Respect the past

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March 18, 2016

How much do you know about the golf course you manage?

Every superintendent can recite the turfgrass varieties, water source and agronomic practices. But do you know who originally designed the course and how that architect intended it to play?

In conducting interviews for the “Super Sleuths” cover story, which offers ways for superintendents to better understand their course’s past, we found multiple examples where clubs spent decades operating under the assumption a particular architect designed their course.

Architect Richard Mandell tells the story of Lake Forest Country Club, an 18-hole private facility near GCI’s Northeast Ohio headquarters. Herbert Strong is listed as Lake Forest’s original architect in two books authored by respected writers. Strong had a presence in Northeast Ohio, designing historic Canterbury Golf Club on Cleveland’s East Side, but a story passed down by Strong’s brother represented the only link between Herbert Strong and Lake Forest, according to Mandell.

Mandell’s digging revealed something different. A local newspaper story mentioned another Golden Age architect, Tom Bendelow, being onsite for Lake Forest’s opening match in 1930. Mandell found Bendelow’s name mentioned again in connection with Lake Forest in an article published in a separate local newspaper. He then found a nameless drawing of Lake Forest from the 1920s. He compared the drawing to other Bendelow sketches, and Mandell says you could “clearly see it was a Tom Bendelow drawing.”

“That sort of changed the course of that golf course’s history,” Mandell adds. “Moving forward we are not pushing the membership to pursue a restoration. We are pushing the membership to fix the course’s problems, which they want to, and I say, ‘If we are going to fix problems, let’s do as much as we can to make it what it once was originally.’”

Old Elm Club in Highland Park, Ill., is another club where exploring the past altered its future. Donald Ross and Harry Colt, a pair of celebrated Scottish architects, were both involved at Old Elm, with Ross overseeing construction of the course. Architect Drew Rogers and superintendent Curtis James explored old plans, sketches and notes to better understand Colt’s influence on the course.

The materials pointed to Ross leaving out some of Colt’s original design, thus sparking the membership’s desire to integrate Colt’s original intentions into the course. “That was one case where a club really wanted to go back and reinstated what originally was intended,” Rogers says. With the restoration came other improvements, including a new irrigation system, improved drainage and regrassed greens, signs of the maintenance enhancements possible through understanding a course’s history.

Historical misinterpretations aren’t anomalies, according to Meadow Club superintendent Sean Tully. “When you dig deep and really look, it’s not always clear cut on who designed a course,” he says.

Meadow Club superintendent Sean Tully, right, shares golf course architecture pictures with Jeff Mingay, left, and Sean McDonough last month.
© Guy Cipriano

Tully is one of those people you speak with for an hour and then realize after hanging up the phone you could have interviewed him for six straight hours. He balances the demands of maintaining a cool California course with fatherhood. He’s also a golf course architecture savant who finds time to enlighten anybody with an interest in the subject.

An iPhone image taken on the Golf Industry Show floor of Tully sharing photos on his laptop with golf course architect Jeff Mingay and Broadmoor (Wash.) Golf Course superintendent Sean McDonough convinced us to pursue our cover story. And we’ll give Tully the final word on why superintendents should want accurate information about the past.

“If you know what is out there, you need to see it to make sure your maintenance practices don’t take away from the features or the direction your club or golf course is taking,” he says. “I always think of Aldo Leopold in ‘The Land Ethic.’ If we aren’t paying attention to it or respecting it, nobody else is to a degree.”