Eau Claire: Looking back to its past

  • Eau Claire
    Evan Schiller

    The par-three sixteenth at Eau Claire following Kevin Norby’s renovation

  • Eau Claire
    Evan Schiller

    The architect relocated the seventh green to higher ground 50 yards further back from the original

  • Eau Claire
    Evan Schiller

    Bunker square footage has been reduced from 61,500 square feet to 34,800 square feet (par-four eighth, pictured)

  • Eau Claire
    Evan Schiller

    The par-five ninth hole on the revitalised layout

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

Sometimes the best way to extend your life is to look back to your past. That’s exactly what architect Kevin Norby did when addressing needs of Eau Claire Golf & Country Club in Wisconsin. His restoration-oriented work was planned to create a more playable and enjoyable layout that is easier to maintain.

The design of Eau Claire dates to 1928, by English-born Tom Vardon and a Minneapolis-based landscape architect, Charles Ramsdell. Ramsdell’s extensive commercial and residential practice was occasionally involved in golf design and Vardon, the younger brother of six-time Open Champion Harry Vardon, was involved in some 40 design projects, most of them in the Upper Midwest, while he was head pro at White Bear Yacht Club in St. Paul, Minnesota – which he also helped redesign.

Eau Claire occupies 250 acres just east of town; 80 feet of elevation change on a wooded site with much glacial moraine. The course is bisected by a meandering stream, Otter Creek, that empties into the Eau Claire River. Over the years the course endured the kind of cluttered intervention typical of many modest Midwest courses that undergo ‘modernisation’: over-planting, clumsy rebunkering, routing tweaks and greens shrinkage.

There were no remaining records or reliable images of the original routing. Norby’s portfolio of work over 32 years includes half a dozen other Tom Vardon layouts, all in Minnesota and South Dakota. At Eau Claire, Norby invoked the kind of restoration sensibility that sought a return to simple ground game values while pursuing an older, quirkier look. Along the way, work was intended to make the bunkers both more playable and more maintainable.

Chief among the changes was reducing the scale of Eau Claire’s large, flared oval bunkers into tighter, more well-defined hazards with lower-profile sand floors. The result took 43 bunkers totalling 61,500 square feet to 44 covering only 34,800 square feet – the average bunker size nearly halved to 791 square feet.

The work, undertaken in late 2021 by Duininck Golf, was part of a $1.1 million renovation that also saw a complete rebuild of its teeing grounds, with particular attention paid to more forward sets of tees that delivered totals of 4,778 and 3,563 yards. Also included were greens expansion and a rebuild of the seventh hole’s putting surface to a new site out of flood plain and onto a higher point 50 yards back.

Superintendent Nick Peinovich reports a considerable reduction in hand labour on the new hazards. He says: “With the Better Billy Bunker drainage and the sodded, fine-fescue faces, we have less need to rake and have an easier time mowing the faces.”

Eau Claire came under Troon management in November 2021, just as the construction work ended. It now sports a cleaner, more traditional look. Between the extensive tree work over recent years and this latest surgery on the course, the club is in a strong position as it approaches its centenary year. It helps being the only classical private golf club in Northwest Wisconsin. It also helps having the kind of attention paid recently by the likes of architect Norby, superintendent Peinovich and the construction team at Duininck.