Design Notes

Nicklaus Design overhauls bunkers at PGA National’s Champion Course

Georgia’s refreshed Club at Savannah Harbor reopens; Rees Jones completes Phase 2 renovation at Vermont’s Equinox; Ray Hearn continues Donald Ross Memorial refinements at Michigan’s Highlands at Harbor Springs

The latest news and notes in golf course architecture.   

> PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, announced its renowned Champion Course will reopen September 2 after an extensive bunker renovation. Originally designed by Tom Fazio in 1981 and redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 1990, the Champion layout has played host to the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic since 2007. It was also the venue for the 1983 Ryder Cup and 1987 PGA Championship, and is most famous for its infamous stretch of holes 15 through 17, known as the Bear Trap.

Led by Nicklaus Design, construction over the summer resulted in all bunkers on the Champion Course being rebuilt (or in some cases, eliminated) to ensure maximum playability and strategy. The bunkers are now equipped with new subsurface drainage, Better Billy Bunker liners and eye-catching G-Angle sand.

In addition to the bunker renovation, the Champion saw a major reworking of its cart paths as well as new sod throughout. “With the exciting work from Nicklaus Design complete, our celebrated Champion Course is now better than ever,” said Jane Broderick, director of golf. The bunker upgrades are the latest renovations in the resort’s recent $100 million transformation, which included the opening in 2021 of two Andy Staples-designed courses, The Match and The Staple.

Club at Savannah Harbor.jpg
The Club at Savannah Harbor.

> The Troon-managed Club at Savannah Harbor in Savannah, Georgia will reopen on September 1, 2022 following a five-month, $1.2 million renovation. Led by Director of Grounds Lynn Childress and his team , the renovation focused on rebuilding greens and improving the course’s irrigation and drainage systems. Ellabell, Georgia-based Godwin Golf was the contractor on the project.

Since opening for play in 1999, the original Bob Cupp and Sam Snead design has remained largely unchanged. This summer’s renovation project included rebuilding all 18 greens to their original size and shape, resurfacing with Certified TifEagle Bermuda grass, and installing a new state-of-the-art irrigation system. In addition, the Club at Savannah Harbor’s agronomy team completed large drainage projects and cut tree canopies on several holes to increase playability and enhance the ability to grow healthy turf.

“After 22 years, the course was ready for a renovation,” said the Club at Savannah Harbor’s Head Golf Professional Chris Thompson. “We’re so excited to reopen in September to a fully-updated course.” The former home to the PGA Tour Champions’ Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Championship, the Club at Savannah Harbor winds its way through tidal wetlands and offers scenic views of the surrounding area, including the memorable backdrop to the sixth hole, the Talmadge Bridge.

> The Golf Club at The Equinox in Manchester, Vermont, has completed Phase 2 of its four-phase renovation project, with all work under the auspices of Rees Jones. The course architect's most recent efforts involved reworking greenside bunkers on the 8th, 13th and 14th holes, along with a redesign of the approach and green surrounds at the 18th hole. The latter featured widening the approach and altering the two existing bunkers.

"The new bunkers ... are a tremendous upgrade to the course," said Jay Sheldon, general manager of The Equinox Golf Resort and Spa. "The 18th hole is now one of the signature holes on the course and will leave golfers wanting to play more."

Walter Travis originally designed the Equinox in 1927, and Jones engineered a substantial makeover in 1991. Phase 1, completed in 2021, witnessed the renovation of holes 1, 9 and 15, along with the removal of several fairway bunkers to improve the pace of play. “We’ve enjoyed our more than 30-year relationship with the club, including our ongoing efforts to update the strategic value, appearance, playability and maintainability of the bunkers,” said Jones. “We will continue working with the club to prioritize and implement the remaining master plan recommendations in the coming years. The completed work has been very well received by the members and resort guests, resulting in a significant increase of rounds played and overall golf revenue.”

> The Highlands of Harbor Springs — formerly Boyne Highlands Resort — in Harbor Springs, Michigan, has embarked on the next phase of renovations on its Donald Ross Memorial course. The brainchild of Boyne Resorts founder Everett Kircher, the Donald Ross Memorial course was designed by architect Bill Newcomb and attempted to recreate 18 of the greatest holes ever designed by Ross. It was completed in 1989. Ray Hearn is the current architect for the ongoing refinements.

With tools of technology that weren’t available in the late 1980s, several of the Ross replicas are taking on a form that more closely mimics the originals. Work on the par-4 1st hole, for example, modeled after Seminole’s lauded 6th hole, was recently completed, and it embraces something more resembling Florida. Currently, the 15th hole is a dead ringer for Aronimink’s 11th and is undergoing similar treatment from Hearn. Next up is the 13th hole, which aligns with Seminole’s par-5 15th.

"We’re not changing the holes," said Ken Griffin, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. "We are doing a better job with the technology now available to us."

Added longtime Boyne staff member Bernie Friedrich, the resort’s senior vice president of golf operations, "Today, through technology and Google Earth, we are able to gather photos and dimensions to create an even more accurate reproduction," he said. It’s especially gratifying for Friedrich, a Boyne veteran of 47 years, who was a member of the original team to select which Ross holes would be chosen for inclusion on the Donald Ross Memorial course.