One nine at a time

Features - Construction and renovation

A third-generation superintendent is helping Montclair Golf Club reconnect with its Golden Age past.

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October 5, 2021

Montclair Golf Club director of golf course operations Michael Campbell and his dog Rudy.

Let’s take a ride down an expanded fairway with a third-generation superintendent.

Stops are frequent, because there’s plenty to see and explain on this morning show-and-tell at Montclair Golf Club, a venerable 36-hole private facility on a northern New Jersey site featuring abundant slope and tilt. Director of golf course operations Michael Campbell leads the tour. Campbell’s father and grandfather, both named Patrick, were superintendents in New Jersey. Fortitude and ferocity are required for longevity in the cutthroat New York Metropolitan private golf market. The origins of the turf Campbells in the region extend to the 1940s, when the elder Patrick returned from World War II and started working on golf courses. He passed along what he learned to his son, who shared what he learned with his son.

Campbell is “3 of 3” in his family’s turf tree and he’s beginning a tour on a hole that members and workers refer to as “1 of 3.” The hole, like the other three first holes at Montclair, begins at the clubhouse. It plays downhill, setting a scene for sweeping views of an expansive golf property resting inside a heavily populated neighborhood. The fairway is wider, the green is bigger, the views are less obstructed thanks to perhaps the biggest project ever involving a Campbell. Montclair is restoring its nines, one at a time.

Donald Ross, the original architect of the First, Second and Third nines, and Charles Banks, the less recognizable but equally brilliant architect of the Fourth Nine, are inspirations for the project. The Third Nine went first and reopened on Memorial Day, as Campbell had promised the membership a year earlier. “There are a lot of things that have to come together over a year to hit that deadline,” Campbell says. “There’s a little bit of a sense of relief when you do it. It’s very important to me that whenever we speak to the club, that it comes true.”

Campbell has spent his entire life preparing to execute and achieve big things on golf courses. He became a superintendent at 25. Now in his 40s, his run at Montclair started immediately with implementing elements of a gargantuan master plan and included a dual stint as the club’s turf leader and general manager. He prepared for the restoration by studying and sifting through archived photos, writings and records. All that happened while his team supported thousands of member and guest rounds with no designated starting and ending points. Montclair might be the only 36-hole club where each nine is treated like a separate course. Members leave the golf shop, step to an open nine and begin playing. All four ninth holes end at the clubhouse and members seeking to play 18 holes leave a ninth green and head to an open tee box.

The presence of 36 holes limits the distraction members typically encounter during construction. Restoring one nine at a time means 27 holes remain open. The abundance of golf amid construction means Campbell and his team, which includes assistant superintendents Mike Sturdevant and Mike Sharp, must find ways to pace themselves. The digging at Montclair started in 2016 with the installation of a new irrigation system and it continued with tree removal guided by Campbell and architect Brian Schneider, a senior design associate at Renaissance Design. The restorative work on the Second Nine started a few months after the Third Nine reopened. Work on the Fourth Nine will likely begin next year after the Second Nine reopens.

“It’s a lot like football,” Campbell says. “You spend a lot of time practicing and then all of the sudden, ‘OK, it’s gameday.’ Then you get that small burst and it’s back to planning. It’s professionally rewarding, it’s physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting and it’s a lot of hours. To be honest, whether we are doing nine holes of construction or 18, I don’t think it matters. We have 27 holes we still have to maintain, we still have a member-guest, we still have to host a club championship, we still have to aerify those other greens while construction is going on. There’s still a lot of normal, day-to-day maintenance going on, plus the building, plus the stuff that’s still being played on, plus the outings. Everything happens bigger at Montclair.”

Given the volume of work and the labor shortages impacting maintenance departments and clubs throughout the New York Metropolitan area, Campbell concedes building and motivating a team is “pretty difficult.” Campbell rebuilt the staff upon moving from neighboring Rock Spring Club, an architecturally fascinating course designed by Banks and Seth Raynor, to Montclair. “Our mission statement for the department is: ‘We will be known as the hardest-working greens department in the state,’” Campbell says.

The potential to return Montclair to its architectural roots — Robert Trent Jones Sr. started tweaking the nines after Ross and Banks completed their work and his son Rees Jones directed later work — motivates Campbell and his team. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s hallowed ground,” Campbell says. “It’s a historic piece of property. It’s designed by Ross and Banks. Find me another golf property that can say that. So, it’s paying homage to those guys while it still stands relevant 100 years later. Now it’s been entrusted to us and understanding that responsibility and the importance of it, that helps with pace and staying motivated.”

The restored third hole on the Donald Ross-designed third nine at Montclair Golf Club.
© LC Lambrecht/Golfstock

Schneider agrees that Montclair represents a rare restorative opportunity. Founded in 1883, the club hired Tom Bendelow in 1899 to design an 18-hole course near the location of the current First and Second nines. Montclair commissioned Ross in 1920 to design the First, Second and Third nines. The club added the Banks-designed Fourth nine in 1929.

“The site is built on a pretty steep hillside. When you are building features into a hill like that, you end up with a lot of slope in your greens and some really steep and deep bunkers and some really interesting fairways,” Schneider says. “The greens on the Second and Third nines are as severe as anything I have seen from Ross, which is saying something. It’s been really fun to expand those. Expanding them and reclaiming lost hole locations has really opened people’s eyes to what they have been missing for years.”

Aerials from the 1930s are helping support on-the-ground decisions being made in the 2020s. “I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I spent staring at those old photos,” Campbell says. The photos convinced Campbell that the restoration needed to begin with tree removal and the process was in an advanced stage even before the Third Nine closed last year for work executed by McDonald & Sons overseen by Northeast regional director Mike Tilleli. The removal has improved turf health and playing conditions and highlighted the beauty of the stately and healthy oak trees dotting the property. Campbell’s ride down “1 of 3” includes a 15-minute stop at an undulating green, once surrounded by trees. The 007 bentgrass/Poa annua blend on the surface is vigorous. A walk to the back of the green reveals views of holes on all four nines. More than 400 yards up the hill, from the patios and windows of the clubhouse, the openness foreshadows what lurks beneath, including fairways connecting multiple holes.

“The tree removal has been remarkable,” Schneider says. “When you are standing on the back of the clubhouse looking back on the hill, you see this big open expanse of golf. Opening that space up, connecting all those fairways, exposing the grandeur of the place was an important step.”

From turf to trees, no decisions are being made on whims. A lifetime in the business means Campbell understands the importance of developing a network. Besides Schneider and Tilleli, the team supporting Campbell includes veterans David Oatis of David Oatis Consulting, Rob Finnesey of Tree Tech and Keith Kubik of Grass Roots Turf Products. The decisions they are helping Campbell make are leading to enchanting golf strolls akin to another era that would have excited a person who knew a few things about restorations.

“My dad was somebody who I used to bounce a lot of things off,” Campbell says. “This was bigger than anything he had ever done and he had done a lot of restorations. A lot of the approaches that I take have been a culmination of a lot of years of talking with him about restorations and operations. I’d like to think a lot of what we do starts with him and then I found my own way and changed it. If he was here, I think he’d be pretty proud of it.”