Science shines in the South

Features - Construction and renovation

Bentgrass greens in Alabama? A savvy collaboration resulted in Vestavia Country Club making a gutsy decision.

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October 3, 2019

Vestavia Country Club is a private course in the Vestavia Hills section of Birmingham, Ala.
© photos courtesy of Lester George

He peered through the expanse of trees and neighboring shrubbery, blurring his eyes and imagining the possibilities. The 18-hole golf course at Vestavia Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., had evolved substantially over the years, and a new vision was necessary.

“I saw a golf course that had been overplanted with trees — all the scenic views had changed,” golf course architect Lester George says. “It had been planted-in like so many golf courses had through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It was a course that with the right design and execution could have so many extraordinary opportunities for view corridors, and the turf wasn’t up to par due to the agronomics. It just couldn’t get any light or air.”

Located above Vestavia Hills on 176 acres, Vestavia began as an equestrian club before featuring an 18-hole course and a nine-hole par-3 course. Construction began on the private club in 1948, and it opened to its membership June 12, 1950. Over the next six decades, the course was renovated, deconstructed and reconstructed before the club determined that a major overhaul was necessary – a new “vision” was needed. And after interviewing numerous candidates, the club selected George based on his past work and – perhaps more important – on what he envisioned the course could be.

“The course didn’t hold the imagination anymore,” George says. “So during the interview process, we showed the club a couple of holes we thought could be made better, with split fairways and option holes where there may be a ‘risk/reward’ option to drive it over a certain part of the property.

“Looking back on it, I believe that’s why we were hired. We showed them opportunities that were hidden. It was clear as a bell to me. They had view corridor and agronomic issues. They had a golf course that needed renewal as it was short on interest and strategy, and we showed them a master plan to give it just that.”

Agronomy plays an immense role in golf course design as non-indigenous grasses are often used to get the club’s desired results. The plant needs just the right amount of water and air to prosper, especially over a long period of time. Should the soil drain too quickly, the greens will get too dry and suffer. If the soil is packed too heavily with organic material, such as peat moss, it won’t drain well enough and roots will become waterlogged.

© photos courtesy of Lester George

The club requested George use AU Victory bentgrass, which is a cool-season grass typically used in courses much farther north than Birmingham. Due to Alabama’s hot and humid summers, George looked to create a greens mix that would be playable and durable while being able to handle the elements. An ideal mix would promote oxygen within the root zone and provide good filtration rates, making water available to the plant’s roots.

The project required almost 12 years of planning before construction finally commenced in 2017. Construction was handled by Landscapes Unlimited, and grow-in took 18 months and was continuously challenged by more than 80 inches of rain and subsurface rock remediation.

The experiment began when George hired John Maeder, golf business manager at Profile Golf. Along with Vestavia director of grounds and facilities Owen Coulson, the two of them discussed what they wanted to get out of the course and how they were going to get there. Samples of Vestavia’s sand were sent to Profile’s lab to determine which mix would work best with the bentgrass in Birmingham’s climate. What they settled on was a volumetric blend that was 90 percent sand and 10 percent Profile Porous Ceramic Greens Grade.

“It was a good fit from the beginning,” Maeder says. “Lester and Owen determined the greens needed to be United States Golf Association spec, 12 inches deep, and we evaluated performance characteristics in the lab, which would give us values for non-capillary (air) and capillary (water) porosity. We would also get infiltration numbers, so we knew how fast the mix was going to drain. After that, we received a uniformity coefficient, which would tell us how firm the putting surface would be. Basically, we tested the mix’s physical performance characteristics to see if it drained well, had plenty of air in it and would putt fast.”

Traditionally, golf greens makeup was instituted by the USGA. In 1960, the USGA created greens construction guidelines, which included a mix of sand and an organic, usually peat moss. The USGA updated its recommendations in early 2018. Greens built with Profile Porous Ceramics were designed to meet USGA guidelines.

Coulson has been working at Vestavia for more than 15 years. Along with the agronomy, he noted the course’s irrigation and bunkers presented additional challenges.

© photos courtesy of Lester George

“An old irrigation system and non-functioning bunkers were two more reasons for the initial push to take on this renovation,” Coulson says. “Those two areas devoured most of our labor and efforts every single day. And even after hours and hours of labor, the membership rarely noticed anything had been done at all. Now that those two very time-consuming areas have been completely renovated, our team is able to focus on delivering (course) conditions the members and their guests love.”

The project was not without its difficulties, as the construction team was forced to wade through torrential rainfall during the build.

“We got 85 inches of rain in 14 months, including 45 inches of rain during a three-month span when we were starting the grass” George says. “It was biblical and it was horrible. Thankfully, the greens were already built when the rain started. Any other product would’ve flushed the organics out of those greens with that amount of rain. I would’ve had to rebuild 21 greens for an additional $500,000.”

© photos courtesy of Lester George

At one point during the grow-in, Vestavia received 5 inches of a rain in a single occurrence. But the mix held strong.

Even though the planning and execution of the course took years, and the flooding nearly washed it away, it was worth the wait. The final product blends picturesque views, multiple options of play, numerous elevation changes and exceptional greens.

The renovation also resulted in new tees, greens, fairways, bunkers and cart paths on all 18 holes, 10 of which were entirely redesigned. In addition, new water features were added, and a new driving range was installed. New mowing patterns give the club at least 20 percent extra fairway width, and zoysiagrass was used on fairways, providing more disease tolerance and requiring less water. It also provides contrast with the Bermudagrass rough, giving the holes greater definition.

“The renovation was a success,” Coulson says. “The greens are excellent throughout the year and because of better science and everyone’s efforts, the course plays great.”

Jason Farrell is an Arizona-based writer.