More than bunkers

Features - Construction

Guy Cipriano returns to the course where his zest for golf started and discovers the deeper meaning of a course enhancement project.

January 19, 2022

© Guy Cipriano

We romanticize the course where golf first enthralled us. For this Pittsburgh kid-turned-Cleveland man, that course is Chartiers Country Club, a private facility with a timeless Tudor-style clubhouse and 18 holes routed on severe western Pennsylvania terrain.

A fun-loving person who called the club home was Guy Cipriano Sr., a man affectionately known as “Pap” in family circles and “Cip” at the club. Our family joked that “Pap” spent more time at Chartiers than at his actual home, although he always seemed to be around and watching intently whenever I mowed less-than-lasers on his suburban Pittsburgh yard.

As a reward for a job done, “Pap” sometimes brought me to Chartiers to play a few holes. When I expressed a serious interest in golf after my father, Guy Cipriano Jr., took me to the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, “Pap” introduced me to a few Chartiers employees, and I joined the caddie ranks. I did everything I could to distance myself from “Pap” when I started caddying. I wanted to be selected and evaluated on merit rather than birth. “Pap” died in early 2000, the same year my caddie career ended. I relished everything about the job, especially the people and the course, but if I wanted to work in journalism, I needed to spend the summer of 2000 in a newsroom instead of on a golf course. I didn’t know when I would be back at Chartiers again.

On an early fall 2020 morning, memories of “Pap,” the club, my childhood and being raised in Pittsburgh flooded my mind when I turned off Baldwin Road and entered the club parking lot. I was in Pittsburgh to report on projects at Chartiers and Fox Chapel Golf Club, a pair of courses I had not seen in more than 20 years. Besides the softening of a few greens and missing clusters of trees — thankfully, on both accounts — Chartiers looked and felt almost exactly the same as it did two decades earlier. The people were even nicer than I remembered. I engaged in a laughter-filled conversation and a tour of the course with two-term club President Ron Moehler, COO and director of golf course operations Bob Davis, superintendent Ben Hewitt, architect Steve Forrest, and Ronnie Adkins and Richard Hagy of Aspen Corporation.

The author, center, with architect Steve Forrest, left, and Chartiers Country Club superintendent Ben Hewitt.
© teri Forrest

Moehler told me a few comical stories about “Cip,” and Davis, Hewitt, Forrest, Adkins and Hagy explained the dynamics and logistics of a recently commenced bunker renovation. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I needed to hustle across town to Fox Chapel, another Golden Age course where I caddied a few times as a teenager. Unlike “Pap” in his golden years, I couldn’t stop time and spend the bulk of a day at the club.

Chartiers was my grandfather’s club, yet it became obvious the club made the wise decision to invest in future generations. The bunker project represented a key step in its quest to remain viable in the Pittsburgh-area private club market.

I visited Chartiers in fall 2021 to see the results of the renovation and rekindle new friendships with Moehler, Davis, Hewitt and Forrest. Greens chairman Steve Magdsick joined our post-project conversation. Magdsick fondly remembered “Cip,” who drove a big white Cadillac DeVille and rarely played two consecutive rounds with the same putter in the bag. Moehler and Magdsick have been Chartiers members since the 1980s. They radiate club pride, but they also understand realities facing private clubs. The pair can speak frankly about club politics, so I temporarily shifted from the affable progeny to an industry writer in a bid to glean information that can help others attempting to sell and execute capital improvement projects.

“A major part of our success was, one, we hired Steve Forrest to do the job,” Moehler says. “Two, we respected Bobby and Ben’s input, and we limited the number of people who could have input.” The small group serving as the liaison between the membership and Forrest included Moehler, Magdsick and select golfers representing a cross-section of playing abilities. “It was a great marriage,” Moehler adds. “Everything was consensus. When it was a tie, Steve Forrest won, because that’s why hired him."

Forrest is a partner at Hills • Forrest • Smith, Golf Course Architects. The firm founded by Arthur Hills, who died in 2021, established a master plan for Chartiers in the early 1990s. Forrest knew the membership, the land and the history when the club contacted him in late 2019 to create a bunker enhancement plan. Forrest has helped hundreds of projects reach the finish line and witnessed strong leadership from Moehler as he presented and pitched his plan to Chartiers in early 2020. The club approved the plan despite uncertainties surrounding the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approving and completing the bulk of the work last year before the emergence of supply chain challenges facing golf and other industries saved the club significant money. Forrest estimates that if the project started in fall 2021 instead of 2020 it might have cost as much as 50 percent more for the same work and materials. The project involved rebuilding 60 bunkers using a Golden Age-inspired design and renovating the seventh and 13th greens. “You need some people who can make decisions,” Forrest says. “The hardest thing in private clubs is getting them to make a decision and staying with it.”

An ability to efficiently approve and execute a project resonates with members and employees. Davis, who was trained at nearby Oakmont Country Club, one of the industry’s great placement systems, arrived at Chartiers in August 2010 and the club elevated him to a dual leadership role in 2017. On the surface, a bunker project might seem innocuous. But to a talented employee such as Davis, who has led teams deflated by grueling hours of bunker repairs following storms, continued investments are motivators. The club also has renovated indoor dining areas, added outdoor dining space on an expansive veranda overlooking the 18th green and has moved to replace an aging maintenance equipment fleet.

“Prior to 2017, I didn’t envision Chartiers ever being this good,” Davis says. “I didn’t think the club would put the money into it that needed to be put into it.”

© Guy Cipriano

Maybe bunkers are indeed more than bunkers.

“I have always loved Chartiers,” Magdsick says. “It’s a fun course with a great membership, but we were always told soil conditions were horrible here and all these other things. I have told this to Ron a million times, ‘Never in my wildest dreams did I think Chartiers would be in the shape it is right now.’ This whole project capped it off. The course was getting better and better, and this just put it way up.”

After conducting a group interview in the boardroom and eating a chicken avocado salad on the veranda — places a caddie never wandered — I played the course for the first time in 22 years. Forrest, his wife, Teri, and Hewitt comprised our fun group. I hit my approach shot on the first hole into a right greenside bunker. If you’re going to write about new bunkers, you should play out of them, right?

Willie Park Jr. is the original architect and examples of the Scotsman’s work guided the flat-bottomed, fescue-faced style implemented by Forrest. I now had to figure out how to exit one of the hazards. With Forrest and Hewitt intently watching, I blasted out to 7 feet and made the par putt. I joked to Hewitt that I couldn’t recall making par on the 415-yard hole despite having a lower handicap and a more consistent game as a teenager. I played conservatively off the second tee … and pushed a 4 iron out of bounds. I resorted to studying bunkers, turf and landforms as a way to rationalize the ensuing scoring disaster.

The bunkers add character and visual appeal to a course with no water hazards. The flat bottoms are playable for golfers of all skill levels, and easier for Davis, Hewitt and an experienced team to maintain. Remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped 4½ inches of rain on the course in 24 hours last summer. “The next day,” Hewitt says, “not only did we allow carts on the course, but the bunkers were back together before lunchtime. They were playable and we were able to do other things on the golf course.”

The bunkers were well received in 2021 and they will get better as Davis and Hewitt learn the intricacies of fescue faces. With patience and regular sand capping, the faces should resemble something akin to what golfers experienced during Park’s era.

“Pap” was 7 years old when Park died in 1925. Throughout my round, I kept wondering what he would think about the current course and bunkers. It finally hit me as I played a wedge from the left rough into the 13th hole, a par-4 with a sloped fairway and cavernous left greenside bunker. My approach shot landed short into a firm approach, rolled past the front pin and halted on the back collar. I then three putted.

I’m certain “Pap” would have chided my putting and questioned the decision off No. 2 tee. I’m also certain he would be damn proud of the course and the people responsible for ensuring future generations can experience what he loved.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief. He misses his caddying days.