Aesthetics vs. Playability – What’s Sustainable?

Among the conversations I engaged at the recent CMAA World Conference in Dallas was with two representatives (Rhett Dawson and John Fulling) of the GCSAA about aesthetics and playability.  An interesting topic indeed.

How many of us have been fortunate enough to travel to Scotland or Ireland to play some of the world’s great “links” courses?  Over many years, whenever I encounter someone just back from such a venture, they typically rave about the experience, exclaim about the weather conditions and often plan their next trip for links golf.  I remember the first time I took my oldest son.  Like many, he tried to fight the stiff Scottish winds insisting he could select clubs based on distance.  I remember the frustration on my best friend’s face when we played Troon in horizontal rain.  Neither were too enamored with the links experience at the time.  In both instances the initial frustration was quickly replaced with a fondness and appreciation for more “natural” conditions.  Both my son and friend can’t wait to go back and play the brown, firm golf courses.

To many, golf courses are supposed to be lush, green expanses with the quality of the course often judged on the level visual perfection and aesthetics.  A trip to the UK for links golf often changes that expectation and (as my son and friend learned) develops an appreciation for the often brown and firm surfaces experienced in links golf and a not so manicured golf course.

In the US it is not uncommon to see some of the more prestigious clubs with maintenance budgets in excess of $2 million for 18-holes.  The level of conditions, aesthetics and quality of playing surfaces at these clubs is usually both visually pleasing and very consistent.  Conversely, through some informal research of some top clubs in England and Scotland, I’ve learned that golf course maintenance expenditures are roughly half or less than those in the US.  Sure, the courses have brown spots (if not more), conditions are dictated more by the weather and one learns to expect and accept unpredictable bounces.  But, the courses in the UK (and now some in the US) don’t use as much water, chemicals and other resources and are more economically and environmentally sustainable.

All superintendents are familiar with the term “Augusta Syndrome”.  Each year, when the Masters is televised in April, club green chairmen and board members all want their clubs to rival the aesthetics and perfection of Augusta National.  The real question, in my mind is what would US golfers trade in aesthetics while maintaining (and perhaps even enhancing) playability?

Though I too enjoy the “perfect” conditions often present at my club, I often wonder if such conditions are sustainable, how much money and resources could be saved by compromising some of the aesthetics (perfectly manicured and green) versus focusing on less visually pleasing yet equally high quality playing surfaces that might go brown during dry periods.  It might take some getting used to, but those same members that spend considerable sums for trips to play links golf might actually enjoy the experience at their home club.

The economic and environmental benefits could be substantial.  For instance, if a club with a maintenance budget of, say $1.5 million (not atypical for private clubs) mange to save 25%, the savings would be $375,000.  That savings could fund a variety of capital improvement projects, address deferred maintenance or simply help balance a budget for the club.  Additionally, the club could possibly promote itself as an environmentally responsible member of the community, combating the often negative PR that clubs experience as being environmentally insensitive.  For those clubs and courses operating for profit, the impact economically can make the difference between staying in business or not.  Even a course with a more modest maintenance budget of say $750,000, reducing costs by 20% can save $150,000, which can be the difference between profitability or not, and add more than $1 million to the market value of the course.

It can’t be over-emphasized that the market would need to be “educated”.  There are examples.  Famed Pinehurst #2, the host for 2 recent US Opens has not only been well received after creating similar conditions but has saved maintenance dollars in the process.

In a 2011 article, USGA (now) Championship Agronomist Darin Bavard wrote:  When did the visual aspects of the golf course become so important at the expense of playability to the average golfer?  We routinely see golf courses that provide superb playability:  firm, fast conditions and an overall attractive appearance under stressful weather conditions.  Yet many golfers seem to focus on small areas of wear or off-color grass that are present on most courses during the heat of the summer.  They choose to ignore the many positives that a given golf experience provides and emphasize the bad.  This raises the question of whether aesthetics have become more important than playability in the daily maintenance of the golf course. 

The golf course needs to be attractive to the golfers, but there is a difference between off-color or dormant grass and dead grass. This is a very important distinction. Dead grass is not good for anybody. The increased emphasis on firm and fast has created a lot of debate, and many golf courses have embraced this concept. Unfortunately, the exact appearance of the golf course as it relates to providing firm conditioning varies from region to region and even golf course to golf course. Most people seem to agree this is a good idea, especially at some other golf course. Far fewer people agree on how it should manifest itself at their golf course. 

Some golf courses have the resources to maintain firm, fast conditions and a canvas of green, but most cannot. You need to choose one or the other. Quite simply, it costs more money to maintain firm, fast and green during the heat of the summer.  Labor resources for hand watering fairways are needed because overhead irrigation systems cannot account for small variances in ground contours or soil conditions that lead to dry spots and brown grass, especially in vast fairway acreages.

Are both aesthetics and playability sustainable?  Of course, with different climates and more importantly different budgets, the answer varies from course to course.  Each club needs to make its own decisions.  Like I always tell my kids, “every decision has a price.”  Personally, I’d vote for playability every time.