Work On The Washtenaw Golf Club Master Plan Is Underway
A major logging operation underway at Washtenaw Golf Club over the winter months signaled the beginning of the execution of a long-term plan for the 122-year-old club.
Developed by noted architect Ray Hearn, the master plan is based on early 20th century aerial photographs of the property. Hearn’s research revealed a course with many more strategic options and — interestingly — several square greens. Hearn had previously worked on a plan for Washtenaw when it was a private country club. That plan was never carried out.
Removal of trees from a course can be a gut-wrenching decision. At Oakmont, the superintendent removed trees slowly, in the middle of the night, hoping members wouldn’t notice. Trees on the chopping block would be felled, ground and the work concealed before the first tee time. The end result — a return to its links style origins — was lauded at the 2016 US Open.
Maintenance of trees is an important part of the stewardship of a golf course. It is one that Washtenaw Golf Club owner Dave Kendall, a Michigan Golf Hall of Famer, takes seriously. As the trees on the course have grown over the last 100 years, lines of play have been altered, and strategic options diminished. Tree growth also makes it difficult to grow grass. For optimal health, greens, fairways and tee boxes need eight to ten hours of direct sunlight during the growing season.
For my part, I’m pleased with the way tree removal has opened the course. I’m looking forward to seeing how the extra sunlight improves conditions.
The most dramatic difference in play might be on the par four fifteenth. Until this season, large trees with overhanging branches created a narrow opening for tee shots. In every group I have played with, at least one — and often all — of the balls would clip a branch on the right and land in the forest. Slicers were dead. A draw was difficult to execute.
Further, an approach shot from the right side of the fairway often would be stymied by overhanging branches.
Removal of trees inside the cart path on fifteen opens the right side of the hole, giving players the opportunity to hit a draw off the tee. The new look also gives players a clean look at the hole from the right side of the fairway.
In one sense, tree removal makes the hole easier. More importantly, though, it makes the hole more fair. A tee shot that misses the fairway right still will be punished with a bad lie, but at least players will have a shot.
Another hole with significant change is the par four fifth (above). Here, trees were removed from the left side of the fairway approaching the hole as well as in around the left side of the green. Prior to this, an approach shot from the left side of the fairway or initial rough had a decent chance of clipping a branch on the way to the green. The trees also effectively took the left greenside bunker out of play.
As with the woods on the right on the fifteenth, the trees on the left on the fifth seemed to catch at least one player in every group. Trunks, branches, and roots in that area turned it into golf’s equivalent of Alcatraz.
With the pruning, good tee shots on the left side of the fairway will be rewarded — rather than punished. Once the stumps are ground away, the now-open area left of the green will present an interesting challenge for players trying to get up and down — especially if the rough grow to the usual Washtenaw thickness. A tight collection area might also be interesting. Trying to lob a ball off a tight lie over the left bunker to a narrow, elevated green could be quite the task.
On the eighth (above), the removal of a large tree on the left restored the strategic option of challenging the bunker to get a short wedge into the green that’s perched on a hilltop above the fairway.
On eighteen, removal of a large tree on the left side of the fairway just short of Paint Creek removed an unfair obstacle in the line of play. My playing partner this past week was the happy beneficiary of the new look. His tee shot cleared the crest of the hill and rolled out to a spot where — in previous years — he would have been completely stymied, despite being in the fairway.
Trees in smaller numbers also were removed from other holes. I think the most significant of those are on holes one, two, six, ten, thirteen, fourteen and sixteen. On several of those, however, removal mostly consisted of just one or two trees that opened lines of play.
In all, some two hundred trees were removed. Some were taken down to improve play. Others were removed because they had become diseased and threatened their neighbors. A few were axed for safety reasons.
An interesting note on the project is that the lumbering could not begin this past winter until the fairways were frozen solid. Frozen fairways minimized the damage from equipment and falling trees. Because the winter was mild and the ground did not freeze until late work was delayed.
Course Superintendent Mark Pappas and his crew are doing yeoman’s work in cleaning up the mess from the renovations, while simultaneously conducting the usual prep work for the season. All eighteen holes are open for play at this point, and stumps are steadily being ground to dust.
The plan developed by Ray Hearn will come to full fruition over the next several years. Blowing up the course and rebuilding in a year in the way that Oakland Hills did with its South Course just isn’t an option. I think the gradual approach — guided by a strategic plan — will work well.
I look forward to chronicling the developments.