"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 unexpected."
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 turf."
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.