By Dave Ongie, News Editor
When the golf business was booming back in the 1990s, most golf course architects were focused on building longer, tougher courses designed to be demanding tests for highly skilled players.
More than 4,000 golf courses were built in the United States between 1986 and 2005, boosting the number of courses in the U.S. by 40 percent before the golf business hit a decline. According to the National Golf Foundation, approximately 18 golf courses were scheduled to open in the U.S. this year, meaning course closures are now far more common than new construction.
Given the current landscape, golf course architects now spend much of their time doing renovation work while the leadership at public and private courses alike looks for ways to entice a new generation of golfers to the courses their parents and grandparents once flocked to.
The leadership at the Johnson City Country Club has spent the last few years pondering an ambitious overhaul of its practice facility with the idea of making golf more enticing to a new generation of potential members. Those efforts are now being brought to life in the form of a revamped practice area designed to showcase how enjoyable it can be to swing a golf club.
“Everything we do is to bring fun back into the golf course,” said Brian Marion, chairman of the JCCC greens committee. “Fun brings new members.”
Last week, Southeastern Golf, Inc. – a golf construction company based in Georgia – began moving earth on the plot of land that was home to a practice putting green and a driving range tee box.
The old scoreboard came down as well to make room for a new, larger practice putting green. The area will also hold a large chipping green complete with a sand bunker and various chipping locations.
The old driving range tee box will be replaced with a larger tee area. Dirt from that work will be used to raise the lower area of the current driving range, and target greens will be added. Construction was expected to last three or four weeks, at which point the growth of new grass will begin.
Marion gave the lion’s share of the credit to Ben Crumley for getting the ball rolling on the new practice facility. Crumley reached out to Bill Bergin, a golf course architect based in Atlanta, to bring the project to fruition. Bergin was on the property last Tuesday to start marking the area prior to construction, which began in earnest the next morning.
Like many architects these days, Bergin spends a lot of time renovating courses. His renovation of Oak Country Club in Oklahoma, which – like the JCCC – was designed by renowned course architect A. W. Tillinghast, was named the fourth best course renovation in the country.
With eight projects on his plate at the moment, Bergin has his finger squarely on the pulse of the golf industry, and he said updating practice areas is all the rage.
“Short-game areas and practice facilities in general are such an important part of developing skills to play the game,” Bergin said. “They’re a great area where you have a limitation on time, and you really don’t have time to go play 18 holes, you can come out here, have a great golf experience and improve your game. It’s a great place for lessons.
“For any type of player that wants to improve their game, this is the spot. We love doing practice areas. We do them all over the place. Every club we work on seems to want something new, and it’s really time well spent.”
Marion said the practice facility, which will be outfitted with speakers to pipe in music upon its completion, has been largely funded by direct member donations, an investment he said could pay off in the form of new members.
“We want to create some of that atmosphere that helps attract some younger members and families,” he said. “That attracts juniors, who then become members in the future. I think it makes for a vibrant club.”
Marion declined to say how much the project is expected to cost, but said the overhaul of the practice area could be just the beginning. Working with the membership, Bergin has developed a master plan for the entire property, which includes a bigger driving range and changes to the course intended to bring the design back into closer alignment with Tillinghast’s original vision for the property.
Further phases of that plan will be assessed once work on the practice area has been completed.
“We have planned the entire golf course, and that’s an exciting proposition,” Bergin said.