Super Sleuths

Features - Cover Story

Uncover the past to shape your course’s future.

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March 18, 2016

Paul Bastron imagined the possibilities the first time he toured Kenosha Country Club. Hidden, yet not desecrated, lurked key features from Donald Ross’s original design.

The remains of the features are allowing Bastron to envision a future with strong links to the Wisconsin’s club’s past. “That’s what you think about,” he says. “That’s what drives you to do it. You see what it could be.”

When he’s not managing a crew or maintaining turf, Bastron studies golf course architecture, placing him into a small yet fascinating group of superintendents with sleuth-like qualities. Sometimes sleuthing has tangible benefits for a superintendent.

Kenosha Country Club has embarked on a multi-phase restoration that will not only unearth many of Ross’s original features, but yield a new irrigation system design and permitting for several bridge relocations, and, yes, lead to the removal of trees. Bastron’s primary partner in sleuthing is golf course architect Drew Rogers, who has extensive experience restoring classic courses like Kenosha, which moved to its current location near Lake Michigan 50 miles north of Chicago in 1920.

Working with a superintendent interested in architecture helps with “every aspect of a project,” including selling it to a membership, Rogers says. Toronto-based architect Jeff Mingay, who has restored features on multiple A.V. Macan-designed courses in the Pacific Northwest, considers an engaged superintendent “the key to every” project involving a course’s past.

“A superintendent obviously has his agronomic responsibilities and course maintenance responsibilities, but when you get guys interested in architecture and interested in the history of it, they tend to be a little more open-minded, I guess you could say,” Mingay says. “They know it wasn’t always simple to maintain all of the cool features that they had and they start thinking a little bit outside the box because they are so passionate like we are as architects to put the stuff back, preserve it and maintain it. Those are fun projects that usually come out better than the rest when you have that kind of team put together and the architect and team on the same page.”

Digging into a course’s past isn’t as time consuming as it appears on the surface. Bastron might “hang around a little bit longer at the end of the day,” and adds he’s not letting maintenance tasks slip because of his interest in golf course architecture. “I think [an interest in architecture] comes into play a lot when you do find a golf course like [Kenosha] that’s primed for a restoration type project,” he says.

Unlike their primary responsibilities, superintendents will reach an ending point when researching a particular course, according to golf course architect Richard Mandell. Even the world’s most studied courses have a finite number of available materials associated with their origins. “It’s not necessarily too time consuming,” Mandell says. “If you have a passion for it, you will find time to do it.”

Perhaps no agronomist finds more time for sleuthing than Sean Tully, the superintendent at the Meadow Club in Fairfax, Calif. Tully has parlayed an interest in golf course architecture and history that stems from working on the maintenance staff of a Wisconsin course he grew up playing into becoming an expert on the Meadow Club and its famed designer Alister Mackenzie. Approaching his 16th year at the Meadow Club, Tully participated in a multi-year restoration led by architect Mike DeVries that restored many of Mackenzie’s original features. Expanded greens, fewer trees, restored bunkers and altered mowing lines were included in the changes, and Tully says the results of the project “floored” attendees of a 2015 Mackenzie Society event at the club. Many of the attendees were experiencing the course for the first time since the early 2000s.

The way Tully sees it, the time and effort spent researching his course and other Bay Area layouts designed by Golden Age architects is worthwhile. “The more you know about your golf course as a superintendent, the more job security you have to a degree,” he says. “I still let the members have their say, but they will ask me, ‘Sean, what is your opinion on this.’ I give them two: one as a superintendent and one as a historian just to make sure we keep the story straight.”

Tully’s laptop contains 30 gigabytes of golf course architecture-related materials, and he’s often sharing information other superintendents never knew about their own courses. Duplicating Tully’s sleuthing triumphs might be extreme, but conversations with Tully and other experts provide guidelines for using the past to shape a course’s future.

Inside the club grounds

The best place to look for materials about a club’s past might be the areas surrounding a superintendent’s daily movements.

“The first thing I say is clean your shop, which is surprising,” Tully says. “You will find stuff like routing plans.” The only routing plan for the Meadow Club Tully has ever seen is a poorly drawn picture hanging in a hallway, but a routing and irrigation plan for San Francisco Golf Club from the 1960s was found during a tidying of the Meadow Club’s maintenance shop.

Clubhouses and club archives are other logical places to search. “I have heard too many times it was sitting here in a box and nobody ever looked at it,” Tully says. Mandell was recently involved in a restoration at Orangeburg (S.C.) Country Club where they had secured aerials of the Ellis Maples-designed course but struggled finding original drawings until a cleaning of the clubhouse attic. “You can be surprised by what you find,” Mandell says.

Knowing the history of a facility’s clubhouse can save time. If the clubhouse had been burned down or relocated, Rogers says it’s unlikely a superintendent will find materials inside the new one that can assist in a restoration.

What to look for

Golf courses are part of broader communities, and Mandell recommends visiting local government agencies such as planning and parks and recreation departments to obtain historical documents of a particular area. “Just investigate,” he says. “You have to turn over every stone. That’s kind of the way I operate. People stop at the first no, and I don’t necessarily do that.”

The historical document most likely to be found during outside-the-club searches are aerials. Rogers says “a high percentage” of clubs are featured in some form of aerials, whether they are course specific or include parts of the course in a shot of a municipality. Tully uses Google Earth for current and past overhead imagery of Bay Area golf courses while Mingay says www.historicaerials.com offers glimpses of golf courses in major metropolitan areas. Old aerials are often a superintendent’s ally because they show landscapes devoid of large trees.

“So many times they were planted too tightly together, they were the wrong species, they were in the wrong spot and they were too close to play,” Rogers says. “There’s nothing wrong with planting trees on the golf course, but typically we want to see the right species planted in groups or clumps and in the right spots where they are really not going to impact play.”

Aerials are helpful and they are becoming easier to obtain thanks to the Internet, but Mingay says it’s challenging to restore intricate features solely by studying overhead shots. “If you are really interested in restoring things, you really need ground level photography,” he adds.

Drawings and routing plans are challenging to find. When they are obtained, concepts rather than specifics are often on the sketches, according to Rogers.

Club minutes also should be examined because whomever read them previously might have scoured them for a purpose different than studying the history of the course, Tully says. On the other hand, Tully warns against overreliance on official club histories. “Club histories tend to be more of an oral history so you have to be really careful in what you read there,” he says.

Still, it can’t hurt superintendents to interview older members about how a course once looked and played, especially if physical documents are difficult to obtain, Roger says. The USGA and local and state golf associations are among the organizations that could have historic images or information about a course, especially if a notable architect was involved in the original design.

Some architects are easier than others

Superintendents working at a Donald Ross course needing restored are in fortuitous spots. The Tufts Archives in Pinehurst, N.C., boasts more than 300 Ross-created field sketches and course layouts.

“That’s the first place you go to when you want to look at Donald Ross stuff,” says Mandell, whose firm is based in Pinehurst. “Then really the trail goes cold after that because there really aren’t that many places that have clearinghouses like that.”

Ground level photography is considered a helpful element when golf courses are using old materials to sell or complete a restoration.
© drew Rogers

Finding materials from architects who worked nationally such as Ross, Mackenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, Walter J. Travis and Seth Raynor – all of whom have their own societies or associations – is easier than finding materials from architects who worked in a specific region, Mingay says. Experts interviewed for this story listed Willie Park Jr., Herbert Strong, Harry Colt and A.V. Macan, and the duo of William Langford and Theodore Moreau as architects whose work creates sleuthing challenges.

What happens if a search yields little or no information about a particular course besides the name of the original architect? Mingay has encountered this problem when performing restorations of Macan-designed courses, and he recommends studying the architect’s work at other facilities.

“Those are fun projects,” he says. “It gives you a little more leeway to be creative, but also draws inspiration for what you have seen from his other work as well. I think that has probably been done quite a bit even on Ross courses where there’s limited info.”

Before and after photos of “The Volcano Hole” at Fircrest Golf Club in Fircrest, Wash. A.V. Macan’s original intention of creating a hole resembling the glaciers of Mount Rainier had been lost over the years. Architect Jeff Mingay and superintendent John Alexander were involved in the restoration.
© Jeff Mingay

It should be fun

Instead of dreading a looming project or studying their course’s history, Tully urges superintendents to embrace and celebrate an opportunity to be involved in a restoration. Successful restorations are often morale boosters resulting in the superintendent maintaining a better overall golf course.

“Once you start seeing what was at your golf course, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent who doesn’t have more energy and more excitement about their course after they figure out what they can restore,” Tully says.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.