Historic Tam O’Shanter course enters a new era

  • Tam

    The public Tam O’Shanter course has reopened following renovation work

  • Tam

    Golf course architects Doug Myslinski and Todd Quitno collaborated on the redesign

  • Tam

    The course now withstands flood events better, and can stay open for longer

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

The public Tam O’Shanter golf course in Niles, Illinois, has reopened following a collaboration between the Niles Park District and golf course architects Doug Myslinski, now of Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation, and Todd Quitno of Lohmann Quitno Golf Course Architects, Inc.

Tees have been expanded, the course has been rebunkered and drainage has been upgraded in a project that now allows the course to stay open longer and withstand more play.

From the 1940s to 60s, the Tam O’Shanter course hosted several tournaments on the PGA Tour, including the 1953 World Championship, the first event to be broadcast live on US television. The course was purchased by the Park District in 1973 and subsequently reconfigured and reduced to nine holes.

The latest work stemmed from a desire to improve teeing grounds. “The executive director of Niles Park District had noticed the difference that squaring off and levelling tees made on a project I worked on at the private club he belongs to,” said Myslinski. “He wanted to know what it would take to improve the teeing grounds for the 30,000 rounds that were played on the public ‘Tam’ course.”

While discussing tees, the topic of drainage continued to arise. “The course lies on a flood plain [the property is adjacent to a branch of one of the main rivers that drains the northern suburbs of Chicago] and was struggling with storm recovery,” said Quitno, who was brought onto the team to collaborate on the design and complete the plan work. “When it rains, the place floods and remains soggy for a very long period of time and that has a direct effect on revenue.”

“We thought the best approach would be to start developing a master plan that would reflect the desired alterations to the teeing grounds and the proposed drainage improvements,” said Myslinski. “It only made sense to also review the positioning of the bunkers on the golf course, as they were in need of new sand, drainage and surrounding turf.”

“The bunkers hadn’t had any attention in years, they were more or less worn out,” said Quitno.

When the course had been converted to nine holes, corridors had become tighter, so the design team opted for longer, narrow tees in most instances. “We decided to combine existing tee pods where possible and add forward tees to allow for even more elasticity in length for the wide variety of golfers that play Tam,” said Myslinski.

The public golfer was the main consideration for the redesign of Tam, which comprises six par fours and three par threes. “Protecting par was not at the forefront of the design process!” said Myslinski. “Many of the greens had bunkers that surrounded the surfaces and limited the accessibility to the green for both foot traffic and golf shots.

“Three holes are short par fours that would entice any golfer that can hit the ball more than 240 yards, or thinks they can, to try to reach the green. This can lead to slower play as well as hazardous conditions with the tight corridors. Short par fours are a design gem when done correctly but three within nine holes on a public facility is not desirable from an operational perspective,” added Myslinski. “We were not going to be able to change the distances of those holes very significantly so two basic design alternatives were explored: create something very strong visually that would deter golfers from even attempting to go for the green or develop a risk/reward option that would entice players to try and reach the green with a well-placed shot, but justly punish them if they did not succeed.”

The final design incorporates both concepts. Fairway bunkers were introduced in locations to make the longer hitters think a little before trying to carry them, while some greenside bunkers were eliminated or adjusted to allow balls to run onto the putting surfaces and reward the successful carry. The design team also created more closely mown areas around greens, giving higher-handicap players a better chance of recovery by chipping or putting onto the green rather than chopping their ball out of heavy rough. “We were able to recapture more of the putting surfaces, which had shrunk over the years, and we extended collars for ease of play. We also reduced the overall square footage of bunkers and installed the Better Billy Bunker liner system,” said Quitno.

“The bunker style is reflective of the historical photographs but constructed using today’s technological advancements,” said Myslinski.

For drainage, a pragmatic solution was proposed. “Large-scale alterations to the floodplain on site would have been cost prohibitive and likely tough to permit based on potential impacts up or down stream. So, we focused on removing the water as efficiently as possible after the primary floods recede, especially in areas of accessibility, like cart path exits/entrances, fairway landing areas and around tees and putting surfaces. Two- to eight-inch pipe was installed that focuses on the ‘nuisance’ water that historically remained after storm events and impacted the ability to maintain and play the course.”

“The new drainage was tested right away as we had a major flood in February, and have had six more since April,” said Quitno. “With each event the course flooded as it did before, but now when the flood levels recede we are able to efficiently get the water off the golf course. More importantly, the mowers can get back out there pretty quickly. We now have a better golf course that is playable more often.”

“The golf course will never return to hosting championships as the size of the property was reduced significantly due to the demand of infrastructure, roads and business development,” said Myslinski. “But what it can do is provide enjoyment for the golfers that choose to play there and habitat to wildlife that does not prefer the concrete jungle that surrounds it.”

The Park District plans to highlight Tam’s past with historic pictures in the clubhouse and a monument in the main entrance that will pay homage to original owner George May. “Mr May would have been very happy to see that his bunkers are now capable of withstanding two inches of rainfall!” said Myslinski.

The course officially reopened in June 2018. “I’m thrilled with how it has turned out. I live nearby, so it’s kind of a home course for me and my young family. Seeing it succeed means a lot to me,” said Quitno.

“It is rewarding to hear that the end-user finds the thought process and decision making worth the while,” said Myslinski. “A highlight is that long-time superintendent Jim Stoneberg has said that the course is much more maintenance friendly!”