After two successful decades at Cincinnati’s Camargo Club, superintendent Doug Norwell is still finding ways to enhance his agronomic program and help others.
During the three-and-a-half years that Doug Norwell worked as an assistant superintendent under the legendary Matt Shaffer at The Country Club outside Cleveland, he learned plenty about water management and conservation. He learned even more about how to work with people.
“He was interested in growing people and moving them on, not keeping people and holding them back,” Norwell says. “And that’s how I approach working with my assistants.”
Shaffer, of course, is the former the director of golf course operations at Merion Golf Club, where he hosted a handful of headline events, including the 2013 U.S. Open, before retiring in 2017. Norwell, meanwhile, is still out on the course almost every morning, deep into his 20th consecutive year as superintendent at the historic Camargo Club in suburban Cincinnati.
Approaching its centennial, the Seth Raynor-designed gem is considered among the top classic courses in the country, with a footprint of more than 349 acres — 285 of them devoted to the course, and another 64 or so to a recently renovated practice area and stables. Norwell, too, is interested in growing people and moving them on, evidenced by his five former assistants who are now in charge of courses of their own — four of them within 25 miles of Camargo — as well as by his recent addition of a third assistant superintendent.
“I was just getting spread thin with additional responsibilities and went to three assistants, which I think is a good number,” says Norwell, who recently added assistant Kevin Veeley to a crew of 27 that includes fellow assistants Josh Clock and Bill Jones. “It’s been great, too, because it takes a little pressure off everybody. I think we’re all finding that stress isn’t good for any of us.”
Norwell is candid and open on and off the course, and he minces no words whether discussing his personal life, his years in the industry, even perceived differences between, say, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials. But on the brink of 50, he tells nobody to get off his lawn. Instead, he listens and adapts, shifting his crew to become more representative of the current crop.
“I think it’s important that we do change and adjust to the workforce that’s coming to us,” he says. “We have to meet them in the middle a little bit, and I think it’s helpful to have three assistants to keep people happy in their jobs. Happy workers are better workers. It does reduce the stress.”
Norwell has also reduced stress over the last year by adding products to his agronomic program, including Daconil Action and Secure Action fungicides, both from Syngenta, which he uses almost exclusively on greens — “on the finest, most intensively maintained turf,” he says, “where you need the best results.”
To combat dollar spot, which is manifesting more easily than ever thanks to Cincinnati heat indexes in the high 80s and low 90s that tend to stretch now into the middle of October, he introduced Posterity fungicide last fall, too. “And I was really pleased that, with the high disease we did have, we didn’t have many issues at all with dollar spot,” he says. “It gave me three weeks of control during heavy rains, high humidity, high heat.”
And unlike his early years at Camargo — even his first decade and change — Norwell has spotted more and more signs of nematodes on the course. “It’s something I hadn’t really paid a whole lot of attention to because we were all taught it was a Southern problem,” he says. “It’s no Southern problem anymore.”
When he spotted the thinning and discoloration that are so closely tied to nematodes, Norwell consulted Syngenta territory manager Gregg Schaner, who first steered him toward disease testing the turf. “We sent in a nematode test and it came back really high,” he says, “at which point we had to start some treatments.”
Working with Schaner to develop a plan of attack, Norwell ultimately introduced a pair of nematicides into his program, including Divanem. “This year, starting out,” he says, “we were able to control the population a lot better. The generations are closer and tighter together, so we started earlier and are doing a lot better. You just control them. No matter what anybody says, you’re just trying to manage nematodes.”
The migration of nematodes, the evolution of dollar spot, even the more extreme maintenance of turf in general are all newer developments during Norwell’s almost three decades in the industry — and his two decades working on the same course. “You just need every tool at your hands, you know?” he asks rhetorically.
Last winter, Norwell started to gather together some of his old assistants — one more tool, more metaphorical than literal — their aim not golf, but beer. The monthly meetings serve as a sort of informal reunion and a cleanse from the stresses of daily grinds.
Pat O’Brien worked under Norwell until 2004 and has been the grounds superintendent at Hyde Park Golf & Country Club in Cincinnati ever since. Jon Williams is still in Cincinnati, too, where he works as the course superintendent at Coldstream Country Club. Scott LesChander is now the grounds superintendent at Terrace Park Country Club in neighboring Milford, less than four miles door to door from Camargo. Joel Hanlon is the most distant: as the grounds superintendent at Four Bridges Country Club in Liberty Township north of downtown, he works a whopping 23 miles from Camargo. Only Mark Daniels ventured out of state: he’s the head greens superintendent at Wannamoisett Country Club in Providence, R.I.
“They’re all older,” Norwell says. “They’ve got kids, which is interesting. They’ve all had the same kinds of trials and tribulations — they all put up with me for years — and now they’re out with their own job. They can vent about me, or they can vent about whatever’s going on, and everybody’s a good sounding board. You start to feel like a parent to some extent.”
Beers, like a regular round of golf, are an excuse for gathering together and catching up. “They feel like they can open up because everybody has their back,” Norwell says, adding that his old protégés help keep him young. Like most folks approaching a half-century of life, he has a variety of new aches, but he weighs only 13 more pounds — 168 total — than he did when he arrived at Camargo back in 1999.
“I like the idea of getting fresh guys,” Norwell says. “They’re fresh, it keeps you fresh, it’s helpful. You look back at some of the great things in history — like the Hoover Dam. If they built a Hoover Dam today, I’d be tempted just to quit my job and go work on building that dam. You know what I mean? Just because you’re building something that’s going to leave a mark for a really long time. Because what we do every day disappears by the next day. We’re cutting grass. That’s 98 percent of our job, and by the next day, you’re starting over. So how can I do something to put into the people who work closely with me? Help get them jobs and move them out.”
Planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. A little legacy, he says, helping others who will help others … who will help others … who will help others …
“I mean, it’s the truth,” he says. “If they were going to build a giant Hoover Dam again, I would love to go work on the construction crew and be part of that. That would be something — to be part of something a lot bigger. And I think you can be a part of something a lot bigger by building into people around you.”
Don’t hold back. Grow and move forward, onward, upward. And maybe share some drinks with old friends.
The lines between warm- and cool-weather turf are fading. Experts offer insight into what superintendents should expect as temperatures rise.
Even when superintendents have dealt with and seemingly eradicated weeds – at least to tolerable levels – they can’t quite understand why they keep returning year after year. Weeds are like that unwanted guest who finally takes the hint and leaves, only to show up again the next spring ready to settle in for another long visit. — or if you don’t do something about it, they try to move in permanently.
Accepting why weeds return is a challenge for many superintendents. It seems almost unfair that efforts from the previous season are seemingly for naught.
One of the startling new trends in the world of weeds on golf courses is the intensity levels being experienced across the country, as well as the movement of some weeds from one region to another. Some weeds are becoming a problem in areas they never were in the past.
We talked with experts from both cool-weather turfgrass and warm-weather turfgrass regions of the country, trying to get a better understanding of the weed picture as we head into the heat of the 2019 summer.
Dr. Jim Brosnan is an associate professor in the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Tennessee, as well as the leader of the school’s Weed Diagnostics Center. He has noticed a definite increase in warm-season perennial weeds in the last few years.
“One weed that has just exploded recently is doveweed,” he says. “If you ask any superintendent Tennessee south, that’s become one of their big summer challenge weeds for sure.
“And then there is the kyllinga species,” he adds. “Whether it’s green kyllinga in the south, or false green kyllinga in the north, that’s a perennial species that’s become a widespread problem in terms of turfgrass over the past several years. The kyllingas used to be confined to the Transition Zone, but it’s really become a widespread problem for superintendents in other regions of the country as well.”
Dr. Bert McCarty, a professor of turfgrass science at Clemson University and a Certified Professional Agronomist, agrees with Brosnan about the increase in the kyllingas, but also sees problems occurring at very high rates with other weeds.
“Poa annua problems continue to grow (spread) due to its ability to adapt and develop resistance to most herbicide modes-of-action,” he says. “And a similar trend is starting to occur with goosegrass.”
“Many believe weed resistance is the number one potential agronomic issue this industry faces,” McCarty says. “Clemson and 12 other additional universities have secured a federal grant to look into herbicide resistance in Poa annua, including its distribution, genetic/biochemistry, competition, and how the industry is addressing this. And other increasing herbicide resistant weeds, including nutsedge and spurge, Virginia buttonweed, dallisgrass, tropical signalgrass and many others continue to plague the industry.”
Brosnan also believes resistance is a developing problem, and he agrees with McCarty that it’s not just an issue with Poa annua, but he is seeing it with the sedges as well in particular.
“My counterpart at Georgia, Dr. Patrick McCullough, he’s been working on resistance in sedge,” Brosnan says. “Most of our conversations in the past about resistance have centered on annual bluegrass, but Patrick has done a lot of good work showing resistance in sedge species — particularly purple nutsedge in the deeper south and yellow nutsedge as you move into more northern geography.”
Brosnan and McCarty agree that the wetter winter/early spring weather much of the country has been experiencing in recent years is contributing to the high weed levels superintendents are dealing with.
“Goosegrass, torpedograss, nutsedges and clover all tend to explode with the wet weather,” McCarty says. “What we have seen so far in 2019, with an extremely wet winter and spring, is shortened efficacy of certain preemergence herbicides. Thus, these weeds are more problematic much earlier in the year than they would be after a drier, more normal winter/spring.”
Chris Sykes, superintendent at Toqua Golf Club in Tellico Village, Tenn., agrees with Brosnan and McCarty that the extremely wet weather in late winter is making weed control a more difficult issue than ever before.
“We had 13 inches of rain in February,” Sykes says. “In addition to seeing more Poa than normal, much higher levels of goose grass and more crabgrass are prevalent as well. It’s funny, but for years I didn’t worry too much about weed pressure. I was more focused on putting surfaces and disease pressure. But now we’re really having to direct a lot of our attention to weeds.”
The trends in the cooler-weather turf areas seem to be mirroring those weed trends of the warmer-weather turf areas. If anything, we’re seeing the traditional demarcation lines blurred and even disappearing as the climate seemingly changes before our very eyes.
Dr. Jared Hoyle, an associate professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Kansas State University, is seeing significant weed pressure. “Definitely more yellow nutsedge out there because of the wet conditions,” he says. “As well as more crabgrass.”
Trampis Nickle is a superintendent in Hoyle’s region of Kansas, at Wamego Country Club, less than 20 miles east of Kansas State’s main campus in Manhattan, and he agrees that wet springs are wreaking havoc on golf courses.
“We got 18 inches of rain in about 35 days, late April into the first part of June,” Nickle says. “Because of the rain, we’re seeing huge outbreaks of yellow nutsedge in areas that traditionally we’d only see them in irrigated areas. Normally we spot spray our weeds post-emergent, but this year we had to do a blanket app. Weeds are definitely more of a problem with the unusual weather patterns.”
Dr. David Gardner is a professor at The Ohio State University in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, and he’s noticing a lot of interesting new trends in weed development in the cool season areas of the country.
“Recently in Ohio we have been introduced to the paspalums,” he says. “This is a tropical grass that is perennial. This is entirely unique amongst our weeds in this part of the country. Also, different sedges and kyllingas that were once only a problem in the south. Big increases in veronica and hairy bittercress as well, which are both winter annuals.
“Really noticing that winter annuals are becoming a problem because of our warmer autumns, which makes for better growing conditions for these weeds. Warmer and wetter periods going into winter seems to be increasing the annual grasses.”
“Last year was really hot and dry here in the Midwest,” he says, “and then it got wet all of a sudden, and then the weeds just start popping really quickly with that water and those compacted conditions that led into it. Especially in non-irrigated areas.”
As mentioned, the lines between warm-weather and cool-weather turf seem to be fading rather quickly. Superintendents need to be prepared to battle weeds — as well as environmental conditions — that they might not have faced in the past. What everyone seems to agree on is the rapidly changing blending of those traditional north vs. south weeds.
Hoyle thinks the best bet might be to try and keep it as simple as you can, while still educating yourself on the new problems you might have to deal with.
“Always step one is having healthy turf,” he says. “It seems simple, but it really is the most important step. Do right by the turf first. Anything you can do to keep out these opportunistic type of weeds. With preemergent herbicides, really keep on top of your growing degree days to get the most out of those initial apps. And if those growing degree days get you out earlier in the year, then look at switching it up from the past and maybe hitting them again with a second app — not adding herbicide but splitting it up into multiple applications.”
With higher levels of weeds, and weeds moving from their traditional regions into new areas, Gardner suggests reeducating yourself on your weeds. “Know your weeds and know your control options,” he says. “For example, applying a broadleaf herbicide in April is going to not only miss the summer annuals, but it is also going to miss things like white clover.”
McCarty stresses that everyone should be aware of resistance. “Remember to rotate modes-of-action,” he says. “This is the best way to reduce chances of herbicide resistance.”
Although the future of weeds and weed control looks a bit daunting, it’s good to know so many experts are on top of the issue and offering scientific solutions and advice to help superintendents chart these new weedy waters.
Ron Furlong is the superintendent at Avalon Golf Club in Burlington, Wash., and a frequent GCI contributor.
Todd Quitno, ASGCA, examines how a quartet of Midwest courses reversed water misfortunes and helped surrounding communities.
Water issues in the Midwest are often on the opposite end of the spectrum from those we see in other parts of the country, like the arid Mountain and Southwest regions. Rather than lacking water, our communities are often desperate to identify places to gather, hold and clean it up before gradually releasing it to the local streams and rivers. With changes in our climate causing more severe and frequent storms, and the continual expansion of pavement in our urban areas, the management of water has become a serious issue.
Golf courses are vital, vibrant members of the community that also happen to be vast in terms of acreage, making them ideal for storing and cleaning large volumes of water. The natural filtration qualities of turfgrass, wetlands and golf course ponds are helping to serve our communities’ water quality goals while returning that reclaimed resource to the local water table. By assuming this responsibility, golf course operators are actively improving public relations in their immediate community while enabling upgrades to their own products, often at prices that are reduced or even mitigated by the very water management issues those communities are obliged to address.
It’s a fact: the game of golf is working for our communities and the environment. Here are a few great examples of how, both public and private.
The Bridges of Poplar Creek, owned by the Hoffman Estates (Ill.) Park District, is an upscale municipal golf facility built in the late 1970s on what was then rural farmland. With a central creek and several ponds situated throughout the course, water was always a part of Poplar Creek’s identity, but decades of development dramatically increased the volume of water within the course’s watershed, threatening both adjacent landowners and the long-term viability of the golf operations.
Compounding the growing storm water problems, the course became known locally as a “flooder,” closed as many as 10 days a year with annual losses reaching as high as $135,000 (10 percent of annual revenue). A reputation for closing sparked remarks like, “I never book there when rain is in the forecast; there’s too good a chance it will flood.” The tangible revenue losses — and the more damaging impacts of a bad image — were hurting the bottom line.
The park district realized long-term sustainability, a grand mission of the district as a whole, would require significant change and thus committed the necessary funding to pursue a redevelopment strategy focused on expanding on-course water storage capabilities. To accommodate the runoff that routinely flooded the golf holes and upstream properties, ponds were expanded or added and all 18 holes were improved in some capacity — including drainage additions, elevated fairways (above flood levels) and integration of these new waterways into the golf course routing.
Just two months after re-opening, the area received a record rainfall equivalent to a 100-year storm. The renovated golf course was the only one open for play the following morning — a story that has been repeated several times since. The course has also seen increases in play and elevated rates since the renovation and has reduced storm cleanup costs by more than 90 percent (from $35,000 annually to $3,000).
A course renovation project like this would never have been even considered if the larger district and community goals were not served by the project. Over time, adjacent properties also reported less severity in flood levels and much-decreased high-water durations. Since maturing, the acres of filtering wetlands have improved water quality tenfold at the creek’s outlet. Today, The Bridges at Poplar Creek is once again a source of community pride and a vital environmental resource in the region.
New state and federal mandates developed in recent years have sent Wisconsin municipalities looking for places to collect their runoff – specifically vast, open spaces. The purpose? To remove total suspended solids and phosphorus from the water, cleaning it up before it enters state waterways.
A typical urban development located in the Lower Fox River Watershed, the City of Appleton was lacking in available open space that could fulfill these needs, prompting the City Storm Water Department to consider alternative options. Operated by the Parks and Recreation Department, the 115-acre Reid Municipal Golf Course was perfectly positioned in the middle of town and already serving some of the intended function by gathering local runoff via an old concrete channel. The golf course was also in a bit of a lull itself, struggling to make ends meet financially and in need of a spark.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it can also breed collaboration. Working as a united front, the two city departments developed a plan to transform Reid into a giant filtration system, which took two seasons to construct and $4 million to fund. The golf course now holds and cleans up storm water as it enters from the neighboring streets through a series of ponds and a newly naturalized channel dug to replace the old concrete one. This channel is the outlet for nearly 50-acre feet of new flood storage, providing enough space to handle a 100-year storm and then some. In order to facilitate the ponds, several course upgrades were made, including alterations to four holes that now play over and along the new ponds and various other additions using spoils from the pond excavation.
Funding for the project was provided almost entirely by the Storm Water Department, which also factored in compensation for lost rounds and other pro shop revenues during construction, with the Parks and Recreation Department only required to cover the cost of the grow-in. Aside from helping the city be compliant with the water quality mandates, the most encouraging result of the work at Reid has been a significant uptick in golf play and a burst of new life in the local golf economy. All those good vibes are even prompting talks of more course improvements in the coming years.
Courses don’t need to be municipally owned in order to assist the greater public. The private Westmoor Country Club was approached by the City of Brookfield, Wis., several years back about solving a festering water-quality problem — silt, salt and other street debris was running off a particular neighborhood development and degrading the waterways.
Realizing an opportunity to help themselves and their community, the club took control of the remediation effort, creating a filtrating wetland system on their 15th hole that connected to a further series of ponds. The hole required upgrades to accommodate the change and now sports an expanded water feature and attractive stone retaining wall that greatly enhances drainage and visual appeal. The pond work, which fit into a larger renovation effort that was already underway, was funded by the city.
The dirty water passing through this system is now filtered clean before exiting the course and re-entering the city waterways or being re-used by the course’s irrigation system. The naturalized plantings around the pond also serve as a home for bee-keeping pods that pollinate the flowers around the golf course and the surrounding neighborhoods, contributing to the club’s much-strengthened relationship with the community it serves.
Some golf properties take on storm water by obligation and not choice, thus leaving them to deal with the impacts of excess water themselves. City-owned Deerpath Golf Course in Lake Forest, Ill., was built in the early 1920s along a branch of the Skokie River. Acres of watershed from the north flow into the course during major storms, covering as much as 90 percent of the property in the severest of events. A hospital campus — basically a giant slab of concrete and hardtop — sits directly to the west and feeds additional runoff across the course, compounding soil saturation problems.
Historically, even when flood waters receded at Deerpath, it could take days or weeks for the course to dewater, making it difficult to maintain and operate the facility. Golfers stayed away, cart usage stopped, turf died and the course’s reputation suffered. In 2017 alone, the facility reported 41 days of direct revenue impact from closures due to flooding, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in losses.
Searching for answers, the City commissioned a comprehensive master plan to target immediate “revenue-driven solutions” and foster long-term course health. The first phase of that effort, implemented in fall 2017, included a $1.1 million cart path and drainage enhancement project aimed at getting golfers and maintenance equipment back on the course quicker. A full asphalt path system was installed on all 18 holes and underground turf drains fitted in the worst of the saturated areas to aid in moving excess water out of play when the main flood waters recede. The spoils created from digging were used to build several forward tees or piled in containment mounds in upland areas.
The project’s effectiveness was demonstrated immediately. Despite recording three major flood events in 2018, the golf course reportedly lost only six days to closure and experienced no extended cart shutdown. Projected greens fees and cart revenues saw substantial gains from the year prior as well, upwards of $70,000, and turf recovery following the floods was greatly enhanced. Bolstered by these positive gains, golf course management expects to continue with more upgrades over the next several years to continue the pursuit of long-term sustainability.
Could these sorts of projects work on any course, public or private, where the surrounding community is battling water-retention and water-quality issues? The answer is a resounding yes.
With total maximum daily loads and other new directives garnering attention across the country, communities will continue to be on the lookout for places to store and clean their water. Golf is one of the only sports whose playing surfaces are not restricted in shape or design, which makes courses malleable and highly adaptable to this potential change. If courses have the room and are located in the right spot in the watershed, it just makes sense that we employ them in the betterment of our communities and the environment.
Todd Quitno, ASGCA, is the vice president of design for Chicagoland-based Lohmann Quitno Golf Course Architects.
The golf season is at its height in most of North America, meaning crews are busy with ongoing mowing responsibilities. So, what can courses do to ensure their equipment is operating at peak efficiency?
Tony Bevolo is the equipment manager at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas. Bevolo, who has worked in the industry since age 16, stresses the importance of checking mowers on a daily basis. “Bring that machine into the shop and have a skilled technic- ian, or even a superintendent who is very versed in the equipment go through the cutting units daily and adjust the height of cut and the quality of cut or reel to bed knife,” he says.
“I think that plays a real big role because if you let that machine go out and mow a week, a week-and-a-half, two weeks without checking it, you’re developing a big gap between the reel and the bed knife. That tends to dull out a little quicker. It will for sure allow more plant material to get in between the reel and the bed knife and encourage a little bit of ripping or tearing of the turf. That’s when you kind of see ill effects on the quality of cut.”
Bevolo is working with zoysiagrass at Trinity Forest. For that reason, he has all his cutting units on a regular schedule and pays especially close attention to his equipment. “(Zoysia) has a thick, dense, leaf blade that tends to wear out the blade a little faster,” he says.
Nick Testa, a faculty member at SUNY Cobleskill in the Agricultural Engineering Technology Department, is a frequent presenter at industry events and serves as a consultant to numerous golf facilities. He notes that one of his clients provides its staff with individualized checklists for each of its machines. “Before the equipment goes out, they have an inspection check sheet,” Testa says. “Every worker that goes out, whether it’s to do a fairway or greens or tee box or whatever, they have a check list unique to that machine.”
Testa says checking bearings and tolerances should be part of any daily inspection. “Keeping tolerances 1/ to 2/1000th between the bed knife and the reels, no more than 3/1000th for bentgrass, that’s what my rule of thumb has always been,” he says. Make sure the reel stays in its true cylinder shape, no cone shapes, and that all comes from adjustment and all that. In terms of sharpening, certainly you’re going to do spin grinding to get rid of all your gouges and all that and then you’re going to put your relief grind in it.”
Jim McCool is the reel technician at Bellerive Country Club just west of St. Louis. He is constantly monitoring the condition of his equipment. “We don’t actually grind on a regular schedule,” he says. “What we do is we constantly monitor whenever a piece of equipment goes out and comes back in. We check its cutting condition, monitoring everything really, really closely.
“With the greens mowers, every time they come in, I take a file and just touch up the front edge of the bed knife. Just a few swipes. It seems to really help keep things sharp between grindings.”
An industry veteran of three dec-ades, Bellerive equipment manager Chris Rapp is responsible for zoysiagrass fairways and bentgrass greens. Each requires a different strategy.
“The seedheads are actually the worst part about zoysia,” he says. “You can have freshly ground units and it won’t cut those things. Bentgrass, at least the variety we have here, changes personality throughout the season. We try to adjust the setup of the cutting units to (deal with) that.”
Rapp also had to alter his approach in deference to the wet weather he’s encountered this season. “We’ll switch to smooth rollers in the summertime,” he says. “This year, we never did put grooved rollers on them. A grooved roller makes for a little more aggressive cut because it allows the cutting unit to settle down into the turf a little further.
“We haven’t had a lot of good growing days for either the cool- or the warm-season turf, so we’ve had to be pretty gentle on everything and not go over-aggressive on any of the setups.”
Testa notes that not every facility can grind its equipment as often as it would like, but there are ways to maintain the equipment and stick to a budget at the same time.
“One club (where I’m a consultant) will actually pull the reels apart and sharpen three times a year,” he says. “Locally, we have a more of a (lower-budget) course and they sharpen once a year and back blade half a dozen times during a season.”
I’m staring forward on a crisp, Canadian afternoon in early June. I see the corner of a healthy pond protected by a wetland buffer, a pair of tee boxes, multiple tree varieties, a bunker shaped like a reverse tripod and stripes of Poa annua/bentgrass turf.
The sky is blue; the late Sunday afternoon game with strangers from another country is on. The setting makes a Sunday away from family and friends worthwhile.
I’m also staring at a rhino. I’m standing on the first tee of Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario. Oakville is one of Toronto’s southern suburbs. Toronto is the fastest growing metropolitan area in North America.
Yes, like animals and plants, golf courses can become endangered species. Glen Abbey is one of them. ClubLink, the largest owner and operator of golf clubs in links-loving Canada, wants to redevelop the site. A company known for operating golf facilities believes residential and commercial buildings are a better use of the Ontario land than a golf course.
Glen Abbey isn’t a normal golf club. The course has hosted the Canadian Open a record 30 times since opening in 1976, including the 2018 event won by limber golf heavyweight Dustin Johnson. Nearly every big-name player in the last four decades has played a competitive round at Glen Abbey. Jack Nicklaus, who parlayed playing excellence into abundant golf course architecture work, considers Glen Abbey his first solo design. Nicklaus, coincidentally, never won a Canadian Open.
Thousands of Canadians and visitors play Glen Abbey each year. The course allows public play, thus my decision to book a Sunday afternoon tee time while driving to Ontario for a project commencing on a Monday morning. I’m paired with a junior who smacks 300-yard drives and two millennials experiencing a tournament-caliber course for the first time.
We’re overjoyed to be standing on the first tee. We’re unsure if others will be standing on the same tee one, two, five or 10 years from now. My playing partners, who live in the Greater Toronto Area, assure me their family members, friends and neighborhoods want Glen Abbey to remain a golf course.
The legal fight to save Glen Abbey will likely be long and expensive. Officials from the Town of Oakville oppose the development plan. A group called Save Glen Abbey – slogan: “Putters Not Pavement” – formed to protect the golf course. The pro-course crowd touts the site’s role as a greenspace and its historical significance, although calling Glen Abbey “Canada’s most famous golf course” is excessively subjective. Stanley Thompson, after all, executed the bulk of his work in the country.
Glen Abbey represents a high-profile example of the tussle involving golf and development throughout North America. Housing near mega-cities has become scarcer and more expensive. There are billions of financial reasons behind replacing Poa annua with pavement. Even if Glen Abbey, the current home of Canadian golf, avoids extinction, other courses face perilous futures. Redevelopment can happen anywhere, including the places we admire on television. Golf’s environmental, social and fitness charms can become negated when dollar amounts and earning potential are attached to vast acreage. Golf will win some tussles. But redevelopment will continue to throw haymakers at venerable clubs.
Perhaps that’s why I feel obligated to experience Glen Abbey. The first 10 holes sit on a relatively flat slice of suburban land bordered by modern homes and suburban roads. The course takes a dramatic turn on the 11th, a par-4 with an elevated tee shot featuring a 150-foot drop and views of distant high rises. Sixteen Mile Creek bisects the hole, creating strategic decisions on drives and approach shots. I stub a wedge into the creek as kayakers paddle past the course. I laugh, wave and snap a half-dozen pictures of the green.
Four other holes border the creek, yet my round ends on the par-3 12th. With a meeting approaching, the Sunday sun dropping and eight golfers occupying every back-nine hole, I quickly tour the closing stretch.
The crowd and conditions provided by superintendent Andrew Gyba’s team despite a cold, wet April, May and early June suggest a vibrant golf course bracing for decades of special Sundays. Neither the scenery along the creek nor the uncertain future seem real.
I’m staring. I’m inspired by the suburban serenity. I’m concerned about the future of golf courses everywhere. A pleasant place somehow yields precarity.
Juggling her business, Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design, with her presidential duties shouldn’t fluster Bel Jan. The daughter of a superintendent/pro, Bel Jan started improving golf courses as a child, working a variety of maintenance and pro shop jobs to assist her father. “It was a job,” she says, “and it was my life.”
A hectic life experienced a significant change when Bel Jan moved from her native Western Pennsylvania to South Florida to work for Tom Fazio. A registered landscape architect, Bel Jan quickly learned new plant palettes, helping enhance the aesthetics of dozens of courses designed by Fazio and his talented team.
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Bel Jan, who formed her own design firm in 2009, discusses the role of plants on a golf course and numerous other topics, including implementing “scoring” tees and her work with the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, in the podcast, which can be accessed by entering bit.ly/JanBelJan into your browser.
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