Digging in Detroit

New thinking, emerging technology propelling a venerable club into its anticipated next century.

Meadowbrook Country Club, site of the 1955 PGA Championship, is undergoing a major renovation to modernize its golf course.
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Meadowbrook Country Club found an atypical way to celebrate a centennial. The club hosted no rounds of golf in 2016.

Yet on an ideal evening this past summer, cars occupied two-thirds of the club’s available parking spots. Families gathered at the pool and practice range. Members dined inside and outside the clubhouse.

Their view of the surrounding landscape included, well, overturned brown. Plenty of it. To those who understand the market where the club resides, the aesthetics and optics proved beautiful.

Meadowbrook is in Northville, Mich., a northwest suburb of Detroit. Members voted overwhelmingly to close their golf course beginning in October 2015 to embark on what is believed to be the largest post-recession renovation in the Detroit area. When it reopens in spring 2017, the site of the 1955 PGA Championship will feature a fresh look, with rebuilt greens, tees and bunkers, 37 acres of regrassed fairways, two acres of sand-capped approaches, enhanced irrigation and drainage, a relocated pump station and 24 acres of native areas.

A trio of energetic Michigan-born turfgrass managers – superintendent Jared Milner and assistants Brian Hilfinger and Andy O’Haver – worked closely with Wisconsin-born, Arizona-based architect Andy Staples, shaper Scott Clem, Dr. Trey Rogers of Michigan State University, and crews from GCBAA members TDI Golf and Leibold Irrigation to modernize a course that started as a six-hole Willie Park Jr. design in 1916. “For the region, a project like this is pretty wild,” Staples says. “There are very few of them.”

Meadowbrook officials anticipated a dip in membership during the course closure, but the club has a waiting list as 2017 approaches, according to general manager Joe Marini says. Meadowbrook features encompassing views from its high points and a desirable location along famed 8 Mile Road. In addition to Park, Donald Ross executed work at Meadowbrook, stories of A.W. Tillinghast walking the land exist, and Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen played competitive rounds on the course.

The club’s future, though, spurred the renovation. “We will definitely be on the cutting edge,” Marini says. “We’re using technology along with less water, less chemical, less fertilizer. We are going to have this world-class golf course when it’s all said and done. I think people are going to be taken back when they come out, especially people who knew what Meadowbrook was the last 100 years and now moving forward, and what it’s turning into and what it’s going to be. I think we can only have a wait and see type mentality. I think we are on to something. The business angle … We are seeing it right now.”

Meadowbrook superintendent Jared Milner with assistants Brian Hilfinger and Andy O’Haver and architect Andy Staples.

The renovation occurred as Meadowbrook experiences a superintendent transition. The club hired Milner last November to replace Mike Edgerton, who retired after a 42-year tenure as superintendent. Milner worked under Tim Kennelly, CGCS, at Baltimore Country Club, which underwent renovations on separate courses in 2012 and 2014. The presence of a veteran staff, along with regular conversations with Edgerton, are helping Milner handle the rigors of starting a new job and handling a dynamic renovation.

“What it comes down to is that I’m only as good as my staff,” Milner says. “They know this property. It’s huge. And also being able to have a connection to the former superintendent. I didn’t know Mike before this, but I felt like I have known him for many years. He gives you that impression. I don’t think taking a job like this you could ask for much more.”

Milner will manage a course different than the one Edgerton maintained. Renovation chatter intensified following the cruel winter of 2013-14, as numerous Detroit courses with Poa annua greens on heavy clay soils, including Meadowbrook, experienced severe damage from the freeze-thaw cycle.

Reconstructing 18 regulation and two practice greens represents a major focus of the renovation, and what’s below the surface will separate Meadowbrook from other courses. The greens were constructed with a varying depth greens mix, a technique developed by Rogers. The method ensures uniform water moisture across the greens profile, and Rogers is serving as a consultant on the project. Higher areas received 9 inches of greens mix and lower areas received 14 inches. “Water is going to percolate from high to low,” Milner says. “Excess water will sit where’s it’s the lowest. The more sand that is in the lower areas of the green, gives the excess moisture a greater chance of getting out of the upper part of the green profile. This ideology helps to create a more uniform moisture playing surface.”

Staples adds constructing greens with a varying depth greens mix could become a trend and polarizing industry topic. “Some people are going to be like, ‘I don’t believe in that,’” he says. “And then others are going to think about it.”

Precision Turf Management practices are aiding the construction and grow-in of the greens. Using GPS measurements is allowing Milner, Hiflinger and O’Haver to make what Staples calls are “real-time” agronomic decisions. Measurements are placed on a spreadsheet, and Staples regularly checks the data with the actual size of greens to ensure proper material bids are placed. The GPS unit serves as the 21st century version of routing plans, offering the Meadowbrook agronomic team easy access to course details such as location of drain pipes and where sand capping begins.

Establishing data points throughout construction, along with the installation of a fertigation system, will allow Milner’s team to make precise applications to every part of the course, including the Pure Distinction bentgrass greens. Ensuring uniform water moisture content on greens will require regular use of moisture meters, while drone footage provides Staples with visual progress reports to aid in his management of the project, and also helps to update members. Hilfinger serves as Milner’s lead data collector and technology implementer.

Data and images are depicting a modern golf course – with some classic twists – that should provide an intriguing contrast to Meadowbrook’s pre-renovation course. Mounding, intricate bunkering and a two-level third green inspired by the fourth green at the Park-designed Huntercombe Golf Club in England create throwback experiences. But “express tees” and infrastructure to produce turf conditions promoting a variety of shots will propel Meadowbrook into its next century.

November 2016
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