Improvements to St. George’s Golf & CC address agronomic, aesthetic, playability issues
By Mike Jiggens
One of Canada’s most revered golf courses and a multiple-time host of the Canadian Open has undergone a notable facelift which not only returns its greens to its architect’s original vision, but has addressed some serious agronomic concerns.
St. George’s Golf & Country Club in Toronto, a perennial Canadian top 10-ranked golf course, has rebuilt each of its greens, a project that not only returns their look to architect Stanley Thompson’s original design from 1929, but which also gives them a better chance to survive harsh winters, drain more effectively, save the club money in water, pesticide and fertilizer costs, and provides them with a greater array of pinning options.
The club’s membership was sold on the idea that bentgrass putting surfaces would be in the private golf course’s best long-term interests following a series of on-course educational tours conducted in 2013 by superintendent Keith Bartlett. Several of the club’s poa annua-covered greens had been struggling with insufficient sunlight as inconveniently-located mature trees were limiting the penetration of life-sustaining sunshine the surfaces required to thrive.
Bartlett effectively explained the attributes of bentgrass, especially in a new environment of thinned out problem trees, informing the membership that the new grass would require less water, would be more disease-resistant and would have fewer fertilizer requirements. He added, however, the greens would need a complete rebuild to meet USGAâ€ˆspecifications and to endure the long haul.
St. George’s board of directors had been formulating an inevitable greens reconstruction project in recent years, and support of the proposal was provided by USGA green section agronomist Dave Oatis.
The proposed project, which was on the docket for a couple of years down the road, was expedited following the exceptionally harsh winter of 2013-14 that caused widespread winterkill to St. George’s annual bluegrass greens. The club’s membership voted 95 per cent in favour of immediately proceeding with a complete rebuild of the course’s greens and putting other scheduled projects on hold.
Bartlett said he traditionally covers about 10 of his greens before each winter. Those that weren’t covered last year “were just dead” while the ones under cover emitted the telltale odour of decay underneath once melting from ice cover had begun.
“It was really ugly.”
Because the greens project had already met with the club’s consent, some important preparation work had already got underway. The club had hired Brantford, Ont.-based architect Ian Andrew and Tom Doak of Michigan-based Renaissance Golf in 2013 to serve as consultants. Both had studied the club’s rich history and had vintage photographs on hand to give them the guidance needed to restore the greens to Thompson’s original vision.
Bartlett had also commissioned shade studies which led to strategic tree removal work. He said both Andrew and Doak were forced to react quickly to the stepped up timetable for the greens project, but noted the homework they had already done gave the project a healthy head start.
The goal of the project was to achieve consistency among each of the greens, Bartlett said, adding inconsistency had set in over the years. Greens had been rebuilt in past years using different methods and various short cuts which eventually led to poor turf conditions.
Many greens shrunk in size over the decades which greatly limited the number of possible pin locations. Having hosted the Canadian Open as recently as 2010, the club’s concern over such matters mounted.
“This is probably the most sensitive project this club has ever had to face,” Bartlett said. “There was a lot done in a short period of time.”
He admitted there was a level of angst among the members after they had seen, touched and smelled the winter’s devastation of the greens, but the skillful coordination of the project turned into excitement for St. George’s golfing members who anticipate putting on the new surfaces by June 2015.
Members had a good idea what to expect in advance of the project. A practice green had previously been redone prior to the devastating winter, showing members what the purity of bentgrass looked like in comparison with poa annua.
Andrew acknowledged that when he was hired to work with Doak, it was understood the greens project would be well down the road and there would be no rush to get into the serious planning stages, but conceded Mother Nature ultimately determined the project’s starting date.
He said no one questioned the science involved in proceeding with the project, noting it was important to recapture the amount of square footage necessary to better handle traffic as well as provide a greater number of pin location options. Andrew and Doak also took into consideration the number of flatter spots on the greens on which ice could potentially develop, leading to the need to speed up some grades.
The grading of the new greens remained the same as before on some, but others required slight manipulation to either slow down some spots or speed up others. Efforts were made not to undo the greens’ steepness whenever possible. Andrew said the reconstructed greens are still “slick,” but now provide more pin location options.
The project moved along at a relatively quick pace which Andrew attributed to the construction skills of contractor Evans Golf.
“They knocked it out of the park.”
He said he has never seen such a complex job move along as smoothly and as well organized as this one.
The golf course remained in play throughout the process, albeit with temporary greens. About 30 rounds of golf were played each day in 2014.
While excavating the greens down an average of 40 centimetres, clay tile was found which confirmed the original drainage system was being followed. On the No. 2 green, however, the trail of clay tile was lost in the area of the front left corner. Going down another 20 centimetres to fix a surface drainage issue, the tile was found once again.
“That green is probably closer now to the original green than what we were planning on for the last ‘x’ number of years,” Bartlett said.
In fact, the golf course today looks more like it did in the 1920s than it did only six months ago, he added.
With the assistance of favourable weather, seeding of all greens was completed six days ahead of schedule. Periods of heavy rain encircled the area of St. George’s during the August seeding period, and at worst only about a three-hour delay was realized.
Seeding of the first group of greens (holes 4, 7, 12, 13 and 14) were done Aug. 1. The second group (holes 3, 8 and 15) were done on Aug. 12 while the third group (holes 2, 5, 6, 9 and 16) were done Aug. 23. Seeding of the remaining holes was done Aug. 30.
Bartlett chose Luminary creeping bentgrass, a variety developed at Rutgers University, whose attributes include better snow mould and dollar spot resistance and a colour which resembles poa annua.
“Density is as good as it gets,” he added.
The project involved 6,000 tons of greens mix and 3,000 tons of pea gravel. Sufficient mix was left over to finish the course’s turfgrass nursery.
Bartlett said most of the greens were enlarged by up to 20 per cent in some cases. The greens on holes 9, 12, 14 and 17 have remained the same in size.
“It really does bring the character and shot values back to the golf course,” he said in reference to the expanded green sizes. The objective was to recreate many of the original pin locations without losing the character of the greens.
Members had expressed some concern at the outset as to whether the course would play easier afterward or if its character would dramatically change. But collectively wishing to revert to Thompson’s original concept, they realized that using the discovered tile as a guideline toward restoring the original grading was the right move.
There was no such thing as USGA standards when the greens were originally constructed, Andrew said, but he added the clay tile and stone was evidence that they were “pretty damn close.”
Getting the grading correct was paramount for the project, Bartlett said, adding it should be achieved in the sub-base. In past times, there were instances where the mix was used for the grading.
The par three third hole received extra attention. Bunkers were added to the hole to complete the restoration, putting a Thompson feature back in that had become lost over the years. Andrew said he felt the hole was a weak spot on the golf course prior to the restoration, adding it’s now more in keeping with Thompson’s original view.
The green itself went from having only about 15 per cent of its area pinnable to about 75 per cent today. The green used to feature a small plateau at the back, a long transition in the middle and a small plateau in front, but it was difficult to find appropriate pin positions in the flatter spots because they were still steep, and the transition area was so steep that downhill putts kept on going. It forced golfers to play to the front of the green.
“Essentially, there was no pin left,” Andrew said.
The green was also under much more shade cover than it is today which had adversely affected turf quality and further posed a challenge to find suitable pin locations.
The greens project, which was completed in slightly less than two months, included a new irrigation system to ensure more uniform coverage, something that had been previously lacking.
The project also featured some fairway widening in some places.
Both Andrew and Doak have an affinity for widening the approaches to tie into greenside bunkers, realizing shorter grass brings more hazards into play as the ball continues to roll into bunkers or trees.
On some holes, features deemed unnecessary were removed from the green sites to widen traffic distribution and to allow golfers a wider area to exit the green.
Six new forward tees were constructed as a project add-on, using material excavated from the greens.
A strategic tree management plan was developed for the property in 2007—Bartlett’s first year at the club after coming from the Thornhill Golf & Country Club—which addressed both maintenance concerns and the quest for better visuals. He said the thinning out of trees which had been planted about 45 years ago have opened up sight lines and has made the golf course more visually stimulating.
The golf course looks both cleaner and simpler, Bartlett said, adding most ball washers have been removed for the course for the same reason.
Andrew concurred that fewer visual obstacles equate to enhanced enjoyment of the golf course.
“If you throw a lot of stuff out there, it’s overstimulating to the eyes, and the less you have on the golf course, the more you enjoy the greens and bunkers,” he said.
Trees should serve “as the frame and not the stage,” he added.
Since 2007, about 850 trees and another 650 shrubs have been planted on the property, although they have been strategically planted along the perimeters. About 20 new species of native trees have been introduced.
St. George’s has the luxury of having a full-time arborist on staff to look after the trees.
Bartlett said when he began at St. George’s, the club was spending about $140,000 annually on gardens.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was more than they were spending on fertilizer and pesticides.”
When the 2008 economic recession hit, Bartlett said it was a good time to cut back on the club’s gardening expenses—particularly with the Canadian Open set to be played in 2010—and channel the money into more pressing matters, such as the need to rebuild tees.
Bartlett has never returned to the extravagant gardening budget that was once in place, adding the club’s members don’t seem to miss the elaborate gardens of years past.
Prior to the 2010 Canadian Open, St. George’s was host to two Opens in the 1960s. Following the 1960 Open, the golf course was deemed too easy, prompting changes before the 1968 Open. Some holes were rebuilt and others were lengthened at that time.
Traditionally, St. George’s sees about 28,000 rounds of golf played each year.