Harboring better golf

Features - 2016 Construction & Renovation Issue

A suburban Chicago park district course with a Cold War past creates a fresh experience for a variety of customers.

October 17, 2016

Arlington Lakes Golf Club, which wraps around a U.S. Army Reserve base, recently completed its first major renovation since opening in 1979.
Photos courtesy Michael J. Benkusky

What do Nike missiles and Penncross bentgrass greens have in common? They have both seen their demise on the same patch of land.

In 1979, the park district of Arlington Heights, Ill., granted residents’ longstanding requests to open a golf course on property that harbored the Cold War weapons. Eighteen bluegrass/Poa annua mix fairways were constructed across the 90-acre property of the David Gill-designed Arlington Lakes Golf Club — including two fairways built about eight feet above abandoned missile silos. Fast-forward to 2015, when V8 bentgrass replaced the Penncross putting surfaces, holes were flipped and rerouted, and 69 bunkers were removed. A redesign centered around improving player accessibility allows everybody to breathe a little easier now, including the jovial superintendent Al Bevers.

When Arlington Lakes’ maintenance garage was on the back nine, it took Bevers and crew a long time to get to the front nine for morning maintenance, especially considering the 5,400-yard, par-68 course wraps around a U.S. Army Reserve base. The garage hasn’t moved, but the front and back nines have been flipped. “We can do everything and then finish up on the far end, and it saves us about probably an hour in the morning just on morning jobs, just getting things, boom, boom, boom,” he says. “We’re right there, we’re done, we’re out of the way.”

The reason for the flip lies with local golf course architect Michael J. Benkusky, whose redesign plans took into account the course’s short length and densely populated surrounding area. By flipping the front and back nines, rerouting a few holes and altering those holes’ individual green and tee complexes, golfers don’t have to walk as far as they used to, and more holes lead to the clubhouse. Arlington Lakes now offers three- and six-hole options, which, along with the reduction from 106 bunkers to 37 and the addition of new tees at shorter yardages, fit with Benkusky’s goal of attracting more juniors, seniors and anyone else who wants to play a shorter, simpler round. “We’re not looking for your scratch golfer in a sense, not that we don’t get them occasionally,” he says. “But no, we’re looking for just the casual golfer.”

Aside from a new irrigation system installation about a decade ago, the course had not seen any major improvements since it opened, says Tim Govern, golf operations manager. What began as a plan to protect the course as an asset ultimately became a mission to draw in new crowds such as families. And it has been successful. For instance, players are less frustrated now than before the redesign, when they volleyed golf balls between numerous run-down bunkers.

The old bunkers baffled Bevers. A single acre-and-a-half area contained 21 of them. “It was just mind-boggling how many bunkers there were and just some of them with a sliver of grass not even the width of a 21-inch mower in between them, but here they are,” he says, heartily laughing. They didn’t drain well, either. A 2 1/2-inch rain would result in three full days of crew pushing them up and pumping them out.

All of the course’s current bunkers fit a new, flatter design, complete with drainage tiles and improved sand, Bevers says. The reduced time spent on bunker maintenance has allowed the crew to focus on other projects such as divots and fairways, and Bevers can send a crew member out to roll, if necessary.

The $2.4 million project also included the wall-to-wall extension of cart paths, removal of 62 diseased and overgrown trees, and the grow-in of about the same number of healthy trees, Govern says. An additional $400,000 “facelift” of the clubhouse has further improved golfer experiences.

The contractor for the redesign, GCBAA member Golf Creations, began construction in early June 2015, says Matt Lohmann, project manager. Weeks of rain that month delayed the project slightly, but the company; its three subcontractors for cart path, pond and irrigation work; Benkusky; and the maintenance crew worked together to complete it in September. “I think the teamwork between the architect, the contractor and the owner — maintenance staff — was really good,” Lohmann says.

For Benkusky and Lohmann, the project renewed aspects of a longtime relationship. Benkusky used to work for Lohmann Golf Designs, a company owned by Matt Lohmann’s father, golf course architect Bob Lohmann. When Matt was a child, Benkusky took him to his first Chicago Bulls game. When he was in college, he worked on the Benkusky-designed Canyata Golf Club in Marshall, Ill. The Arlington Lakes project was the first Benkusky design contracted out to Golf Creations since Michael J. Benkusky, Inc. was established in 2005.

It was just mind-boggling how many bunkers there were and just some of them with a sliver of grass not even the width of a 21-inch mower in between them, but here they are.” Al Bevers

Throughout the redesign, Golf Creations crew and subcontractors spent a significant portion of time constructing new ponds, Lohmann says. “There’s two ponds on No. 2 that were combined into one, so we basically excavated the area between the two ponds and connected those two ponds into one feature on hole 2,” he says. “And then on hole 7, we expanded the pond about twice the size down the left side of the fairway.”

Benkusky designed 10 of the greens, including the practice green, with brand new complexes according to USGA specifications. On the other nine greens, Lohmann and his crew stripped the sod off, poured about 2 inches of sand, adjusted the grades per Benkusky’s instructions and reseeded.

In past years, between May and September, the maintenance crew sprayed for dollar spot every 10 to 14 days on the Penncross greens, Bevers says. “They would just get puffy and slow and you couldn’t do anything with them,” he says. “This new V8 — we’re cutting it at just a touch below an eighth-of-an-inch at .118, and they hold up perfect. They love that low-height cut and they’re extremely disease-resistant.”

Also to Bevers’ delight, contractors converted all of the course’s former bentgrass tees and its newly constructed tees to a low-mow Kentucky bluegrass. The grass is still growing in, Bevers says, so crew are cutting it around nine-sixteenths-of-an-inch. Within a couple years, that height should come down to a half-inch. As with the greens, the tees are far less susceptible to disease than they were before.

Because the course was closed for the redesign, Bevers and his crew were able to help throughout the process. They removed the old bunker sand and used it for rough topdressing, as well as backfilled the cart paths along the fairways.

Now that the wall-to-wall cart paths are a course feature, crew can follow them to more easily complete tasks after heavy rains. “They’re a blessing for myself, for the maintenance staff,” Bevers says.

There is something else crew have to sometimes prepare for after heavy rains — when the fairways above the missile silos cave in. “Every two or three years, one of the cover plates that they put over one of the vent fans or something like that rots through and you’ll get a big rain,” Bevers says. “You’ll come in in the morning and there will be a 15-foot hole in the middle of the fairway with everything washed in.”

Aside from the occasional missile silo-related mishap, the crew at Arlington Lakes Golf Club can better balance their work post-redesign due to the course’s own caving in to a changing industry.

Patrick Williams is a GCI contributing editor.