The superintendent and general manager lead a five-hole tour of their municipal golf course on a sweltering July afternoon. Gently, they stop their carts along the right side of a fairway. They watch a foursome tee off. They gaze at a floodplain between the fairway and tee.
Following their lead are a biologist, project manager and environmentalist. The convoy pauses between shots, admiring the scene on the 13th hole at Lost Nation Golf Course in Willoughby, Ohio, 21 miles from downtown Cleveland and one mile from Lake Erie.
A clear creek with level banks meanders through the hole. Everybody in the group stares at the creek and the surrounding vegetation. The creek’s past and future, along with the federal grant and collaborative work required to cultivate this serene appearance, spark personal stories.
For Lost Nation general manager Mitch Allen, it’s about fewer floods and an enhanced look, two necessities for operating a facility with a limited budget in a competitive golf market. For superintendent Greg Hill, it’s about maintaining less turf in an area that receives little play and maintaining drier turf in areas golfers roam.
For Davey Resource Group senior biologist Ken Christensen, it’s about native plants and creating a wildlife friendly environment easy on a golfer’s eye. For Davey’s Ana Burns, a biologist who served as a project manager, it’s about the organization required to complete a major golf course stream restoration project.
For Keely Davidson-Bennett, it’s about the mission the non-profit organization she represents, the Chagrin River Watershed Partners Inc., developed when it formed in 1996: preserving and enhancing the scenic environmental quality of the ecosystem of the Chagrin River and its watershed in a sustainable manner for all involved. Ward Creek, which knifes through Lost Nation’s back nine, flows into the Chagrin River. The Chagrin River flows into Lake Erie. Flooding and erosion within the shadows of an important American body of water is a harrowing thought.
Their July reunion yielded laughter and admiration. More importantly, it yielded pride and provided an example of what happens when golf and environmental needs collide.
Ugly and overboard
Ward Creek crosses five back-nine fairways: 13, 14, 15, 16 and 18. Allen, who has been with the course for 25 years, serving as superintendent before Hill arrived in 2001, knew the creek presented problems.
In a typical year, the course would lose a half-dozen playable days on the back nine because of flooding. The number is higher in a saturated year.
Lost Nation, a H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison-designed course opened in 1927, receives close to 40,000 rounds per year. But unpredictable weather makes playing golf between November and March difficult, thus the need to maximize April-October play dates.
Following Hill’s arrival, the course embarked on a series of renovations. Main-line drainage was improved. The par-5 second hole was rebuilt. The par-5 fifth hole was also rebuilt. The driving range was improved. Tees were altered.
Hodgson Road intersects the course, with holes 2-8 resting on the level north side of the road. The back nine and floodplain rest behind the clubhouse.
Ward Creek’s banks had experienced severe erosion and presented maintenance challenges for Hill and his staff. Banks were steep and surrounded by maintained turf. “It would get swamped and it would take a lot of handwork and trimming to get it aesthetically prepared,” Hill says.
Something needed to be done. Allen and Hill agreed a stream restoration would be costly and unlikely a high priority on the city’s to-do list. Stream restorations are six- and sometimes seven-figure projects.
“We realized it was an issue,” Allen says. “It all comes down to expense. Where do you put your money first? We knew it needed to be done. Unfortunately, it would have been a reactive situation if we hadn’t had the grant come through. We would have come in one day and on 13 the hillside would have been gone and everybody would be like, ‘Now what are going to do?’”
As Hill’s crew worked furiously after storms to keep the back nine open, the CRWP, which is comprised of 36 northeast Ohio municipalities, sought funding for a series of projects along within the Newell/Ward Creek watershed. CRWP collaborated with the cities of Willoughby, Mentor and Eastlake, the Lake County Soil and Water Conversation District, and Simon Property Group, which owns the nearby Great Lakes Mall on stream-related projects. The groups secured a $770,250 grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2012.
Besides reducing the amount of play on the back nine, the stream bank running through Lost Nation posed environmental problems. Davidson-Bennett says the stream doesn’t meet Ohio EPA water-quality standards, a conundrum through no fault of the golf course.
Testing on the stream is performed in Eastlake, a city bordering Willoughby. The Newell/Ward Creek watershed consists of high runoff areas such as parking lots and housing developments. Tires, mattresses, toys and other items carelessly dumped into the creek flow into portions of the stream running through Lost Nation.
“This watershed has a lot of hard surfaces,” Davidson-Bennett says. “It’s our most impervious watershed. We have a lot of parking lots. We have a lot of houses. That changes the way the stream behaves. Instead of a lot of water soaking into the ground, we have a lot of places where water runs off the hard surface and creates a lot of problems to the solution in the stream, and it also changes the pattern of water rise and fall that the stream life isn’t used to.”
The project marked the CRWP’s first involving a golf course. “We have been interested in working with golf courses in the past,” Davidson-Bennett says.
Working along the banks
A competitive bid process resulted in Davey, based in Kent, Ohio, being awarded work for the project. Planning started in March 2013 and before beginning work, Davey needed permit approvals from the City of Willoughby, Ohio EPA and U.S. Army of Corps Engineers.
The design/build team consisted of Davey, TGC Engineering and Marks Construction. Ohio-based golf course architect Brian Huntley was also involved in the project. Multiple northeast Ohio golf courses are in Huntley’s portfolio, including The Quarry Golf Club, one of the state’s top facilities. Huntley also had visited Lost Nation multiple times.
“I wanted somebody with a golf background involved in the project whether it was a superintendent or a golf course architect,” Allen says. “Everybody that submitted a bid had a golf course architect on their design team. It was very important that somebody took a look at it from a golf playability standpoint and agronomic standpoint.”
Huntley’s input also soothed Christensen and Burns, whose team was restoring 2,900 linear feet of stream bank. “That was very helpful,” Christensen says. “As a biologist, we can turn it into an unplayable course very quickly. We can ruin the whole thing. We worked closely with him on the planting and he was giving us tree heights and shrub heights.”
Construction started in September 2013. The course remained open as crews restored one hole at a time. Crews worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Construction was completed in December 2013. “The timing when it was done helped tremendously,” Allen says.
Crews started work on far reaches of the course and maneuvered toward exits as the project progressed. Positioning large vehicles near a narrow, steep stream wasn’t easy and the weather provided twists, with snow arriving in October.
Tee boxes on multiple holes were moved to improve aesthetics and increase the course’s yardage to close to 6,500 yards from the back tees. On the 15th hole, a long, par 4 considered one of the toughest holes in northeast Ohio, the stream bank was flattened and a new bridge was built and re-routed through the woods. The previous bridge traveled directly through the flood area. The new bridge, which has a concrete base, steel reinforcement and wood covering, was designed by Hill and constructed in-house. Lost Nation will be reimbursed for the cost of the bridge and labor, which cost $11,500, according to Allen.
“We were going to have to take the bridge out anyway,” Allen says. “If we were going to do one hole, it would have been 15. For them to get what they wanted to get done here as far as stormwater in this area and stopping erosion, the bridge had to leave. It was a huge pinch point.”
Doing this at home
Pursuing a partnership like the one at Lost Nation Golf Course is not out of reach. Here are 10 tips to replicate it at your facility.
Identify a problem that might be affecting more than the golf course
Determine grant money available for the project
Secure non-profit and government partners capable of assisting in funding and approval processes
Educate customers about the scope of the project and why it will benefit the golf course and surrounding communities
Hire an experienced contractor
Seek design and construction input from somebody with a golf background such as a golf course architect or agronomist
Develop ways to enhance playability and aesthetics
Establish a construction schedule that minimally interrupts play yet offers flexibility
Maintain open lines of communication throughout the construction process
Combine work with other restoration projects needed on impacted holes
Instead of mowing to the creek’s edge, a variety of native plants, including lizard tail, prairie chord grass, blue flag iris, spicebush, red buckeye and bottlebrush buckeye trees, were installed on 15 and other holes. Areas restored to a more natural state included 2.1 acres of short grass riparian meadow and .72 acres of tree and shrub. Playability represented a major consideration when determining which plant species to install in the tree and shrub areas.
“It had to be low-covering shrubs,” Burns says. “You won’t see the ground. It will be low-growing shrubs with colorful things going through them.”
Christensen says it will take three to four years for most of the vegetation to mature. Maintenance includes reducing the height of the shrubs once per year, and Hill says the red buckeye has already helped areas along the stream absorb water faster.
Aesthetics have changed on every hole along the stream. A new tee box on the 13th hole will eliminate blind drives. The 16th hole, a 175-yard par 3, was re-graded. The 18th hole, a 500-yard par 5, features scenic vegetation and water ripples within sight lines on approach shots.
Besides enhancing the golf course, Davidson-Bennett says the project provides significant environmental benefits. “Through this project we decreased sediment loading because soil was being eroded from the sides of the stream,” she says. “It wasn’t stabilizing. We have also added floodplain access, which gives a place for stormwater to spread out during storm events and that helps decrease downstream sediment erosion.”
The end result – and process – has satisfied Allen. Four months of construction crews on the course didn’t overwhelm Hill and his staff. Allen adds golfers will notice improved aesthetics when native vegetation along the stream banks mature. Lost Nation has only come close to losing one day of play this season because of flooding.
“It went about as good as it could have been expected and probably a little bit better than I thought it was going to go,” he says. “The bottom line for me is the bottom line. I had Greg’s job back before I hired Greg. My background is in that end of the business. I wanted to make it easy as I could on him. I didn’t want those guys getting overwhelmed with everything. We have a very tight budget around here. We don’t have a lot of extra dollars.”
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.