WESTMORELAND COUNTRY CLUB
An Interview & Course Tour
On the way from my house to the highway sits Westmoreland Country Club. For years, I drove by and peeked through the fence at the course, with its gorgeous clubhouse overlooking the perfect green fairways. When I finally had the good fortune to play Westmoreland, it was a treat to spend an afternoon experiencing first-hand what I had so long seen only from the road. The course was nice, with a few neat holes and greens, and the conditioning produced by Superintendent Todd Fyffe and his team was second to none. Was there anything that set it apart from the numerous other terrific country clubs around Chicago? Truth be told, not really.
This is the challenge for clubs in a town so deep in good golf courses. How to be truly great, while continuing to serve the needs of the existing membership. The leadership of Westmoreland must have been wrestling with that same question, because last year a renovation of the course began under the direction of golf course architect Shawn Smith. The bunkering was being completely overhauled, and the pictures that began to pop up on Twitter were attention grabbing to say the least.
Shawn and Todd were kind enough to invite me out for a walk around the course this spring as construction was nearing completion. Shawn shared his thoughts on the bunker style change – bold and strategic, but with a classic vibe. He also shared about the architectural history of the course, which is somewhat murky, but includes work by A.W. Tillinghast. Shawn, Todd and the club’s leadership are clearly intent on recapturing that Golden Age feel, and thus far they are succeeding.
The bunker work has been complemented with fairway expansion and the tweaking of grass lines. Trees are slowly coming down, opening up vistas and improving turf health, and new fescue areas are being established that will create a beautiful color contrast.
How can a club set its course apart in a crowded field of solid quality courses? A return visit to play Westmoreland a few weeks back would suggest that they have found their answer. As the refinement continues and the new work matures, it will only get better. And who knows, Shawn might just have a trick or two left in his Golden Age bag.
I am very much looking forward to repeat plays in the coming years. In the meantime, Shawn and Todd have been gracious enough to share more of their perspective (Todd’s answers are coming soon), and I created a hole-by-hole tour for those who have not yet seen the new Westmoreland. Enjoy!
INTERVIEW WITH ARCHITECT SHAWN SMITH & SUPERINTENDENT TODD FYFFE
How did you get introduced to the game of golf?
SHAWN SMITH: I grew up in Laurel, Montana, a small town of about 7,000 people and we lived a couple farm fields away from the golf course. My parents first introduced me to the game when I was six but it was pretty casual, consisting of me banging a 7-iron down the fairway 90 yards at a time. I started to take it more seriously when I turned eleven and began playing in local junior golf tournaments.
When did you know that the game had a hold on you?
SS: The summer that I turned eleven, my dad signed me up for my first junior golf tournament and I quickly discovered how much I enjoyed the game. From that point forward, most of my free time was spent on the golf course. During the summer, I would spend most days from sun up to sun on the golf course.
How did you get into the business?
SS: Growing up, I always enjoyed drawing and being creative. In the mid-1980s when I was in my early teens, I became aware of the profession of golf course architecture and it seemed like the perfect blend of my creative side with my love of the game. From that point on I began chasing the dream – I read everything I could get my hands on about golf course architecture, worked in the pro shop and on the grounds crew of my local course to better understand that side of the business, interned for a local landscape architect who also dabbled in golf course design, attended Washington State University where I received a degree in Landscape Architecture and spent a year working golf course construction in Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1998, I was brought on as a design associate for Arthur Hills and Associates (currently Hills & Forrest) and became a principal in 2010.
What got you excited about the opportunity to take on this renovation?
SS: Westmoreland Country Club has a rich history that dates back to 1911 and includes architectural contributions by Willie Watson, William Langford and A.W. Tillinghast. When you visit the Club, it has a vibe that is consistent with many of the great old golf courses built during that era. From the iconic Colonial Williamsburg clubhouse to the beautifully contoured greens, it just looks and feels like a course that has been around for over a century. The exception to this was the bunkering which, prior to the most recent work, had been rebuilt a number of times over the years and had taken on a character that wasn’t consistent with the rest of the golf course. What I was most excited about with this renovation was the opportunity to recapture a bunker character with straighter, simpler lines that was more consistent with the other classic architectural features that already existed.
Describe your process for a renovation of this nature.
SS: The first thing we do with any renovation is to meet with the Club to determine their goals and objectives. From there, we go to work studying the golf course. We spend a couple days walking the course, establishing an inventory that identifies its strengths and weaknesses. We meet with the superintendent and other key individuals at the club to get there perspective. If its an older course, like Westmoreland, we spend time researching the history of the course to better understand the original architecture and how it may have evolved over the years. From there, we take all the compiled information and develop a plan for improvements which we present to the green committee. Based on their feedback, we make any necessary revisions to the plan so that we have a consensus going forward. When the Club chooses to implement the plan, we prepare construction drawings, facilitate the bid process and help the Club select a contractor to complete the work. In the case of Westmoreland, they have worked with Leibold on most of their projects over the years so there really wasn’t a formal bid process. Once construction begins, we make site visits to review the construction and recommend any field modifications to ensure that the design intent is met. The frequency of the visits varies depending on the stage of construction and how quickly it is progressing. At Westmoreland, I was making 1-2 day site visits weekly for the better part of four months (Oct., Nov., April & May).
Did historical documentation play any role in your approach to the renovation?
SS: We had an aerial photograph from 1938 along with a handful of other ground and oblique photos from that timeframe. The original bunkering in the 1938 aerial consisted of massive bunkers that were mostly out-of-play. It simply wasn’t practical to restore the bunkers to their original design. We did however use the photographs to educate the membership about how many trees had been planted over the years. The old photos, which showed far fewer trees, supported our recommendation to implement a tree management plan. The plan focuses on returning to a native plant palette of deciduous hardwoods and creating more of an open character which highlights specimen trees and accentuates shared views and vistas across the golf course.
What were your goals going into the project?
SS: The project originally just began as a bunker renovation and evolved into rebuilding, squaring up tees, widening/straightening fairways and a tree management plan. These were the original goals of the bunker project:
- Improve the aesthetics of the bunkers by creating a style and character that is consistent with early 20th century architecture and the other classic features found on the course.
- Improve the strategy of the bunkers by creating risk/reward relationships that encourage thoughtful play and make the holes more interesting.
- Improve the playability of the course by positioning bunkers where they challenge better players without undulling penalizing the weaker players.
- Improve the infrastructure of the bunkers so that they drain properly, are easier to maintain and provide consistent playing conditions for the membership.
How did you decide on the bold bunker style?
SS: We knew early on that restoring the original bunkering wasn’t practical so we chose to create a bunker style that was consistent with the era Westmoreland was originally built. Ultimately, we decided to draw inspiration from the trench-style bunkering of C.B. McDonald and Seth Raynor which has strong roots in the Chicago area.
In a renovation like this, how much weight do playability and functionality carry respectively?
SS: A large part of our effort in rebuilding the bunkers was to reposition them (especially the fairway bunkering) so that they challenged the better players without unnecessarily penalizing the weaker players. In many instances, we shifted existing fairway bunkers farther down the hole or added bunkers at the far end of the landing area that could only be reached by the better players. We widened most of the fairways to 40 yards+/-, especially in the areas leading up to the fairway bunkers where shorter hitters would tend to hit their tee shots. At the greens, we reposition a number of bunkers and realigned fairways to create wider approaches that would allow for a shot to be run onto the green. By repositioning the bunkers and widening the fairways and approaches, we were able to make the holes more strategic and thought provoking for the better players and at the same time more playable for the lesser skilled golfer.
Did you run into challenges with the membership before, during, or after the project, and how did you overcome those challenges?
SS: A year prior to the project, the Club rebuilt two of the bunkers on the short game area to help educate the membership on what the new bunkers would look like and how they would play. This turned out to a great decision as it was instrumental in helping to gain the membership’s support for the project.
For the most part, I dealt directly with Todd and the Long Range Planning Committee. Throughout the project, they were great to work with and were very enthusiastic about the initial plan we presented. There were a couple holes were we were asked to adjust the bunker placement but they were minor. As with any project, once we got into construction, there were some minor tweaks that needed to be made and we worked closely with Todd and the committee’s leadership to make those changes.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle we had during the project came toward the end when we recommended removing a few trees as part of an overall tree management plan. Through a series of presentations to the Long Range Committee, the Board and then finally the membership, we carefully explained the rationale for our recommendation. It began with a detailed analysis of the early photographs of the golf course showing the numerous trees that had been planted over the years. We explained the challenges that trees create from an agronomic, aesthetic and playability standpoint. And, we included a comprehensive look at the trend in the industry, especially with classic golf courses built during the early 20th century, to remove trees and restore more of an open character with only a few specimen trees.
Describe your approach to tree management going forward.
SS: The long term objective of the tree management plan is to eliminate non-native and ornamental trees so that we can highlight specimen hardwood deciduous trees and return the golf course to more of an open feel. At the same time, we plan to create a dense plant buffer on the perimeter so that we can screen unwanted offsite views.
In addition to the tree management plan, we have identified 15 acres that we plan to convert to native fescue areas. We believe the combination of the bunker improvements along with the approach proposed for the trees and native areas will provide a look and feel that is very much consistent with a golf course that was built during the golden age of design.
How will the renovation impact ongoing maintenance needs and costs?
SS: Todd may be the better person to ask this question but one of the neat byproducts of the trench bunker style was the fact that we were able to significantly decrease the total bunker square footage on the golf course which should reduce the time spent maintaining the bunkers. Prior to the renovation, the course had 57 bunkers totaling 83,275 square feet. With the new bunkers, we increased the number to 66 but the total square footage was cut by a 1/3 to 56,620 square feet. Additionally, the flat floors and the Better Billy Bunker construction method should all but eliminate washouts following a rain event.
What makes you the proudest about the new Westmoreland?
SS: I am most proud of the transformation we were able to make to the character of the golf course. We took bunkering and fairway lines that were out of place on a golf course of this age and made them match the other classic elements of the golf course. It instantly made the golf course look and feel 100 years older!
What do you respect most about your collaborator?
SS: This project afforded me the opportunity to spend a lot of time on site and see firsthand all the hard work that Todd and his staff put into providing impeccable conditions for the membership. At the same time, they were also instrumental during the renovation, taking on significant portions of the work in-house. Todd is extremely knowledgeable when it comes getting the most out of the golf course but what I respect the most about him is his drive to improve. He is continually talking to his peers, trying to learn and get better at his craft and is not afraid to try new things or implement new ideas in the quest to get better. I’m looking forward to seeing how the improvements we made mature under his stewardship.
What do you love about practicing your craft?
SS: The aspect about design that I love the most is the creative process; taking an idea, refining it, building it and ultimately seeing people enjoy it.
WESTMORELAND CC COURSE TOUR
The classic experience begins at Westmoreland at the clubhouse, which might be the most underrated in Chicagoland. The opening holes on both nines play down away from the clubhouse, and their tees are tied beautifully together by the putting green and closely mown bentgrass surrounds.
Hole #1 – Par 4 – 331 yards
The opener is a short, slight dogleg right that plays downhill. The player is confronted with the first of many strategic decisions as the bunkers on the left are reachable. Positioning is the key to scoring on the 1st, and throughout WCC.
Hole #2 – Par 4 – 388 yards
The 2nd is a straight par-4 with a long trench bunker guarding the left side of the fairway, and a nasty pot bunker guarding the green front left. It hits home at this point that most of these bunkers are in fact hazards.
Hole #3 – Par 4 – 439 yards
The 3rd is a brute of a par-4 playing uphill off the tee to a wide, often windswept fairway. The approach is blind down to an angled green that will accept running and aerial shots.
Hole #4 – Par 4 – 351 yards
Options abound off the tee on the short 4th. Smart players sneak a peek at the pin position coming up the third, as the green runs away from front to back and the approach must be made from the proper angle.
Hole #5 – Par 3 – 170 yards
The elevated green at the 5th is one of those “must hits”. A deep bunker guards the front left and steep, closely mown runoffs surround the rest of the green. A short game fiasco is a really possibility when tee shots are errant.
Hole #6 – Par 4 – 300 yards
The 6th green is reachable for bombers, but the green surrounds are no bargain if the heroic attempts fail. The small green is sloped and contoured and players who leave themselves short-sided are unlikely to get up and down.
Hole #7 – Par 4 – 340 yards
The 7th begins with a blind drive over a hill that runs down to a tiered green. It is reachable, but the punishment for being on the wrong tier is a near certain three putt.
Hole #8 – Par 5 – 469 yards
The lone five par on the front is a terrific risk-reward proposition. Challenge the right bunkers off the tee and the distance is shortened enough to make carrying the fronting lake doable. The heavily sloped green is unforgiving of imprecise approaches though.
Hole #9 – Par 4 – 391 yards
The view from the 9th tee is one of the best in town. Staggered bunkers cutting into the fairway on both sides disorient and confuse, making the hole look narrower than it actually is. The uphill approach to an elevated green demands a confidently struck shot.
Hole #10 – Par 4 – 408 yards
Like the first, the 10th plays downhill and doglegs right. However, it is both narrower and longer and the green has distinct sections with testy pin positions. This is no gentle handshake.
Hole #11 – Par 5 – 505 yards
A deep bunker right and two simple bunkers left flank the landing zone on the 11th. A glorious old tree must be navigated with the lay-up and approach to this contoured green that sits beautifully on the land.
Hole #12 – Par 4 – 375 yards
The 12th is a two-shotter that plays much longer than its yardage straightaway uphill. Deep bunkers left and right of the green lie in wait to dish out punishment.
Hole #13 – Par 3 – 193 yards
The par-3 13th plays over water downhill to a green in an idyllic setting. Rough-covered mounding surrounds the green creating tricky lies and stances.
Hole #14 – Par 4 – 360 yards
The 14th plays over a hill and left to blind landing area. Well struck tee shots with a draw can feed all the way down near the green which sits in a natural amphitheater. The “dreaded straight ball” however, if overzealously played runs the risk of going through the fairway into a pond right that is hidden from view on the tee.
Hole #15 – Par 5 – 530 yards
Westmoreland’s third and final par-5 15th might be the most improved hole on the course. Tree removal on the inside of this dogleg left has opened views and lines, and fairway expansion has created room to play. That room is critical because the approach to the green is now littered with bunkers that must be avoided to give the player a legitimate chance at birdie.
Hole #16 – Par 4 – 397 yards
The par-4 16th is a straight par-4 that plays much more narrow than it is. The left side of the green is well defended by bunkers into which the fairway feeds.
Hole #17 – Par 3 – 141 yards
The par-3 17th plays over water to an elevated green fronted on the the right by bunkers. With the wind whipping across the pond, judging line and distance can be a real challenge.
Hole #18 – Par 4 – 383 yards
One final gorgeous view awaits the player upon reaching the home home, a par-4 which plays back up the hill to the clubhouse. The heavily sloped green has a mammoth bunker left demanding one last accurate approach.
On the day of my round at Westmoreland, the weather soured as we played the finishing stretch, but it did nothing to dampen my spirits. Spending time on this now special golf course, discussing the game, architecture and history with Shawn and Todd is as good as it gets for this geek.
Additional Geeked On Golf Interviews:
- Ian Andrew – Golf Course Architect
- Mike Benkusky – Golf Course Architect
- Michael Clayton – Golf Course Architect
- Rob Collins – Golf Course Architect
- Mike DeVries – Golf Course Architect
- Brett Hochstein – Golf Course Architect
- 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
- Andy Staples – Golf Course Architect
- Dave Zinkand – Golf Course Architect
Copyright 2017 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf