Canadian golf course architect Tom McBroom is renovating the course at Caversham Heath Golf Club, which was originally designed by David Williams and opened in 2000, in preparation for its merger with nearby Reading Golf Club.
Reading Golf Club is relocating from the land occupied by its James Braid-designed course. Its partner Fairfax is managing a planned housing development of the site.
Gary Stangoe, general manager for both Caversham Heath and Reading, invited McBroom to tender for the course renovation for the merged club, having experienced the architect’s work in Canada and Finland. Following the tender process, the board of directors selected McBroom for the work, which began in 2019.
McBroom is designing the new course to appeal to golfers of all abilities and ages across both clubs. The new ‘Eyston’ course is named after Caversham Heath Golf Club’s founder Jack Eyston.
“Caversham Heath is a good course, but it isn’t outstanding,” said McBroom. “It is a long course, very long, and it lacked variety and interest. It was a long slog with huge walks between greens and tees, and with only one par three on the front nine [the eighth]. My plan sees a substantial reduction in the length of walks from green to tee and will therefore reduce playing time by as much as 15 to 20 minutes.
“My view has been to transform it into a more playable, walkable and interesting course, with a wider variety of holes for the membership. Reading is renowned for its variety of holes, Caversham Heath not so much.”
Construction started in mid-June 2019 with the rerouting of the first hole as well as the building of a new green and bunkers. “There were three or four fundamental routing changes in order to achieve our goal of a more interesting and walkable course,” said McBroom. “The first is effectively a brand-new hole, with tee boxes re-positioned near to the clubhouse, and bending the hole uphill to the right rather than the left. A new green is situated on the highest point of land on the property which affords a spectacular view of the Reading skyline as well as a stunning view back to the clubhouse.
“The second is also a brand-new hole, built in the area of the old first green. It is now a par three – there were only three par threes in the entire round – so I wanted to add more variety. It plays downhill to the old first green which has been re-bunkered both left and right side.
“Another major routing change was the elimination of the thirteenth hole, which was an awkward uphill par three. We reversed the direction of the hole and created a new driveable par four. The two driveable par fours [the fourth and thirteenth] create some much-needed variety to the overall hole mix.”
Other work includes converting the par-four sixteenth into a par three and substantially changing the eighteenth hole – including relocating the green to a hillside below the clubhouse.
Overall course length will be broadened, from the back tees it will increase from 7,000 yards to 7,400, and the forward tee length will move from 6,000 to 5,600 yards.
“We’re making it more balanced with bunkering and strategy in order to create a really fun course to play, with wide fairways and some internal bunkering in the fairway,” said McBroom. “The aim has always been to make it fun and interesting, and not too long and difficult.”
McBroom has made a concerted effort to ensure the course is playable for golfers of all abilities. “There will be open fronts to greens, the old ones were particularly penal for the high handicap players. While we have opened up greens to players, we are also including bunkers at the sides and backs of greens to challenge the better golfers.”
Ely Golf is responsible for construction work, which has progressed during the coronavirus pandemic with social distancing measures in place. McBroom points out that it was easy for the shapers on diggers to keep the required distance apart.
“Because Tom is based in Canada it was not going to be possible for him to be on site all the time, so it was really important to understand his design ideas for Caversham,” said Mark Ely, principal at contractor Ely Golf.
“At the start of the project, we walked the course several times, stood on each tee box and would discuss the strategy of each hole. Having not worked with Tom before, the harmony between the architect and shaping team was so important.”
With McBroom currently located in Toronto, he has been unable to be on-site since mid-February because of the restrictions on air travel and the UK’s new 14-day quarantine period.
Stangoe says it has been easy to keep the project team updated on work. “Our members love what they see developing and they send me lots of photographs and I send them straight on to Tom,” he said. “Mark and his team do the same and having worked together now for some time, Tom is very comfortable that Mark is producing his vision exactly as planned but enjoys seeing the updates.”
“We have almost completely finished the bunkering to a new style,” said McBroom. “There are more aggressive faces and lines similar to classic heathland courses like St George’s Hill and Sunningdale. I was influenced by those courses for this work. What Caversham originally had was modern bunkers with a lack of variety – the club didn’t want them, they wanted them more a rugged, wispy and organic style.”
Ecobunker has installed liners on all 73 bunkers. Following occasional pauses due to bad weather and the impact of coronavirus, the firm is now on schedule to complete the project before the end of June.
Richard Allen, founder of Ecobunker, said: “I was lucky enough to play the course a few times before work started in earnest. The course and the bunkers were very good, all built to high USGA standards, and I think reflected the prevailing golf course design styles of 20 years ago.
“In more recent years there has been more interest in the ‘Golden Age’ of golf course architecture, and this has led to many notable heathland renovations. It appears to me that both the club and the architect have recognised that Caversham has the terrain and soil conditions suited to a more rugged heathland character, and the first bunkers built last summer have now matured and are clearly delivering the team’s vision. I think the bunkers work extremely well in this landscape.”
Ecobunker has worked on almost 120,000 square feet of hazard area for the project. Allen describes it as “a big canvas to fill”.
“The design style worked in favour of a more cost-effective solution, as the majority of the sand surfaces are relatively flat, with occasional raised faces in strategic locations,” said Allen.
“With the client wanting a resilient liner that would not be damaged by club impact, bunker rakes or burrowing animals, it opted for the Ecosward liner.”
Work on the first, ninth and eighteenth greens have been completed, with the closing hole now in full view of the clubhouse’s grillroom.
“To get a putting surface like the existing greens, course manager Jon Scoones has covered them with cores from the old greens and then overseeded with pure bentgrass,” said Ely.
“The course has been open while works are carried out, which means we have a daily meeting with Jon to advise on whether we need close holes or move tee blocks up for safety reasons.
“No one could imagine what was going to happen this year when we got hit with the pandemic,” continued Ely. “Following the government guidelines on construction, we were allowed to continue working. One operator in each machine with no swapping over, social distancing and sanitising has become the norm for a while. Luckily our material suppliers have been able to continue, which means work has continued as well as expected.
“The bunker shaping has now been completed and three greens constructed and finished. We are now about halfway through lining, topsoiling and turfing the bunkers with the tee construction to start soon.”
Construction is expected to continue until the end of the year with tees to be rebuilt, an irrigation pond expanded, plus a new practice range and new six-hole short course to be built.
The short layout is being built on the grounds of the old practice range, and has been designed particularly for juniors, seniors and those new to the game.
“Late in 2016 and throughout 2017, the 110-year-old Reading Golf Club was struggling to survive the worldwide downturn in golf, as was the Caversham Heath Club,” said Stangoe. “In December 2018 we still were unsure where and what the future would be for both clubs and their staff.
“To see where we are now, just 18 months later, with a long-term future ahead of us on this magnificent course, is hard to comprehend at times. It has been an amazing effort from everyone, including the members whose faith in our board has been overwhelming. I’m sure once completed all will be very proud.”
The new Eyston course will be playable from March 2021, when Reading Golf Club is expected to close.