Helping to ensure Vernon Macan’s Volcano hole at Fircrest endures

Helping to ensure Vernon Macan’s Volcano hole at Fircrest endures
Jeff Mingay
By Jeff Mingay

Restoring the original work of an admired predecessor can be a bit nerve-wracking; especially with a relatively famous photo of an incredibly dramatic design like Vernon Macan’s ‘volcano’ hole at Fircrest Golf Club in hand. 

Fircrest is a short drive from downtown Tacoma, Washington, four kilometres as the crow flies from Chambers Bay, which hosts the US Open in June. It’s laid out over beautiful, sandy terrain; remarkably varied ground, a bit linksy, with just the right amount of elevation change. 

Macan’s early 1920s routing remains intact and makes excellent use of the property. But, similar to most courses of the same vintage, much has changed over the past 90 years.

The volcano hole is the penultimate hole at Fircrest. It’s also a microcosm of what’s happened throughout the rest of the course. Trees have grown to narrow the fairway and impede stunning views of Mount Rainier. The green has lost its original shape and contour. The outside edges of the putting surface have been raised by decades of sand top dressing. And three of the most dramatic bunkers ever built in the Northwest were replaced by shallow slivers of sand on each side of the green. 

In his latest book, Wide Open Fairways (2013), architecture critic Brad Klein uses the unfortunate evolution of Fircrest’s seventeenth as an example of how a golf course canal most imperceptibly lose its original character, charm and distinctiveness. “Today,” writes Klein, “it’s just another par four that could be anywhere in the Northwest.”

I was hired to develop a restorative-based masterplan for Fircrest in early 2014. Not in my wildest dreams did I think restoration of the volcano hole and its massive bunkers would be approved!

When I presented my preliminary ideas to Fircrest’s green committee, I suggested we leave restoration of the sixteenth and seventeenth until the end of what was planned to be a multi-year project. In its original concept, the sixteenth is a reverse Redan, with its green tipping from front-to-back and left-to-right. Like many other Redan holes, there was originally a deep bunker cut into a hill short left of the green. At some point that bunker was filled and replaced by a stand of fir trees. Another bunker tight against the front right of the green was raised and made smaller. Any semblance of the hole’s classic origins was lost.

Restoration of these dramatic features represents significant change at Fircrest, where the bunkers hadn’t even received new sand in many years. I was concerned that restoring the massive features of the Redan and volcano hole might derail the project, entirely. I was pleasantly surprised when the club’s green committee disagreed!

Kip Kalbrener, John Alexander and I went to work at putting these incredible, nearly century old holes back together in early November last year. Kalbrener’s a local contractor, president of Ridgetop Golf, who’s spent the past 25 years building, renovating and restoring courses in the Northwest. Alexander is also a veteran of the Northwest golf scene who’s competed as a player on the national level, and has been Fircrest’s golf course superintendent since 2010. 

Patience is a bit rare among profit-driven contractors, but Kalbrener showed a lot of it as the scope of work required to restore the volcano hole grew by the day. Hauling, shaping, looking, tweaking and more tweaking. In fact, his patience and willingness to do everything required to get it right was key to the success of the project. Similarly, Alexander hasn’t flinched. Many superintendents would be intimidated by the depth and scale of Macan’s bunkers, with their steep grass bank faces. A superintendent’s buy-in to this type of vision and confidence in maintaining what’s been restored is absolutely critical. 

Over a quarter century working with many architects on a number of courses throughout the Northwest, Kalbrener says he’s never built anything on the scale of the Fircrest volcano hole. When we finally got the dirt where we wanted it at the seventeenth, he looked at me and said: “Good thing we have that old photo to fall back on. Otherwise, we’d probably be fired!” This speaks to Vernon Macan’s grand vision. Hopefully this time, Fircrest’s volcano hole will be admired and endure.

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