New ASGCA President Forrest Richardson Talks Golf Design Post COVID

With all the focus on golf and club operations, it occurred to me that any changes that occur in the game would impact golf course design and the challenges presented to golf course architects. Thus, I reached out to the 2020/2021 President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) Forrest Richardson for some thoughts.

Richardson, based in Phoenix, AZ is credited with numerous original designs and renovations in California and the desert southwest with many award winning designs, such as Baylands (CA), The Short Course at Mountain Shadows (AZ) and renovations to Griffith Park (CA) for the Special Olympics to this historic municipal course in Los Angeles.

I started by asking Richardson how COVID and social distancing has impacted golf course architects. “We are seeing more play at courses, so it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, with more play we expect lots of wear and tear, so I am expecting some renovation work to come forth. On the other, some remodeling has stalled because the courses are in such demand that they cannot close.”

  • With the golf recession that’s occurred over the past decade or so, how have architects changed their marketing?

It depends on what type of work you may be inclined to pursue. For me, I have always had a diverse portfolio. I am comfortable doing small renovations. I work on lots of acquisitions and reconfiguration plans — and that wide spectrum seems to work for a array of clientele.

Richardson sees reconfiguration of courses as the most prominent assignments, where we may be getting rid of portions of a course to build housing or a resort. Consolidation, changing the nature of a course. Those are the big winners for many clients. Helping clients add value, especially to struggling assets or to preserve continued use as golf course or making the course compatible with alternative uses are under consideration.  These include RV parks, freeing up land for other recreational uses or non-recreational uses.  Municipalities want to expand land uses so non-golfers can access the site.  Architects seek to preserve the peace by preserving golf while enhancing economics, often through alternative and supplementary uses.  Richardson is focused on preserving quality golf and where possible accommodating future development plans for marketing opportunities.

I asked if architects been asked to do more “value engineering” (VE) especially on renovation projects based on more challenging economics of projects.

I am not sure “more”, but I certainly see VE continuing to play a role for clients. Far too often we try and do too much with too little. That’s never good. Appropriate VE has always been part of the process, at least for me.

Richardson views too much play as a reason for many projects being delayed this year. Accordingly courses haven’t been willing to close. Certainly in some markets — parts of California and Washington State — we have seen panic outplay common sense. In those cases, all work has stopped and people seem to have crawled under a rock!

To the question “How are you and other GC architects addressing environmental and economic sustainability in golf?” Richardson responded that: Those are two important legs of the stool. The other is relevancy. A golf facility needs to stand the test of finances, but it also needs to remain relevant for players and also fit to the right model of water, labor and resources. Together these form the asset, which is what you figure out at the end of the day. Richardson characterizes golf’s use of water as “borrowing” it since it returns to the aquifer and that even those courses using treated effluent return water to the ecosystem. Accordingly, he maintains that good environmental practice is often good economically.

Richardson’s projects largely encourage the use of less water and chemicals, even at the risk of “brown” golf courses. Being located and practicing primarily in the Western US, water is a big issue. Richardson thinks the American golfer will someday accept brown golf courses.  The golf management community is educating the golfing public that brown is OK.  In western US overseeding is diminishing.  Younger management people making more environmentally based decisions.  The next generation of golfers is demanding environmental sensitivity.

What I see now is a new clientele who not only appreciates these shades (colors), but expects them. The “old guard” who just wants green-green-green is fading away. New players, owners and managers realize that native grasses and passive landscapes are here to stay. So, overall, I see it becoming more and more welcomed.

  • Is there any indication that clients seek design features that allow for the golf course to be put to alternative uses off-season and at night?

Yes. And, why not! Skiing, events, small concerts, etc.  Clients are waking up to the realization that these “parks” cannot be used for just one form of recreation. I think we will see more and more of this. Practice areas in particular can be used for car shows, drone exhibitions, drive-in theater nights, soccer fields and other events. With only 10% of the surrounding population playing golf, and posting signs everywhere to keep people off the golf course the real estate asset isn’t being utilized. A golf course could charge for walkers and provide safety orientation and specific times and policies for walking, bike riding or other activities. Golf courses could be more integrated into the community and become usable/functional for the other 90%.

Richardson maintains that social distancing is “built in to golf. We already “pace” people via tee times…we already social distance in golf, by being away from others…and we have this tremendous ration of land to users that is simply not existent in most recreation pursuits. I do not see the design changing (as a result of social distancing), except for some areas such as no-rake bunkering, more walkable venues and taking away all of the touch points. Most of that has to do with management, not the architecture.

  • What are the biggest issues you see for ASGCA members moving forward?

Continuing to take time to learn — to be able to offer clients a well-rounded set of approaches to make courses better, more fun and more profitable. It used to be that the GCA was the single most diverse person in terms of knowledge of the game, its playing board and all of the decisions concerning conditions, building, infrastructure and change. I still feel that is true, but I also recognize that golf today is more complicated. Technology — no matter what the area of focus — simply makes it more difficult to “know” everything. So, for us, we need to stay in the game and continue to be educated. This way we can reach out to others when needed. I still envision the GCA being “the” go-to source when it comes to course change and improvement.

Among the most interesting of Richardson’s comments are his recognition of the need for golf courses to use their real estate assets more efficiently by promoting a variety of uses. As any of my fellow real estate appraisers will agree maximum value comes from functional utility and putting any property to its highest and best use.