Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois recently announced the selection of golf course architect Andy Staples to create a master plan of renovations for its South course.
The course was designed by Tom Bendelow in 1915 and complements the Willie Park, Jr.-designed North course, which has hosted seven major championships across various tours.
GCA spoke with Staples to find out more about how he got the job, the club’s goals for the South course, and his approach to the design work.
Can you tell us a bit about how the opportunity for you to work at Olympia Fields emerged?
In 2017, my renovation of Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, Michigan – a 1916 Willie Park, Jr. design – opened and was receiving some strong attention. While this was happening, I began master planning what was formally Tripoli Country Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – now known as the University Club of Milwaukee – which was a 1921 Tom Bendelow design, virtually untouched for most of the last century. As you know, Olympia Fields’ two existing courses, the North course and the South course, were designed by Willie Park, Jr. and Tom Bendelow, respectively.
Coincidentally, another club I was working with during this same time was San Jose Country Club in California, which was completely redesigned in 1924 by William Watson. As it turns out, the second course constructed at Olympia Fields, which no longer exists save for a couple of holes on the South course, was a Watson design. So, within a very short period, I was researching three Golden Age architects who all happened to play significant roles in the history of Olympia Fields.
Flash forward to 2018, where I was invited to speak at the GolfWeek Architecture Summit at Streamsong Resort. Two of the attendees that heard me speak happened to be from Olympia Fields – their golf course superintendent, and a green committee member – which I’m told put me on the radar. Then, Ran Morrissett from Golf Club Atlas asked to do an interview with me, which focused largely on my work at MCC and the U Club, the philosophical approaches to my work at each club, and master planning in general.
Seeing as this was published when the folks at Olympia Fields were putting together their list of architects, it further nudged them to include me. I knew I was the underdog going in but figured an opportunity like Olympia Fields was bound to come up sooner or later. I was prepared and took my best shot. Fortunately, I ended up getting the job. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity, and I’m confident the club and its members will be happy with my work.
What was it about your proposals that you think most appealed the club?
To me it seems like my proposal had all the pieces Olympia Fields was looking for, and the timing couldn’t have been better. There wasn’t another single person alive that had done more research so recently than I had done on Park, Bendelow and Watson, and the club recognised that.
Also, I know our work at Meadowbrook was impactful, both from a design and a membership buy-in standpoint. The end product was getting some recognition and, fortunately for me, some of that attention just so happened get communicated to the crucial individuals at Olympia Fields.
The South course was renovated relatively recently. Why is the club looking to renovate it now? What are its goals?
The recent renovations on the South course were focused on improving the bunkers and adding length, so they were relatively light in nature. Also, the work that was completed happened prior to the club acquiring some new information about the evolution of the course, including original photos dating back to the 1920s. We also now know that Park had a strong influence on the design of all the courses at Olympia Fields, starting as early as 1919. The early photos give us a true sense of how the bunkers looked, the amount and locations of trees on the property, and the putting green style and size. It will be exciting to delve deep into the original Bendelow design and compare it with what changes Park might have made.
Furthermore, the advancements in bunker drainage technology since the time of the previous renovations have been significant, so we’re investigating the pros and cons of utilising this improved method of bunker construction. I’d say in general, the advancements of sustainable measures across the golf construction industry over the past decade alone have been somewhat game-changing for course longevity and efficiency, so we’re taking everything into account.
When do you expect work on the South course to begin, and what will the initial focus be?
Planning on the South will begin immediately, however, any construction work will most likely take place after the 2020 BMW Championship, which is on the North course. Our focus will be on making the South course more playable during times of prolonged wet periods through increased drainage, addressing tree growth and some ongoing shade issues, improving bunkers, and looking for ways to make the course more enjoyable for the members.
We’re also going to compare the current course to those early course photographs to see where we can bring back the best parts of the original design. Tom Bendelow was less about his bunkering, and more about how a player approaches the green in terms of angles, and the slope and contour of the putting greens. Park’s influence appears to have been around some modifications to the putting surfaces, and slight changes to the routing. We’re hoping to restore the best parts of the original philosophy.
Have you discussed making changes to the North course too? Would that work be purely restorative in nature, being such a celebrated Park design?
We haven’t spent much time discussing the North as of yet. Right now, all our attention is on the South, but we’ll perform a course assessment after the South course master plan is complete. We’ll likely address many of the same technical items on the North and look to restore many of the forgotten Park features lost or removed due to decades upon decades of the subtle reshaping by nature, and the well-intentioned alterations these types of Golden Age courses tend to evolve through. I’m also excited to explore ways to bring in more of Willie Park, Jr.’s unique, sometimes eccentric, styling of bunkers, and grassy hollows. These features are integral to the look and feel of his courses. If you’ve ever been to Huntercombe Golf Club in England, you know what I mean.
Are you able to apply any of the principles of your ‘Community Links’ approach when working at private clubs like Meadowbrook and Olympia Fields?
Absolutely! There are three factors that stand out regarding the overlap of my Community Links approach, and my approach to private clubs. The first would be the transparent nature of my intention for the facility, which I based largely on feedback from those who play the courses at hand regularly. Without these types of ground level interactions, you’ll rarely get both the approval of a plan and a final product almost everyone is thrilled with.
The second factor would be in creating a final product that can test the skilled player, while making a course fun and interesting for the bogey golfer. You can challenge the good player while not completely discouraging the higher-handicapper by introducing angles, short grass, and width in the right places. It’s a bit of a balancing act. Obviously, you need to cater to the predominant user and use good judgement, but I pride myself on being able to deliver that.
The last would be my approach to efficient resource use in maintaining the final product, which for me, almost goes without saying. I have a lot of experience here, and I can tell you there isn’t a course that hasn’t been renovated in the past decade where I couldn’t get improved efficiency out of the operation somewhere, while increasing course appeal. This is also an area where you must balance design decisions based on stakeholder expectations of the final product, but opportunities to integrate recent research findings and technology make that an automatic in my mind.
Are you planning to try to attract another US Open with your work at Olympia Fields?
Well, that’s really up to the USGA. Olympia Fields has already established they have the level of superior facilities required to host a US Open, considering its storied history at the North course. Its hosting of next year’s BMW Championship speaks to that as well, so our focus with renovations will remain entirely on enhancing member playability and enjoyment, while celebrating Park’s design. Should that include building upon the North course’s reputation as a challenging venue for the best players in the world, we’ll leave it in the hands of the decision makers and let the chips fall where they may.
An article on Staples’ appointment features in the April 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.