Multi-year Majesty

Features - Cover Story

How do you execute long-range improvements without halting play or draining the budget? Greg D’Antonio and the Concord Country Club team are taking project management to the next level.

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November 3, 2020

Photos Parikha Mehta

Something special is happening at Concord Country Club. At the start of 2021, a renovation effort will resume. When it is finished, ideally by the beginning of April, the golf course will feature two completely new holes and three others will have been significantly revised to reflect the design philosophy of William Flynn, Concord’s original architect.

The effort marks the final phase of a master plan approved in 2017.

What is particularly noteworthy is that Concord superintendent and facilities manager Greg D’Antonio and his team are doing virtually all the work themselves.

“We sold the master plan (with the assurance) it would be done with no assessment to the membership,” D’Antonio says, “and we would not interrupt the golf season. So we’re doing all this work with (scheduled) completion by April 1 when the handicap posting season begins. We had to spread the money out over three fiscal years as well and not reduce any revenue in season.”

Concord is a club that out of necessity keeps a close eye on its bottom line. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, just north of the Delaware state line in suburban Philadelphia, it was founded in 1918 as the Brinton Lake Club; the present name was adopted in 1927. The club was purchased by Wilmington Country Club in 1945 and sold to Lammot du Pont Copeland in 1961. Following his death in 1983, the club passed to his son Gerret van Sweringen Copeland, who, in turn, sold it to the members in 1997.

The ongoing renovation effort began in 2017. The first two-thirds of the project saw the construction of two completely new holes, Nos. 14 and 15. The final phase will see the addition of a massive bunker at the 16, along with the removal of numerous trees from the 17th and 18th holes, trees that will be replaced by 21 fairway bunkers.

Left to right: Assistant superintendents Jake Lasco, Matt Mount and Nick Sujkowski.
Photos Parikha Mehta

D’Antonio, a Penn State graduate who has been at Concord for a decade, is particularly excited about the changes on 16, including the restoration of a bunker designed to resemble Pine Valley’s Hell’s Half Acre.

“It was taken out during the Great Depression.” D’Antonio says. “We will be reintroducing that this winter with some modifications. We’ll be shifting it off to the side a little bit to allow the high handicappers and the ladies to navigate around it. Something that will be really unique to Concord.”

D’Antonio oversees a full-time crew of 18. The crew has done virtually all the nuts-and-bolts work of the renovation including laying sod, installing bunker sand, overhauling the irrigation system and removing trees.

Some 2,000 trees have been taken out over the course of the project. D’Antonio’s crew has removed over 90 percent of them; the exceptions were trees larger than the crew was equipped to handle or those that were encroaching on putting greens or property lines.

D’Antonio sees keeping virtually the entire renovation effort in house as the wave of the future for most clubs. “Certainly at the mid-level private clubs,” he says. “I think (an in-house renovation) is an opportunity to continually improve the members’ experience, the playability of the golf course, keep up with maintenance and changes in technology, and change the course to adjust to technology on a budget without tackling more debt for the club and not shutting the club down in season.”

Doing the renovation in house is saving D’Antonio’s employers a considerable amount of money. It’s estimated the project will cost the club approximately $400,000. Had the work been contracted out, the sum would have been an estimated $650,000.

D’Antonio says the renovation effort gives his team members a break from their regular routine and lets them recharge their batteries. “When you look to attract and retain labor, cutting cups, spraying and mowing gets monotonous,” he said, “and I think people really enjoy seeing their hard work in a finished product. So (the renovation) has allowed us to attract talented people and keep them on. They’re able to see the fruits of their labor and the improvements that we continually make to the club.”

D’Antonio points out that working on the renovation has allowed members of his team to broaden their base of professional knowledge, experience and skills, thereby enhancing their value to a potential future employer.

Photos Parikha Mehta

“They can get a lot of experience they may not have had at other courses, working with machinery, working close with the architect” — Jim Nagle of Forse Design — “working closely with the shaping company (Mottin Golf), as well as involvement at the committee level with the greens chairman from a budgeting perspective,” D’Antonio says. “So really, it’s just trying to use what we have going on to attract and retain great talent and people that are hungry to learn. My philosophy has always been to help people achieve their goals. We bring them in, they get this experience and hopefully they move on to their own course or on to their next challenge in their career. They’re having the experience of doing a renovation and being able to sell that to their next employer.”

D’Antonio gives much of the credit for the success of the project to Nagle, who has worked for Forse Design for more than two decades and is a William Flynn devotee. In fact, his detective work some years ago helped confirm that Flynn did indeed design Conord’s golf course. Nagle and D’Antonio have a professional relationship dating back to the latter’s days as an assistant superintendent at Chester Valley Golf Club outside Philadelphia.

“He works on a number of Flynn courses,” D’Antonio says, “so essentially he designed these golf holes almost from scratch, using characteristics from what Flynn would have done. He’s kind of the creative mind. Where I try and come in is from a playability perspective, from an agronomic perspective, from being a player myself understanding what the members here will and will not like.

“We try and bring both our visions and both our ideas together and come up with a vision for not only the restoration, the renovation, but also the total golf course and how it presents itself. I can’t say enough good things about him in terms of his knowledge in Flynn and his famous designs, but also his willingness to listen to others, and how it will play every day and how it will be received with the members.”

Nagle believes that while some clubs, specifically those with vast financial sources, may be in a position to shut down for a season to do a major renovation or restoration, the vast majority will follow the Concord model — now and going forward.

“They’re going to do stuff over time,” he says. “And that’s the way a lot of our clients are. At Forse Design, we actually call our master plans long-range improvement plans because most clubs aren’t looking at two to five years, they’re looking at two to five, five to seven, or seven to 10, or even further. Because for them to take a master plan and just bite off on that from the get-go is too much.

Photos Parikha Mehta

“I think (in-house renovations) are the wave of the future. I think superintendents are becoming more hands on. Not that they were not in the past. But I think they have the ability to take on more of this work. I think you’re going to see more of that, going to see more of that team effort, where smaller contractors come in and do portions of the work and do it well and then the superintendent has the ability to come in and do the things that they can do in house.”

Nagle adds that members should be aware that while a renovation or restoration is ongoing, their superintendent will be juggling added responsibilities.

“The membership always has to remember that the superintendent and his crew are there first and foremost to maintain the golf course,” he says. “That’s why Greg has done such a good job because he’s been able to juggle maintaining the golf course along with also doing these projects.”

Nagle cites D’Antonio’s interest in golf course architecture and his inquisitiveness as keys to the success of the project at Concord.

“Greg has a really good eye as a superintendent,” Nagle says. “He plays golf, he loves architecture, he loves his job as a superintendent, he’s very good at it, and he loves history. For Ron Forse and I, what better to ask for out of a superintendent?”

Nagle notes that D’Antonio wants the best out of everyone involved in the project.

“He’s not afraid to ask questions that need to be asked,” Nagle adds. “And he has made me rethink things and kind of keeps me in check, in a good way. And I think that’s why he and I have developed such a good relationship.

“He’s going to get the most out of himself. He’s going to get the most out of us. He’s going to get the most out of his crew. Because when you’re doing stuff in house like he does, he’s going to get the best product for his membership.”

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.