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Economics and bunker renovations

Many golf courses have bunkers generally worn out and are a superintendent’s worst nightmare. The daily maintenance seems never-ending with few if any positive comments from players. Rain events can dictate hours of unplanned work returning the bunkers to order, taking the crew away from other tasks. The bunkers may be left in disrepair for an extensive time after major storms, certainly detracting from the golf experience for those with limited resources.

Today, when economic survival is reality and budgets are tighter than ever, capital improvements are for the most part not being planned or even considered. However, a case can be made for renovation of the bunkers by demonstrating potential savings in the maintenance budget and increased revenues from a more attractive and playable course. More clearly stated, “A return on the investment.”

Preliminary planning to determine viability is the first step. Using economics as the main impetus certainly suggests construction must not disrupt play or negatively affect cash flow. Thus scheduling and cost estimating shall provide for work to be done to accommodate play without closing holes, let alone the course. This takes careful orchestration for safety, mobilization, installation of materials and completion of bunkers on an individual or by complex basis. It is essential to have minimal areas of construction disturbance.

Establishing a benchmark approximation of cost can be done with the preparation of a plan or sketches, specifically locating all of the bunkers and measuring each to obtain an accurate bunker count and total area of sand. GPS survey tools make this step very easy to achieve, with minimal cost and excellent accuracy. As the intent for the initial step is to determine if funding for this scope of project is even worth consideration, I suggest estimating the cost to renovate the bunkers using the same size, same location, and same number as exist on the course. The renovation work to be done should meet accepted middle of the line industry standards for bunker construction. That would be; graded compacted smooth sub-grade, sub-grade drainage system with sump, positive outfalls, consistent depth of sand, installation of tested and approved sand and gravel.

With these measurements and construction criteria, a baseline number can be derived on a square-foot basis of sand renovation. Without getting lost in details, it is relatively easy to present the construction scope and estimate for most to understand as, “All of the bunkers on the golf course can be rebuilt to today’s standards for approximately this amount of dollars, it will take this long and will not affect play. A Benchmark Estimate for renovation that can be used to determine the reality of funding.”

The next step is to document current bunker maintenance costs and estimate savings for properly constructed bunkers on an annual basis. (See chart maintenance costs … before and after)

Along with the actual annual labor savings, it is critical to note unrealized gains will be achieved within the maintenance regime from not having to respond to normal or major rainfall events taking staff from other duties and interrupting scheduling efficiencies. This will show a definite payback on the investment. Also present is the playability aspects of consistent, attractive bunkers. While it is difficult to put a hard number on increased revenue, it is also difficult not to believe some rewards will be reaped.

To this juncture, only the feasibility of funding has been discussed. With even a “Maybe?” or ”It is possible, but–” relative to moving forward, the next step is to maximize the value of the renovation A few of the elements for consideration are:

Making modifications in the new bunkers for easier maintenance and playability. As an example; on our last project the 20-year-old bunkers had deep, concave bottoms, steeper sand faces and large sand areas. We advised raising the elevation of the bottoms and making them flat, which lessens the back slope. This formed a renovated bunker with minimal sand migration, eliminated holding water after rain events and achieved better playability.
Removal of out-of-play and non-strategic bunkers.
Relocation or addition of bunkers for strategic purposes.
Reduction in bunker size.
New bunker style for new look or course transformation.

It is important to review the above options and predicate decisions considering the architectural merit of the bunkers and the course.

After finalizing a bunker style, budget can be further defined and alternatives reviewed.
It is basic math to understand reduction of sand area is going to reduce renovation and maintenance costs. Details of construction can be reviewed for benefit vs. cost, including sand (color), liner, depth of sand, intricate drainage systems, etc. A cost matrix will help in developing a desired plan for construction details while achieving a target budget. (See chart … renovation cost options) It may also be possible to significantly reduce the Benchmark Estimate by carefully putting together a major reduction of sand area with minimal strategic or aesthetic impact to the course. Finally, revisit the completed bunker plan and revise the estimate to maintain as necessary. This completes the “Bunker Performa” if you may. Cost to construct with return on investment (reduction of maintenance costs) and potential return on investment (additional rounds).

In the last several years we have completed three projects using this general premise. Comments after the renovations have included: Club manager, “best money we ever spent,” Member, “best assessment I have ever paid,” Player, “bunkers are easier to play from,” Superintendent, “my bunker maintenance has been reduced by half with minimal extra time taken to fix them after major rain storms,” Golf director, “our play definitely increased as a result of the renovation.” The results have been positive, economically sound and consistent with today’s mandate for survival: less daily cost to maintain and a more enjoyable experience for the player.

With 40-years of golf course designs throughout the world, Denis Griffiths and Associates has firmly established a reputation for solid, challenging and enjoyable courses. Denis Griffiths holds a degree in landscape architecture from Iowa State University and is former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
770.867.4480 denis@dgagolf.com

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