Mesa Verde: Restoring a Billy Bell Jr design

  • Mesa Verde

    Cary Bickler has worked to restore the Billy Bell Jr design at Mesa Verde Country Club

  • Mesa Verde

    Lake features have been rebuilt on the eighteenth

  • Mesa Verde

    “The improvements have not only enhanced the club’s appeal but also maintained the natural beauty of the golf course," says Bickler

  • Mesa Verde

    Tree removal was key in the re-routing of 15 holes, including the fourth (pictured)

  • Mesa Verde

    On the third, the back-left grass bunker has been converted to sand as originally designed by Billy Bell Jr

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

GCA spoke with golf course architect Cary Bickler about the restoration of the Billy Bell Jr layout at Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa, California.

In 2012, Bickler began work at the club, identifying areas for improvement and developing them into a master plan. A key factor that emerged during this time was the desire to re-establish the Billy Bell Jr design features that had been lost since the course first opened in 1959.

The club felt that the course’s theme had become confusing due to various redesigns. Strategy was lost as a result of trees having been planted in straight lines too close to fairways, resulting in playing corridors that were blocked on one side or the other, and provided little visual variety.

The tree master plan was a key element in the rerouting of 15 holes and reinstating 11 doglegs that had been lost to the tree planting. “The renovation plan was to enhance playability and strategy, creating a beautiful result, and restoring the course to modern construction standards,” said Bickler, who worked closely throughout the project with the golf course superintendent, Bobby Gluck.

Construction work on Bickler’s plan began in 2016 and was completed in late 2018 ahead of the club celebrating its 60th anniversary in January 2019.

The first two phases of the project saw 51 bunkers renovated and 18 new ones added, plus the rebuilding of push-up greens on holes thirteen and fourteen.

A pair of fairway bunkers have been added short-right of the second green, which come in to play for the long hitters. “They also enhance and frame the fairway target area from the tee, resulting in a memorable picture,” said Bickler. “On the third, the back-left grass bunker has been converted to sand as originally designed by Billy Bell. The bunker floor was also raised to provide a realistic shot value to a runaway green. We also moved the left and right forward bunkers closer to the green.”

The fourth hole has been rerouted as well as having some trees removed. A fairway bunker on the right has been added, with another added on the left, 100 yards short of the green, to challenge players seeking the best angle. All bunkers have been restored to Billy Bell Jr’s design, with the suggestion of a Billy Bell, Sr design influence.

At the ninth, the fairway bunker on the right has been moved back to bring it in to play from the tees and to open up a layup area for players that can’t reach the green in two.

The original left-to-right dogleg was reinstated by removing trees and adding two fairway bunkers on the left. Two greenside bunkers were also added, at the edge of the lake.

Bunkers were renovated with drainage installed, new sand and reshaped. “Drainage has significantly improved playability through proper infiltration rates eliminating washouts of bunker faces and eliminating standing water following rain events,” said Bickler. “This classic look is true to the Billy Bell Jr design which enables maintaining the manicured look without excessive labour.”

The third phase saw all tee complexes rebuilt to rectangular shapes, including the addition of new forward tees and the lining of tee boxes edges with wood to aid alignment and prevent Kikuyu grass from invading the new hybrid turf. Also, all abandoned tee features were removed.

Lake features have been rebuilt on the eighteenth as well as the waterfalls, bridges and the relining of the lakes surrounding the hole. A new rock retaining wall theme was implemented throughout the course and the rebuild of the remaining push-up greens, on the fifteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth, was completed.

“The final five greens have been converted to comply with USGA specifications, which has improved drainage, salinity and moisture management,” said Bickler. “It is now possible to manage all green complexes with one maintenance program. The new green complexes have retained the putting challenge without severe slope, the result being more pin positions, which reduces wear and aids in maintaining consistent putting surfaces.”

The lake has been re-lined and railroad ties have been replaced with stacked stone retaining walls for “a timeless look”, and an aeration system installed with a new underground control system vault for easy accessibility. “The near vertical shoreline provides a clean look with an edge that does not require as much maintenance as a laid-back shoreline,” said Bickler. “The aeration system provides constant movement of the water which helps maintain clarity and eliminates algae. The view of the lake is the centrepiece for members from the new extended and enlarged patios.

The final phase included the planting of 135 trees, using a species selection process that would be disease resistant, colourful, require less maintenance, and a good fit with the local natural characteristics.

“The improvements have not only enhanced the club’s appeal but also maintained the natural beauty of the golf course.”

Following the renovation project, the club has seen “outstanding” membership sales. Greens chairman Dan Toomey said: “Members were excited to tell their friends what was happening at their club and enthusiastic to witness the next step in the construction project. Prospective members who toured the club saw the vision that was created by the plans to restore the golf course as well as an upgrade to the entire interior of the clubhouse.

“In January 2018, our club had a sales list of 33 memberships for sale. As of today, we have a wait list for an equity golf membership and seeing our club go in an upwards direction with a sales price that has tripled since prior to renovation. Our initiation fee is the highest it has been in 20 years and projected to steadily increase over the coming year. Junior golf membership is at capacity and currently we are accepting a waitlist for junior applications. Finally, our social membership initiation fee has also increased. Now that the renovation is completed, the superior condition of the golf course really shows that we are proud of what we have created and proud to be members of this wonderful club.”