Design Notes

Fry/Straka to reopen Donald Ross-designed Belleair West

Steve Stricker helps to rebrand Cherokee Country Club into TPC Wisconsin; Brandon Johnson refurbishes PGA West's Palmer in California; David Williams concludes 12-year project at Spain’s Pedrena

20th century postcard of Belleair Golf Course
Postcard depicts the original 4th green at Belleair's West / No. 1 Course.

The latest news and notes in golf course architecture.

> Belleair Country Club in Belleair, Florida, has undertaken a massive renovation of its historic West Course. The architects at Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, led by Dana Fry and Jason Straka, current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, broke ground on the project in March. It’s all happening as the Clearwater-area club celebrates its 125th anniversary.

"After a full survey of the members, it was clear they desired and supported no mere run-of-the-mill renovation of the West Course, but a restoration that embraced its historic significance and pedigree," says Ed Shaughnessy, Belleair's COO. "The bunkers and greens definitely required reconstruction. That resolution led to several investigative, illuminating trips to the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst [North Carolina], where we learned just how important this design is, historically, and just how much documentation we have from Donald Ross himself — regarding both his original design effort in 1915 and his redesign in 1924. That information enabled us to make informed decisions culminating in a full and faithful restoration. That is what we’re producing."

Straka is collaborating with Ft. Myers, Florida-based Clarke Construction Group on the $8.8 million project. All 18 greens are being rebuilt to USGA specifications, then restored according to Ross’ 1924 construction drawings. Straka and Belleair superintendent Andy Neiswender have chosen TifEagle ultradwarf for the putting surfaces, with Bimini bermudagrass everywhere else on the 120-acre course.

A prime attraction of the property to what Ross originally called the No. 1 Course is its 30 feet of elevation change, unusual for the west coast of Florida. His course was set beside half a mile of frontage on Clearwater Bay.

"To have such detailed construction drawings," says Straka, "allows us to eliminate the guesswork. We basically took all the plans from 1915 and 1924 and turned them into modern construction drawings. So if Ross had a cop bunker seven feet high at number 16, we’re building it seven feet high. Ross detailed a lot of ‘cop’ bunkers on this 1924 routing. These are mounds totally in play — what Ross called the ‘fair green’ — with sand faces covered in wiregrass. So that’s what we’re building, because Ross’ own cross-section drawings and notes tell us exactly how to construct them. When we’re finished, this course is going to be an amazing sort of time warp for the members."

Belleair began as a six-hole loop with crushed-shell greens, laid out beside railroad baron Henry Plant’s colossal, new winter hotel, The Belleview. After its 1897 christening, this sprawling structure would come to be known as The Great White Queen of the Gulf.

It was first known as Belleview Golf Club, then morphed into Belleair, then in the 1930s, The Belleview Biltmore. The members reclaimed it in 1987, along with the Belleair moniker. The hotel was largely torn down in 2017.

"Our restoration of the putting surfaces here has been akin to an archaeological dig," Straka says. "Here at the first green and elsewhere, we would excavate a green complex and find not one set of old drainage but two or three — all piled on top of each other. The inverted-saucer green, such a staple of the so-called ‘Ross Style,’ is a bit of a fallacy. Here and elsewhere, those putting surfaces became that way, over time, through multiple rebuilds and decades of top-dressing. Ross’ original plans for Belleair make that very clear. They show all but two of these greens were originally designed and built with entries at zero grade.

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"It’s a pretty rich irony: Ross returned here in 1924 with the intention to make the West Course much more difficult, and I’m sure he succeeded there. However, in restoring that design in 2022, almost to the letter, we are making the course is far more user-friendly. Yes, we are re-exposing ravines and streams that had been filled in over the years. However, by following the Ross plans, these greens won’t be playing six feet in the air, and we’ll be expanding all the fairways back to their intended width — fully 50 percent wider."

The plan is to reopen all 18 holes by mid-November 2022.

> Madison’s Cherokee Country Club announced on May 24 its intention to rebrand as the first TPC facility in Wisconsin. Twelve-time PGA Tour winner and Wisconsin native Steve Stricker will oversee the course redesign, which will include a revamping of its Golf Academy.

Stricker’s first foray into course design involves regrading the terrain, repositioning design features, rebuilding all of the infrastructure, including greens, tees and bunkers and installing new cart paths.

"I couldn’t ask for a better scenario with my first golf course design project to be the same property that I spent the better part of 30 years of my golf career and where I raised my family," Stricker says. "TPC Wisconsin will be a dream project for me."

The golf course will be replanted with improved turf grasses and will have a new irrigation system installed. Some rerouting of the holes will occur to improve green-to-tee walks and to create hubs of greens and tees. Spectator mounding will be integrated into many of these areas

The golf course renovation is expected to be completed in August 2023.

> Who better to restore and renovate the Arnold Palmer course at PGA West in La Quinta, California, than Arnold Palmer’s design firm?

Brandon Johnson, senior architect at Arnold Palmer Design Co., has finished Phase I of a renovation project at PGA West’s Palmer layout, a course that played host to the PGA Tour’s Desert Classic on 25 occasions between 1988 and 2015. Johnson took the greens back to Palmer’s original creation, which provides for more hole locations. He also substituted the existing TifDwarf bermudagrass with TifEagle.

"While we restored some greens, we also made strategic enhancements; expansions that introduced new pin locations in addition to restoring pins that had been lost for years," Johnson says. "We also adjusted all the fairway lines to expose and incorporate more of the existing contours."

Greenside bunkers have been reconfigured and new bunkers have been added. Green surrounds have been refurbished and holes 14 through 17 feature improved irrigation.

> It took a dozen years, but David Williams has finally completed the renovation of Real Golf de Pedrena, Seve Ballesteros’ old stomping grounds, on Spain’s north coast.

Williams, a 25-year veteran in the course design business, is also known for his consulting collaborations with Neil Coles, former chairman of the European PGA Tour chairman and a 29-time tour winner. At Pedrena, Williams renovated two or three holes at a time every other year on the H.S. Colt design so as to minimize disruptions in play for the membership. The club’s short nine-hole course, designed by Ballesteros, saw some of its holes serve as substitutes during the time when Colt’s holes were out of commission.

"The club took the decision to fully rebuild a hole when it was closed, allowing the majority of tees and all bunkers to have been rebuilt over the past twelve years," Williams says. "Since 2016, all bunkers have been reconstructed using Better Billy Bunker liner and Durabunker edging. Many bunkers have been redesigned and repositioned to better reflect modern play, although many original Colt bunkers—abandoned in previous years — have been reopened to recreate the historic challenge of the holes."

An ill-conceived greens rebuild in the 1990s featured a dearth of acceptable hole locations, so Williams has redesigned and rebuilt the most problematic of them, which included new drainage and irrigation. A new hole, the 174-yard, par-3 10th, was built in 2015 and features a recreated Colt green. The hole replaced a poorly received 207-yard uphill test that appeared in the 1970s.

In 2020, Williams completed work on the course’s signature hole, the par-3 seventh, which resulted in expanded pinnable areas on the green, refurbished bunkers and selective tree removal. Throughout the course, thinning and removing trees has yielded views across the course that also reveal sea and mountain vistas. In 2021-’22, Williams tweaked the long par-3 second hole and the meaty par-4 fourth with the help of Spanish contractor CugarGolf.