Thursday, January 26, 2012

Some of the 'other stuff'.

Short grass area right of the 9th green, Overlake.
At most golf clubs, focus is on bunkers. It's remarkable how many golfers feel bunkers need to be improved, when in fact, they're hazards where you're not supposed to find an ideal lie and a simple shot.

Drainage is paramount, but most of those golfers who feel the bunkers 'suck' talk about playability and overall maintenance. As a result, bunker remodelling projects are very popular. But other stuff has equal, and some times more impact on actually improving an aged golf course.

I visited Overlake Golf and Country Club, in Seattle, earlier this week. Golf course superintendent, Scott Stambaugh, and I looked at some areas where he and I are recommending tree planting simultaneous with some tree removal throughout the course. Overlake is a classic example of a course where short-sighted, uneducated (I use this term with all due respect) tree planting over the past half century or so has created an unfortunate situation. Scott and I are simply recommending removal of non-native species + some other trees that are potentially hazardous, impede play, hamper course maintenace and negatively affect turf health. We've also recommended massive plantings of new trees - indigenous species in proper locations; 'proper locations' meaning areas where, when full grown, these new plantings will not hamper course maintenance, impede play or negatively affect turf conditions. Simple.

The goal of this long-range tree management plan at Overlake is to end up, decades from now, with a natural 'golf forest' that compliments the primary function of the property, which is to allow for a most enjoyable golfing experience, rather than detract from it. Some pretty cool-looking, functional bunkers have been built at Overlake recently, but for the long term, this tree management plan is most important to overall improvement of the golf course. Knowing the bunkers will have to be redone again and again over years to come, if we nail this tree management plan, there should be no tree cutting or new planting required for many, many years at Overlake.

Tree removal at the 2nd hole, Overlake.
Grass lines are very important too. Scott and I have also done some tweaking of fairway lines. Firstly, fairways should simply fit the scale of the 'picture' as seen from the tees. Too many courses feature fairways that are too narrow relative to the scale of the hole corridor, which also affects playability. Squiggly mow lines are also undesirable. Why should a rough line weave in here and out there, arbitrarily? This looks chintzy and negatively affects playability as well.

In most cases, wider fairways present more enjoyment for less skilled golfers without affecting the challenge presented to better players. And longer, flowing fairway lines are simply more attractive than those aforementioned squiggly patterns I see too often.

We've also introduced some short grass areas adjacent to greens at the 6th, 9th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes at Overlake. These short grass areas are somewhat reminiscent of green surrounds at Augusta National. Overlake's original designer, Vernon Macan, was a stauch advocate of the philosophy behind the original design of Augusta. (Click here to read more on this interesting subject.) So, it was entirely appropriate to 'restore' these features at Overlake, which can be a great 'equalizer'. In other words, less skilled golfers can simply putt onto the greens from short grass adjacent to a putting surface without thinking much about it. At the same time, tight lies tend to confound (some) low-handicap golfers attempting to recovery from a missed approach shot simply because they have a decision to make. As opposed to 2-3 inches of rough grass surrounding the green, hole after hole, short grass presents interesting shot options. This is a very interesting psychological element that adds greatly to the diversity and interest of recovery play.

We've also expanded/restored the green surfaces at Overlake, to great effect. Putting surfaces have a tendency to shrink over time. Consider, every time someone mows a green and tries not a scalp the collar, a putting surface loses a miniscule amount of surface area. Multiple this phenomenon by half a century and a green can loose a signifcant amount of surface area over decades. Not unlike most aged courses, this happened at Overlake (which opened for play in 1953). By taking the green surfaces back out to the edge of the fillpads, closer to surrounding hazards - fall-offs and bunkers, mostly - we've restored some very interesting (if you choose, read: challenging) hole locations.

I'm sure - no, absolutely positive - many golfers at your club, or home course despise the bunkers. Granted, bunkers do need to be remodelled to improve function, playability, overall maintenance and aesthetics, from time to time. But also consider how much impact some tree removal (and new plantings of appropriate species in proper locations) and simple adjustment to some grass lines can make, at about 1/10th the cost of a comprehensive bunker remodelling project.


  1. I am golfer myself and work in the bag room/pro shop of Overlake G&CC and today was able to see what you did to the course. It shocked me at first that some trees on the right of hole two were removed. But it was an awesome idea because I don't know how many times I hit the ball into those trees. Now play wil be a little easier, but have much more appeal and interest. I'm bummed that I didn't get to meet you but if your're ever out there again ask for Curtis. You are very talented and your work is above par. Keep up the good work and have a succesful, enjoyable new year.


  2. Thanks for your comment, compliment and good wishes, Curtis. It's much appreciated. #2 was such a constricted hole with those giant Sequoias on the hillside (right of the fairway) and out of bounds (practice area) left. Sure, the hole may be 'easier' some days, but I'm glad you recognize that there's also room to actually play golf there now. FYI... I'm also considering a new bunker for this hole, placed where the last mound and cluster of trees left of the fairway is now. Seems to me the aforementioned hillside will do a very good job at directly the most aggressive tee shots at #2 into this proposed hazard!