CSGA (September 27, 2020) Advances in golf course maintenance are not always advances in golf course architecture.
The Country Club of Farmington, host to this week’s 75th Senior Amateur Championship, September 29-30, bears witness to some of the things that can happen as this kind of “progress” occurs.
—As mowing machines get larger and easier to use, greens lose hard-to-mow shoulders, becoming ovals that make cutting easier.
—Greens shrink with each cutting, and greenside bunkers are not so greenside anymore.
—To make things easier for the riding machines that now rake those bunkers, the fingers and curls that made them unique are lopped off.
—Fairways that once subtly curved and twisted follow the more direct routes of new irrigation systems, and are now softer from the watering.
— Hard-to-machine-mow mounds are leveled.
—Trees become necessary to separate holes that look more and more alike, narrowing fairways and making grass harder to grow.
In short, a golf course that once resembled an airy, unpredictable walk in the country comes to feel more like a series of bowling alleys.
That never completely happened to Farmington, but it came too close for some members’ liking. Devereux Emmet’s enticing and often quirky 100-year-old design had lost much of its colorful personality.
Now that is changing.
The golf course that the seniors meet this coming week, though still in transition, will again offer the charm that Emmet instilled almost 100 years ago (as well as at nearby Hartford Golf Club, and on Long Island at Garden City Golf and St. George’s.) It will provide more of the playing options that Emmet sought. And it will be striking in its visual appeal, with loads of yellowing fescue along broader fairway landing areas and greens closer to the unusual, and often rectangular shapes, that Emmet built. There will be more “crumpled” turf off the to sides of some fairways, small mounds that challenge wayward shots. The feel of the place will be bigger, airier.
“The course has opened back up again, with tree management and fairway expansion it restores the strategy and quirkiness of the place,” says architect Matt Dusenberry of Dusenberry Design, who is leading the restoration, much as he did at Keney Park in Hartford. Dusenberry, under the direction of green chair Dr. Geoffrey Manton and with the help of new superintendent Scott Ramsay is embarking on what promises to be a 5-year-restoration transforming both Farmington’s appearance and strategic choices.
“We are peeling back layers,” says Manton, the “evangelist” behind Farmington’s alterations, “to reveal features and restore firm and bouncy turf conditions that allow the architecture to shine.” Emmet’s 1921 course depiction and a 1934 aerial view have driven their re-working of the course.
Perhaps the best example of completed restoration is the par-4 13th. There, a green that had become an oval is recovering its semi-rectangular shape, and “Florida” bunkers that are back to their old mischief. On one side, a grass-covered gumdrop sits in the middle of a large, sunken bunker. On the other, narrow strips of sand that resemble cricket wicket, have returned. Fairway bunkers, once a major drainage problem at his low point of the course, have been replaced by the rumpled, mounded area right of the fairway that eventually will be covered in the fescue that golfers see elsewhere on the course, especially as they look up the 14th fairway to its tucked-left green.
“It’s stunning. And it’s a work in progress,” says Ramsay, who came to Farmington over the winter from Yale, where he also restored greens and eliminated trees to aid turf growth. “I will need three changes of season to get 13 where we want it. To get it right. So it’s a transition year. We’re going with the low hanging fruit this year. But a year from now, it will be beautiful.”
The membership, kept updated via Manton’s periodic reports on the new Farmington, has mostly embraced the changes, though sometimes with eyebrows raised. “At 13,” says Dusenberry, “we had members say, but these don’t look anything like the other bunkers on the course. Yep, that’s the point.” Eventually, they will.
Other noticeable changes: Dusenberry has widened the fairway at the par-5 10th until it melds with that of the ninth. He hopes to restore the z-shaped “cross-centerline-cross” bunker there that would make short approaches trickier. He will solve the issue of players playing from opposite fairways on the 15th and 16th holes with more uneven ground, altered mowing, and cross and lengthwise bunkers that separate the holes. An old overgrown quarry pit near No. 3, recalling a similar pit at Garden City, will be uncovered. “You know, 99 per cent of players are high handicaps and you want it to be fun for them,” says Dusenberry. “But you also want to interest the one per cent of really avid players who are into course design, the pacemakers who will talk about the course and say, ‘You have to see this!’”
The aim of most changes is to give all players more options. Farmington will seem “easier” off the tee, says General Manager and Head Professional Jeremy Vitkauskas. “The expansion of the fairways has been well received, for the look and the playability, but that sometimes changes the way you play the hole and brings bunkers into play.” Or as Ramsay kids, “When you give players more options, they usually choose the wrong one.”
Many greens have already been re-shaped, evidenced by slight scalping around their perimeters. “With the restoration of the greens, it’s not always for more hole locations,” says Dusenberry. “Some of the expanded area is ‘un-pinnable,’ but it makes the green surrounds so much more interesting. It looks better, adds short game options, and brings more fun and interest.”
If it sounds as though Emmet’s design at Farmington suffered more than most from changes in maintenance and design “advances, Manton contends that it has. In one of his reports to the membership, he wrote:
“[Emmet’s] designs suffered a greater degree of sterilization than his counterparts. He was known for implementing “quirky” elements into his golf holes and these features were eliminated with such abandon over the years that few of his courses remain today which even closely resemble their original design. Fortunately for golf, a new era of architects came along around the turn of the 21st century who embraced the ideals of the Golden Age. In doing so, they started a renaissance.”