The Construction of the Golf Course at Giant's Ridge - Part 9

By: Jeffrey D. Brauer


IIIIII'mmmmmm back! After a long, cold, lonely winter in Minnesota (to quote the Beatles - and I'm sure they had the Iron Range in mind when they wrote that), construction has begun anew at Giant's Ridge. A long snow melt delayed the onset of spring up there, and has even pushed back summer, which was originally scheduled for the weekend of July 15th. I understand it is now moved to August 3!

The cold spring delays construction, because the state places road restrictions on heavy trucks and equipment movements on public roads until the frost is out of the ground. This didn't occur until late May, delaying our start. Fortunately, Park Construction left a few dozers on site, so crews were able to finish up the clearing left over from last fall. About December 15th (naturally, in conjunction with one of my site visits) they had an extreme - even for them - cold snap of 20 degrees below zero. This froze the soil, and when dozers tried to push the trees over and out, they snapped off, leaving the root ball in the frozen soil. It's always a problem getting these out separately in the spring, and leaving the roots in the soil can lead to future disease problems, so we opted to stop the clearing process.

Real earthmoving and shaping started at the very end of May. Seeing the first fairway take shape is always one of the most exciting parts of a project. This was especially true, since the first hole graded was Number 9 - which has potential to be one of my personal favorites. The design process is a funny animal. And Number 9 illustrates some of the serendipity that can lead to a great golf hole. First of all, the hole was never going to be located here. I walked the land, and it was both low and the site of an asphalt batch plant. The manmade valley was too short and too narrow in spots to fit in a standard golf hole. It seemed like there were better places to go when the site sprawled over hundreds of acres. But a few things happened almost simultaneously to change that.

Our parcel was reduced in size, since Minnesota's Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) didn't want to get stuck with potential environmental clean-up costs on certain portions of the original site. This happened about the time I took a golf trip to Ireland. While there, I was enamored with how the holes fit in between the natural dunes. I recognized the similarities of the manmade spoil piles to the dunes characteristics, and began to look at this valley in a different light. I routed in a hole, using the narrowest neck of the valley for the green site. Besides Ireland, it is also very reminiscent of the 18th at Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles - with the famous walking bridge for the 10th suspended behind it. In fact, an old haul road at the tee end also had me considering a blind tee shot over the hill, like those so common on the old seaside links. My owner's representative has given me lots of latitude, but a couple of frowns crossed his face with the idea of a blind shot.

I think his words were: "A golf ball to the forehead is no kind of souvenir to take home from their day at Giant's Ridge. I'd rather they buy a shirt."

So, we decided to make a narrow gash through the ridge to provide vision to the fairway from the tee. This both mirrors the narrow entry to the green and retains the look and feel of the seacoast dunes. The first cuts were made the day I was leaving from a construction meeting. I couldn't wait to get back to see the initial results.

As it turned out, I didn't have to, thanks to modern technology. When I opened my e-mail at the office the next day, there were some pictures from Al Olsen, Park Construction's superintendent. He was asking some questions, including how I liked the results. From the photos, however, I could tell that the shaping was much too soft to replicate the rugged spoil piles that I wanted to impersonate dunes. We sketched out some steeper dunes on the photo, scanned it, and e-mailed it back. A few days later, another picture came back closely resembling our sketch, and we were thrilled. It was exactly the result we were looking for. More than that, we saved the contractor time, which probably saves him and the owner money. This is a good thing!

Another technological improvement Park Construction has implemented is staking using Global Positioning Software (GPS). They have invested considerable funds in a GPS system that takes our computer drawings and puts them on a hand-held screen. Formerly, setting out line and grade stakes meant setting up a survey instrument and elevation rod, doing numerous mathematical calculations, and using a two-man crew to set out stakes, which usually took a good day to do a hole. With GPS, one man can set grade stakes on a hole in about an hour. Again, a great time-saver for the contractor, but great for design, too!

They set out several holes in advance of my site visit. We can walk them together and quickly spot necessary adjustments for rock, trees, vision, or just because something seems overdone. My general trend has been to reduce earthmoving to keep the site in its current state.

This may be the greatest advance in golf construction since the advent of the bulldozer or irrigation systems. It's certainly the biggest thing to really speed up the construction process while getting better results. Most of the other changes in my career have been more incremental - like replacing heavy, difficult-to-install concrete drainage pipe with lighter, stronger plastic pipe.

Of course, it has its down side. Moving faster has historically reduced some of the finer nuances of older design/construction. And, as Al Olsen pointed out, perhaps not all architects like the idea of their plans being staked out accurately: It may reveal they are flawed! In the past, architect types could always claim the contractor wasn't "interpreting the plans correctly"!

We are moving full steam ahead. We are even stepping up our own 3D efforts to make doubly sure that our plans are correct before they go out. Of course, all architects will fiddle with the design on the ground. There will always be a trip to Ireland - or some other great golf course - taken between drawing and construction that will inspire field changes in the name of better design!

Next month, some more holes should be shaped up, demonstrating how we adapt our design principals to a unique quarry site. See you then.

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Jeffrey D. Brauer and his firm, GolfScapes, have designed 40 golf courses and remodeled 80. Canterberry Golf Course in Parker, Colo., and Giants Ridge are rated among the best affordable public courses in the United States, while his Avocet Course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was a Golf Digest best new course winner, Champions Country Club is rated 5th in Nebraska and TangleRidge Golf Club is 12th in Texas. President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects during its 50th anniversary year in 1995-96, Brauer also designed Colbert Hills Golf Club at Kansas State, which opened in June 2000 as the cornerstone golf course for The First Tee program as well as the first collaboration between the PGA of America and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

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