If you’ve been involved in a construction project, you know everyone on staff is affected and the work starts long before the first shovel goes into the ground. Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, N.J., is in the midst of a long-term project. I spoke with some of the team’s key members about their roles and what they’ve learned so far. No matter where you are on your club’s management ladder, their insights and experience should prove enlightening.

In 2013, full ownership of the club was assumed by the Donovan family – father Ray, sons Ken and Keith, and daughter Mary Ellen. They created a multi-phase master for the 54-hole “for profit” (as opposed to member equity) private facility: Included in the plan is a new practice facility; a redesign of several holes on one of the courses by architect Stephen Kay; renovations to the cart paths, driveway, and parking lot; and building a new cart-storage facility. Not enough? The clubhouse and kitchen are to be renovated and expanded, a new golf shop built, and the locker rooms enlarged. Plus, the club will add a state-of-the-art aquatic and fitness center and tennis complex.

Ken, who served as the projects’ point person, compared his role to that of a city planner. The key to the plan’s success has been communication.“We recognize that our master plan is extremely disruptive to members and, more specifically, to their enjoyment of the club,”he says. “We had to explain there would be pain before there was pleasure.”

Members were involved from the start. In fact, elements were based on one-on-one conversations and surveys. As a family-owned club, Fiddler’s doesn’t have committees, but the Donovans keep their fingers on the club’s pulse.

Superintendent Matt Willigan is a lead member of the management team who oversees the three courses, as well as outdoor construction and infrastructure. He works on things people don’t see – irrigation, infrastructure, and drainage – so most don’t know what the projects entail. What members do know is they’re going to be inconvenienced. So it’s vital to tell them how and for how long.

The membership has been kept in the loop from the beginning. They were given plan details and progress updates. Fiddler’s Elbow is lucky there are three courses on property, so two others are open when one is under construction.

But people like routine, not change. That’s human nature. Take the 13th hole, a par five, on the River Course. At the lowest point on the property, it’s where water collects. Members have complained about the hole for years, about how saturated it gets, how it messes up their shoes and clothes, and how they always lose balls there. And yet, when the work began to improve drainage, the members howled: All they wanted to know was when they’d be getting the hole back.

As Ken pointed out, they understood losing a $5 ball; they didn’t understand a $150,000 drainage upgrade. No matter how much education, the members couldn’t grasp the importance of the bigger investment as it pertained to the game and their enjoyment. So while keeping members informed is important, often human nature trumps all.

The Donovans keep to a simple philosophy: “Do what is best, when it is best… to benefit the club and to impact the least amount of people.” When I asked Willigan what he’d learned, he offered suggestions applicable to a big or small project:

Plan well in advance so you know how much time the project should take. Then build in a buffer, considering all the outside factors that could throw off even the best plan.

  • Be realistic about how much time is necessary. Don’t let others tell you how long a project should take. If it gets done early, great; you’ll be a hero. If it takes longer, you’ll suffer the consequences.
  • Grow a thick skin. Everyone is an expert, everyone has a better idea. .
  • Don’t get wrapped up in comparisons with other clubs, the work they did, how long it took.
  • Be honest with members about costs and time. Stay truthful and you’ll keep their trust.
  • A good relationship with contractors will make the job run smoothly.
  • When projects overlap, make sure contractors meet and talk. They must understand what the other is doing so they don’t get in each other’s way.
  • Have permits in hand before starting a project. Or be prepared for trouble, even being shut down.
  • There is no magic wand. Everything takes time.
  • Speaking of time, it takes time to do it right – and more time to do it over.
  • Finally, no matter how much you try to educate the membership, expect some really dumb questions. The best one Matt was asked? “Why can’t you do this work at night?”