New infrastructure, old feel

Features - Construction and renovation

Baltusrol Golf Club modernizes everything beneath the ground and returns the surface appearance on its Lower Course closer to what A.W. Tillinghast envisioned

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October 5, 2021

Baltusrol Golf Club reopened its Lower Course earlier this year following a Gil Hanse-guided restoration.
© evan schiller photography

It’s the second day of summer. It’s raining. And the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club yields bounces, thumps and other on-the-ground delights.

Walk the first fairway. Bracing for squishes underneath soft spikes? Don’t fret. Strut forward and allow a nifty network of pipe, sand, gravel, soil, valve and passages to do their thing. Pouncing on this prized and historic piece of New Jersey golf land in 2021 — and beyond — means stepping in fewer (if any) puddles and experiencing a course with the abundance of options A.W. Tillinghast envisioned in 1922 when he completed what later became a National Historic Landmark that has hosted seven U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and two U.S. Women’s Opens.

Plenty changes in 99 years, though. Bet Tillinghast didn’t envision that humming near the second tee. That reassuring subsurface sound emanates from a PrecisionAire system installed to help putting surfaces thrive in lousy weather. Who says approach shots can’t thump and then trickle up, over and around Golden Age contours on wet days?

Bet Tillinghast also didn’t envision the ingenuity, grit, coordination, adaptability and courage required to restore his work on one of his most well-known courses.

Members of the Baltusrol Golf Club turf management team from left: Thomas Utter, Sean Carroll, Shawn Haverdink, Greg Boring, Jeff Reggio, Dan Spall and Christopher Brewer.
© guy cipriano

Baltusrol unveiled the reconstructed Lower Course to its members on May 18, 2021, ending a process filled with anticipation and nearly halted by a global pandemic.

Greg Boring arrived as director of grounds in January 2019 and major decisions, including whether to embrace or attempt to eradicate Poa annua on greens, had to be made. By Boring’s first fall on the job, which included a significant clubhouse fire, crews were placing mainlines for the new irrigation system.

Construction was scheduled to accelerate in April 2020 with the arrival of a large crew from golf course builder Total Turf Golf Services. The club opted to start earlier than planned. Total Turf’s and Boring’s teams started executing a thorough plan devised by architect Gil Hanse on March 2, 2020. “Who knows what would have happened had we not started early?” Total Turf vice president Greg Hufner says.

A few weeks after construction commenced, the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic emerged throughout the New York City metropolitan area. Office jobs moved to remote locations; some occupations and businesses were ordered to temporarily halt or adapt work methods. Outdoor construction continued and crews restoring Baltusrol operated from separate carts, staging areas, housing and even restrooms. Everything slowed outside the club, to the point where a lack of traffic reduced Boring’s 32-mile, 70-minute commute to Baltusrol from his western New Jersey home to 30 minutes.

Tillinghast designed a pair of championship courses at Baltusrol — a similar restoration is planned for the Upper Course in 2024 — and each course requires around 22 grounds employees when fully staffed. The pandemic prevented both courses from approaching budgeted 2020 crew sizes. Lower Course superintendent Shawn Haverdink, who served as a project manager, had 12 employees for grow in and regular maintenance. Upper Course superintendent Jeff Reggio maintained the club’s open course with 12 employees. The Upper Course received more than 27,000 rounds in 2020, a significant total considering the state didn’t permit golf in March and April, and groups were limited to twosomes when courses reopened in May. A busy year at Baltusrol, according to Boring, includes around 35,000 rounds between both courses. “It was a daunting task for those guys,” says Boring, referring to Haverdink and Reggio, “but they did a great job.”

“For me, it was pretty much a big adrenaline rush every day because you are so busy running around to different places,” Haverdink says. “The day goes by fast, even if it’s 12 hours.”

Uncertainty permeated throughout spring 2020. Crews, for example, worked on the third green during an April evening using vehicle lights to illuminate the surface. Tasks often extended into darkness because of the murkiness surrounding state and local pandemic mandates. “We were trying to get that done because we weren’t sure if we would be able to continue the next day,” Haverdink says.

Tree removal opened views of the course from the Baltusrol clubhouse.
© evan schiller photography

Fortunately, the project included no major interruptions and the primary motivator for members of Boring’s team remained unchanged despite the unknowns and lengthy days. “Our staff realized we were restoring Baltusrol,” Boring says. “If you can’t get up for that, you might want to go be an accountant. We looked past the hours and it brought us closer together as a team. Let’s face it, you couldn’t really do anything. You couldn’t go out and have a meal, you couldn’t go out and have a drink. Sure, there were times we saw a little too much of each other. But we got through it.”

Hanse regularly commuted from his southeast Pennsylvania home to oversee the progress during a period he calls “the strangest of strangest times.” As he traveled unimpeded on normally overcrowded roads, he revisualized inspiring onsite scenes. “What we saw was an amazing commitment from everybody on site to work their way through it,” he says.

The final product includes distinct features members and guests see such as the rebuilt “Sahara” bunker on the par-5 17th hole and fescue replacing flowers behind the expanded green on the par-3 fourth hole. Cool stuff, indeed. But during a media day presentation before rain started falling on that second day of this past summer, one of the club’s more influential members emphasizes what Baltusrol sought with the restoration. “We’re looking for near-championship conditions for members and guests on a daily basis,” says club president Matt Wirths, the chair of the master plan committee for the project.

Achieving this directive requires tremendous turf. Cultivating an environment for tremendous turf in an erratic four-season climate possessing site-specific microclimates requires a tremendous investment in infrastructure, thus the addition of 26½ miles of drainage, a new pumphouse and irrigation system, and PrecisionAire beneath greens. The eighth green represents the toughest environment to grow a “championship” quality putting surface on the course, because it sits within a tree-covered corner of the property. To help the surface resemble the 17 others on the course, the club installed two pop-up fans adjacent to the green. The fans only leave the ground when they are being used. Subtly placed synthetic turf covers rectangular holes housing the fans.

“Three-quarters of what we spent on the golf course were on things members don’t even see,” says Boring, who uses an example from an early June evening to illustrate how the investment benefits the membership. “We got 1.7 inches of rain at 7 at night and the next morning we came in and mowed fairways,” he continues. “It would have taken us three days to mow fairways prior to the restoration. And the greens have drained well beyond our expectations. The members wanted a firmer golf course, they wanted a faster golf course. We had to modify soils, we had to change our growing medium and we had to install drainage to get the membership the type of conditions they wanted to see on a daily basis.”

The toughest decision Boring made involves the turf atop the greens. Instead of shunning Poa annua, he opted to embrace it. Similar to fellow New York Metropolitan area puncher Winged Foot Golf Club, also a 36-hole facility with a major-championship history and courses originally designed by Tillinghast and restored by Hanse, Baltusrol stripped existing Poa annua from its greens and placed it back on surfaces reconstructed to original sizes and contours. Before the project started, Boring’s team built a one-acre nursery using greens plugs from the course. Poa annua from the nursery green helped supply sod for greens expanded from 123,000 to 157,000 square feet. Haverdink and the Lower Course crew were responsible for hand watering the Poa annua sod awaiting its return to the course.

“Any time you are trying to keep grass alive in the summer on plastic, when it’s just sitting there, time is of the essence. It’s not like you could have it sit there for two weeks and then pick it up,” Total Turf’s Hufner says. “It adds another layer to the project. Everything is new. The golf course was restored to what it was back in the day, but it’s all new infrastructure. It wasn’t like you were peeling it off and putting it back on in three days. There were a lot of steps to get it back on there.”

The project also transformed fairways, with Hanse returning them — and thus enlarging them — to the curvy, wide expanses Tillinghast left the membership in the 1920s. Instead of purchasing pure bentgrass sod, Boring concocted a plan to replicate the longstanding Poa annua/bentgrass mix on the Lower Course. Following a fairway aerification, Baltusrol sent nine tractor-trailer loads of plugs to Coombs Sod Farm in southern New Jersey. The plugs were used to grow the Poa annua/bentgrass mix needed for the expansion.

The architectural, grassing and infrastructure decisions immediately created a feel described as a “new, old course.” Through the logistics and politics involved in a massive project amid an unforeseen public health crisis, Baltusrol accomplished its objectives for the Lower Course.

“If we are truly going to do the job, then the scale and scope of what we are doing has to match that original design,” Hanse says. “That takes a commitment financially, that takes a commitment from a disruption standpoint, and ultimately that takes a commitment from a maintenance standpoint to put that picture back the best way we can. The greatest satisfaction we get and the greatest compliment that we can get is that this generation of members at Baltusrol will be the first generation in 70 or 80 years to see the picture how Tillinghast painted it versus how the other generations have seen the evolved picture.”

Greens were expanded as part of the Lower Course restoration at Baltusrol Golf Club.
© evan schiller photography