We’ve said on many occasions in GCA that the most important factor governing the quality of a golf course is the land on which it sits. Which means three things, basically – the topography of the course itself, the views and surroundings around the property, and the type of soil in the ground. Tick off all three – a classic links, say, with wonderful random ground contour, views down the shore and across the ocean, and sand underfoot to guarantee good drainage – and you have the perfect site to build a world-class golf course.
Anything less, though, and you have compromise. That’s not the worst thing in the world – any golf architect would be delighted to have a site with two, or even one of our three characteristics. But it does mean that the work of construction will not be completely straightforward.
There have been few golf course sites where the three characteristics were so starkly in contrast as was the case when Tom Weiskopf and the late Jay Morrish came to build the Loch Lomond club in central Scotland. For sure, it’s a glorious spot to play golf on a nice day, right on the ‘bonnie banks’ of Great Britain’s largest lake and with very pleasant up and downs that never get hilly. Ironically, although one of the first ‘American-style’ private clubs (with no visitor green fee play, just members and guests) in the UK, it is one of the country’s better-known venues, as a result of 15 years as a European Tour venue, hosting Scotland’s national Open, the final tournament before the Open Championship itself.
Beautiful spot though LLGC, the former home of the chieftains of Clan Colquhoun, is, there is one very fundamental problem. Water. The loch didn’t get there by accident. It is surrounded by mountains and is one of the wettest places in Scotland. The site, as director of golf course and estates David Cole told me, averages around two metres of rain each year. The native soil was mainly a peat bog and inert spoil was imported during the original construction to stabilise the ground and sculpt the routing and contours of the golf course. Weiskopf reckons a million cubic metres of waste was mobilised to the site during the original construction.
The made-up ground (rock and rubble topped with a layer of clay) is among the worst I have ever seen on a golf course. The weather had been dry for several days when I visited in early November, but there were still signs of retained water. When Cole drove me around the course to look at the work already carried out, it was very easy to tell when travelling on renewed or original turf – on the latter, little could be heard other than the squelching of the tyres. Cole said that prior to the renovation, to help create as much detailed evidence as possible, he had sent a sample of the top one foot layer to a laboratory for testing; results had come back that the soil percolated at 0.1mm per hour!
Sand-capping is a potential solution. This process, relatively common in the US and some other parts of the world, though rarely seen in the UK, involves trucking to the site enough sand to spread across all closely mown areas to a depth of 15-20cm or so. It isn’t a panacea – a good number of people think that it merely moves a drainage problem down to the bottom of the cap – and it is very expensive, but it is, at the moment at least, the gold standard for ensuring good drainage on bad soil.
The current project started in winter 2017-18, when Cole, supported by the management team, board and members, rebuilt the fourteenth and fifteenth as a trial. These were among the wettest holes on the course, having been built on top of a huge peat bog (famously the location of a near-death experience for architect Tom Weiskopf during the course’s original construction when he fell in the bog and was unable to get out for several hours).
It’s not as though no attempts have previously been made to drain the course. In 2006 we reported on a project run by Cole’s boss at the time, course manager Ken Siems, that involved the installation of 40,000 metres of pipe over three-to-four years, which was then complemented with sand banding between the pipes, as close as every metre in the wettest areas. However, nothing lasts for ever, and those pipes and bands have suffered from silt and iron ochre ingress in the years since, and consequently their efficiency has been much reduced.
The constant inclement weather magnifies the vulnerabilities in the drainage and ground conditions, so a comprehensive plan was required to provide a long-term solution to remove the rainfall quickly, which in turn will offer consistently firmer and drier playing conditions.
The objective was create an infrastructure that will combat the west of Scotland’s wet weather, allow the team to have more control over course conditions and set up, to be more effective, efficient and sustainable with maintenance inputs and costs, construct new forward tees to offer even more golfing variations for all golfing abilities and age, and ultimately provide the members and their guests with all-round better, more consistent playing conditions. This will also help safeguard and protect the club’s business from course closures or long delays.
The initial project was well received, so last winter, Cole, along with principal contractor Esie O’Mahony of GolfLink Evolve, reconstructed the rest of the back nine of the course (along with the ninth hole). The team returned this winter to complete the renovation.
The work includes installing a totally new irrigation system, re-grassing all fairways and primary roughs, increasing tee sizes and adding new forward tees, rebuilding bunkers and, most importantly, entirely renewing the huge drainage infrastructure.
Touring the course in November, it was easy to see the benefits: the rebuilt holes were dry and firm even at this time of the year, while those still awaiting renovation were soaking wet. O’Mahony says: “Because the site is so wet, we have had to plan the work very carefully to maximise efficiency and minimise the negative effects on the rest of the property. It is said that, during the original construction of the golf course, the builders lost a piece of earthmoving equipment that fell into a peat bog and just sank. We don’t want that happening to us!”
Cole’s new project is designed for the long haul. Drainage trenches are lined with geotextile to prevent, as far as is possible, the ingress of fine particles into the pipe itself. The pipes have been resized to cope better with the volume of water, and all bunkers are being lined with the Capillary Concrete system to ensure that sand remains uncontaminated for as long as possible. And, most dramatically, all the holes are being sand-capped to a depth of about 20-25cm. The whole project is valued at £6.5 million, surely the largest renovation bill in the history of British golf.
Loch Lomond has been owned by its members now for eight years, and the pressure on Cole and his team to deliver superior surfaces is intense. The course closes in winter; but a condition of permission to undertake the renovation was that eighteen holes would be open throughout the golfing season, which starts in April each year.
A key consequence is that approximately 75 percent of each hole, including tees and fairways, is being turfed. This winter alone, when the last eight holes are being rebuilt, the club has an order for 80,000 sq m of washed turf from supplier County Turf. Where possible, primary roughs are being seeded. Last spring, golfers were playing the rebuilt holes only a week after turf was laid, albeit on mats or preferred lies for the first month or so. By this spring, if fortunate with the weather, all eighteen holes at Loch Lomond will have been rebuilt.
This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.