Restoring a green to modern standards with a classic feel

In 1901, writing about American golf courses in Country Life magazine, Walter Travis said, “Our courses are, for the most part, laid out on the same dead level of comparatively uninteresting uniformity.” Never one to mince words, Travis had only designed one golf course prior to penning that comment, but there was no question he refused to be part of the problem.

Instead, his design of Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester Center, Vt., broke the mold. Bunkers were deep, plentiful and bold; fairways twisted and turned; and greens were anything but flat. Ekwanok was revered, copied and celebrated in the early years of American golf; hosting the 1914 U.S. Amateur before settling into a comfortable position as a damn good summer course for the elite who wintered at many of the best clubs in the land.

The surface was prepared to accept the old sod.

Over many decades, the course changed to reflect lower budgets and an aging membership. Two of golf’s greatest gentlemen, Architect Geoffrey Cornish and Superintendent Paul O’Leary, softened the challenge to reflect what the players wanted: a convivial place for a casual game in stunning surroundings. In the 1990s, the tide turned again, and Ekwanok honored its roots.

The 11th green shortly after Ekwanok opened in 1900.

When O’Leary retired in 1995, after 38 years serving the club he loved, Ted Maddocks was hired from the Country Club of Fairfield in Connecticut. Maddocks served under Lance Odden, Ekwanok’s youngest president in several generations, and the two of them took stock in the course and what might be done to restore it.

Ekwanok engaged Bruce Hepner and Tom Doak of Renaissance Design to plot a cure to the woes that had eased the course’s resistance to scoring. “As we were looking over the golf course, a lot of the character had been lost,” recalls Maddocks. “As we were talking, we said, ‘Maybe we can restore some of the old bunkers that were out here to bring some of that character back.’”

The sod was removed from the existing green and placed on a tarp. When the new green substructure was completed, the original sod was replaced.

“After we got the money approved, we rented our own equipment and I brought in a shaper who had worked on various projects for Renaissance,” notes the superintendent. If there were ever original plans of the course, they have not been found, so the crew worked from old photos. Their intent was not to mimic the exact details of the original layout, but to recapture the feeling. “We had Bruce Hepner here for the first week of construction. If he was adding a fairway bunker because something else had been taken away years ago, he looked around the property to find a fairway bunker that might be original that would fit there.”

The work was praised, and Ekwanok climbed onto Golfweek’s Top 100 Historic Course list. However, Maddocks was far from done with the grand old layout. “No greens were remodeled during the 1998 work. It was mainly restoring fairway bunkers, rebuilding some greenside bunkers, removing trees and allowing some of the fescue areas to grow,” says Maddocks. With the 1998 work grown in and accepted, the time had come to address a few of Ekwanok’s greens that had strayed from their Travis heritage.

Drainage was installed and surrounds were shaped.

“They have been talking about moving the 11th green for a number of years. It first started as a safety issue,” details the superintendent. “A tee ball hit from the eighth hole would sometimes land on the 12th tees and also at times onto the 11th green. Also, a ball hit from the 11th tees could land on the 12th tees.”

So, Maddocks and his green committee targeted the 11th green for the first restoration work. “This green was rebuilt at one time, and it did not have the look or character of the original hole. We wanted to restore that look,” says Maddocks. “There was also an agronomic reason. The green faced to the north. It also had surface drainage that was mostly from back to front. In the winter, with the sun very low in the southern horizon, during a midwinter thaw we would always get ice buildup on the front section of the green. So, we wanted to increase surface drainage during the construction of the new green.”

Hepner returned during the 2007 season. “Bruce visited three times to go over this project. He came up with a conceptual drawing showing what he wanted the hole to look and feel like. He also took measurements for the placement of the new 11th green and the new 12th tees. He wanted to use modern acceptable safety standards in determining their new locations.” As a result, “The new 11th green is completely changed: new location, new green contours, new bunkering and all new irrigation.”

The new green fit beautifully into its surroundings.

In preparing for the project, Hepner wrote, “It has always been our directive at Ekwanok to restore the original character and strategic features of the golf course. Based on old photos, the original 11th green was level to the player’s eye and dropped off steeply into surrounding greenside bunkers. The proposed design will honor the original concepts and create a green that will have the character and flair of the Travis green.”

Ekwanok does not believe in bulldozing the old and starting from scratch. Instead, a wise and careful process was followed, according to the following steps outlined by Maddocks:

a. Cut, remove sod from 11th green and save.
b. Cut, remove all other sod from construction site and discard.
c. Remove greens mix, store at shop, screen for reuse on new green.
d. Remove sand from bunkers; mix with native loam for tee mix.
e. Remove all topsoil from site, screen and reuse for tee and bunker banks.
f. Remove soil from tees, screen, mix with sand and reuse for new tees.
g. Grade and shape subgrade of green at new location.
h. Shape new greenside bunkers and fairway bunkers, eighth hole.
i. Install drainage in subgrade new green.
j. Spread greens mix on new green, grade, float and prep for sod.
k. Sod green using sod saved from old 11th green.
l. Install irrigation 11th green, 12th tees and 11th approach.
m. Spread loam on all bunker and green banks.
n. Shape new 12th tees, prep for sodding.
o. Start shaping new 11th tees (lower 12 feet).
p. Sod all green and bunker banks.
q. Irrigation, 11th tees.
r. Sod 11th tees, 12th tees and 11th tee banks.
s. Hydroseed mounding around new 11th tee.
t. Spring 2008: place sand in bunkers

As with all projects, the 11th green construction project at Ekwanok was done in real time, not in some fantasy world without pressures. “If I would do one thing differently, it would be to take my time in spreading the greens mix back onto the green,” says Maddocks. “We were under some time restraints. We wanted to get the sod back on as soon as possible, and our shaper and architect had other jobs to go to. The only rain we had was when it was time to put the green mix onto the new green. I should have waited a day.” In the long run, that will never be noticed.

The tees were lowered to enhance the integrity of the challenge.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome,” says Hepner. “All goals were reached and in a timely fashion. The construction methods were proper, utilizing only the highest-quality craftsmanship by all parties involved. Ted and Tom’s [Tom Walsh, lead man at Ekwanok CC] crew were more than helpful, providing support when needed and applying impeccable touches to the finish work. Dennis [contractor Dennis Callahan, D. J. Callahan, Inc.] provided perfect support with equipment and timely assistance with the heavy lifting. I was supported by our best shaper and associate, Eric Iverson, whose 25 years’ experience served the project well.”

The finished product looked as if Travis had returned from his grave at the adjacent Dellwood Cemetery to supervise the work. “We lowered the teeing ground to create an eye-level look at the hole while hitting out of the sand pit,” notes Hepner. “The putting surface was broken into quadrants, with distinct hole locations in each section of the green. Bunkers were located to create strategic hazards for each section of the green. A small approach fairway was created to the left as a bailout area and a potential run-up shot to the left front hole location. All in all, the green site ties into the native landform and works in harmony with the other original Travis green sites. Our goal was not to make the hole harder. We hope that it will be more interesting and attractive.”

November snows closed down all Vermont work a little earlier than expected, but Maddocks was pleased with the conclusion of the work. “In the spring we will be placing the sand in the bunkers and constructing some gravel cart paths next to the 11th and 12th tees,” says the veteran superintendent. “We will also aerate the new 11th green at least twice before we open it sometime in late May. We have already aerified once last fall and have also started a topdressing program.”

Throughout its 109-year history, class and economy have always been hallmarks at Ekwanok, and this project was no different. Using the old sod, doing much of the work in-house, respecting the shot values envisioned by a great architect and providing a safe environment for members are Vermont values that have always made Ekwanok one of America’s greatest courses.

Bob Labbance is a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. He resides in Montpelier, Vt.