When is it time for renovations?

Elcona Country Club

Sooner or later, if you haven’t already, you will be faced with some type of renovation project as a golf course superintendent. It could be a total restoration of your golf course to bring it back to the original architecture, the complete renovation of greens, tees and/or bunkers due to their age and poor performance, or it could be the replacement/renovation of an irrigation system. Regardless of the scenario, it is imperative that you know what you are getting into before it starts.

While I have not been through a total renovation or restoration of a golf course, I do have some background with this topic, having been through both a complete irrigation renovation and the full redesign/renovation of our 18th green and the surrounding area here at Elcona CC in the last few years.

Sure, many of you have been through far more extensive projects and have undoubtedly learned a lot from the experience, and have taken away a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment when it was completed, just as I did, and for that, you are to be commended. For those of you that have not had this opportunity yet, hopefully, this article will provide you with some insight to help make your project go smoothly.

As golf course superintendents, it is in our blood to be prepared for whatever comes our way. We are notorious for our planning and our innate ability to foresee what hiccups there maybe along the way and plan accordingly. These finely tuned skills come in handy during a renovation project. One of my favorite mottos is defined by the 5 P’s (Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance) and should be followed when committing to any type of renovation.

First and foremost, you and your facility must decide why you want to enter into a renovation, and whether or not it actually needs to be done. Is now the right time to embark on such a project, or is it simply being done because XYZ course down the street just did it? For Elcona, this was an easy decision.

Our irrigation system had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer economical to operate, and it was extremely inefficient. The mainline was severely undersized (100-horsepower pump tying into 4-inch mainline) for today’s standards and much of it was 50 years old and constructed with Transite pipe.

Leaks and breaks were a near-daily occurrence. The need to renovate our 18th green was dictated by today’s demand for ever-increasing green speeds. The green had very little contour to it, but had a consistent slope from back to the front of about 7- to 7.5-percent slope. Today, architects generally will not build greens with playing surfaces greater than a 3- to 3.5-percent slope.

The green had to be mowed at a higher height of cut as compared to our other greens, occasionally brushed after mowing to stand the turf up in order to decrease speed, and was never, ever rolled. Even after all of this, less than one-third of the playing surface had useable cupping locations and all of those were on the right side of the green. Not exactly how it was originally intended to play.

Prior to the project, whatever it may be, it is well worth your time and expected that you will do your homework. Failing to do so will get your project off to a bad start even before it begins. It will take a significant amount of time to meet with architects and contractors, check all of their references, and, if possible, visit some of the sites where they have completed work in the past.

For our irrigation renovation, we reviewed which manufacturer of the irrigation components (RainBird, Toro, Hunter, etc.) would be best for our situation and interviewed several contractors who could complete the installation. For us, we did not feel it was necessary to hire an irrigation consultant, but it should certainly be part of your decision-making process before a project such as this moves forward.

As far as the renovation of our green, we hired golf course architect Arthur Hills (passed in 2021) and his associate, Brian Yoder, to design and oversee the project because of their relationship with our club. In the mid-90s, Hills generated a master plan for Elcona that was completed over several years. Because of this, it was a simple decision to bring him back for this project.

As a side note, many of you are capable of completing similar projects “in-house” utilizing your own design and staff. While it certainly costs more to bring in an architect and contractors for these situations, the benefit is that the facility and its staff are not held responsible if there are issues that surface after the project is complete. Please take this into consideration if or when questions arise as to who will perform the work.

Once there is a commitment to the project, ensure that your golfers/members are informed as to why the project needs to be done and what the procedure will be going forward. It is imperative that communication is timely and informative. I would highly recommend starting a blog if you have not already established one.

During both of our projects, regular updates were posted throughout the club with photos and timelines. For the irrigation renovation, I made a copy of the master design, placed it in the golf shop, and highlighted the progress each day. This allowed the members to see where work had been completed and where the crew was working that day. This instilled a tremendous sense of pride in the project and gave them something to show their playing partners and guests.

My blog was not active during the irrigation renovation but was for the renovation of our 18th green. This alone provided an avenue for discussion among the membership and allowed the members that had already left for their winter homes to stay involved and see progress on a daily basis.

During the course of both of these projects, I have seen the benefit of personally being available and involved and I would encourage you to do the same. Through personal involvement and accessibility, your commitment to the project is seen by the contractor and architect and puts you in a position to answer questions and review options immediately, which helps to keep the project on schedule.

Because our irrigation renovation started in September, we had to keep the old system operational while the new system was being installed. Going in, we knew scenarios would arise where existing lines would be cut. Our goal was to minimize the damage as much as possible, even though we did not have an accurate set of plans for the old system. With many painstaking hours of probing the golf course by my assistants and me to find old mainlines, we were never in a situation where we were without water.

As it turned out, it was an extremely dry fall, and keeping the system operational was critical. This also allowed the contractor to continue with the installation instead of making repairs, which they were responsible for as stated in the contract. The same held true for the greens project. Involvement proved to be critical due to timing. The project didn’t start until mid-October which, for Northern Indiana, can be quite late to start a project because of the potential for snowfall at any time.

Our push-up greens consist of very sandy native soil that has performed well over the last 50 years. Knowing this, it was decided to stockpile the existing rootzone material from the old green, as well as the predominantly Annual Bluegrass sod in an attempt to maintain consistency of the putting surfaces around the golf course. This process added time to the project, which we didn’t necessarily have.

As the project was winding down and the final shaping of the green was being done, the weather forecast for the next few days took a turn for the worse. No snow, but a significant amount of rain was being predicted. Needless to say, this would not have been good for a green that was shaped, but not sodded.

With the involvement of my staff, as well as Brian Yoder and the contractor, we were able to get the last pieces of sod laid just as the rains began. Once the rain started, it didn’t stop for two straight days. Without the involvement of individuals other than the contractor and everyone’s commitment to a successful project and some very long hours, we would have been faced with a situation that would have deteriorated quickly and been behind schedule.

In my relatively short time here at Elcona CC, I have been very fortunate to be involved in two substantial renovation projects that have been both rewarding and educational, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Commercial Irrigation, Automatic Irrigation, Arthur Hills, Brian Yoder and O&J Construction for their involvement with our renovations. Each one of them has shown me how enjoyable and rewarding projects of this magnitude can be. My hope is that you can get as much satisfaction out of your renovations as I did with these.

Greg Shaffer has been the golf course superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind., for 6 years. He is an avid user and proponent of social media and can be followed on Twitter at @gtshaffer and @ElconaGrounds. His blog address is: and he can easily be reached at His career as a writer remains questionable.

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