The past decade has seen a number of wonderful renovations of classic golf courses – Philadelphia Cricket Club, Moraine CC, Cal Club, Orchard Lake CC and others are exciting for golf geeks at several levels. One in particular has risen to the top of my radar as I have watched it unfold from a distance.
While doing a previous interview with Andy Staples, I learned that he would be renovating Meadowbrook County Club. It was founded in 1916 and received attention from Willie Park Jr and Donald Ross. Over the years, much of that Golden Age character had been lost, and Andy was charged with bringing back that spirit in a modern form. The possibilities had me intrigued.
Andy Staples and Assistant Superintendent Andy O’Haver did a great job of sharing updates as the renovation unfolded, and with every photo and video, my excitement grew (I highly recommend following them both Andy Staples @buildsmartrgolf and Andy O’Haver @andyohaver).
Give his role as a project lead, I’m hoping to be able to add some of Andy O’Haver’s thoughts here at some point. In the meantime, Andy did an interesting interview with Dave Wilber from TurfNet.
Many thanks to the Andys for sharing their outstanding work with us. Thanks to Brian Walters for permitting the use of his beautiful photos of Meadowbrook. Enjoy!
ANDY STAPLES ON THE MEADOWBROOK RENOVATION
What got you excited about the opportunity to take on this renovation?
To be able to get back to the Midwest and work with such great people probably tops the list. Working in the Metro area where there is such a strong portfolio of historic courses is a big one. And no doubt, getting the chance to help direct a 100-year old club with such a cool design lineage in addition to its fabulous tournament history. Ben Hogan holed out for 2 on #18 on back to back days during the ’58 Motor City Open for crying out loud! This place is really cool, and I’m honored to have had the chance to work here.
Describe your process for a renovation project of this nature.
I guess I would narrow my process down to two words: communication and trust. Much of what we did at Meadowbrook came down to giving the membership the feeling of being a part of the process and that they could trust me to guide them through the entire renovation. All clients want to know that you’ve been here before and that the project is going to turn out great. Earning everyone’s trust is a very concerted effort over the life of the project, and it’s my job to give them the confidence that we’ll give them something to be proud of. I think this connection with the general membership and the staff is the reason we were able to achieve 74% approval to close their golf course in the first place. This is huge for a club in Detroit. Many people said we couldn’t do it, but in the end, we did; and we did it on time and under budget.
Did you have any design or construction documentation from Willie Park Jr.? If so, to what degree did it influence the work?
Unfortunately no; the club did not have any documentation. They did have very detailed notes in their Club minutes dating back to when the club hired Park, and they have a number of newspaper articles stating when they commissioned Park to design their course. But no, they didn’t have any of Park’s original plans or notes. They began construction in 1916, but for financial reasons, the Club was only able to complete the first 6 holes of Park’s 18 hole routing. So really, MCC is only a 6 hole Park course. Collis & Daray assisted the Club in 1921 and expanded it to 18 holes. I can only imagine this connection happened in some way through Chicago and by way of Park’s eventual work at Olympia Fields. Then in the 30’s Ross came through, and changed the 18th green (which we think was an original Park green), so we started with only had 5 original Park greens. Ross also renovated the 12th green. Interestingly, Tillinghast made a visit on behalf of the PGA in 1936, of which only minor modifications, if any, were made. The rest of the course was a mix of Collis & Daray, Art Hills, and Jerry Mathews.
The Club felt that maintaining a connection to Park’s original design was important. So, we visited and studied as many of his other courses as possible to get a sense of what Park was creating when he came back to America in 1916, and we attempted to integrate his known built work into our plan. This was an interesting process. Many of us on the design team made these visits, and we collectively shared each other’s thoughts on how Park’s design philosophy related to Meadowbrook. We visited Battle Creek, perhaps the best reflection of Park’s work in the area. We visited a handful of others in the area as well as on the east coast. But the really exciting part of our research was seeing Park’s work at Sunningdale and Huntercombe in England.
When we arrived at Huntercombe, we knew this was a place that needed to be a major aspect of our work at Meadowbrook. Since Park personally owned Huntercombe (which, in fact, played an interesting role in Park deciding to come to America and practice golf architecture full time), we felt it reflected much of what Park liked in golf architecture, or at least what we think he liked. We understood that it was a bit of his proving grounds, but there was just too much good stuff to not bring back to our work in the States. Drainage ditches, grass bunkers (“willie park pots” as they call them at Huntercombe), varied putting green design, etc., seemed to reflect exactly what we were looking to do. And, it was a bit different than the courses we were seeing in the US. One of the things I’ve noticed about Park, is that his courses revolve around his green design and dictate his routings, even if it means there is a bit of awkwardness in the flow. And this seemed to be evident in Meadowbrook.
What were your goals going into the project?
The entire discussion of master planning and renovation began when the Club was affected by the DuPont situation that killed many of their trees. At this point, the Club realized they needed some outside help. Then, the winter of 2014 happened, and most every poa green in the Metro area was affected in some way by severe ice damage. This then began an entirely new discussion of putting green construction, bentgrass versus poa annua turf and overall site drainage. So, when it came time to come to the membership with a plan, we identified these three goals:
- Sustainability in turf types and maintenance
- Improve drainage and playability
- Maximize the overall property
In a renovation like this, how much weight do playability and functionality carry respectively?
I’d say both are imperative. Playability is what everyone sees or experiences, and much of functionality is invisible, or underground. The longevity of a course lies in making sure each are equally attributed. It really is a balance since most of how golf architecture is perceived, comes from what one sees and experiences. Players assume the functionality is there, but rarely do they understand what that means.
What were the biggest changes you made?
The largest change I would say is the maximization of the property. A slight rerouting of holes 5, 6, and 7 and a slight adjustment to hole 11 and 12 tees really improved the flow of the course, as well as allowing a player to experience the course differently than if they were to just simply walk the property. The look and feel of the course is very different in that most of the greens are square-ish in nature, and all the bunkers were rebuilt to more of a grass faced, flat sand bottom style. And, with the introduction of more short grass, there are many more ways to play each hole, with a great variety of short game alternatives and recovery shots. The rest of the holes utilized the existing corridors, with minor modifications in the teeing grounds or green locations.
Another significant addition to the course is an increase in the fairway width, and the introduction of short grass chipping swales on nearly every green. We tried to balance the ability to challenge different angles of approach to the greens by giving the players more chances to find the fairway, albeit, not always from the best angle of play. We also balanced the short grass areas with traditional rough, not only around the greens but in strategic areas in the fairways. I think the increase in variety of shots is a major improvement from how the course played prior to the renovation.
The final change came in the form of different teeing lengths based on actual swing speeds; you’ll see yardages as low as 4,000 yards. We also have sets of tees at 4,800 and 5,100 yards. I think this positions the club well as it continues to market to families and beginners into the future.
Did you take any creative risks along the way?
I hope so. Bringing the “Huntercombe” style to Detroit was a fairly sizable leap of faith by the Club and its committee. There are a few greens now that really challenge a player’s thought process of not only how to play a particular shot, but also through visually giving them something they may not have seen before. My hope is the course will continue to reveal itself over multiple rounds, and if my experience proves out, some of the greens will catch people by surprise. The 3rd green will be one that most people will notice (inspired by the 4th green at Huntercombe). The internal green contours are also something that we feel we pushed the limits on.
I have to give much credit to Scott Clem, our design shaper, in this area. He really helped push the creative envelope on how these greens were going to play, and receive shots. We also spent a lot of time walking around the edges to think about a player’s recovery if the green is missed. To me, this is the area that really separates the best courses – how a player feels as they manage their way around the course, and how interesting the set of greens are.
Did you run into challenges with the membership before, during, or after the project, and how did you overcome those challenges?
Actually, the biggest challenge with the membership was to keep them off the course when they started to see green grass again! This membership absolutely LOVES their golf, but gave me no challenges once we began construction. If there was any “challenge” regarding the membership, it would be to get them to agree that it was best to close the course for a year to get the project done at once. But this isn’t unique to Meadowbrook. I feel the way we overcame this was by clearly communicating our vision of what this place would be. And, by having a solid committee, a great General Manager in Joe Marini, and a great greens staff like Mike Edgerton and Brian Hilfinger, it made it all the more manageable. It was a great team.
Logistically, a challenge during construction was to keep the contours of the Park and Ross greens intact, even though we were converting them to a USGA green section. This was a cool process, and was handled very well by TDI, Inc., the golf course contractor. First, we surveyed all the greens prior to construction. As we progressed through the installation, we didn’t touch any of the greens surfaces we were trying to preserve, and surveyed them again by a ‘total station’ greens scan which produced millions of data points and a 1-inch contour map. Then, once the top grade was established, the entire excavation was surveyed, measuring each elevation down to the subgrade, then up to the drainage, gravel, and greens mix. Each green was quality checked to an 1/8-inch tolerance, and each was finished by hand with a rake and shovel. Very little equipment was used in the final floating of the surfaces. This process started slow, but picked up speed to the point we feel was a fast as possible without adding any time to the schedule.
Another logistical challenge happened around the design of the tees. It’s easy to say we want a variety of lengths for different types of golfers, but it’s really hard not to have 6, 8 or even 10 individual tees on every hole! Having this many tees on each hole can have a serious negative affect on how the hole looks from the back sets of tees. So, we looked for ways to integrate combo sets, and even make the teeing ground a little smaller in some places, knowing we were trying to spread out the play across multiple sets of tees.
How will the renovation impact ongoing maintenance needs and costs?
You had to ask this question, didn’t you! Maintenance costs are going to be in line with the other clubs in the area, which is slightly more than where they were when we began the project. The main reason for this is the increase of bentgrass areas by around 10 acres. Actual putting green area stayed the same size, but were converted to the bentgrass Pure Distinction. The bunkers are likely to be a bit of a learning exercise, not only in terms of the maintenance practices, but also the expectations of the membership. I’m planning to push the Club to keep them a little rough around the edges, which should, in theory, offset the increase of handwork. We’ve also converted 25 acres of maintained turf to natural fescue area.
Overall, the Club was committed to taking the course to a new level in terms of look and playability, and have committed to do whatever was necessary to get the course in the shape we all envisioned from the beginning. Oh, and did I mention their membership is full? This is a great place for Meadowbrook to be at this point in time in the golf market.
What makes you the proudest about the new Meadowbrook?
I’m proudest of the fact that this membership entrusted me with directing their long range Master Plan, and that they voted overwhelmingly in support of closing the course for an entire year. This is really cool, given that these types of projects don’t come around very often (anymore!). I’m also proud to see how stoked the membership is toward the new course. These guys are just chomping at the bit to play the place! We’ve given tours all summer and into the fall, and everyone has been so complimentary. This reaction is incredible by all accounts.
What do you respect about Andy O’Haver?
I love O’Haver’s appreciation for the architecture. Not just the actual design features, but his appreciation for the way the architecture is supposed to play. He likes to say: “It’s just grass, buuu-ddy (in his best Pauli Shore voice)!” I think many more clubs would be better off if it was acceptable to lose a little grass now and then in an effort to make the course play right, and he gets this. The idea of a superintendent being able to provide perfect conditions, with very little room for error, or god forbid with any experimentation, is just unbelievable; unfathomable, really. Add to this a new course, with new turf, in a new environment, and it’s really unbelievable these guys can provide the conditions they do, day in and day out. From my perspective, he has 2-3 seasons to get it where we want it. I just hope the membership agrees with that!
MEADOWBROOK COUNTRY CLUB
Andy Staples provided me with some photos from throughout the renovation process, which are soul stirring. For a much more in-depth hole-by-hole analysis of the project, follow Ben Cowan’s terrific thread on GolfClubAtlas.
(click on images below to enlarge)
HOLE #1 – Par 4
The opener is a par-4 with a slightly angled tee shot that plays uphill to its new green fronted by bunkers.
HOLE #2 – Par 5
The second is a three-shotter that plays over rolling land up to an elevated green with a classic false front.
HOLE #3 – Par 4
The third is inspired by a Willie Park Jr. template, doglegging right into one of the coolest greens you’ll ever see.
HOLE #4 – Par 5
The fourth is a three-shotter that gently turns left, finishing with a cape-style approach.
HOLE #5 – Par 4
The fifth plays up over a hill and back down into an artful punchbowl green.
HOLE #6 – Par 3
The sixth is a new one-shotter with a green set against the side of a hill.
HOLE #7 – Par 4
The seventh plays over a pond and hill and then turns right to head down into a green that allows approach from the air or along the ground.
HOLE #8 – Par 3
The eighth plays over water to a classic green surrounded by bunkers.
HOLE #9 – Par 4
The ninth is a par-4 that plays over a ditch, doglegs right, and then heads back to the clubhouse.
HOLE #10 – Par 4
The tenth plays out past Ross-style mounds and then down to a deep green guarded by a tree left and bunker right.
HOLE #11 – Par 3
The eleventh plays downhill to a green set amidst a minefield of chocolate drops and surrounded by glorious contours.
HOLE #12 – Par 4
The twelfth is as a stout dogleg left that plays to an angled green that flows out the back to a rumpled chipping area.
HOLE #13 – Par 3
The thirteenth is a one-shotter that plays down to a green fronted by imposing grass-faced bunkers.
HOLE #14 – Par 4
The fourteenth is a short par-4 that asks the player to navigate centerline hazards.
HOLE #15 – Par 4
The fifteenth play side by side with the 16th over gently undulating terrain, to a green set down in a hollow.
HOLE #16 – Par 4
This sixteenth is a understated, straightaway par-4 that turns back and heads away from the clubhouse toward the 14th.
HOLE #17 – Par 5
The penultimate hole is a three-shotter that plays to yet another wonderful squarish green surrounded by bunkers.
HOLE #18 – Par 4
The closer is a par-4 that makes one final demand of the player to navigate bunkers on the way to a green set in the shadow of the clubhouse.
Congratulations to Andy Staples, Shaper Scott Clem, Superintendent Jared Milner, Assistants Andy O’Haver and Brian Hilfinger, and the rest of the crew that made this outstanding transformation happen. And further, congratulations to the membership at Meadowbrook whose boldness and trust will be rewarded with a truly special golf course on which they can enjoy the spirit of the game for years to come.