Growing the game has become the mantra for the golf industry as course closings have accelerated for much of the globe — most notably in America — the world leader in total courses and players. Since the end of The Great Recession in ’09 overall closing have far outpaced openings for a number of years now and the end of that trend does not look promising for the continued future.
Despite the downturn in new course development there is an ascending uptick with certain existing facilities repositioning themselves in order to attract new players — especially among Millennials, women and minorities.
Forrest Richardson, a long time practicing architect based in Phoenix, AZ, is one of the leading voices advocating more creative options in how existing courses can better use existing golf properties. Richardson’s advocacy has brought forward such new terminology as “rightsizing” and the elimination of “dead spaces.”
Bayland Golf Links, located in Palo Alto, CA — hired Richardson to rebrand their golf effort. In total, 38 acres of irrigated turf was eliminated. In addition, the course includes 55 acres of native vegetation and wetland areas, a 40 percent reduction in managed turf areas and a 35 percent reduction in potable water usage. Chronic flooding woes from the past have also been addressed with 450,000 cubic yards of off-site soil was used to raise the elevation of all turfed areas. Drought and salt tolerant paspalum was used as the principle grass coverage.
Bayland was also redesigned and now allows for varying routings — including six, nine, twelve, fifteen and eighteen holes. Given the demand on free time the course now provides varying presentations for those wanting to have maximum playing choices. With the new course reconfiguration a total of 10-acres was able to be transferred to the usage of the neighboring Baylands Athletic Center for future recreational usages. All in all, a more proactive approach has added land usage options to a far greater degree.
In years past the basic golf product was fairly straightforward and for many critics quite stagnant. Future water usage and the application of pesticides have become major issues of concern for many in non-golf circles and the wherewithal to show golf as a positive good is clearly needed for the sport to remain vibrant in a host of ways. Given the financial economics courses are facing today a clear repositioning of how golf is presented from a facility standpoint is now rapidly growing.
Richardson shares his insights on how his design efforts are moving forward given the new realities. Maximizing relevance for golf as a viable entertainment option while also realizing the stakes — financially and environmentally — are certainly matters that will play a leading role facing a golf industry clearly in transition in the 21st century.
Forrest Richardson is a golf course architect based in Arizona and California. His work has included projects throughout North America including Hawaii, Alaska, Canada and Mexico. He is the current Treasurer of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA).
THE RICHARDSON STORY —
I met Arthur Jack Snyder after discovering there was a profession called “Golf Course Architecture.” I was 12 years old. That friendship eventually led me to work with Jack after college, and the rest is history.
You wake up in the morning what’s the driving passion?
Lately it has been to finally capitalize on the many ideas and concepts I have thought of throughout my career. I keep a daily sketch book, and often the ideas get turned into folders with ideas for golf course concepts, golf products and strategies for growing the game. Maybe ‘capitalize’ is isn’t the right word. Let me just say, I want to see more of these get a chance at being fulfilled.
The golf market of today is a far different one than when The Great Recession happened between ’07-’09. In what ways is it different?
People are being tugged at harder, and most influentially — faster. We are at a point in society when we are barely able to keep up with the pace of things, and this is causing a massive intersection between the time we have and how we spend it.
Golf closings have far outnumbered course openings for at least a decade — how is the golf marketplace evolving to deal with this imbalance between supply and demand?
First, much of this is a market correction in terms of supply and demand. It is positive in that a lot of golf courses were built in the wrong places, and many were the wrong kind of courses. Add to this the private club that is simply no longer located where it can attract families. If we could pick courses up and move them, or automatically mold them into something a bit smaller or different, that would be magic. Of course we can do this, but it takes even more money. So, closures will continue where needed.
You’ve been at the forefront in “rightsizing” golf facilities. Define the term and why the need?
Everything in the world today takes less mass to produce. A beer can, for example, is 1/5 the weight it was 50 years ago, but it out-performs the old steel can with welds and a hard-to-open top. Mostly, it takes far less material. Golf courses need to be smaller, have less impact and take far less inputs in terms of labor, materials and water.
Overall, who is your golf client in such “rightsizing” efforts?
They are existing course owners and investors who have experience with golf. People are simply interested to know what possibilities may be do-able to downsize and find better uses for some of the land. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations.
There’s been a major push by the major golf organizations — USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA — in seeking ways to attract Millennials, women and minorities. How does your approach via “rightsizing” work towards introducing new groups to golf?
It works amazingly. The newer generations have been brought up with everything smaller — their cars, their work weeks, snippets of news and the way they read and write. It only makes sense that the golf they play allows shorter, faster and more compressed experiences — not perhaps for all golf, but certainly if we want to attract them to the game in the first place.
You also advocate creative usages of “dead spaces” — what does that mean specifically?
Not all golf courses have bits and pieces of land that can be used, but I’ve learned to find these and route holes so several little triangles or shapes might be pieced together to make something meaningful. Billy Bell, actually both the father and son, were known for great routings with holes headed in good array of directions. But, having worked on fifty of more Bell layouts, I also know where to look for their leftover triangles. The trick is not making things feel compressed. I still want elbow room and, of course, a safe and playable design.
You are a proponent in pushing for a “new golf experience.” How does such an effort keep the interest of traditionalists within the sport?
I need to win them over sometimes. My wife and I were finishing dinner at Mountain Shadows Resort where we created a very unique, high end all par-3 18-hole course. On the way out we met a couple just arriving to check in. They had clubs. Valerie asked if they were excited about playing the new Mountain Shadows course, to which the woman replied “no” because it was just a short, par-3. The couple had come all the way from Switzerland to play golf in Phoenix-Scottsdale and I had to hear they would have nothing to do with The Short Course! How sad. That’s when I shift into evangelist mode.
Can those who advocate for golf and those doing similarly for the environment work in unison with one another or will the divide between the two only grow wider?
Yes, we see this at work when we are able to get with people who know the value of large open spaces. Golf has the ability to deliver large land areas that are sustained and managed without subsidies. That’s not the case with most other large open space areas, especially when they are in or near urban environments.
When we were getting approval for Baylands Golf Links in Palo Alto, California, I actually had the local Audubon Society standing up and pleading for the permits to allow us to do our work. They knew a better golf course with natural habitat, wetlands and the right variety of trees would attract birds and give them a better landscape to thrive. And they were right, today the course is more of a sanctuary that happens to have golfers hiking through, not the other way around.
What’s the biggest short and long term challenges facing the golf industry — specifically as it relates to the golf course product side?
Labor is the biggest issue. We cannot attract enough, we can’t keep people and the cost is killing the financial health of many courses. We need to adopt robotics for maintenance where we can, and we need to drastically reduce the cost to maintain and operate.
Golf architecture sets much of the labor demand in motion, so go figure — today the golf course architects are needed more than ever to come in and help find ways to change the footprints and make a healthier course so it can be cared for with fewer people. I would say the labor issue, both short and long term stuff, and it relates back to simply managing golf with fewer resources overall.
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