Design on a Better Course – Jeff Brauer

Golf course architect extraordinaire Jeff Brauer recently authored a great book “Designs on a Better Course” focused on helping green committees, club leaders and course owners make practical and well-advised decisions in course renovation and restoration projects. Having done over 100 such projects, I figured Brauer’s thoughts on how best clubs can proceed with these complex and costly projects to further assist in developing sound decisions in an ever-changing world.

I started by asking about the most common mistakes clubs make. I think most golf course architects will tell you it’s spending too much on the clubhouse, but of course, we are biased a bit towards spending on the golf course, which makes sense, because that is the primary reason people join and pay dues.

Another is to enter into big renovations without a clear business plan or at least understanding of their place in the market.  More and more design master plans are part of a business oriented overall club plan. And lastly, some spend too much, others spend too little, probably based on lack of analysis for the course or the business model.  We strive for what I call “intelligent investments.”

On the daily-fee side, Brauer recognized that there is considerable fee pressure that often results in the tendency to “underspend” and “just miss” their goals.

When asked why clubs should consider renovations, he answered this way: The easy answer is similar to the real estate agents…..there is never a better time than now to buy!  A certain level of capital investment is necessary each year.  The basic calculus is about 80% of a the current cost of a new course, (because some construction items, like clearing, aren’t typically necessary ) divided by about 25 years, or the approximate life span of most features and infrastructure on a golf course.  The base cost of your proposed renovation isn’t zero.  It’s the cumulative number of those missed 25 year improvement costs you need to catch up.

In the context of valuing golf properties, I’ve recognized a considerable difference, not only in operations but in property characteristics between private and daily-fee facilities. Brauer referred to the “Design Triangle”, which seeks to balance playability, aesthetics and maintenance costs. He observes that the public courses typically (but not always) lean toward the maintenance cost side. Brauer suggests that the course architect needs to differentiate between addressing modernization, enhancements and deferred maintenance issues. He offers the following analogy: If you buy the newest top of the line, most expensive model, it’s certainly a big upgrade.  But so is buying the “one level down” model, but also probably a bit more reasonable on the typical budget.  The second level down probably equates to the old system when factoring in old construction costs and inflation.

I asked about the all-important issue of disruption in play from renovation projects. Brauer offered the following: Prior to the boom in the 1980’s, long renovations were the norm to keep annual costs down.  In the 1980’s, the economics were great, and baby boomers were in their prime, and very impatient, and interest rates were low.  That logically led to more renovations being completed all in one year.  The trend since 2006 seems to be going back to long term renovations, but not completely.  Low interest rates still often make it feasible to combine bigger and bigger projects for the least total amount of disruption to play. Economics often determine whether a project is all done at once or if phasing is used to spread the economic impact.

Like any project, a cost/benefit analysis is required. Brauer offers the following: Some improvements, like new irrigation systems are almost automatically a good investment if not working reliably.  In addition to electric and water savings, the crew will be spending much less time daily fixing leaks, and dragging hoses to uncovered areas. For things like adding cart path curbs, if the cost is about $5000 in annual debt, and the crew spends that much in labor and sod repairing worn spots caused by improperly located paths and lack of curbs, which they often do, then curbs is easily shown as a decent investment likely to break even every year.

Brauer observes that at 90% of courses golf maintenance is the biggest expense item. thus, he focuses in many cases on reducing maintenance costs. This can involve anything from modern irrigation, bunker removal, drainage and cart path design and placement. Not always “sexy” but functional. Brauer notes that: Sometimes the best renovation for a course fixes all those underground things and the golfer really doesn’t notice, other than his dry shoes, greener turf, and maybe slightly faster rounds due to fewer bunkers.

When asked what the most common reasons for renovations are, Brauer says that course rankings are most discussed but least pursued. He strongly encourages a SWOT Analysis and having an independent consultant assist in market positioning and feasibility analysis. Brauer identifies budget as the single biggest challenge in most renovation projects. He says his most successful projects have been the result of all players “pulling in the same direction” or “on the same page” with consistent agendas and the least successful not having those elements. Brauer’s book can be purchased through Amazon by clicking here.