The golf construction boom of the 1990s may have been centred on America, but it didn’t skip the UK. A key difference between the two, though, was that most new golf in Britain was low cost pay and play. By comparison with America, there were relatively few big money developments.
Chart Hills in Kent, to the south-east of London, was one of them. Designed by American architect Steve Smyers along with signature name Nick Faldo, it was the six-time major champion’s first such project: obviously, he has gone on to build a successful design business. And, even when the Nineties design style started to go out of fashion, Chart Hills remained popular: it has always been known as a very solid, strong golf course.
But that reputation didn’t stop the course from falling on hard times. Chart Hills has a lot of bunkers, including the famous Anaconda, apparently the longest in Europe, which stretches for more than 200 metres up the side of the par five fifth hole. The sixteenth hole has a ‘wall’ of bunkers, 19 of them. When the course opened in 1994, there were 25 people on the greens crew. A few years ago, that number had shrunk to five. Five guys cannot maintain that many bunkers; it simply does not add up. So it is unsurprising that the condition of the course suffered.
Eventually, inevitably, Chart Hills was sold. On Christmas Eve 2019, the course became part of the Ramac Group, controlled by the McGuirk family, also the proprietors of the famous Prince’s links, in Sandwich on the Kent coast. The family has been involved in the golf business for many years, and has a reputation of being a long-term investor. It is hard to imagine that Chart Hills could have a better owner.
It needed it. When Ramac took over Chart Hills, the course was in a mess. Long-time course manager Neil Lowther, who has worked there for almost twenty years, had become so accustomed to making do with very little that he was astonished to be allowed to buy greenkeeping equipment, according to new director of golf Ant Tarchetti.
The course’s fairways had deteriorated to the point where they had very little grass coverage; an infestation of leatherjackets had wreaked havoc on the roots. Most pressingly of all, when the course was built in the 1990s, no subsurface drainage had been installed. Bearing in mind that the soil at Chart Hills is heavy Kentish Wealden clay, this was obviously a major problem. “The design on top was very good but below the surface it struggled,” says Tarchetti.
The new owners realised very quickly that the course needed significant investment if it was to realise its considerable potential. Most especially, fixing the drainage was obviously essential. So they signed up for a large rebuilding project that has occupied most of 2020.
The works at Chart Hills are remarkable for their scale; not quite on the level of the work we profiled last year at Loch Lomond GC (which is roughly the same age as the Kentish course, and coincidentally was another high-profile big budget design that was constructed without adequate drainage), but pretty amazing because they have been handled basically in-house. Course manager Lowther has acted as project manager, and his team has taken care of a massive trenching effort, adding 100mm perforated drainage pipe to every hole – across both fairways and especially wet areas of semi-rough – with a drain every five metres.
After the trenching crew had finished their work on a hole, contractor and shaper Ian Stevens moved in and removed the top two and a half inches of soil, which was not good material and by that time basically just thatch: course manager Lowther says: “There was basically no topsoil on the course; respread during the original build was minimal. The only way forward was to strip the fairways off and start again.” Stevens then capped the fairways with four inches (100mm) of sand. A total of 32,000 tonnes of sand was spread on the course to complete the project – Tarchetti says that getting so much material through the Kentish lanes to the site and then across the course to the individual holes was one of the toughest parts of the whole job!
Once Stevens had done his work, a seperate contractor, hired to do the finishing, came in to seed the new fairways. A creeping strain of dwarf ryegrass was used, chosen for its hard-wearing, drought and disease-resistant characteristics, and the fact that it produces less thatch than the original bentgrass fairways. From the trenching team leaving a hole to the seed going down took between ten and 14 days, and Tarchetti says that the new grass germinated rapidly and created a carpet of green across the sandy surface within a couple of weeks. Mowing started quickly, initially at a height of 25mm, with a goal height of 13mm by the time the course is ready for play. “As they mow, it makes the grass creep across the surface and fill in the gaps to produce a smooth surface,” Tarchetti explains.
The project was initially planned not to include any redesign work, but during the construction, the team realised that the eighth fairway was lying wet and in danger of flooding after a significant rain event, so they decided to create a waterway across it and raise the green complex slightly to ensure it stayed dry. This work has been well done, and the new stream will have shaved grass banks and be an additional hazard for golfers to avoid when playing the hole.
The results of all this work are impressive. Areas of the course that were in an especially bad state, such as the thirteenth, the worst affected by the leatherjacket infestation, and consequently almost devoid of grass, are now an excellent green carpet. Even the sixteenth, the last hole to be sandcapped, because it was used as a storage location for the massive pile of sand, is in good shape. Despite a very wet autumn, including 50mm of rain in three weeks during October, the course has remained firm and bouncy: when members return, they will find a very different golfing experience from the one they have been used to.
Watch: Ant Tarchetti provides an overview of the work completed at Chart Hills in 2020.
There is still a lot of work to do. As well as grooming the new surfaces, Lowther and his team must renovate the network of bridges and paths, and also restore the copious bunkering back to its best condition. But the Covid pandemic has had its benefits for Chart Hills. Initially, the project was due for completion, and the course for reopening, in March 2022; because of the speed the team has been able to work during the pandemic, this has been brought forward, and Chart Hills will reopen for play in March of this year. It is a pretty remarkable piece of work, especially for an in-house job, and Ant Tarchetti, Neil Lowther and their team deserve a lot of credit. Chart Hills has a bright future.
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.