Arrows on a clockpost between two clubhouses, a 25,000-square foot putting green, and the 10th tee and 18th green of a PGA Tour course point PGA National Resort & Spa members and guests in nine directions. A bevy of starting points suggest the agronomic team experiences few lulls.
Brad Nelson leads the agronomic department. His team consists of 100 employees who maintain five courses supporting 160,000 annual rounds. Members are responsible for 100,000 rounds; resort guests the other 60,000.
The PGA Tour’s Honda Classic visit the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., grounds every winter. Or, as residents quip, the PGA Tour visits where players live. It’s estimated that half of the world’s top 150 players own a home in South Florida. A week on the Champion Course, home of a hazard-laden three-hole stretch known as The Bear Trap, represents a matter of competitive convenience.
The resort hosts some form of regular play all 52 weeks. Yes, 20-handicappers from Brooklyn and Boston are playing at PGA National the same time as Rickie and Rory, albeit on different courses. When you have five courses in a warm-weather market, the play and subsequent agronomic work never stops. “It’s churn and burn,” Nelson says.
Nelson and his team, along with Arnold Palmer Design Company senior golf course architect/vice president Brandon Johnson and South Florida-based Superior Golf Concepts, recently burned through a renovation, completing enhancements on the Palmer Course in less than six months. The group endured a common weather challenge, a steamy and soggy summer, followed by atypical weather challenges, Hurricane Irma and 21 more inches of fall rain in a 30-day stretch. The course reopened to resort guests in early November. Less than three weeks after the Palmer reopened, Nelson’s team overseeded the Champion as construction of Honda Classic infrastructure commenced.
Irma made landfall Sunday, Sept. 10, and Nelson devoted his crew to quickly reopening one course. The Champion Course was the first to reopen, welcoming golfers at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13.
Grassing of the Palmer’s TifEagle greens concluded Aug. 1; grassing the Celebration fairways concluded Aug. 15. Even with part of a hurricane touching fragile turf, the course’s reopening coincided with the period customer demand begins spiking. Nelson’s job requires constant delegating and Palmer superintendent Bill Diorio also serves in the same capacity on the Fazio, the second course to reopen following Irma. Assistant superintendent Andrew Wilson “lived” the project from April to October, Nelson says. Johnson lauded the PGA National team for simultaneously handling storm recovery and a grow-in.
“It was a very smooth, organized project,” Johnson says. “The unforeseen thing was the hurricane in the end. All the credit goes to Brad Nelson and his staff for overcoming the hurricane. One golf course is bad enough. They have five. They have to get something open while something is growing in. I can’t imagine the amount of work and man hours they put in just to get back and maintain it, let alone to continue to grow it in and get it ready for opening.”
Planning for the renovation started in 2016. To prepare for the new turf and construction, the course closed for more than two weeks last November so the crew could spray glyphosate on greens, fairways and all other short grass. Members and guests played on an overseeded greens and fairways last winter.
The Palmer opened in 1984, but year-round play and the necessary maintenance to accommodate the activity fatigued the course. After initial digging and inspecting, they discovered every putting surface had decreased in size. The front right section of the 18th green, for example, had lost almost 2,000 square feet through 33 years of regular maintenance. Slowly changing features are common among Florida courses built in the 1980s, according to Johnson.
“If you think 30 years is a short period of time, you have to really look at it differently,” Johnson says. “Thirty years of not doing anything to a golf course besides regular, routine maintenance means greens are going to shrink, tees are going to morph. Technology in the game also has changed, technology with the types of grasses has changed, technology in mowing equipment has changed. You’re seeing a lot of clubs and courses taking advantage of these advances.”
Bunkers are a major component on almost every golf course project in 2017. Higher sand lines on the Palmer’s 62 bunkers provide golfers with fresh sights and strategic options. White sand in bunkers and coquina waste areas create visual contrasts on multiple holes.
Improving the golf product is critical to PGA National’s success. The number of facilities in Florida has swelled past 1,000, with the region from Miami to Port St. Lucie supporting the equivalent of 268 18-hole courses, according to National Golf Foundation data.
“If you don’t keep investing and moving the needle forward and offering what other people are offering, you will get swallowed up,” Nelson says. “We know that. We have to invest to keep moving the product along.”
Meanwhile, across the street …
Further evidence of the South Florida reinvestment movement lurks across PGA Boulevard from PGA National Resort & Spa.
The Country Club at Mirasol recently unveiled its updated Sunrise Course to members. The work, which director of golf course maintenance Michael Thomas calls a “facelift,” started May 1 and ended in early fall on a Tom Fazio-designed course that opened in 2003. Hurricane Irma delayed the reopening, but Mirasol is a 36-hole facility, so Thomas and his team hustled to repair the Sunset Course following the storm to give members an immediate golf option.
The Sunrise’s condition after Irma solidified the reasons behind the facelift. The bunkers endured the punishment without any problems, Thomas says. Upward amplification promoting the outward flow of water was emphasized during construction. Crews installed liners beneath faces, but not bases. The presence of 2-inch low-flow pipe below bases provides additional drainage.
A tight construction window led to the sodding of fairways and tees with Celebration Bermudagrass. The existing Tifsport on fairways was cut, rolled and reused in areas such as green, bunker and tee surrounds, and exit and entrance points.
“We had challenges and we had some needs we wanted to meet,” Thomas says. “You have to reinvent what you have. As a superintendent, you always look at everything differently. You have to re-create. And if you don’t have the product, you have to create the product. You have to figure out how to make it work.”
Thomas and his team are playing a vital role in improving Mirasol’s golf offerings. The club enhanced its practice facilities in 2015 and the Sunset, originally designed by Arthur Hills and opened in 2001, will receive a facelift next year. Mirasol’s reinvestment extends beyond the golf areas, with the clubhouse and fitness, spa, tennis and aquatics facilities receiving $40 million of work in 2016.
“It’s super important to stay current with what’s happening and to understand the demographic or your membership and what their needs are,” Thomas says. “Here we are, 14 years after opening a golf course, doing a facelift on it. We didn’t replace the full irrigation and we didn’t do all these other things, because the infrastructure is good enough to get us through another 10 years. The reality is that we can do a little plastic surgery to enhance what we already have, give us a competitive advantage for the type of membership that we have and then in another decade we can talk about the next renovation.”
Tartan Talks No. 17
The teenager called the legendary architect once. He called him again. Ray Hearn finally reached Robert Trent Jones Sr. on his 30th attempt.
Hearn reveals the dynamics of the phone call and how he transitioned from assistant superintendent to architect in a Tartan Talks episode. Jones urged Hearn to begin his career in maintenance because it would help an aspiring architect understand that “every little squiggle will have a ramification.” Heeding Jones’ advice, Hearn received a turfgrass science degree from Michigan State and started his career as an assistant superintendent at Country Club Club of Detroit.
Hearn, who later received a landscape architecture degree, also conveys stories from four recent projects in the podcast. Enter https://goo.gl/YzEFYa into your browser to hear the conversation.