Bunkers for bent

Features - Course Construction

Prairie Landing Golf Club swaps sand for grass in an effort to make course easier to maintain and play.

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January 14, 2015
Hal Phillips

When Prairie Landing Golf Club opened for public play in 1994, it embodied multiple trends shaping the industry at that time. Give or take a year or two, this was the dawn of a course development boom, one that brought a new course category – the upscale daily-fee facility – to prominence. Prairie Landing was representative of both this genre and the public-private partnerships that were innovated at this time (the course was essentially developed by the adjacent DuPage County Airport Authority).

Perhaps because it debuted alongside so many other new daily-fee clubs, Prairie Landing was also created in such a way to make a splash. The Robert Trent Jones II design accomplished this by deploying some 109 bunkers featuring five acres (or 220,000 square feet) of sandy hazard.

Superintendent Tony Kalina was there in 1994, and remains the superintendent at the Chicago-area course today. Mitigation of the bunker presence at Prairie Landing began as early as, well, 1994 – such was the strain all that bunker upkeep, especially after rain events, had on his staff.

This fall, after picking away at the problem over time, Kalina brought this 20-year effort to a definitive conclusion, thus embodying another, newer industry trend that values increased efficiencies over splash, dash and flashed sand. Collaborating with course contractor Golf Creations and the original architects at RTJ II, Kalina has reduced the number of bunkers at Prairie Landing to 68, and shrunk the overall bunker footprint to 66,000 square feet. Most of what had been sand has been sodded with bentgrass, and every surviving bunker has been outfitted with Better Billy Bunker liners.

“What this means is that we won’t spend an inordinate amount of time preparing bunkers for daily play, and we won’t have to deal with excessive washouts,” says Kalina, who has reported on project progress via Twitter, creating a minor social media sensation around the hashtag #betterwithbent. “We’ll spend less time in bunkers and more time on details, which quite frankly, we’d been missing. This is a $90 golf course. Expectations are high, and our reputation has suffered through the years because of the bunkers, which made the course too penal, had aged poorly and were well beyond their expectant life.

“Our greens, tees and fairways have always been good, I’m proud to say, but we were missing the little details on account of all this bunker work: Proper and timely cultural practices, divot programming, clubhouse landscaping and other course care all suffered. I don’t expect we’ll reduce staff, but we will be better suited to spread the man-hours around.”

After dealing with bunker issues on and off for two decades, Kalina is gratified to put these issues to rest all at once and for the long term. But construction logistics were a challenge.

There are effectively 20 bunkered holes at Prairie Landing (18 regulation plus two full-length, par-4 practice holes) and because closing the course was never seriously considered, this project would require some adroit staging strategies. What’s more, Kalina was determined to handle portions of the reconstruction (mainly the resodding effort) in-house, with his own maintenance crew, to create further efficiencies and savings.

“We were able to close two holes at a time and work on them while still offering patrons an 18-hole experience,” Kalina says. “Golf Creations has been awesome. They came on site and from the get-go, they collaborated on what the plan should be, bought into it and played a significant role in providing solutions and value-added engineering. For example, we’d work on two holes at a time, then rotate them out and close two more. My crews would follow the Golf Creations team around as they went, sodding with bentgrass. That’s complicated and frankly they taught me a lot about staging. They did things I would never have conceived of doing to save time and money. They’ve been a real blessing.”

Matt Lohmann of Golf Creations says his Marengo, Ill.,-based course construction firm is no stranger to deploying and working alongside client superintendents and their in-house maintenance crews. This collaboration, he says, represents another growing trend in the area of renovation, and sodding – the main job undertaken at Prairie Landing by Kalina and his team – is something maintenance teams are accustomed to doing already.

“It’s important to give in-house crews the right sort of tasks,” Lohmann says. “As an end product, sodding is something they can handle effectively, without interrupting the contractor’s rhythm. So is sand installation, or, on the front end, sod removal and roto-tilling – though Golf Creations handled these tasks at Prairie Landing. We’ve done a lot of this collaboration with in-house crews, so we know what they can and should do. And we’re doing this more and more, because it does provide savings on the overall cost of projects and maximizes the utility of course crews who might not be fully engaged (in day-to-day maintenance) on account of a renovation project that’s underway.”

Because Prairie Landing kept 18 holes open throughout the project, Kalina’s crews were indeed engaged with day-to-day maintenance matters every day.

“But they found the time to complete the sodding, and they did it well,” Lohmann says. “In the end, it’s all about working with the client closely enough to create savings, efficiencies and solutions. All contracting jobs are like that – one of the cost savings solutions that made sense here was in-house crews.”

Crews broke grounds Aug. 7 with an urgency to finish before winter. The idea of a golf course having too many bunkers may seem puzzling, but Prairie Landing was a product of its time. Even courses without design excess have engaged in bunker reduction. “This isn’t exactly news to superintendents, but bunker maintenance can be a huge time-suck, especially if they’re contaminated and not draining properly,” Lohmann says. “There’s little harm in removing bunkers that don’t affect the strategy of a golf hole. Sometimes, if done well, replacing greenside bunkers with bent collection areas, or fairway bunkers with simple rough areas or swales, can enhance that strategy along with playability.”

That was certainly the idea at Prairie Landing, where Kalina gives architect Bruce Charlton – the original RTJ II project designer – a lot of credit for coming in and amending his own work.

“It was really interesting to go back and put fresh clothes on a design from so long ago,” Charlton says. “On one level, you go back and see the bunkering and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ But in another sense, the bones of a really good design are still there.

“We were trying to create something visual that was also strategic. When you look at the way things were built at that time, it’s clear today they can be done in a far more sustainable way. I’ll be honest, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a fan of short grass as a defense. But more short grass and fewer bunkers can be visual and strategic in their own way.”

Charlton and Kalina collaborated on a plan tho eliminate bunkers, but not at the expense of the design strategy. “We call it a ‘bunker refinement’ project, and the goal is to create a more sustainable bunker design and philosophy that diminished what we came to see as an ‘overstated’ bunker design and philosophy,” Kalina says.

Hole No. 2, a shortish par-4 measuring 380 from the tips, is a good example of the two main bunker refinement strategies deployed at Prairie Landing. In the landing area, the original 1994 architecture featured sprawling, 5,000-square-foot bunkers left and right. Kalina and Charlton identified the strategic pieces of those bunkers, left and right, and removed the rest, replacing the discarded bunker footprint with bentgrass. Today, the remaining bunker elements are nearly in the middle of a far wider fairway, serving essentially as cross-bunkers and centralizing the line of play.

A 4,000-square-foot bunker used to guard the green at No. 2, but only about 1,000 square feet were visible from the landing area. That visible portion remains; the other 3,000 square feet join the wider surrounds as bentgrass collection areas.

“I found myself out in the field taking my thumb and holding it in front of my eye, like a film director, imagining what these holes would look like if the bunkers weren’t there, or parts of them weren’t there,” Charlton says.

“The contours are such that the ball will come to rest in nearly the same place, but it won’t be in the sand,” Kalina says. “There’s nothing more disappointing than someone playing a 40-yard bunker shot at greenside. High handicappers ... can’t play that shot, and maybe they won’t come back if we keep asking them to try.

“If you’re a less skilled player, you’re going to love what you see out here. It’s easier to get the ball on the green from the bentgrass. If you’re a highly skilled player, you’re going to love it, too. These patrons aren’t worried about getting the ball on the green – they want to hit it close, and now you have to hit a wide variety of deftly played touch shots to get the ball close.” Pace of play improves by as much as 30 minutes, he adds.

Kalina doesn’t hate bunkers, when they’re deployed properly. But 20-plus years of dealing with a course that featured 130 of them has shaped his attitude toward the game – and the way courses affect the game. “From my youth, I recognized that golfers prefer to play a ball that came to rest after rolling to a stop, on the short grass as opposed to a bunker or hazard,” he says. “I’m not fond of rough, and not particularly fond of bunkers. I am more fond of using bentgrass and hollows maintained close and tight. Most golf courses are just better with bent. So I started that hashtag to drum up a little support. We’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s come to be the battle cry for this project.”