Columbus Country Club in Ohio decided – in the early part of this decade – that it needed a long-range master plan to improve its course, and to bring back Donald Ross elements that had been lost over time.
The club’s general manager Jay Frank described the goal as “putting a proper scale back into our classic Donald Ross course, while revisiting original sightlines and improving overall turf and course conditions.”
The club initially approached Keith Foster’s firm to develop a long-range master plan for their golf course. Foster recommended that his long-time design associate, Kevin Hargrave be handed the reins to develop the construction documents and oversee the work.
The course reopened in May of last year and is set to host the Ohio Mid-Amateur Championship in June 2020, GCA spoke with Hargrave to find out more.
How did the opportunity to work at Columbus CC come about?
Since summer 1996, I have been the sole design associate of Keith Foster’s firm. We have been extremely blessed to work on many of the great classic golf courses around the United States created by the great golf architects of their time such as Donald Ross, AW Tillinghast, Harry Colt and CH Alison, Perry Maxwell, Herbert Fowler, Walter Travis, Dick Wilson and many more.
In autumn 2011, Columbus Country Club commissioned us to develop a long-range master plan to recommend course improvements and bring elements of Ross back into their golf course. Implementation of the plan was originally voted down that winter and sat for about three years. During that lull, Keith relocated from his farm in Kentucky to Virginia and told me that – since I was going to remain based in Kentucky – if the project ever moved forward it would be turned over to me to produce the construction documents and execute the renovation work. In winter 2015, I got the call to proceed with plan development, which I completed and sent out to bid in March 2016.
Could you tell us about your approach to the project?
The club elected to go about the project in two phases. The first phase consisted of front nine work during autumn 2016, with the back nine being done the following autumn.
A clubhouse fire in early 1960s destroyed all previous documentation of the original Ross layout so a true restoration was not feasible for the club. With that in mind, our goal turned to a renovation to clean up a golf course that was severely overgrown, aged and tattered, while instilling more of a Ross style and feel through bunkering, strategy and bringing back the original scale of the site.
The course had a great skeleton to work from and a long history and pedigree — hosting the 1964 PGA Championship, back-to-back PGA Tour Invitationals in ’46 and ’47, as well as numerous Ohio State Amateurs.
The total budget for the project was set at $2.4 million, so we had to be selective as to where the money was spent. With that as our ceiling, we focused our work on select tee work, a full bunker renovation, select green surface adjustments, clean-up of approaches and green surrounds, fairway expansions, drainage improvements, large-scale tree removal and expanding native areas.
Trees were removed to improve air circulation, improve turf quality, further highlight the healthier specimen trees, open up the great sightlines and vistas that existed across the course, as well as exposing the very bold and striking bluff that bisects the site.
How have you given the course more of a Ross feel?
Through bunkering, strategy and bringing back the proper scale to the golf course. As stated before, all early documentation and photos were destroyed in a clubhouse fire in the early 1960s. We tried searching various sources such as the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst as well as the USGA and PGA to see if we could find anything pertaining to the original golf course. There wasn’t much at all, just a few photos showing the bunker style as being a flat bottom bunker with grass face.
Prior to the development of the construction documents, Keith and I at that time were involved in a couple projects in the Northeast. During one of my trips, I took few extra days to visit some of Ross’s work in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, one of which was Whitinsville, a nine-hole course Ross did in 1923. Many consider it to be Ross’s most untouched work. I wanted to see his work stripped down and in its simplest of form which no architect had neutered over the years. I spent a whole day walking the course repeatedly and filed away in my head the knowledge I had acquired. I used that knowledge as our basis for the work at Columbus Country Club.
What challenges did the renovation bring and how did you overcome them?
There were two major issues involved in the renovation. The most glaring was the extremely poor drainage throughout the site. The site is very flat throughout with a beautiful bluff that bisects it into an upper flat and a lower floodplain flat. In the early 1920s an extensive drainage system was put in, but over the years the clay tile had broken and had been cut through to put in new irrigation lines. Basins had also grown over with dirt and turf so none of the bones of the system were working properly. When it rained the course would be shut down to cart traffic for days. Turf would drown and bake in the sun, which would then create very poor playing conditions. In addition to that, the overgrowth of trees throughout the site had created narrow alleyways for each hole and turf suffered as well.
The renovation work turned out spectacular. Put simply, the improvements to the overall drainage throughout the golf course and the opening up of vistas to unveil the natural beauty of the site, while making the golf course more playable to the average golfer is, in my opinion, what golfers enjoy most when they play. Those that knew the course before the renovation and those that have returned since to see what it has now become are in awe of the changes.
What made the project memorable for you?
I always say that I am truly blessed and fortunate to be doing what I am doing as a career. The associations that grow during each and every job are very humbling to me and is what I cherish most. I am very gracious that Keith allowed me to lead the club in the renovation work and that the club had the confidence in me to see it through.
The contractor on the job was TDI International and they provided the same crew that Keith and I had used on another job we completed the year prior, also in Ohio, which made for a seamless and comfortable transition between the two jobs. Their staff, as well as the club’s maintenance crew, were absolute stars during the renovation and a big thanks needs to go out to them.
Who else was key to the success of the renovation?
Jay Frank, the club’s general manager, is one. He was able to convey the progression of the work to the membership eloquently while remaining positive at the same time. Also, JR Lynn who took the reins as the new superintendent after the first phase was complete. He was hired from Crooked Stick in Carmel, Indiana, where he was the assistant superintendent, and from day one hit the ground running. The level of the golf course maintenance at the club from when he began to where it is now is flat out amazing. He brought with him a new attitude which, to the staff, was contagious!
Are there plans for more work in the future?
There are still more improvements ahead — some fine tuning so to speak. The budget only allowed for us to address about 70 per cent of the tee work and there are a few more Ross elements that I would like to recommend implementing throughout the course for the club to consider adding down the road. The original budget didn’t have enough in it to allow us to add in these features during the renovation but by doing so it would further improve the golf course. A new irrigation system needs to be done eventually, which will then allow us to widen and reroute the fairways as they ought to be. The club also has a nine-hole par-three course that they want to renovate at some point.