"Renovating a golf course is no different from renovating a
house," says Bobby Weed. "You don't know what you're going to
find inside the walls of an old house. Three kinds of wiring?
Rusted pipes? Rotted sills?" He grabs a taco chip from a plastic
basket and pops it into his mouth, ignoring the bowl of salsa in
front of him. "It's the same with an old golf course. Until you
stick a shovel in the ground, you don't know what's involved.
That's why we have a contingency fund. We price for the
It's early January, and Weed, a golf course architect, is having
lunch with his staff at Cruiser's Grill, a raucous joint on
Florida A1A, a block from Weed's headquarters in Jacksonville
Beach. The table looks as if it has been dropped from a
helicopter, but the food is good--cheese fries dusted with
pepper, teriyaki chicken salad and thick, juicy hamburgers.
Scarfing down the cholesterol bombs with Weed are his senior
designer, Scot Sherman; his business manager, Mike Matthews; and
me, doing a woeful imitation of Bob Vila.
Asked what sorts of things you find "within the walls" of a
75-year-old course, Weed munches on another chip before
answering. "You find pipes and drain lines," he says, "or
utilities that weren't recorded. Sometimes they're abandoned,
sometimes they're live." (Old utility lines can be 10, 20, even
50 feet off the positions marked on maps, creating the dodgy
possibility of shock or explosion when a dozer blade creases the
pipe.) "You might find an old burial pit," he continues, "or
artifacts that you have to report."
The course Weed is about to renovate, I point out, is believed to
be on the site of an old hog farm. Weed winces and says, "We did
a job on an Arabian horse farm and uncovered a couple of horse
carcasses. That wasn't much fun." The architect wipes his mouth
with a paper napkin and looks up. "How's your hamburger?"
"Great," I say.
Anything else? Anything that could slow down the project and take
a bite out of the $4 million budget?
"Soil conditions you don't anticipate," says Weed. "Buried logs.
Stumps. If no oxygen can get to it, that stuff doesn't decay."
Weed turns thoughtful, as if envisioning a Caterpillar tractor
lurching and groaning over some mysterious object entombed in
deep, wet sand. "Nobody likes surprises," he says. "They cost
time and money."
Actually, a few surprises and cost overruns won't bother me; I
plan to spend the better part of the year following Weed and his
subcontractors as they demolish and then rebuild the University
of Florida Golf Course in Gainesville. The series of articles
will appear in GOLF PLUS on a regular basis and will attempt to
cover every aspect of the renovation.
The real fun will start on April 23, when bulldozers begin
ripping up the 118-acre site on the northwest edge of the Florida
campus. "When people play a course, they see the grass," Weed
says. "They don't see under the grass. They don't realize that 75
percent of the cost of construction of a course lies beneath the
Similarly, most of the challenge of golf is hidden in the
craniums of the architects who design courses and of the course
superintendents who maintain them. In this case the intellectual
property of Donald Ross, the legendary designer who laid out the
Florida course in the 1920s--it was the original Gainesville
Country Club--will be reshaped by Weed and Sherman, using all
the tools available to 21st-century architects.
As with an old house, the challenge in remodeling a golf course
is to preserve those elements that charm the beholder and speak
to tradition while replacing other elements that are no longer
functional. The University of Florida course already has some eye
appeal: The redbrick clubhouse sits on high ground looking south
over a landscape of pines, ponds and fairways shaded by
moss-draped oak trees. The greens, due either to Ross's original
design or to the sheer smallness of the property, are as cramped
as Victorian drawing rooms, but they give the course its
Beyond that, there is much to criticize. At 6,205 yards, the
par-70 layout is stunted. The longest of the six par-3s is only
185 yards, and the 14th and 15th holes, back-to-back par-3s,
impede course traffic like an oxcart on a freeway. The greens are
quaint, but they putt inconsistently and provide little hole
variation. The bunkers don't drain. Some tees get too much shade
while others get too much water. The colonnade of trees down the
right side of the 10th hole fails to protect traffic on Second
Avenue from sliced tee shots, which raises liability issues. As
for the fairways, the current strain of bermuda grass should be
called Incognito because it's overrun by invasive hybrids. This
old course is, in two words, worn out.
But hey, that dining-room doorjamb is where we drew lines with a
pencil to chart the kids' growth. That pale spot on the floor is
where Grandpa used to snooze in his Barcalounger. At the
University of Florida Golf Course the memories are just as rich,
but they're recorded on bronze rectangles and photo-sensitive
paper. A plaque by the 5th tee honors former Gators coach Buster
Bishop, who led the men's team to national championships in 1968
and '73. Another plaque, on the golf team's redbrick teaching
center, pays homage to the man who helped pay for the building,
three-time Florida All-America and 1969 U.S. Amateur champion
Steve Melnyk. In the All-American Room, a conference room on the
second floor of the clubhouse, the walls are covered with framed
photographs of Gators greats, such as two-time U.S. Open
champion Andy North, 1969 PGA Tour money leader Frank Beard,
1973 Masters champion Tommy Aaron, 1989 British Open champ Mark
Calcavecchia, 1976 U.S. Amateur champion Donna Horton and 1986
NCAA champion Page Dunlap.
"This little golf course was a wonderful training ground for all
of them," says Buddy Alexander, the men's coach at Florida since
1988. "It's not a long layout, but it's got some difficult
driving holes, and it's a little dicey getting up and down,
particularly in the winter when the grass is a little thin and
you get some tricky little lies." Alexander probably isn't aware
that he has used the word little four times in 10 seconds, but it
speaks to his reasons for wanting the course rebuilt. "I felt
like our recruiting was suffering," he says, looking down on the
1st tee from his office window. "Kids today, the upper-echelon
players to whom we would offer a full scholarship, want to go to
a school where they can play big-time courses. Frankly, we don't
have much sizzle to show those kids."
The elite junior players, in fact, have stopped beating a path to
Alexander's door, unimpressed by the Gators' three NCAA men's
championships and 13 SEC titles, and dismissive of the Lady
Gators' lone individual NCAA championship and two national team
titles. Alexander's men won five SEC crowns in the '90s, but last
year's Gators finished eighth and failed to qualify for the NCAA
tournament for the first time since 1982. "I have to take some of
the blame," says Alexander, "but for the most part it boils down
There's one respect in which a course renovation is nothing like
a home renovation--the homeowner typically doesn't refinish the
floors or paint the walls a month before demolition. However, on
a cool but sunny afternoon in mid-January, one member of the
10-man maintenance staff was patiently filling divots on the
team's practice tee with a pale-green sand and seed mixture, as
if in three months it wasn't all going to be tractor tracks and
The man in charge of the crew is Mark Birdsell, a
third-generation course superintendent whose grandfather carried
the golf gene from Scotland to Canada and ultimately to West
Virginia, where he served as greenkeeper at the Fairmont Field
Club in the 1930s. "I've kind of carried on the family
tradition," Birdsell says, watching his men groom the
10,000-square-foot putting green at the team end of the practice
range. "I have pictures of my mother driving a horse-drawn gang
Birdsell is a stocky man with a square, florid face and a
reddish-blond mustache that is Craig Stadler-ish. He graduated
from Leonard High in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1978 and moved
right into golf course work, mostly as a "growing-in" specialist
(a course superintendent who nurses a newly built golf course to
maturity before passing the baton to a permanent greenkeeper). He
is used to working with course architects, having grown in
courses for George Fazio, Arthur Hills, Robert Trent Jones Jr.
and Mark McCumber. "But I've never done a demolition," he says,
"and I've always wanted to. I'm extremely excited."
When I ask him what he expects to find in the walls during
demolition, Birdsell echoes Weed. "Hopefully we won't find
anything environmentally sensitive," he says, "but in the '30s
they might have used concrete asbestos pipe for the irrigation
system. That would be a problem."
Turning around he points to a wide, grassy depression between the
Melnyk building and the 14th fairway. "That sinkhole keeps
getting bigger and bigger," says Birdsell, "and my understanding
is that it used to be a dump for the hog farm. No tellin' what
we'll find in there."
Asked if they might unearth something of archaeological value--a
Seminole bracelet, say, or the jaw of a saber-toothed
tiger--Birdsell nods and says, "You might find something that
was buried, sure. You find layers of stuff. We might even find
the original contours of a Donald Ross green."
His interest, though, lies less with what is already in the
ground and more with what Weed will install there over the
summer: state-of-the-art drainage and irrigation systems. When
Weed is through, the bunkers that currently do not drain
("They're basically birdbaths," says Birdsell) will. The greens
that currently are as different as foster children ("They're just
push-up greens; there's no drainage in 'em") will putt like
clones. "There'll be no reason to have soggy greens and ball
marks one day and rock-hard greens the next," says Birdsell.
"Everything will be more predictable and playable from day to
Not only will the new systems deliver just the right amount of
water where it's needed and when it's needed, but the whole
process will also be controlled by computer from Birdsell's
office in a brand-new maintenance barn. The super laughs and
shakes his head. "We've been driving a Chevy for years," he
says. "Now we're gonna get to drive a Cadillac!"
In the next installment of This Old Course, we'll visit the
design offices of Bobby Weed to see how preliminary hole routings
are drawn. We'll also see how Weed plans to turn the existing
17th hole, a weak par-4 of 325 yards, into a risk-reward puzzle
along the lines of another short par-4, the famous 10th at
Riviera Country Club.
drive a Cadillac," says greenkeeper Birdsell of the new course