A BLOG BY SHANNON FISHER
This piece originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Golf Course Architecture Magazine.
Golf courses should be more playable, sustainable and quicker, we hear. At Independence Golf Club, a daily-fee course in Midlothian, Virginia that opened in 2001, architect Lester George has completed a renovation that tackled all three of these objectives, plus more that were specific to the course.
Severe features obstructed play, making it too difficult for middle and high-handicap golfers. This slowed play, often to five hours per round, meaning fewer rounds played and frustrated customers. The severe features necessitated a lofty maintenance budget, and with water supply concerns, the club’s bottom line was suffering.
“One of the conundrums owners and managers of golf courses often find is that they don’t see how they can make alterations to their courses that improve strategy for more experienced players while catering to beginners who are just learning the game,” says George. “The paramount goal of the renovation at Independence was to create a course that golfers of all skill levels would enjoy. It took a significant amount of planning and design to take everyone’s needs into account, both from a strategy standpoint and from an aesthetic one.”
The solution included the removal of more than six hundred trees and bushes that were cluttering the golf course and obstructing views. George’s design increased the fairway area, thereby reducing the rough. He lowered the remaining rough and converted seven acres of it into mulch beds. Removing and redesigning dozens of bunkers made the course more strategically viable for a wider variety of players. The renovation included the drilling of wells to avoid the use of public potable drinking water, increasing water efficiency and sustainability. George also added protective bunkers and re-routed paths and traffic patterns, repurposing the entire campus and opening space for additional facilities.
“We had quite the jigsaw puzzle and very specific needs,” says Independence owner Giff Breed. “We knew Lester could tackle each of our objectives with finesse. Not only did he help us achieve each goal, but he also made the course much more appealing – and brought it all in under budget.”
George’s renovation resulted in an average round of four hours and five minutes, a reduction of fifty-five minutes per round. This increase in pace of play allows ten more prime-time groups at an average revenue of $300 per foursome, yielding a revenue increase of $3,000 per day. The changes transformed Independence into a popular, profitable, playable facility.
In addition to the golf improvements, the newly created open spaces on the Independence campus allow for entertainment venues and alternative facilities, including a golf teaching academy and limited overnight lodging that provides many options for corporate or educational outings. The bunkers on the driving range were filled so the area to be used for concerts, fireworks, soccer – even Frisbee golf. There is a new lawn area that doubles as a croquet course and adds space for weddings, social events, and other outdoor activities. The facility also includes the only par-three course in the country offering regulation golf cups, 8-inch beginner cups and FootGolf on every hole.
“Independence now offers many activity options to the community on top of our new and improved, user-friendly golf course,” says Breed. “The original clubhouse was not designed for events or large-scale entertaining. We created a banquet facility that allows for a wedding with more than 200 guests, a bar offering brick-oven pizza, and a brand new restaurant.
“Lester is a wonderfully rare ‘underpromise, over-deliver’ architect,” adds Breed. “The biggest surprise has been all of the recognition of sustainable practices that have led to many awards!” The ASGCA has selected Independence for its Design Excellence Recognition Program, and the club has received the National Golf Course Owners Association’s Award for Innovation and Leadership. The facility has been selected by the Golf Range Association of America as a site for a 2016 boot camp, and Independence was also used as a case study for to demonstrate success at the national USGA Pace of Play Symposium in 2014. Golf course superintendent Dan Taylor was awarded an Environmental Sustainability Award from the Virginia Golf Course Superintendents Association. And Independence was named Golf Digest’s #3 Most Cheerful Course in America in 2014, one of its Nine Most Friendly Golf Courses in America, the #1 Place to Drink Beer and Play Golf – and, most notably, a Top 10 Remodel of 2015.
An indoor practice facility and short-game area are planned for phase two of the renovation, which will also see the creation of a practice facility for the University of Richmond golf team. Back ‘Spider’ tees will be added too, providing the region with a viable intercollegiate tournament site.