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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Eliminate the Bells & Whistles

Suggestion number four to help balance the game and the business of golf is to eliminate the bells and whistles! Four different grammatical emphases are needed here to express my frustration with the whole bells & whistles ideal, so forgive me for “literarily” screaming. The extreme spending on a golf course project is a direct reason why expenses are exceeded at the end of the project. Very few times is a cost over-run really a necessary evil. Too many times it is increased hand-waving by the architect (and often times the owner), yet just as many times it is because of the extraneous construction details that someone thinks is necessary to attract business.

So what are bells and whistles? My definition of bells and whistles is construction line-items which are beyond the needs, closer to the category of wants, and definitely in the category of desires. These wants and desires aren’t necessarily items which may improve the playability or strategic value of a golf hole. Instead, they are luxury items which facilitate playing conditions beyond what most golfers should expect in their wildest dreams or items which are architectural details (hardscape or softscape) which have zero impact on the playing experience itself.

The “playing” experience has been re-written in recent decades into a “golfing” experience of luxury, pampering, and visual stimulation. This is where aesthetics has trumped strategy. Although I personally am not a fan of blowing up a piece of property to stamp one’s own topographic masterpiece on the site in the attempt to a) compensate for a poor routing job or b) create a work of art complete with “shadowing” and perfect framing of (manufactured) views, I wouldn’t necessarily put too much dirt-moving into the bells and whistles category. On the subject of excessive sand, I am on the fence as to whether to file that as a bell or whistle. Excessive: Maybe, over-indulgent: Definitely.

What I do categorize as bells and whistles are dry-stacked stone walls created by an artisan from the Scottish Highlands. Elaborate water features that run the span of a five-hundred yard par-five with a re-circulating pump to keep the five cascades moving in the dry season are definitely over the top, especially if the creek never crosses the line of play. The majority of clubhouse complexes fall into the bells & whistles category. Do clubs really need in-laid stone detail work to delineate the dumpsters from the loading dock?

I have seen a golf course that intentionally created cart paths to appear old and crumbly in an attempt to capture the atmosphere of the Old Course at St. Andrews. This is insanity on two fronts: a) Most people strive to keep their cart paths from breaking apart and will re-pave at the smallest sign of failure, not create the look for opening day (of course, this could be a smart move as they probably will never attempt to re-pave); and b) there are no cart paths at St. Andrews! The cost of stamping concrete to achieve this look is not a cost which can be re-captured on the green-fee side. If the golf course stinks, I guarantee no one will be returning to ogle over the “auld wynds”.

Bells and whistles on the course conditioning side may touch a nerve with some, but I am afraid that too many have decided conditioning is a replacement of good old-fashioned maintenance. I understand maintenance to literally mean keeping the course from going backwards (maintaining the status quo) whereas conditioning has transformed the superintendent’s job description into “creating perfect artificial conditions”. The fun of “rub of the green” is gone now. Whereas many improvements may be for the environment’s sake, too many luxuries are not. Four inches of a sand-loam mix on every tee box so the golfer has “ease of tee insertion” is a bell and whistle. If the golf course is strategically challenging, I don’t think people will complain about a little extra oomph into the ground. I’m sure a golf course can better afford to hand out free tees to satisfy the few prima donnas who complain about broken implements in a much more affordable way than the cost to cap each tee box.

Another bell or whistle on the conditioning side is the proliferation of sand liners to keep bunker sand as pristine as possible for as long as possible. For Gene Sarazen’s sake, the thing is called a hazard for a reason and shouldn’t be treated like a Japanese garden!

Speaking of Japanese gardens, excessive landscaping on the golf course isn’t going to stop a golfer from swatting right through that boxwood if he/she can avoid taking an unplayable lie. I’ve already addressed stamped concrete cart paths, but edging of paths with stone or brick just doesn’t really translate into more green fees, just higher green fees. Whereas five contrasting grasses on a golf course may be visually stimulating, that also requires five different maintenance regimens. I’m not promoting a mono-culture of Bermuda, but two or three grasses could probably do the trick.

Machinery to vacuum excessive moisture under greens or keep putting surfaces from freezing could be done without in many cases. Four- and five-row irrigation can probably be pared down. Sand that is so blinding white can be found in few places in the world, meaning transportation costs will be excessive and crazy attempts to keep that sand pristine will be pursued at all costs. No matter what the sand color, you still need to blast the sand about an inch behind the ball to get it out of the hazard.

The list goes on and on but the point remains the same: Bells and whistles found on many golf courses rarely translate into repeat business. The wonderful “experience” works once, but if the golf course is mediocre among its acres of rolling sand dunes that never come into play and faux chimneys between landing areas, no one is coming back. Just give me a well thought-out cross hazard and an affordable green fee!

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