Whoa, Wanakah!

Features - Spotlight

A classic course in suburban buffalo drains, looks and plays better following a methodical renovation defined by persistence.

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April 16, 2019

Guy Cipriano

Venerable doesn’t always mean functional. Consider the conundrum facing Wanakah Country Club.

The club formed in 1899, meaning it endured a pair of World Wars and multiple recessions. And recessions wallop Great Lakes communities such as Wanakah, N.Y., a hamlet within the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg, harder than other places. Through the uncertainties of the western New York private golf market, Wanakah maintained a stable membership.

The club celebrated multiple traditions, including the 106-year-old League of the Iroquois matches alongside three other upstate New York clubs and the four-day Ganson Depew Memorial Invitational in early August. Yes, there are superintendents out there preparing for major-championship length invitationals.

Before invitational time arrived, members greeted Fourth of July with glee. The patriotic holiday served as the ETA for Wanakah’s cart season.

Pictured from left: Mike Karnath, Rich Gladhill.

The history, camaraderie and cyclical charms of club life offered distractions from a lingering nuisance: the golf course was failing. Gritty work by superintendent Gale Hultquist and his crew, and members willing to carry their bags into July often prevented the beginning of the western New York golf season – the sport is a mid-April to mid-October game in the region – from draining enthusiasm.

The water table, fortunately, has turned on Wanakah. A major and methodical project spurred by bolstering surface and subsurface drainage concluded last spring. The project served as the closing act for Hultquist, whose three-decade run at Wanakah ended with his 2018 retirement. Pennsylvanian Rich Gladhill became superintendent April 2, 2018, giving him a turfside view of a drier present and future. The revamped course demonstrated its drainage prowess multiple times last year, including after a 5-inch, multi-day dousing in late September and early October.

“With the way this course was before, it would have shut down play and carts for the remainder of the year,” says Gladhill, who accepted the Wanakah job after a stint as an assistant superintendent at highly regarded Fox Chapel (Pa.) Golf Club. “We were able to have carts out 36 to 48 hours after the last of those storms.”

Chris Wilczynski.

Planning and persistence by dozens of determined members, Hultquist and architect Chris Wilczynski placed Gladhill’s team in a desirable position. After playing an Arthur Hills-designed course inside the Capital Beltway, a Wanakah member convinced others at the club to contact Hills’s Toledo, Ohio-based architecture firm in the mid-2000s. Wanakah wanted to improve its drainage, the Hills team saw an opportunity to improve the entire course, which had never experienced a major renovation since debuting an 18-hole Willie Watson layout in 1925.

Over time, Wanakah had become overgrown with trees, particularly silver maples, while bunker style and tee position struggled to meet modern private club standards. “We conveyed to them, ‘Hey, if you’re going to rip up this entire golf course and add drainage everywhere, it’s a perfect time to enhance the course from an architecture perspective,’” says Wilczynski, a former Hills & Forrest associate.

The plans sat idle for nearly five years. Wilczynski left Hills & Forrest in 2008 as the recession staggered the golf economy and started his own company, C.W. Golf Architecture, in 2010. Wanakah’s new greens committee opted to move forward with the plans and Wilczynski’s previous bosses supported his desire to continue working with the club.

Selling the drainage part of the project was simple. Members could see, feel and touch wet spots – and there were plenty of them. Not only were members playing on a flat course without adequate surface drainage. The club sits on heavy clay-based soil. “This project was always about the drainage,” says Mike Karnath, the club’s energetic general manager and COO.

A drainage study amplified the anecdotes, revealing more than 90 percent of the course was sitting on 1 percent or less of fall. A minimum of 2 percent of fall is required to move water laterally on turfgrass, Wilczynski says, adding 3 percent of fall is ideal for expediting water movement. Wilczynski uses a household analogy to describe drainage to a membership.

“Take a glass of water and dump it on a flat table,” he says. “Where does the water go? It spreads out everywhere and just sits there. Take that table, pick it up a little bit and tilt it, and where does that water go? It goes to the lowpoint. That’s essentially all we were trying to do at Wanakah: create highs and lows within the fairway that looked attractive and tied in with the existing surrounds, but still provided good drainage and got water to collection points.”

The green complex on the third hole at Wanakah Country Club.

The first Watson-designed hole the club improved was the ninth, a par 4 playing back to the clubhouse, in 2009. But the project didn’t formally commence until 2010. The club executed the work in phases during shoulder seasons, closing a few holes at a time. Two builders, Eagle Golf Construction and TDI Golf Construction, were involved in the project, which also addressed bunkers, tees and trees.

“Our season in western New York is short,” Karnath says. “There are five to six months of good, quality golf. We will lose half of our members if we shut our course down for the whole summer. There was always a minimum of 15 to 16 holes open from the end of September through the beginning of May. And from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and even past Labor Day, we always had 18 holes available to the membership.”

The club moved aggressively in the final phase of the project, using the fall of 2016, spring and fall of 2017, and the early stages of 2018 to complete the work. The final hole to be revamped, the low-lying par-5 11th, epitomized the intent of the project. Subtle shaping and contouring, a back tee stretching to 555 yards, and cross bunkering 50 yards short of the green boosted strategy. Removing dozens of silver maple trees and replacing them with native areas improved turf conditions and opened Lake Erie views.

The lake is a well-struck short iron from the club’s entrance, but mature silver maples obstructed refreshing views. Wanakah sits 10 miles east of downtown Buffalo and members can now see the skyline from the course.

“You literally could not see Lake Erie,” Wilczynski says. “When the club went to 18 holes, the reason they chose that site is that it sat above Lake Erie. You could have these sweeping views of Lake Erie and downtown Buffalo. Those were lost over the years. They planted silver maple everywhere. They are just not good trees for golf courses. They are constantly dropping limbs and they are not attractive trees. There are still some silver maples left, but now you can see Lake Erie. You can see all the way across to Canada and it’s beautiful.”

Wanakah officials are finding an enhanced course is good for the club’s long-term vitality. The club has added more than 100 members from 2016-18 and it experienced significant spikes in cart revenue and guest green fees last year, according to Karnath, the club’s general manager since 2014. Wanakah also hosted a premier statewide event in 2018, the New York State Men’s Mid-Amateur, for the first time in nearly 20 years. New tees stretched the course to 7,035 yards and condensed the course to 4,919, making Wanakah appealing to elite, developing and aging players. Regardless of skill level, golfers will see their ball roll farther – and remain cleaner – than previous generations of Wanakah members.

“Our goal is inline with the game of golf – firm and fast,” Gladhill says. “We’re now better able to manage our water to firm up not only greens, but also fairways. The broad strokes have been put in place with our renovation. Now it’s up to us to focus on the detail of each one of those characteristics and maintain them for the livelihood of the golf course.”