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TGC Watson course’s facelift was past due

Nine-hole course’s shortcomings were exposed during main course’s overhaul.

February 8, 2018  By  Mike Jiggens

Extensive renovations to the Toronto Golf Club’s 18-hole Colt course in 2009 exposed its nine-hole Watson course to a number of shortcomings. Its antiquated irrigation system provided poor coverage, bunker faces were failing, tee decks were too small, drainage was practically non-existent, and a driving range recklessly wedged between two holes was an accident waiting to happen.

All of these issues came to the fore eight years ago when members were forced to play the shorter course while the championship course was in the midst of a much-needed facelift of its own.

It may have been deemed a long time coming, but the Watson course was finally given its due in 2015 and 2016.

Course superintendent Al Schwemler and assistant Steve Fierheller outlined details of the Watson course reconstruction project to their peers in November at the 29th annual Ontario Seed Company/Nutrite professional turfgrass seminar in Waterloo.


The Toronto Golf Club is the third oldest golf club in North America. Located on the shores of the Etobicoke Creek in southeast Mississauga, it features a Harry Colt-designed 18-hole course built in 1912 and a nine-hole course designed by Howard Watson in the 1960s.

When the Colt course was shut down almost a decade ago to accommodate much-needed restorative work, the lesser-used Watson course experienced a surge in rounds played.


“This actually exposed some of the deficiencies which we already knew from a management level,” Schwemler said.

Agronomic issues including poor drainage and ineffective irrigation coverage contributed to playability concerns. One of the most troublesome issues, however, concerned safety. Adjacent residences sustained broken windows, and tennis courts and a public park – both within close proximity to the golf course – saw “numerous golf balls entering those locations.”

Golfers themselves weren’t immune from being hit by stray golf balls. Situated between two holes, the club’s practice range narrowed out toward its furthest reaches. With golfers’ propensity to spray their shots, as many as 50 to 100 range balls found their way daily onto the adjacent holes, sometimes hitting golfers playing the holes.

Another safety concern involved a dogleg hole that tempted some golfers to cut the corner and hit balls over the practice green and pitching area. Consequently, the short game practice area was “a disaster zone,” Schwemler said.

The practice area was also a half-kilometre-long drive from the clubhouse, putting vehicles in peril while they traveled back and forth.

He said the inadequate irrigation system at the Watson course was tabled for replacement during the Colt course project in 2009. It was singled out knowing members would see the obvious deficiencies while playing the Watson course during the Colt course’s closure. At that time, the system was already 22 years old while main lines were about 27 years old.

“It needed to be replaced,” Schwemler said.

Among the playability issues faced at the Watson course, a major concern was the bunkering. Sand had been replaced three times since the mid-1990s. Various liners had been put into the cavities and removed and bunker faces were failing. Soils on the property are mainly sandy, he said, adding that once liners were removed and a thunderstorm followed, sand was washed away into the subsoil.

Prior to the Colt course renovation project, the Watson course was used sparingly. Golfers had difficulty getting in and out of the bunkers and many beginners found the hazards to be strategically difficult.

Tees were deemed too small. Although they had been enlarged in the mid-1990s, “you can never make a tee deck large enough.”

Schwemler said the putting greens on the Watson course were “pretty good,” but they lacked consistency in the way they were managed when compared to those on the Colt course. A lack of drainage was the main factor in the inconsistency.

Roughs, which were a “mixed bag” of Kentucky bluegrass, fescues, annual bluegrass and bentgrass, were generally fine, but received inadequate irrigation coverage.

The practice facility was a major bone of contention at the Watson course, and “really didn’t cut it,” Schwemler said, noting there was enough space for only about 13 golfers to hit balls at any one time. The range featured a three-tiered system with a lot of wasted space between tiers, and the teaching tee at the far end of the range was about only 3,200 square feet, making it too small an area to conduct a proper clinic.

Repairs to divots on the range tees were inadequate, he added, and target greens situated at the outside edges of the range contributed to safety concerns on adjacent holes. To prevent balls from drifting over to the neighbouring golf holes, flags were placed on the inside portions of the target greens to inspire golfers to perfect their aim, but the strategy was often unreliable.

The available parking spots at the practice area could properly accommodate only 18 vehicles, but the number of cars tended to increase to upwards of 40 at the outset of the season. Golfers parked anywhere they could, contributing to clutter and disorganization.

Schwemler said each of the concerns the Toronto Golf Club had for its Watson course was presented to architect Martin Hawtree who conceived a new vision for the course and practice facility. Three or four strategies were considered, but there were no plans to phase in the list of necessary improvements. The plan was to tackle everything at once to ensure there would be only a one-time disruption.

The club wanted to avoid turning the Watson course into a “mini Colt course” and insisted it retain its parkland look. Schwemler said it was a six-year journey from the time the initial proposal was made until a shovel went into the ground. The Watson course closed July 3, 2015 in time for construction to begin the following day. The club optimistically wanted the course ready to reopen in April of 2016.

“Obviously that wasn’t going to happen.”

Work was to have begun first on the practice facility, but that aspect of the project couldn’t get underway until late August because the practice area was needed for a non-club event to which the club was already committed. The new practice facility didn’t open until May 29, 2016.

Between Aug. 7 and Sept. 1, 2015, work began to blend the greens root zone, and grassing of greens, tees and fairways took place between Sept. 14 and Nov. 11. Substantial completion of the project occurred Nov. 15.

Members were kept abreast of all project developments from drone fly-by photography. Images were incorporated into ongoing eblasts to members since they were prohibited from entering the fenced-in construction sites. About 2.7 kilometres of fencing were installed around the property.

FlightLine Golf Inc. of Waterloo, Ont. was contracted for the construction work with two shapers and about 15 construction workers on site. Grassing work was done in-house with club staff looking after both the ongoing maintenance of the Colt course and the Watson course grow-in.

About 200 trees needed to be removed to expand the practice area and to accommodate three new buildings that were part of the project. Fierheller said most of the trees were removed “right out of the ground,” leaving no issues with roots or stumps. Tree removal took seven to 10 days. The trees were mulched on site and the mulch was removed from the property.

The nine putting surfaces and practice greens were rototilled. Plant material was stripped and discarded, leaving a root zone of about 10 inches that were pushed up and taken away to a central site for soil blending. The greens mix was blended on site along with topsoil screening. A 50-50 greens mix of material taken from the Watson greens was produced with Hutcheson A sand.

“We did this to match the physical properties of the Colt course greens,” Fierheller said.

The objective was to match the two courses in terms of consistency and playability.

A total of 13 new greens were surfaced, including four practice greens. Their size increased significantly from what had previously existed. Drainage in a herringbone pattern was added to the greens that formerly had no drainage and consequently played wetter than the Colt course greens.

“Adding new drainage, we’re going to get that consistency between the two courses,” Fierheller said.

For the grassing of the tees, greens and fairways, all short cut turf was propagated with cores taken from the Colt course and applied to the Watson course before seeding. In preparation for the Watson course project, experimentation with cores taken from both the Colt course greens and fairways was done in 2013 to see if there was a significant difference in the putting surface quality between the two growing mediums. It was determined cores taken from the Colt course fairways helped produce turf that was just as good as that which incorporated greens cores.

“The turf looked very similar and was certainly acceptable for a putting green,” Fierheller said.

The decision to use fairway cores to help prepare a good seedbed was also based on not having to disrupt play on the Colt course by harvesting cores from its greens. Removing cores from its fairways was deemed less disruptive among golfers.

Coring of the fairways was done tightly spaced at a depth of two to 2½ inches with the objective of removing the plant, roots and some soil. It was found that the shallow depth produced the best results. Spreading of the cores on the Watson course was done largely by hand, especially on greens sites. They were spread at a one-inch depth and seeded to V8 creeping bentgrass at a rate of a half-pound per 1,000 square feet.

Fierheller said the strategy produced an ideal seedbed with the cores possessing ample cracks and surface area for seed to fall into place. Once seeded, the greens were rolled “so it kind of squishes everything together for good soil to seed contact.”

Heavy topdressing and fertility were part of the game plan. Fierheller said that when cores get wet, they become sticky. By spreading topdressing sand on top of the cores, it enabled workers to walk on the greens sites with a fertilizer spreader.

“So that’s one of the benefits of topdressing as well.”

Fertilizer used was a 10-10-8 (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) blend with a little extra magnesium and manganese added. Spreading was typically done post-propagation.

Fierheller said the cores held onto moisture better, requiring less water during the grow-in process. For tees, greens and fairways, irrigation involved three cycles a day with usually one spin.

Areas where there were irrigation heads and catch basins were sodded to prevent washing out.

Through September to early October, germination on the greens occurred in about five days. Greens were rolled every other day on average to deal with “puffy” spots.

Mowing was done for the first time after about 14 days at a height of a quarter-inch. By the time the greens could be worked on in 2016, the height was lowered to .150 inches.

Greens were verti-drained in May prior to their reopening. Fierheller said there was consistency across the board on the Watson course in terms of moisture readings,
 giving credence to the seedbed strategy.

The Watson course project also included the reconstruction of the course’s 19 bunkers and four other practice bunkers. The course bunkers were rendered smaller and shallower, enabling golfers to more easily enter and exit the hazards. The same heavy liners that had been installed on the Colt course in 2009 were used on the Watson course. The durable liners required no staples and are better equipped to prevent contamination. Bunker sand was a 50-50 mix of Pro Angle and 1600A – the same sand used on the Colt course, providing consistency on both layouts.

Fairways were capped with 150 millimetres of stripped topsoil, propagated, seeded to T1 creeping bentgrass, rolled and topdressed. Tees and greens surrounds were also seeded to T1.

Fierheller said with a crew of six individuals, one could aerify, one could sweep, two could topdress the cores and two others could do hand work. Propagating of a two-acre fairway was achieved in about eight hours.

Fairways at the Colt course had been treated with Civitas prior to its late season snow mould application. Schwemler said turf emerging from the Civitas-treated cores grew significantly faster than from those that were untreated.

About 2.3 acres of new tees were propagated. Drainage was provided for the tees and 300 millimetres of screened topsoil were incorporated into the sites.

“Why did we choose to propagate?” Fierheller asked. “We wanted to have consistent putting surfaces between the Colt course and the Watson course. We liked the look of that mottled bent-poa. It gave it kind of an old feel.”

Small roll Kentucky bluegrass supplied by Zander Sod Co. Ltd. was used to sod roughs. Staff maintaining the Colt course was pulled off in the afternoons to water in the freshly laid sod.

Tees on the driving range were constructed in the same manner as the Watson course tees except for the tees’ back third which was sodded. Because construction of the practice tee was delayed, it was determined sod was the apt choice to ensure there would be grass ready to go for the start of the new season in May. The remainder of the practice tee area was propagated, seeded to T1, rolled and topdressed.

No catch basins existed previously on the Watson course. During the reconstruction project, 4.3 kilometres of drain tile were installed on the property.

“It’s fairly flat out there, so adding drainage certainly improved turf quality and playability,” Fierheller said.

Atkinson Irrigation, under the guidance of Gary Taylor, installed the new irrigation system. Most of the system is double row, replacing an older hydraulic system that was automatic “but well past its prime.” Inferior piping gave way to new main lines and isolation valves, marking a notable improvement in the way water is delivered. Four hundred new heads – the same type as those installed on the Colt course – were put in along with 50 quick couplers. The cost of the installation was $560,000.

Another aspect of the Watson course project was the spading in of about 120 mature trees. All were native species, including sugar maple, red maple, red oak, spruce, white pine and cedar.

Three new buildings became a part of the new-look Watson course. A new learning centre was located at the far end of the instructional tee. Another building that had been located at the old practice facility was strategically moved and expanded to serve as a smaller scale food and beverage station. The third structure on site is a new storage building.

In order to gain the space necessary to ensure the practice area was safer and had sufficient parking, about 400 yards in the Watson’s course’s playing length were lost. It meant having to reduce the length of some par four holes.

Schwemler said some of the golf course’s neighbours weren’t elated during the construction process when bare soil was exposed, likening the scene to the Mojave Desert. Adding to their woes was the fact that a construction entrance to the golf course had been established through the adjacent subdivision.

“It would have been a nightmare coming in our normal main entrance off of Dixie Road and everything would have had to have gone through our Colt course,” he said.

Matters became complicated at times due to infrastructure shortfalls within the subdivision such as low-lying hydro lines.

“With deliveries coming in, that would have literally ripped hydro out of people’s homes. They weren’t happy.”

A couple of gas lines were inadvertently cut, forcing the temporary evacuation of people in the neighbourhood which caused further grief among the residents. But most of the people were good about the project, Schwemler said.

The revitalized practice facility has become a hit among golfers.

“People are coming out of the woodwork. People who shot the project down because they don’t practise, practise now.”

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