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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
BEFORE & AFTER
Hole #3 – Par 4
Hole #4 – Par 3
Hole #8 – Par 3
BOB O’LINK TODAY (click on mosaic images to enlarge)
Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:
- Ian Andrew – Golf Course Architect
- Mike Benkusky – Golf Course Architect
- Justin Carlton – Golf Course Shaper
- Michael Clayton – Golf Course Architect
- Rob Collins – Golf Course Architect
- Mike DeVries – Golf Course Architect
- Kyle Hegland – Golf Course Superintendent
- Brett Hochstein – Golf Course Architect
- Peter Imber – Quogue Field Club Member
- David McLay Kidd – Golf Course Architect
- Jeff Mingay – Golf Course Architect
- Jim Nagle – Golf Course Architect
- Brian Palmer – Golf Course Superintendent
- Keith Rhebb – Golf Course Shaper
- Drew Rogers – Golf Course Architect
- Evan Schiller – Golf Course Photographer
- Shawn Smith – Golf Course Architect
- Andy Staples – Golf Course Architect
- Dave Zinkand – Golf Course Architect
Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf