by: Mary Armstrong for the Las Cruces Sun-News; submitted 4/12/12
I played regularly at New Mexico State’s University Golf Course (NMSU) for the first couple of years I lived here. I found it a fair course with reasonable conditions for a public access course. This time of year, the dormant bermudagrass is getting beat down and often times you play from very thin lies. Now, any good player will tell you that they prefer that to a lush lie, but sub-10 handicappers make up only a small percentage of the golfing public.
About a year ago, I came across a guy at the NMSU practice area. He was vacationing from Minnesota and he asked me, “is there a golf course in town that doesn’t have dead grass?”
This is a big problem for the managers at the University’s course, but it’s not the biggest challenge they face. If you’ve read my column for a while you probably realize that managing a golf course is about far more than just irrigating, mowing and selling green fees.
I’ve noticed that the golf course seems to plod along, repairing damage and problem areas by hook or crook. The course will be 50 years old next year and I have observed two iterations of a rebuilt 17th green and there seems to be quite a lot of activity now at the course with adding tees for the men’s golf team and removing trees. There have been repairs made to bunkers, extending and refining the irrigation system, and the greens have become firmer, but also truer. There’s no doubt the course has improved and presents as a good public course. But does it provide the quality and utility that a University course should?
I have often wondered how a land grant institution with a golf course maintenance program (turf agronomy) and a professional golf management (PGM) program can settle for such a mediocre facility. It’s one of the few Universities in the United States to have highly respected programs in both areas. UNM has neither program and yet their 27-hole facility is considered better. A 2010 Golfweek article featuring the top 30 university golf courses in the nation ranked their facility 13th in the nation. NMSU’s golf course didn’t break the top 30 and wasn’t mentioned at all in the article.
I could probably speculate until I’m blue in the face about why this is the case, but I figured we should go directly to the “horse’s mouth” for the facts. I sat down with Dan Koesters in his office at the NMSU golf course last week.
Mary: Dan, the course has been improving steadily since I moved here. What role does the University play in getting improvements for the golf course?
Dan: “Well, the NMSU Golf Course is known as an Auxiliary Service within the University and that means we are responsible for generating the funds we need in order to operate. The golf course has had a history of running profitably over the years where it has been able to make the improvements we have made in the 14 years I have been here and those that were made before I got here.”
Mary: The course will be 50 years old next year. What kinds of improvements have been made over the years?
Dan: “First off, the course was built for only $150,000. Even in the 60’s that was a very small budget for a course. In the early days, when you paid your green fee, the pro shop sent you out on the course with a bucket so you could pick up rocks from the fairways and dump them in the desert. When the USGA came to give the University advice for improving the conditions of the course back in the ‘60’s they told us that the fairway that is now the 12th would never have grass on it because there wasn’t enough topsoil and it had too many rocks. I was in school here from ’77 – ’81 and I think it was in 1981 when a new irrigation system was installed. The system was installed for approximately $250,000 and even then the maintenance staff was very involved in the installation process. Paul Brilliant actually worked a deal with the city to capture rain water in exchange for the funding needed to install that system. We have been fortunate to get a little legislative funding for a few of our projects such as the cart path project, the driving range and the halfway house and restrooms but to be honest, our outside funding has been very limited. Other than those projects and the Clubhouse, all of the improvements made to the golf course have come through our operating income.”
Mary: I have heard all kinds of things about how the Clubhouse was funded. How did that happen?
Dan: “The University was selling off some of the smaller parcels of land it held that didn’t fit into the future plans for the University. The golf course needed a new clubhouse and the Regents agreed to allow the construction of a new clubhouse using the proceeds from the sale of the land that was then occupied by the clubhouse, driving range and adjacent to what is now #15 fairway. The proceeds from the land directly across the street from the old clubhouse were actually used to fund the building of the new clubhouse and the University retained the rights of the land where the old clubhouse was located.”
Mary: So, Dan when the maintenance staff is doing projects, who takes care of the course?
Dan: “When we schedule projects it is usually in the winter where the grass is not growing and there is a minimum amount of work to be done on the course. Less mowing, less play or traffic, you don’t have to change cups as often. We will usually increase our part time help and then assign work crews to different projects. We have been very ambitious over the years with course improvement projects and everyone pitches in where needed.”
Mary: So, how do you get funding for improvements?
Dan: “Our funding comes from the income we derive from being in business. We have gotten very little outside funding which is frustrating when UNM has received much more funding over the years. Virtually all of our projects have been done in house. Karl Olson, my current superintendent is a very “hands-on” guy and is very imaginative when it comes to improving the course. We are currently in the process of planning the replacement of our irrigation system. It is over 30 years old and is horribly inefficient. It has needed numerous repairs over the last few years and because of its age, we are limited in what repairs we can make to it and how efficient we can make it. Plain and simple….it is worn out.”
There’s really nothing wrong with the routing of NMSU. In fact, I think its superior to UNM’s. The problems at NMSU include the long dormant period of the bermudagrass, underfunded maintenance budget and an infrastructure – irrigation system bunkers, tees and greens that are approaching 50 years old. Sure, the in-house approach can get some things done adequately, but is “adequate” all that is expected for an agricultural University?
So why can’t the NMSU golf course secure additional funding to get the expertise they need to put their facility in the top 30 nationwide? I decided to talk with Tammy Anthony, Vice President of Auxiliary Services at NMSU.
Mary: What other NMSU facilities are in the Auxiliary status?
Ms. Anthony: “The University facilities that are considered Auxiliary are Corbett Hall, Student Housing, the new bookstore, the Pan Am Center and all the other Athletic facilities, including the golf course.”
Mary: Are all these facilities able to operate within their own revenues?
Ms. Anthony: “We operate collectively within our budget.”
Mary: So if a facility isn’t able to meet its own budget, you move funds around from other facilities to take care of that?
Ms. Anthony: “Correct. The University and more specifically the Auxiliary facilities aren’t here to make money, but to provide a good service. The golf course does a very good job of balancing their budget.”
Mary: What happens when a facility needs a major repair or renovation?
Ms. Anthony: “We do have a ‘set-aside’ account which is set up for what we call “R & R” or renewal and replacement. There are times when the project is too large for the “R & R” fund and when that happens we can secure revenue bonds. The facility that receives the bond funding justifies the financing with long-term financial projections and is then required to retire the debt.”
Mary: So, if the Pan Am Center needs a new roof, which I understand it does, then funds may be taken from the golf course to fund it?
Ms. Anthony: “Well, in the case of the Pan Am Center roof, the revenue bond that was used to renovate it in 2007 was for 23 million dollars. As it turned out, that wasn’t enough to complete the job, and we’ve been able to scrape together the 2 million dollars through remnant bond dollars and other funds.”
Mary: The golf course performs many different repairs and renovations on their own – for instance, multiple re-builds of the 17th green. Are any of the other auxiliary facilities expected to complete this level of work in-house?
Ms. Anthony: “Housing handles their own smaller projects, but they don’t build walls. The golf course is unique in that its improvements are land-based and the skills required are right there in house. They have a good bunch of workers over there and Dan Koester’s is doing a good job. The golf course does a good job of operating within its budget.”
Mary: Is there anything more you would like to add?
Ms. Anthony: “Yes, there is one other avenue for funding and that is through a direct legislative appropriation.”
UNM’s golf courses are also auxiliary facilities. According to a November 10, 2011 Albuquerque Journal article, UNM golf course operated at a $678,000 loss in 2010 and a total deficit of more than 4.38 million dollars in the last 20 years. Last year’s loss has been reported to be $521,000. Their two courses operate at a 2.4 million dollar budget; that after about a half million dollar reduction between 2008 and 2010.
We Las Crucen’s are accustomed to the legislature favoring UNM and I suppose that is understandable given the proximity, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Besides the perennial budget overruns, UNM golf course has been recipient of far more special legislative appropriations. One in particular was for the renovation of all the bunkers on the Championship Course in order to assure the NCAA would select UNM as their national championship site. The Championship Course has about 70 bunkers. Based upon my experience as a golf architect, that translates into a $350 to $400 thousand dollar bill.
I’m not interested in seeing UNM’s Championship course falter into a pasture, but you have to agree that if either state university golf course should be recognized in the nation’s top 30 it should be the one with the turfgrass agronomy and professional golf management programs.
Earlier this month, Bernalillo County offered to spend 1.5 million dollars to improve the 9-hole UNM North Course. A couple of weeks ago the Albuquerque Journal ran an article announcing the offer, which comes with a requirement that UNM continue to operate the course for at least another 25 years. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that this offer was made because there has been a lot of noise in Albuquerque about how much of a drain the golf courses are on the university and the neighborhood fears losing the open space.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins is pushing the idea because it would mean a new irrigation system which she says would save about 25 million gallons per year on the 9-hole course. NMSU’s 18-hole course needs an irrigation system – you do the math. The North Course is situated close in to the campus (and also to Stebbins house) and gets lots of activity by golfers, runners and walkers. It’s a pretty compact space of only 70 acres. I’m not sure I would be all that anxious to use the area for my morning run with golfers spraying shots everywhere. Perhaps the County should just buy the property and make it a park. With any luck, perhaps that money could end up as a down payment to add nine holes at the NMSU course and renovate the current 18.
People often think about Aggie Memorial Stadium and the Pan Am Center as the “face” of the University for people traveling through the area on I-25. The University Course could be every bit as iconic if it was brought into the 21st century.
About one third of the courses in New Mexico have warm season grasses – as does the NMSU course. The remaining two thirds are cool season grasses. I’ve written here several times about how fortunate we are to have both warm and cool season grasses grow in our climate. This is especially true for the University’s turfgrass program. A large percentage of the golf course superintendents at New Mexico golf courses have been schooled at NMSU. A University golf course that has both grasses provides them with hands-on opportunities. It’s time for the University and legislature to support the golf course, turfgrass management and PGM programs with a greater financial commitment. Times ARE difficult right now in the golf business, but things will get better and if the University offers a first class facility, both the PGM and Turfgrass programs will expand.
I haven’t delved into the Women’s and Men’s golf teams here because both only play one event a year at the University course. However, having both warm and cool season grasses to practice on would be a tremendous advantage for them and having cool season grasses which are actively growing during the school year would allow them far more flexibility in their schedules.
I certainly am in no position to recommend improvements at the NMSU course, but there is one concept that stands out to me. Las Cruces is lacking courses that are easily walked and I would certainly want the University course to capitalize on that niche. The existing front nine is the flattest and easiest to walk. I would suggest keeping it as the warm season course and adding a new nine to go with the current back nine for the NMSU Championship Course. The 18-hole course should be cool season grasses which will provide better playing conditions year round. Also, there is adequate room to move the practice facility next to the Clubhouse.
In conclusion, Dan Koesters and his staff are doing a good job of satisfying Tammy Anthony. That much is clear. He’s hired people that help him get by – innovative, skilled staff that can figure ways of getting things done on a shoestring. Dan and Tammy Anthony are good soldiers – and I mean that as a compliment. I can tell by talking to them both that they advocate for their respective facilities, but they can only do so much.
The reality of the situation is that the golf course isn’t getting the recognition of its value to the University and the community that would yield funds for the improvements that are needed. Bricks and mortar seems to elicit the realization that experts are required when repairs and renovation is needed. What too few people realize is that working with the earth requires every bit as much experience and knowledge.
A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. Mary is also the Executive Director for the Rio Grande Golf Course Superintendents Association. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.