Guelph’s ‘Little Vic’ shuts down after 44 years, makes way for opening of Victoria Park Valley Club
By Mike Jiggens
IT’S a bittersweet time for golf course personnel and members alike at
the Victoria Park West Course in Guelph, Ont. After 44 years, the
executive-length golf course is closing its doors, but, where one door
has closed, another is opening.
In the spring of 2012, a new 27-hole facility will open for play, giving the West Course’s former members a new place to play a mere four kilometres further down the road.
“It’s bittersweet,” said David DeCorso, superintendent and general manager at the Victoria Park East Course. “I grew up there,” he said of the closing West Course.
David is a second-generation member of the DeCorso family which has owned and operated both the West Course and neighbouring East Course—which opened 38 years ago—since their inception. His father Ted founded the West Course while both Ted and his brothers Carmen and Angelo founded the East Course. Their offspring have since made careers of continuing with the family business.
Several years ago, Ted DeCorso had hoped to retain nine holes of the West Course while developing the remaining property into a residential retirement community. But governmental red tape at both the local and provincial levels forced him to abandon those plans. In the meantime, a parcel of land a short distance away from the East and West courses was listed for sale. The family discovered the 115-acre property would make an ideal setting for a new course, and plans were soon launched to acquire the necessary permits for its development.
The West Course property was finally sold outright only recently. Known for years as “Little Vic,” the West Course will be developed into a new 500-residence subdivision for the City of Guelph.
“We’re replacing one shorter course for another shorter course,” David DeCorso said.
The former West Course measured 3,687 yards from the back tees and played to a par of 61, making it an ideal layout for senior golfers, juniors, women and those just learning the game. Membership, however, had been declining in recent years.
The new Victoria Valley Golf Club has been designed as an executive-length layout, with three separate nine-hole tracks measuring just over 2,000 yards apiece with par set at 31 per nine.
Although many members hated to see the old West Course go, they have largely embraced the challenge of playing a newer course situated a short distance away, with the option of choosing among three different nine-hole tracks for a new 18-hole golf experience.
“There’s a lot of interest and a lot of excitement,” said DeCorso, who, in addition to his responsibilities at the East Course, is in charge of construction at the Valley Club. “Everyone wants to try the new course, and, once they see it, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”
He said plans are to market the East and Valley courses together in an aggressive manner, with both separate and combination memberships being made available.
Once the required permits to build the Valley Club were secured, ground was broken in May of 2010 to begin construction. Scott Covell, a golf course architect from Toronto, was hired to design the three separate nine-hole layouts.
“He was very accommodating and flexible, a good golfer, and was good for us,” DeCorso said of the University of Guelph graduate who had interned with a Chicago-area golf course architect. “He would take our input. We knew what we wanted, but we didn’t have the drawing skills. We needed that professional help.”
Covell had introduced himself a number of years ago to members of the Ontario Golf Superintendents Association through a mass mailout, and Ted DeCorso had initially contacted him for assistance with the development plans for the West Course which were ultimately abandoned.
David DeCorso provided several ideas of his own which were incorporated into Covell’s vision for the property.
“When it came to actually building the golf holes, we did more of a design/build once we got out there,” he said.
Sketches had been made by Covell, and, once the holes had been cleared by contractor Hamilton Construction, several of them were seen in a new light on site. Along with one of Hamilton’s shapers, who had a wealth of golf course construction experience, DeCorso and Covell could “see” the golf holes emerge and collaborated on how they figured the green would best fit in on the site.
“We’d come up with a green and tee complex,” DeCorso said. “We feel we designed the property with the land. We didn’t waste any time at all, and the result is very good. It fits.”
Seeding began in September of 2010. It was hoped most of the seeding would be finished by the end of the year, but abundant rain in October led to significant washouts, putting the project behind schedule. Consequently, only 17 of 27 holes were seeded in 2010.
A wetter-than-anticipated spring of 2011 resulted in the project ultimately reaching conclusion on July 9.
“We were hoping to have 24 or 25 holes seeded in 2010 and the remaining holes and driving range seeded in mid-spring. Anything that was seeded last year and germinated, really established quite quickly.”
Tees and fairways were seeded to a dwarf, low-mow Kentucky bluegrass which requires fewer fungicide applications. Greens were seeded to T1 creeping bentgrass.
The young fairways had been maintained at about two inches until the fall of this year when then were being cut lower to prepare them for their 2012 opening.
“We found our own sand on the golf course (for greens construction), so that saved a lot of money,” DeCorso said.
Agronomist Corrie Almack, whose assistance was sought with the greens construction process, suggested a sand that tested suitable be found and advised using a true on-site greens mix.
“We went with that, and that saved a lot of money.”
DeCorso said the greens’ subsurfaces are “very gravelly,” and they didn’t feel the need for subsurface drainage.
“They’re almost a pushup-style green using a local sand.”
Little earth was required to be moved throughout the construction project which helped to keep costs down. Ample topsoil was trucked in from off site.
“The key to this project was affordability,” DeCorso said, noting the cost of obtaining the necessary permits was high. “We wanted to provide an affordable golf course.”
With little earthmoving required and being able to fit the golf course in with the land’s existing topography, building expenses were kept at a minimum.
As its name suggests, the Valley Club is situated on land with significant changes in elevation. DeCorso admitted the topographical changes were a concern when designing a course that was meant to appeal to the West Course’s existing clientele of mostly seniors. Those who were accustomed to playing a largely flat West Course will now experience a number of descents and acsents in their travels, but the new course has been designed to still make it walkable. Golfers will have the option of driving golf cars if they wish.
A handful of walking tours have already taken place to give West Course golfers and prospective new members an opportunity to see how the holes shape up and assess the course’s walkability.
“We wanted to make it playable and not a tough golf course. As far as shot values go, it’s just outstanding.”
In spite of the changes in elevation throughout the golf course, the greens have been designed to be relatively flat with some undulations to add to the challenge of play but which still contribute to good surface drainage.
“Some of the ladies are scared of the undulations,” DeCorso said. “There is a par five now which has led to some apprehension among a few, but they’re being encouraged to try it before criticizing it.”
The former West Course had nothing longer than a par four hole. The single par five hole distinguishes the new course from the old, but golfers can choose to play the other two nines if they wish to avoid the longer hole.
DeCorso said efforts were made to “soften” every incline on the course to make it more appeasing to golfers. Multiple tee decks have been placed on the longers holes to provide some flexibility in play.
Each set of nine holes had been generically referred to as the A, B and C nines throughout the planning and construction phases, but have since been renamed the Lakes, Pines and Valley nines. The Lakes nine gets its name for the artificial bodies of water built for the course. The water bodies, which are actually ponds, includes the Valley Club’s main reservoir.
No natural water bodies existed on the property, and those which were dug are situated in natural depressions which required little excavation work.
“It was more just cleaning them out,” DeCorso said. “We put the ponds in areas where there were already big holes.”
The water table is at a level much lower than the ponds, which required them to be lined. The water bodies not only add to the aesthetic value of the Lakes nine, but will come into play on three holes, including the par five hole.
DeCorso said the lack of any natural water features or wetlands on the property helped to greatly reduce the number of concerns expressed by the Grand River Conservation Authority. Water is a sensitive issue in the Guelph area, and a permit to take water from its ground source was required.
The conservation authority’s primary concern was for a number of butternut trees on the property. Because they are a protected species, the Valley Club was restricted to how many of the trees could be cleared.
The club’s finishing holes had dense tree cover, and a major portion of the permits obtained prior to construction involved their pending removal. DeCorso said the club had to come up with a tree management plan and was required to plant several new trees.
Jason Sewell, who had served as superintendent at the West Course, has taken his role over to the Valley Club under the supervision of DeCorso. He said much of the course was designed around the trees.
“As much as we could, we did a lot of tree spading to try and save the ones that were in the way,” Sewell said.
Much of the challenge associated with building the Valley Club was that during its grow-in, both the East and West courses still needed to be maintained on a daily basis, yet staff from both were constantly needed at the new course. Maintaining three courses with two staffs proved challenging.
“Financially, both existing courses were supporting this one,” DeCorso said.
The sale of the West Course was finalized in mid-October.
“Normally, when you have a new golf course, you’d have somebody on the property full time, but we still had to maintain our own properties,” Sewell said.
DeCorso and Sewell arranged between themselves to ensure one of them was at the new Valley Club at all times throughout the past two golf seasons.
The Valley nine was the last one to be seeded and will likely open about six weeks after the expected mid-April opening of the Lakes and Pines nines.
Only 33 bunkers have been constructed throughout the 27 holes, keeping a lid on the labour-intensity of maintaining them. DeCorso said the club opted at the last moment to go with a superior Ohio sand to better market the new course. The West Course had been saddled with a reputation for having poor bunkers.
DeCorso said he expects maintenance practices at the Valley Club will differ somewhat from that experienced at the West Course. For example, gang mowers were pulled to cut the rough at the West Course, but articulating equipment will have to be employed at the Valley Club to “hug the hills.”
Additionally, there are apt to be some shade issues which weren’t present at the West Course.
“There are some holes that are well treed,” DeCorso said. “There will be some more shade and leaf issues than we had at the West Course.”
Other than potential issues which may arise from the topography as well as shade and leaf matters, he said he expects maintenance will be less problematic due to the better built greens and the superior drainage.
DeCorso said the Valley Club’s new Rain Bird irrigation system is a significant step up from the system installed at the West Course which was automated for only its greens and tees.
Each set of nine holes was purposely designed so that no one track was distinctively more difficult than another. This was done to ensure play could be equally distributed among the three, contributing to maintenance regimes that would be consistent from one nine to the next.
For its opening season in 2012, the Valley Club will utilize one of the existing houses included in the property purchase as a temporary clubhouse. A new structure will eventually be built, but it will be designed large enough only to support a tournament. Larger functions, such as weddings, can be accommodated at the Victoria Park East Course’s clubhouse.
In addition to a new clubhouse, Ted DeCorso plans to tear down another house located near the Valley Club property’s entrance and build a new residence for himself. He had been living since 1964 in a house situated on the West Course property.