Strategic swales

Features - Turfheads Take Over

Sometimes it helps to think of a golf course as more than playing surfaces. Architect Tim Gerrish explores how assessing stormwater treatment capabilities can make the game better for players, surrounding communities and wildlife.

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December 10, 2021

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Renovating bunkers, creating alternate lines of play and recontouring green surfaces are part of the foundations of golf course architecture. Play corridors that have been designed to give intelligent purpose to striking the ball can go beyond typical features. There are many factors that go into the design of a golf course that involve shaping the land. Let’s explore one underutilized area at many golf courses: stormwater treatment.

Shaping the land for golf was my original passion. It is what gets me excited when developing grading plans. Contouring the ground expands the types of shots played and entices players to be creative with ball striking. Not all golf shots need to be heroic. Sand bunkers do a wonderful job of visually establishing lines of play, but there are plenty of renowned golf courses with other features that determine golf angles. Just look at the famous 13th hole at Augusta National Golf Club.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects. Last century, when I worked for Cornish, Silva and Mungeam, we focused probably 60 to 70 percent of our time on new courses with the remainder on renovations or restorations. Restorations primarily focused on golf features and occasionally strayed outside the existing hole corridors when there was evidence. New course work mostly started with a canvas of forested or “landfill” landscapes. We routed courses to best utilize the topography for golf holes, minimizing adjustments to elevations. In New England, adjusting elevations often means blasting. The only place that worked effectively was Black Rock Country Club in Hingham, Massachusetts.

New courses required the understanding of stormwater and we took advantage of that knowledge by redefining watersheds so that stormwater was collected and used for irrigation. There are some courses, like The Golf Club at Oxford Greens in Oxford, Connecticut, that would not have had a sustainable water supply if these efforts would not have been made.

Recently, my projects have taken a slightly different look at stormwater. Now the focus is on water quality. To do this, I am creating swales or, one of my favorite terms, ditches to move water through pond shelves, forebays and soil filters. The key is to blend these manmade features with the golf course proper so they not only improve water quality, but also have a positive aesthetic impact and even become strategic elements.

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The scope of a project more than 10 years in the making at Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club in Branford, Connecticut, included rebuilding the first fairway, second tees, ninth tees and fairway, plus removing phragmites. Raising the fairways and improving the soil structure has eliminated the full moon flooding. When the next major storm comes crashing into Branford and neighboring New Haven, any flood water will now quickly drain away and prevent long-term standing water. With the 10-foot-tall phragmites removed, vistas were opened between holes and created the much-desired long views.

Sometimes lost is the value of the engineering metrics that defined the tidal flows, storm elevations and flood storage volumes I had to meet with regrading the hole corridors. (Thanks to BSC Group, a Boston-based multidisciplinary consulting firm, for those metrics.) A significant hole corridor adjustment was the re-alignment of the tidal creek across the first hole. Prior to the work, the creek had little effect on how the hole played for longer and more accomplished players. They blasted their tee shots to the soft but at least playable fairway. However, the creek had a detrimental effect on seniors, ladies and less accomplished players who often found their tee shots rolling in the water if they did not lay up. Can you imagine laying up almost 100 percent of the time on the opening tee shot, thus forcing the hole to become a par 5 because the approach shot was now out of range? This was not a strategic choice.

Shifting the creek alignment farther down the hole as part of the marsh regrading allowed for the shorter hitter to hit a full tee shot to the left fairway. Giving the creek a sinuous flow and splitting the fairway 65 percent left side no carry and 35 percent right side all carry gave the longer players something to ponder. Depending on the wind direction and strength, the average player now has a choice to try and carry the creek, playing up the tight right side alley or playing more left and bringing the newly expanded left greenside bunker into play.

Further up the New England coast, in Bristol, Rhode Island, is a tight, very rudimentary course called Bristol Golf Club. Bristol is a course that an editorial in The New York Times called the “Worst Course in America.” After my initial walk, hired as part of a team to improve water quality and habitat, I would agree. The second hole tee shot played with a major electrical transmission line 50 yards in front of the tee. The soil conditions were so wet I am still surprised that the majority of the site was not delineated as wetlands. Stormwater passes through the course from the neighboring industrial park and junkyard and is further enhanced by more Canadian geese than actually reside in Canada.

I looked at this project as an opportunity to not only improve the water quality and expand the wildlife habitat as the grant funding required, but also to save a golf course that, with some changes in tee location and a couple new greens, could be a great beginner’s course. Working with Wright-Pierce and Save the Bay, among other groups, I created a ditch that connects to special aquatic areas so stormwater traveled through pockets of native vegetation. US Pitchcare completely understood the concept, leaving found boulders and rock in place to provide additional erosion control and pockets for the water to settle. This is out of the ordinary for most golf course contractors as we often want to create maintainable turf.

Working within the modest budget placed limits on earthwork and expanded work areas. The site’s topography, or lack thereof, could only be enhanced with the material created in the stormwater excavation. Even the soil filter media was used for the tee and green rootzone to simplify the project. There was no existing soil suitable for a rootzone! So far, these ditches have done their job at consolidating stormwater from the playing areas, and even drying the surrounding soil.

The most manmade pond I’ve seen in many years was also transformed by adding two wet shelves with upland islands. These islands have hosted some small birds and they were planted with geese-limiting vegetation. Even geese don’t like thorns! To further limit geese, the wall-to-wall mowed rough is being transformed into out of play — even for a beginner’s course — native rough. Some areas will be mowed a couple times a year. Others will be transformed slowly, with successional vegetation, back to an eventual forest.

Phase 2 just finished and continued the water quality work and included a new green for that famous second hole. This green will have some contours that will mimic some of the stormwater swales and even define the surface into separate plateaus. You can’t take the architecture out of the project!

There are many aspects to golf course architecture that are unique to the profession. Redesigning bunkers is one. However, when an architect can resolve flooding, remove invasive species and create habitat for native species among other green infrastructure measures, and blend it thoughtfully with the demand of golf playability and maintenance, everyone wins. Given the apparent changes to our climate, these combined projects will only be more important going forward.

Tim Gerrish is a Rhode Island-based golf course architect and landscape architect with more than 20 years of experience as a project architect. Follow him on Twitter @GerrishRLA. This is his third Golf Course Industry contribution.