. "They are proving popular," he said, "Doing so helps not only the women and juniors who typically play there to make the game more fun, but everyone by moving others up a tee, by reducing the numbers of shots everyone takes, and by making play faster.

"I think we are past the era of building a lot of golf course for Tour pros who won't show up, and golfers feel good about that," Brauer remarked. "Maybe that couldn't have happened when housing developers were driving golf development, and wanted the newest, toughest and, of course, longest courses."

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.