Geeked on Golf

A Celebration of the People & Places that Make Golf the Greatest Game


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Geek Dad’s Diary – Part 1 (The Best Birthday Gift)

What is your perfect day of golf?  That is one of many questions that golf geeks pose in casual conversation, and it does indeed elicit thought provoking answers, especially when one’s buddies are well traveled.  There’s the obvious: “Getting the magic invite to experience Cypress / Pine Valley” or “Attending Sunday at The Masters”.  There’s the creative: “Playing out to the turn at National, hopping the fence to play Shinnecock, and then playing home on National.”  There’s the masochistic: “All four of the main courses at Bandon on the Summer Solstice.”  There’s the sacred: “A stop by the graves of Old and Young Tom Morris, prior to a twilight round on The Old Course.”  And then there’s the Dad: “Golfing it around my community course with my kids on a lazy afternoon.”

Before my sons became golf crazed, I felt that the Dad answer was a bit poseurish.  The guy doesn’t really mean that he would rather play with his kids than see Cypress, I would think.  He’s just trying to make a point.

I get it now.

My guys have helped me feel and understand where that answer comes from, and I can attest to its authenticity.  There is joy to be found in many places in this great game, but nothing mainlines it for me quite like enjoying golf time with my kids.  It brings me back to happy days, learning the game with my dad and grandpa, while simultaneously pulling me intensely into the present moment the way that few things can.

It is in that spirit that I kick off what will hopefully be a new series – the Geek Dad Diary – in which I will share some of these perfect days.  My hope is that the entries will connect you with the joy of the game, give you a little inspiration, and prompt you to share stories of your own.


THE BEST BIRTHDAY GIFT

GDD1-Boys.JPGIn considering what I wanted for my birthday this year, I couldn’t think of anything more valuable than time with the people I love most.  The boys and I pulled a Ferris Bueller.  I sprung them from school for the day, we fueled up on carbs at Walker Brothers, and headed south to begin a golfy adventure.

PUTTER HEAVEN

Jack has been saving birthday and Christmas money up for a new putter, and what better place to blow a wad on a flatstick than at Chicago’s very own Bettinardi putter studio?

GDD1-JackStudio.jpg

Not only do they make beautiful putters, they also know how to provide an incredible experience for golf geeks.  After watching Jack putt with several different models, our guy Brad took him into the lab and they buckled down.  First, the stroke was analyzed in high def super slow-mo.  Then the putter was tweaked and adjusted until it worked perfectly with Jack’s stroke.  And finally, a grip and cover were selected to add the finishing touches.  Jack is ready to drop bombs this season, and I have a severe case of putter envy.

For icing on the birthday cake, we took a stroll through The Hive to admire the high-end custom putters – unique designs, finishes, inserts, all drool-worthy.

INDOOR WHACKAGE

Our original plan was to grab lunch and high tech whackage at TopGolf, but Mother Nature did not cooperate.  We called an audible, and after a fat burger with our buddy PGKorbs, we headed to the White Pines Golf Dome.

Another buddy, Andrew Fleming from KemperSports has been encouraging me to check the dome out, and now I know why.  The temperature is perfect, and the balls are unlimited.  The dome is 100 yards long, which gives the player a much better sense of ball flight than hitting into a net.  We were hooked.

And then it got better.  The Manager Lane stopped by and invited us to try out the simulator – another first for us.  We played the first 5 holes of The Old Course, and easily could have stayed for several more hours if evening plans weren’t on the books.

The day certainly gave me my fill of golf geekery, along with a full fatherly heart.  Additionally, it confirmed that my boys are ready and willing to go down the golf rabbit hole with me.  That presents interesting possibilities galore.

Plans are already cooking.  Stay tuned for more diary entries to come.


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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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The Next 99 – Scott Pavalko & Jim Urbina at Bob O’Link

This post was a long time in the making.  Like Bob O’Link’s architectural history – first with Ross, then with Alison, and now with Urbina – it involves intertwined threads.

Growing up on the North Shore and caddying at Old Elm Club, I was aware of Bob O’Link, but had never seen or played it.  Fast forward to 2015 and a Golf Club Atlas dinner at which Jim Urbina gave a talk, while in town for the renovation project, introducing me to his perspective on architecture.  In 2016, I played Milwaukee CC and Orchard Lake, which piqued my interest in the work of C.H. Alison.

That same year, I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Pavalko who is a fellow Evanston resident, generous supporter of our efforts at Canal Shores, and all-around good guy.  He had me out to play and we were joined by Green Chairman Joe Burden,  It was a solid geek session, and I loved the course.

After Andy Johnson’s podcast with Jim Urbina, in which Jim’s passion came through so clearly, I decided that the time had come to tie all the threads together.  Scott and Jim graciously agreed to discuss the project and their work.  Enjoy the interview, and Scott’s gorgeous photos.


THE INTERVIEW

How did you get introduced to the game of golf?

SP:  I can’t ever remember a time where I wasn’t around the game of golf.  My father was a Superintendent in Ohio.  Some of my earliest photos of me are of playing around in sand piles or running around in bunkers at the course where he worked.  I fondly remember going back to the course with my dad to check on things in the evening.  He would let me drive the Cushman.

I learned to play from my grandfather.  “Papa” had retired from the US Steel in Youngstown Ohio by the time I was born.  He spent his time playing in muni leagues around Youngstown.  My recollection is that he played at least 6 rounds a week.  His friends called him “Silky” because of his smooth swing, as he regularly shot near par well into his 70’s.  My Dad was also a good player – he was inducted into his High School Hall of Fame for golf and shot a 29 (par 35) just months before beginning his battle with cancer.  Unfortunately, it’s a battle he lost in 2006.

Being a very “blue collar” town, public golf courses outnumbered private courses probably 7 to 1 so; this is how I came to know golf.  There is a great little “Par 3” course in Youngstown that my father managed at one time in his career.  I learned to play there, longest hole 127 yds, shortest hole 61 yds, I think it used to cost $4.75 for residents.  My Dad and I would compete in their annual  2 man team best ball tourney, we won the last time we played.

JU:  I never played golf growing up and Pete Dye who I started my design career with didn’t really care that I played golf; he said it would ruin my creativity as a shaper.  Didn’t start playing golf seriously until I moved to Del-Mar California while building Rancho Santa Fe Farms.

When did you know that the game had a hold on you?

JU:  I rarely kept score when I was just starting out.  I found the Match Play game more to my liking and it kept me interested in the round a lot longer.  We use to play almost every weekend at Torrey Pines; we couldn’t work on Saturdays in Rancho Santa Fe – too many people at home around the golf course construction site on the weekends.

SP:  It wasn’t until I was 20 that I started working on a course with my father at Reserve Run Golf Course in Boardman Ohio.  I was living at home and going to college studying electronics engineering.  I quickly fell in love with the profession.  It probably had something to do with being able to see my Dad as something different than just my old man.  I realized why he had such a passion for his career and saw that he genuinely loved what he did.  This rubbed off on me.  I loved everything about working on a golf course.  Especially being outside and the freedom it presented.  A 150 acre office was hard to beat.

How did you get into the business?

SP:  After finishing my associates degree in electronics, I moved to Columbus Ohio to study Turfgrass Science at Ohio State University.  It was, at that point, the I really knew for certain that I wanted to be a Superintendent.  I loved my classes, I loved learning the science of plants, I loved everything about my time studying turf.  Then, I got hired at Muirfield Village Golf Club.  This changed my whole perspective on what turf maintenance should or could be.  My father’s course was a small public course that was the dream of two retired school teachers.  We had 1 fairway mower, 2 greens mowers and 3 maintenance carts.  Muirfield Village had 30 walking mowers, 10 triplexes for fairways and at least 30 maintenance vehicles.  I had no clue what I was getting in to.  My first Memorial Tournament was a blur and at the end of my first season, Paul B. Latshaw who had just hosted the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, became the Director of Grounds.  From Paul, and Jake Gargasz (who came with Paul from Oak Hill and is now the Superintendent at Crooked Stick) I learned a tremendous amount about preparing for tournaments, construction principles, and general agronomics.  The Muirfield Village aesthetic does not fit everywhere, nor should it, but I am forever grateful for having the opportunity to work there and learn from one of the best Superintendents in the country.

JU:  I had just graduated from college with a teaching degree; since I graduated mid-term I had to wait for job openings for the following school season.  I was going to go back and fight forest fires and work for the state forest service (that was my summer job while going to school), but my soon to be father in-law thought I should work on a golf course while waiting for a teaching job.  He thought that was a much better job, and safer too.

BobOLink-Clubhouse-BW

What got you excited about the opportunity to take on this renovation?

JU:  The chance to restore a classic Alison course was the first and foremost.  After touring Bob O’Link, I realized the potential it would offer the members, and after I met Scott Pavalko I knew his passion to do the right thing was in the right place.  As I have said before, all the moons were in alignment – the golf course had a great chance to be successful.

SP:  The project was a function of need.  I was fortunate enough to be hired at Bob O’Link in February of 2014.  We were in the midst of a historically cold and snowy winter which featured some unbelievable temperature swings that caused turf damage to many golf courses in our region.  Bob O’Link was no exception.  The greens had not been re-grassed in 90 years and as a result, featured a very high percentage of Poa annua.  Poa annua is very susceptible to winter damage.  In spots we had 80% turf loss.

The planning of the project began with a study of the golf course infrastructure.  Bob O’Link is a challenging site due to the fact that a large portion of the golf course lies in a flood plain.  Drainage was one of the most important aspects of the project.  This included greens, tees, fairways, bunkers, rough.  A famous turf professor from Penn State, Dr. Musser used to say, “the three most important things on a golf course are drainage, drainage and more drainage.”  With our soil types, this is definitely true.

What were your goals going into the project?

Bob O’Link had existed for 99 years before our project.  The overarching goal was to improve infrastructure for the next 99 years while taking the opportunity to sympathetically restore Alison’s intended features and strategy.

The goals were as follows:

  • Improve course infrastructure in such a way that the members can experience the course in the best condition for the most days of the season.
  • Add drainage where appropriate
  • Rebuild bunkers so that they can be maintained properly according to the members’ expectations
  • Improve control of the irrigation system so that fairways and greens can be firm while keeping the rough alive during the summer
  • Address Poa annua issues on greens and fairways
  • Obtain a source of irrigation water that is consistent and predictable by drilling a well (previously we were irrigating with water from the Skokie River)

JU:  To recapture the essence of these wonderful green complexes with the extraordinary large bunkers that supported the landform.

BobOLink1-ShortLeft-BW

Describe your process for a renovation of this nature.

SP:  The process really began by studying the current course conditions.  There were quite a few issues that needed to be addressed so that we could provide the level of conditioning that the members desired.  This helped us generate the goals above.

Luckily the Board of Directors had enough foresight to realize that while infrastructure was the driving force of the project, there was an opportunity to bring in a Course Architect to help bring everything together and improve the playability and strategy.

Did historical documentation play any role in your approach to the renovation?

SP:  Yes!  It played a huge role.  We have a 1939 aerial photograph that served as a roadmap for the project.  Jim can likely give more details on how he used that photo to help with bunker placements, grass lines, etc.  I began to use aerial photography right away, even before Jim was hired but not necessarily from the architectural feature standpoint.  I used it to help people understand how the trees had not always been there.

JU:  Yes, aerials played a big part, but really it was the skeleton remains of land forms that help guide our way into the restoration process.  The two greens that were altered by previous renovations were molded in the shape of the other 16 greens at Bob O’Link.

BobOLink10-RightRough-BW

What were C.H. Alison’s strengths as an architect?

JU:  Massive green complexes, massive Bunkers to support the green elevations and the wonderful work of the drainage to make sure no bunker was dug too deep to surface drain even though the golf course was on almost dead flat topography.  Thoughtful viewscapes – a Bob O’Link original

SP:  For me, the scale of Alison’s green complexes is impressive.  By building huge, bold green complexes, he created the illusion of contour on a relatively flat property.

What elements of Alison’s design did you most want to highlight?

JU:  The ability to generate interesting and strategic design elements into these subtle putting green surfaces.  The impression that even though the holes felt like they played in a very narrow straight line corridor, the bunkers made the holes feel like they had movement depending on the line of play.  Holes 3-6 on the front side, and 10,11,13 on the back side are examples.

BobOLink15-ShortRight-BW

Did you run into challenges with the membership before, during, or after the project, and how did you overcome those challenges?

SP:  Given that this was the largest project at Bob O’Link since they hired Alison to redesign the original Ross course in 1924, there were certainly challenges.  I’ll just say that the Board of Directors of the club did a fantastic job of holding focus groups and getting feedback from the members.  Jim came several times to walk the course and answer questions.  Ultimately, we tried to complete a project that would allow the club to be successful for the next 100 years. We created a detailed book that was distributed to the members To explain the details of the project, but as you can imagine, this was a significant change that required a lot of faith in the Board of Directors, and they delivered.

How will the renovation impact ongoing maintenance needs and costs?

SP:  For the members of Bob O’Link, they really want the best possible conditions on a daily basis.  So improving quality, not necessarily saving money, was the primary goal of our project.  That said, having new bentgrass turf, far fewer shade and tree root competition issues, USGA greens, well-constructed bunkers, and a drainage system that can handle large rainfalls, has certainly allowed us to cut back on chemical and fertilizer applications as well as redirect labor toward continuing course improvement vs maintaining the status quo.  Additionally we are in the process of converting some areas of mowed rough to un-mowed fine fescue which will eventually lead to lower water usage and labor mowing.  Our new irrigation system allows us to apply water where we need it and not where we don’t.  We really emphasize firmness over green, lush conditions, but we have the ability to keep the turf sufficiently healthy to withstand golfer traffic.

What makes you the proudest about the new Bob O’Link?

SP:  I am proud to have been a part of such an impactful project.  Working with Jim Urbina, Leibold Irrigation (our course builder), Joe Valenti (club president), Joe Burden (Chairman, Green Committee), Dan Watters (Head Golf Professional), and all others involved in the project has been the most rewarding event in my career.  I am proud and honored that the club leadership trusted me to help lead them through this project.

BobOLink18-ApproachLeft-BW

What do you respect most about your collaborator?

JU:  Scott is a professional if every sense of the word.  He respected my wishes and understood what Alison stood for in the world of golf course design.  Without a Course Superintendent who appreciates the Golden Age of design, the history that he been entrusted with, and most importantly the ability to adapt the science with strategy, we would have not been so successful.

SP:  Jim is a great listener.  He has taught me more about architecture than I ever knew existed.  But most of all, he is never afraid to give credit to others.  As a world-renowned golf course architect, it would be easy to develop some ego, Jim has none.  He would more quickly give credit to the laborers installing sod than take it himself.

What do you love about practicing your craft?

SP:  There are so many things I love about my job.  The different challenges that each day presents: working with Mother Nature (sometimes against her); balancing the art of presenting a golf course with the science of plants; teaching and coaching young people who desire to become superintendents; seeing the sunrise every morning and seeing the sun set some evenings; being able to come to work with my dog; the sense of accomplishment when you and your team successfully solve a problem; meeting so many different types of people that are passionate about golf for different reasons – it’s really an amazing career and a labor of love.

JU:  I get to work outside, I have studied books and seen almost every golf course of architectural significance, and I get to meet wonderful people who share the same love of the game.  Crafting works of art on 150-acre canvases that people get to experience walking and playing in 3-dimensional form.  For all of that I get to call what I do my JOB – hardly a job, more like hobby!


THE PROJECT IN PICTURES

While addressing the infrastructural needs of the course, Jim, Scott and their crew transformed the way Bob O’Link looks and plays.  What was once a somewhat nondescript course in a crowded golf neighborhood, is now a standout – Golden Age strategy and feel, with artistic flourishes, all impeccably presented.

Scott generously provided the photos below, which present a photographic record of Bob O’Link’s rebirth.  For even more on the renovation, read Scott’s article in GCM Magazine here.

(click on mosaic images to enlarge)

THE BUILD

BobOLink-UrbinaBunkerConcept

Jim explains a bunker concept to the Shaper

BobOLink3-BunkerConstruction

Bunkers under construction

BobOLink5-UrbinaGreenConcept

Jim explaining a green concept to the team

BobOLink6-GreenBunkerShaping

Greenside bunker shaping

BobOLink-UrbinaGrassLines

Talking grass lines

THE TUNE-UP

BobOLink1-GreenTopdressing

Topdressing the new 1st green

BobOLink7-MowingRunins

Mowing run-ins on the 7th

BobOLink9-BunkerShortUrbina

Jim surveying the finished product on the 9th

BobOLink10-Short

Hand watering short of the 10th green

BEFORE & AFTER

BobOLink-Aerial1939

1939 aerial, open with bold features

BobOLink-Aerial2011

2011 aerial, choked with trees

BobOLink-Aerial2018

2018 aerial, with Alison’s intent restored

Hole #3 – Par 4 

Hole #4 – Par 3

Hole #8 – Par 3

BOB O’LINK TODAY (click on mosaic images to enlarge)

 


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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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Musings on Greenkeeping

Okay, that title is a bit click-baity.  These musings are not exactly about greenkeeping.  I know only enough to be dangerous.  What I do know with certainty is that a Golf Course Superintendent’s job is hard.

I have the good fortune of counting among my friends quite a few greenkeepers.  I watch them work and am perpetually impressed by how they pour their hearts into their work.  We players reap the rewards.  The following musings are tips intended to help players be significantly cooler than they often are to their Superintendents.  Necessarily, the tone of these musings is a bit preachy.  Forgive me – some folks need a tough love talking-to.

TIP #1 – Say “Thank You”

When you see your Super out on the course, if you really want to interrupt their work to have a chat, be cool.  Comments like, “Thanks for the hard work”, and “The course is playing great today”, and “How’s the family?” are appropriate.  Your critique of the course conditions that day are not.  Two reasons why.  The first is that feedback gathering is what your Green Chairman is for.  They take it all in, filter, prioritize and collaborate with your Superintendent to present the best conditions possible.  If your course is overseen by a benevolent dictator like my home course, then save your breath.  The second, and much more important reason, is that a Superintendent out on the course is a person in their happy place.  Just like you when you are playing.  They aren’t on the course to provide mobile suggestion box accessibility services for you.  It would be inappropriate and rude for a member of the maintenance crew to roll up and give you feedback on your swing sequence in the middle of the round.  See where I’m going with this?

In the unlikely event that your observations are so mission critical that the normal channels just won’t cut it, then make an appointment to talk to your Super.  Perhaps even buy them lunch.  Seem like too much trouble?  Then just stick to “Thank you”.

TIP #2 – You Don’t Know Greenkeeping

Perhaps you are a great businessperson, lawyer, doctor, or other professional.  I celebrate your success, truly and sincerely.  Your profession is not greenkeeping though, and whatever expertise you may have does not translate to agronomy and golf course maintenance.  Further, being good at hitting a golf ball does not mean that you know anything about doing the Superintendent’s job.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that players can’t tell the difference between good and poor conditions, and I am not saying that all Superintendents do a great job all the time.  What I am saying is that identifying problems is the easy part.  If you’ve noticed, they already have too.  What to do about those problems is an entirely different matter about which most players have no clue.  It’s therefore best to have some humility, let the experts do their job, and enjoy your round.

TIP #3 – Fast vs. True

Issues with pace of play and enjoyment of the game associated with stimpmeter obsession and the push for faster greens are well documented.  The truth is that most players are not skilled enough to handle greens much over 10 anyway, so stop asking your Super for those PGA Tour conditions.  Pushing the greens for speed increases cost, stresses turf, and makes your Superintendent’s job more difficult.  All for ego.  Golf is hard enough without those extra half-dozen three putts, as well as the lasting mental anguish for both you and your playing partners who had to watch.

What we should be asking for are putting surfaces that roll true.  There is a difference between fast and true, and the latter is ideal for almost all players.  Don’t you want to make more putts?  Of course you do.  Change your ask, and your Superintendent will happily oblige.  The turf will be happier too.

TIP #4 – Embrace the Seasons

Regardless of where you live, changing weather patterns affect your golf course.  Think of these patterns as seasons, and embrace seasonal changes.  The changes mean variety, and variety is the essence of golf’s goodness.

Your course is not supposed to look and play the same every day.  Expecting your Superintendent to deliver the same conditions rain or shine, monsoon or drought, spring, summer, and fall is an impossible standard.  You’ll stress out the staff, and waste money and resources in the process.  Instead, remember that part of the beauty of golf is that it takes us outside to get in touch with nature in all its varied glory.  Natural playing conditions, depending on the weather and season, are the standard that we should desire.

TIP #5 – The Course is for Playing

Golf courses are things of beauty.  They are a blend of art and science, and they are a joy to look at.  However, let’s not forget that a golf course is fundamentally a field of play.  It is for playing, first and foremost, and there are times when the best playing conditions might not be generally accepted as the prettiest.

Your Superintendent’s job is to provide the best possible playing surfaces.  If those surfaces can be pretty too, that’s great.  But if something has to give, give up the looks for the playability.  What is the point of a pretty green fairway if your drive plugs when it lands?  What is the point of having pretty trees and flowers if they detract from having the resources necessary to deliver putting surfaces that roll true?  Gardens are for pretty.  Courses are for play.

TIP #6 – Resources Must Match Expectations

In the unlikely event that you are reading this post while wearing your Augusta National member’s jacket, congrats.  Couldn’t be happier for you and the unlimited resources you are able to give to your Superintendent.  For everyone else, your course is not Augusta, and does not have those resources.

Do you know what your course’s maintenance budget is?  Do you know how that budget compares to other courses you play or see?  It’s helpful to know these numbers to give context to your expectations.  We all want our Superintendents to get the highest level of quality out of the resources they have.  Fair enough.  The best Supers are indeed miracle workers with stretching dollars and man hours.  The bottom line is that our expectations for playing conditions need to be reasonably aligned with available resources.

You on a beer budget?  Brother, you ain’t drinking champagne.

Go Out and Play

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Just a few simple tips to give you the right mindset to actually be a friend to your Greenkeeper.  Practice it like your short game, and your time on the course will feel more like the privilege that it is.

During your time off the course, if you want to enhance your perspective by learning the basics of golf course architecture, I recommend Andy Johnson’s Architecture 101 series on The Fried Egg, and his podcast with Tom Doak.  To dive even deeper, grab yourself a book off the Geek’s Library shelves.


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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf