Renovation of Oak Hills Country Club course close to completion

Renovation of Oak Hills Country Club course close to completion
Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

A renovation and restoration project at the historic Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio, Texas, is close to completion.

Led by architect Tripp Davis, the project has aimed to renovate the infrastructure of the course, which was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened in the 1920s.

GCA caught up with Davis to discuss the project, and find out how he looked to incorporate Tillinghast’s design tendencies into the recent work.

“The course had reached a point that it needed to have a lot of the infrastructure renovated, like the greens, bunkers and tees,” Davis explained. “The course needed to be regrassed with the best modern turf types for the area. The club needed their practice facilities enhanced, and there was an opportunity to restore some of the subtler elements to give the course more of a classic Tillinghast feel.”

Oak Hills hired Tripp Davis & Associates a few years ago to prepare a masterplan to organise various projects at the club. This ultimately led to a campaign to develop a financially sustainable way to move the golf course, and the club, into the next 30 years. 

“We eventually were given the go ahead to develop plans and get bids for the work, and we started construction with golf course builder Landscapes Unlimited and shaper Steve Page in November 2016,” said Davis. “The work involved upgrades to the irrigation system, drainage enhancements around the site, rebuilding and subtly redesigning of the greens, bunkers and tees, and grassing the greens with a new bermudagrass – G12. This new variety was used by Quail Hollow in preparation for the 2017 US PGA Championship. We took the course from being all bermuda tees, fairways and roughs to almost all areas being Zoysia – L1F on the tees, Zeon in the fairways and around bunkers, and Cutlass and Jamur in the roughs.”

Davis said the project ran smoothly up until the early summer of 2017, when heavy rain disrupted progress. The architect said however that Landscapes Unlimited ‘did a great job pushing through and ultimately everything finished above everyone’s expectations’.

“When you are doing subtle restoration work on an older classic like Oak Hills, some players will more clearly recognise what we did right away in how it impacts the play of the game, while some players won’t necessarily ‘see’ the changes to make the golf course more strategically interesting, but I find that they will ‘feel’ it and over time come to appreciate what we did,” Davis explained. “What players will either recognise right off, or come to appreciate over time, are things like tees with better angles and the ability to set the course up to a lot of different distances for each hole specifically, so players will better be able to find a tee they enjoy playing or are challenged by.”

Davis also introduced subtle changes to slopes in fairways that ‘will help the average players a bit, while other minor changes will challenge the better players in simple ways’. Changes to fairway bunker locations and fairway widths were also made, giving players a lot of options off the tee to get to angles that allow the greens to open up. Tweaks were also made to the positioning of greenside bunkers.

“We restored the size of the greens and some of the contours to help balls feed to hole locations with well-played shots, while making the play around and on the greens a bit more interesting and fun,” said Davis.

One thing Davis believes golfers will really enjoy about the course following the work is the changes to the playing surfaces.

“The new greens will be a bit smoother and they can be made to be as fast as they want,” he said. “The new tees are perfectly level and the L1F Zoysia is like playing on a putting surface. The Zeon fairways are arguably the best playing surface for fairways you can find anywhere in the world, noting Zeon got a lot of press at the Olympics last year as being the best fairways the players had played on. The Cutlass and Jamur Zoysia roughs provide exceptional density and consistency that players will enjoy, while the mowing heights can be raised to create a very challenging rough – but we plan on keeping rough heights below two inches most of the time.” 

The club’s reworked practice facilities are deemed ‘pretty unique’ by Davis.

“There is massive north practice tee, a secluded northeast tee in a live Oak grove, a larger than usual far side south tee, and both sides have two practice greens for putting, pitching, and bunker practice,” he explained. “On the range we built a lot of different smaller target greens so players can practice distance control under my motto of ‘aim small, miss small’.”

When it comes to working on a course designed by an architect as revered as Tillinghast, there’s inevitably a sense of wanting to preserve and enhance these historical elements.  

“We added a lot of subtleties into the greens,” Davis said. “They are by no means severe, but I shaped in a lot of little changes in directions and what I call ‘fast spots’ – small areas of 4.5 per cent to 6 per cent slopes to help set up a lot of different hole locations. I have played and worked on a few different Tillinghast courses where on first glance, the greens appear to be somewhat flat, but after playing you realise there is a lot there. Tillinghast would often incorporate this style on courses where he played to the ability to run shots into greens. 

Another trait that was clearly evident, but lost over time, were what Davis calls Tillinghast’s ‘wing backs’.

“This is where the back corners of the green were raised up with more slope leading back to the green, which I have found was done to encourage aggressive play to rear hole locations – especially when the green allowed for running shots into the greens, or playing shots to the rear hole locations without spin or loft,” he said.

Davis concluded: “Tillinghast was one of the early American golf course architects that had a bit of creative range with his bunkering, and at Oak Hills, different from a course like Winged Foot, the bunkers were grass faced with flat bottoms of sand, and occasionally a good bit of depth. It creates extraordinary shadowing visually, while for the player they need to recognise which bunkers are shallower and those that are deeper in how they choose to be more aggressive at a bunker. That is very evident in the greenside bunkers, while we incorporated this with fairway bunkers as well. Oak Hills is one of those American courses that lost a fair number of fairway bunkers during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and most had never been restored, so we did put back a few and we did move them a bit to more relevant to modern play.”