The most essential thing to remember about golf course renovations is that you don’t need to spend all that much money. If this were not true, the game wouldn’t be as popular as it is. And it’s not just the low-end stuff like putting greens or irrigation systems that don’t cost much. You can get great results for as little as $10,000 to $15,000 per hole.
For example, the driving range and rough holes at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Las Vegas are being completed for $2 million. That is a lot of money to spend on a driving range, but the academy has a lot of golf holes, and they wanted everything new.
The golf course is a long way to go just to avoid some trees, don’t you think? Or maybe it’s just that I’m impatient. I’ve been known to take the scenic route. When I was in England a couple of months ago, I had an idea about renovating a golf course by removing some trees and replacing them with a few low hedges. Not bad for a cheap, fast renovation. But then I decided to make it more interesting by playing the game from the old green.
By the time I got back to New York, my idea had become quite popular in England and Scotland. Now you can play golf from both sides of the same green! The whole course is now in terrific shape; I haven’t had one complaint about any single hole or tee box since it was done. That’s what I like about renovating golf courses; if you set out to do it right, it always works out fine.”
The golf course renovator is a vocation. It’s part of the 21st-century maintenance industry, which was recently profiled in The Economist.
In some ways, it’s an easier business to be in than general contractor or landscape architect. You don’t have to deal with turf or sewers or construction code; you just have to know how to keep the greens green and the sand traps pristine. You don’t have to worry about fitting in with neighbors on a budget; you just have to make sure your customer gets what he wants and doesn’t get too much of what he doesn’t want. You don’t even have to worry about the weather. That’s been taken care of by actual golf courses for centuries, starting with St Andrews in Scotland and finishing with Pebble Beach in California.
But there are some disadvantages. Working on golf courses is still work, and work is never fun. And unlike other maintenance people, you can’t just charge by the hour; instead you have to do it all at once, which means you’re going to wait around for a while after a project finishes before getting paid again.
I can’t remember who said it, but it made sense: the problems of golf course renovation are the same as those of renovating a house, except that you have to walk. If you’re renovating a house and there’s no water, getting one of those little pumps out of the garage is a big deal. If there’s no water, then you have to dig up every pot and barrel to get it. Worse yet, if you are under attack by termites or mice, you will have to fight them with your bare hands.
If you’re renovating a golf course and there’s no water, it doesn’t matter what kind of pump you hook up, or how many inspections you make, or how many days in advance you tell the grounds crew about your plans. The solution will be to go back behind the tee box and dig up every pot and barrel.
Now imagine that you don’t have to do all this digging because there is water where the ball lands! The difference is huge!
If you want to renovate golf courses, you have to get permission from the residents. They are not keen on noise and disruption. In the end you may have to take them for granted; you might as well make them happy now.
In a way this is just a more sophisticated version of the advice about building a fire escape: If you want your renovation to go well, it helps to think about how people will react.
The USGA (U.S. Golf Association) lists eighteen steps to a good golf course that anyone can follow, and almost all of them are easy to understand. If you’re renovating a golf course, you should probably read these.
One of the oldest and most familiar business stories is the one that starts out like this: A chief executive officer, or president, with a reputation for success, runs a company that has grown large, perhaps too large. The company will never be able to grow any more, he thinks. So he tries to run the company as if it were a startup — only faster. That speeds things up but eliminates many of the advantages of being big: economies of scale, for example. The result? Things slow down even more than before and the company goes under.
In theory this story is true only from a certain point of view. From the point of view of investors, it is true only if things go really wrong — really really wrong. It could be that there is some big market opportunity in front of you, but you have no idea how to get at it. Or it could just be that you are trying to do something very hard, and either you cannot do it or the market won’t stand for it. If you do not get lucky enough to find some crazy opportunity that nobody else saw coming and that makes your company successful at an extraordinary rate — if you don’t get lucky enough — all the rest of what you did in your life was completely wasted.”