We talk a lot in golf about the length of courses, but little about their longevity.
Irrigation systems are getting old. Tees and greens lose their shape and shine. The bunkers require restoration.
Nothing lasts eternally.
But how long are the key elements of the course?
Terry Buchen, a retired superintendent and 54-year member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), has held the most senior position at such marquee properties as Riviera, Castle Pines and the Golf Club of Oklahoma. Still active as a course consultant (talk about longevity!), Buchen has also published articles on a wide range of superintendent-related topics, including the topic under discussion here.
What is the lifespan of a tee box? A ball washer? A cart path? A bunker? Although a series of variables influence the answers, such as climate, maintenance budgets and the quality of the original construction, Buchen analyzed the numbers and arrived at estimates. Here is an overview of its actuarial accounting.
(Note: If you really want to get into the weeds of this, check out this chart, which Buchen produced for Golf Course Management, the official magazine of the GCSAA; it provides a full breakdown of life estimates, divided into three climatic regions: cool season, warm season and transition zone.)
Greens: 12 to 50 years and over
Not all greens are created equal, and that impacts when they need to be rebuilt. Some are push-up greens, a return method that involves pushing and shaping the original ground. Others are sand-based. Still others are built to USGA specifications, which have been an industry standard since the 1960s. The quality of drainage can have a major impact on the life of a putting surface. Ditto maintenance practices, and volume of play. Add climatic variables (in warmer regions, for example, where courses are subject to more wear and tear all year round, infrastructure usually does not last as long ) and you begin to understand why the averages vary so widely.
Starting boxes: 12 to 20 years old
The same factors that affect greens also influence tee box life. But because the tees are more evenly constructed, with longer turf that can survive more punishment, their life expectancy varies less from end to end.
Fairways: 10 to 15 years
Just as the golden rule of real estate is location, location, location, the golden rule of lawn care is drainage, drainage, drainage. This has a huge effect on the life expectancy of a fairway (i.e. when it needs to be re-turfed), although sunlight, traffic and air movement also enter in line here.
Bunkers and surroundings: 10 to 20 years
Bunkers lose their shape for many reasons. Trolley and pedestrian traffic around their edges. Poor housekeeping practices. Lack of bunker liners, which help trap sand on steep faces. The list continues. In hot climates, where aggressive grasses such as Bermuda and Kikuyu grow around their edges, bunkers often need to be reshaped more often than in colder regions, where turf is less likely to encroach.
Bunker sand: 5 to 12 years
Have you ever played on a course with stones or other impurities in the bunkers? Chances are these bunkers don’t have liners, or liners that have survived their use. The liners prevent the original ground from contaminating the bunker sand, an especially important barrier when it rains. At some point, all the sand is contaminated. But without liners, this sand will need to be replaced as soon as possible.
Cart paths: 7 to 20 years
In the age of modern minimalism, an increasing number of courses are opting for rustic-looking paths, laid out with decomposed granite or even dirt. Even so, Buchen says, asphalt and concrete are still the most common materials for cart paths, so those are the categories he considers here. If you’re keeping score at home, concrete is the more durable of the two.
Irrigation systems: 8 to 50+ years
Controllers. Wiring. Sprinkler heads. Pivoting joints. Irrigation systems have all kinds of components; the ones we just checked last an average of 8 to 12 years. When it comes to pipes, there are two main types: PVC, which is plastic, and HDPE, which is seamless and more durable, with a lifespan of 50 years or more. Then there are the pumping stations: Buchen puts their life expectancy at 8 to 15 years.
Starting markers, ball washers, surface stakes: 3 to 5 years
With a quick sandblast or a fresh coat of paint, course props like these can be made almost as good as new. Many courses treat these jobs as “bad weather projects,” Buchen says. The frequency with which these items are replaced often depends on budgets. At an upscale private course where Buchen once worked, for example, he and his staff installed freshly painted cups once a week.
Flags: 1 to 2 years
Hit by golfers and mother nature, flags, Buchen says, are usually good for about a season or two. The flags themselves are another story. They often need to be replaced two to three times a year, as they get soaked from rain and sprinklers, and faded from sunlight.
Cuts: 5 to 10 years
Plastic or metal? The first is cheaper. The latter lasts longer and produces a softer sound when the ball drops. What usually wears out first is not the cup itself but the hole in the bottom, which can be knocked over by a flag blowing in the wind. Once this happens, cups can no longer hold a flag upright. If you’re looking for conversation at a cocktail party, you might like to know that the lower end of a flag is called a ferrule. Some of them are notched, with small gear-like ridges designed to fit snugly over the corresponding parts at the bottom of the cup. The snug fit helps prevent the flag from shaking back and forth. Whether or not courses use this type of setup is another variable in the mix.