Considerate Golf Course Restoration

With restoration being trendy, most architects use that label as a sales pitch, but very loosely when concerning design intent.

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​​It’s common for older courses to seek an architect specializing in restoring old courses. The specialized field of golf course architecture has evolved into even more specialized sub-sectors, including historic restorations recently, with old courses undergoing transitions that date back more than 100 years.

It’s generally hard to replicate the feel of older courses: Tractors/bulldozers built features don’t resemble horse/scoop built features. White sand (now preferred) looks modern, not old. Pure swathes of the newest turf replace the mottled mix of older grasses. Trees are hard to remove, but don’t look like sparsely planted early courses. It’s about to get harder. The current and projected difficulties of the golf business will probably force all design to focus less on nostalgic style, and more on the current concerns of environmental and business sustainability.

In building architecture, these terms are better defined, and could be in golf, too:

Restoration – Using original designs from a particular era of history (Opening day, major changes to host a prominent event, etc.) to recreate the past as authentically as modern materials and construction allow.

Rehabilitation/Reuse – “Rehabilitation” is a better term when improving infrastructure or design to bring back a course’s former image, reputation or conditions, while not preserving its original design.

Remodel/Renovate – Generally, the first two are interchangeable, used where golf course features are totally redesigned, using most of the existing routing as a starting point. This involves value judgments based on “Would the architect do this if alive today?” discussions, which are always interesting, but never conclusive.

Rebuild – Building a new course of any style over an old one on the same site, including major or total re-routing.

Courses wanting a true restoration should select an architect on proven examples, substance, and not nomenclature, finding one who respects design history and has experience in similar restorations. You might also bring in an independent historian/researcher with expertise in your original architect for additional perspective.

True restorations are based on historical research, including original plans, early aerials and photos, newspaper articles, and knowledge of the original designer’s philosophies. The goal is to determine the history of every hole, from its original design intent and initial execution, to all changes made later by others, and whether those changes are reversible.

Changes like new back tees are easily accepted, since they maintain original greens and landing zones while accommodating modern length. In other cases, tricky decisions must be made between keeping the original landing zone hazards and building similar ones further down the fairway, hopefully on similar topography as the original.

Most courses change substantially over time, making restoration impossible, or impossibly expensive, due to: Property boundary changes, earlier re-routing. Major design changes now embraced by golfers. Agronomic needs (poor water, etc.) require new solutions. Environmental areas and multiple/forward tees must be accommodated. Need for new practice areas not in original design.

​​Not all old courses can be restored in all situations. If your course was formerly private, but is now a highly played municipal course, maintenance and operational requirements probably trump historic accuracy, by enlarging original small greens and tees, removing bunkers, etc.

Some courses aren’t really worth restoring.

Donald Ross designed 400 courses, some only on paper. Are all 400 “classics?” Perhaps the top 5-25 percent that haven’t already seen permanent changes qualify as restoration worthy. Sometimes, it’s not good marketing. Not everyone appreciates history. Many golfers prefer the modern look and playability. “New and improved” makes for strong marketing.

The most important thing for a renovation to do is to make the course match its players and stand out in its market, whatever style that takes.

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Northville Twp. MI 48168

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