Foster’s restoration at Orchard Lake a case of ‘right place, right time’

Foster’s restoration at Orchard Lake a case of ‘right place, right time’
By Sean Dudley

When the Green Committee at Orchard Lake Country Club sat down to discuss how best to restore the course’s bunkers to their original state, few would have anticipated the set of events over the following months.

Originally a project intended to improve the quality of the course’s bunkers, the club now finds itself with not only new bunkering, carried out by golf course architect Keith Foster, but also newly laid greens and fairways that are receiving rave reviews and are providing a variety of benefits.

Craig Valassis, president during the restoration of Orchard Lake, and the club’s golf construction committee, couldn’t be happier with how things have unravelled.

“The restoration of the bunkers was essential, as they were in poor condition, retaining water and having a negative impact on quality of play,” says Valassis. “We were very aware that the membership was concerned with the bunker conditions on the course, and so it was a priority to install proper drainage and restore them to their former glory.”

The course is an original Colt-Alison design, with Hugh Alison the chief orchestrator of the project back in 1926. With such a course history, Orchard Lake knew how important it was to get the project right.

“The bunkers were initially the main concern of the restoration project. In the mid-1990s, the bunkers were renovated to reduce the amount of washout from the rains by removing the sand-faced design and going with a more flat based one. As part of the recent restoration project, we went back to the sand-faced bunker utilising Sandtrapper, a coarse synthetic fabric that holds the sand on the new steep faces. Working with Keith Foster, we were able to vastly improve the standard of the sand areas on the course, both visually and playability wise,” explains Valassis.

Foster’s knowledge and expertise was instrumental to the success of the project according to Valassis, with the Virginia-based course architect’s experience in working with the Colt-Alison bunkering style ensuring a smooth and efficient process.

“Keith is a wonderful dirt guy and his work on our restoration has been faultless. He told us that our golf course had a great skeleton, but the skin and the muscles just needed to be reworked,” says Valassis. “Keith’s objective was to once again make the putting surface become the prominent feature of each green complex. He accomplished this by removing the mounding that was associated with the previous bunker renovation and cut the bunkers in under the pad of the green.”

Foster spoke to GCA and elaborated on the work he’d done. “There is an assumption in American golf that Colt-Alison bunkers are pancakes, with no definition and no character. But this simply isn’t accurate, and really couldn’t be further from the truth,” explains Foster. “I wanted to recreate a dynamic bunker, and reintroduce the scale of the original design, which really was super.

“Greens naturally shrink with time, sometimes as much as 25 per cent. When I first started work at Orchard Lake, some greens had shrunk by around 17 per cent. We felt it was important to take the greens back to their original size, and from there we just set the bunkers in under that. The team really did a phenomenal job with that.”

McCurrach Golf Construction carried out the work, which included introducing native fescue grass, which has reduced the need for irrigation, chemical use and maintenance of what once about 25 acres of blue grass rough. Fescue was also added to the perimeter of the bunkers to give them a more natural look and minimise the need for watering and cutting the grass edges.

With the decision already taken to restore the course’s bunkers, which would result in closing the golf course for a good period of time, Orchard Lake’s superintendent, Aaron McMaster, felt that the time was right to replace the grass on the greens and fairways too. The team was confident that doing so would be worthwhile in the long run.

“The greens, consisting of predominantly poa annua type grass, would really suffer when there was a bad freeze in winter and were very susceptible to heat stress in the summer,” says Valassis. “Because restoring the greens would require additional time of closure, it was important that we made the correct decision and assessed all options. Aaron, Dr John ‘Trey’ Rogers, his agronomy professor from Michigan State University, and I went to visit test plants to take a look at some of the new grasses available. They were all fine, but one particularly caught our eye: Pure Distinction. We enquired, but were told it may not be ready for commercial use in time for our required planting schedule.”

Pure Distinction is an advanced bentgrass, produced and distributed by Tee-2-Green, that blends all of the qualities of the Penn As and Gs turf. It is aimed at creating smooth and true putting greens, as well as being suited for tees and fairways. Other benefits include strong resistance to diseases, heat, cold and wear.

As luck would have it, Pure Distinction had been developed by an associate of Dr Rogers. After many enquiries and the early harvesting of the production seeds, Orchard Lake was able to be the very first golf course to implement the use of Pure Distinction on its greens.

“We were so fortunate to be able to acquire Pure Distinction in time for our early September seeding schedule. We were able to see the grass in May of last year and it was very impressive. Now that we have seen it grow on our property, it has exceeded all our expectations,” explains Valassis. “Pure Distinction has performed very well despite the cool and wet spring we’ve just had. It’s been a really aggressive and dense growing grass, which is great. We were in the right place at the right time,” he says.

Pure Distinction is rumoured to be in the thoughts of the team at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, and if Valassis’ testimony is anything to go by, they may be on to a winner.

“We reopened the course in early June, and we’ve had numerous comments from members and new players about how well the course is playing and how impressed they are with the restoration,” he concludes. “All-in-all, the restoration has been a remarkable success and we’re confident that the benefits will stand us in good stead for the future.”

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