Design Notes

The MacKenzie magic is restored at Lake Merced

Hanse Golf Design, Heritage Links collaboration to reopen in October; Tyler Rae embarks on restoration at Iowa’s Wakonda; RTJ Trail's Oxmoor Valley shrinks par-3 course; Stirling and Martin chart new course on Mediterranean coast

The par-3 13th hole at Lake Merced Golf Club after its restoration by Heritage Links and Hanse Golf Design.

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> Architect Gil Hanse and partner Jim Wagner have authored a string of hugely successful renovations and restorations that were unveiled to the world in 2022, including Southern Hills Country Club, site of the PGA Championship, and The Country Club, which hosted the U.S. Open.

Another set of their vast skills will be revealed this fall, following work at Lake Merced Golf Club, just south of San Francisco.

Started in October 2021, Hanse Golf Design collaborated with course builder Heritage Links on a comprehensive, hybrid restoration of the Alister MacKenzie layout, restoring many of the 18 holes but also creating several new ones in homage to what Wagner calls, “the MacKenzie vibe.” In all, Hanse Golf Design and Heritage Links rebuilt all 18 greens, created a 36,000 square foot Himalayas-style putting course, new short-game practice areas, turf nursery, refurbished 150,000 square feet of bunkering, restored then expanded all 18 tee complexes, moved the practice facility from one end of the property to the other, and installed a two-wire irrigation system using flexible, no-leak HDPE piping.

According to Heritage Links vice president Oscar Rodriguez, the final four greens were seeded on June 15, right on schedule, meaning the course will reopen on schedule in the middle of October.

"This job was a total blow up," said Wagner, though he acknowledged a substantial wrinkle. "The club wanted a restoration and we did have great photography from the 1930s. At one, four, five, 10 and 13, for example, we were able to put the holes back as MacKenzie created them. But we couldn’t do that everywhere. The property had undergone too much radical change through the years.”

Lake Merced’s first design dates to 1922, attributed to Willie Lock. MacKenzie arrived in 1929, with partner Robert Hunter, and completely revised the course. In the 1960s, construction of Interstate 280 resulted in Lake Merced losing portions of its property, a fate that similarly befell the A.W. Tillinghast design at San Francisco Golf Club around five city blocks to the north. Lake Merced responded by moving its clubhouse from the north end of the property to the southeast corner. It also authorized a major re-routing managed by architect Robert Muir Graves, resulting in many new holes that boast no MacKenzie lineage at all. Rees Jones enacted revisions to Lake Merced in 1996.

In short, during 2021-22, Hanse Golf Design and Heritage Links restored those holes that could be restored. Elsewhere, they substantially re-routed again, creating several new holes in the MacKenzie style that will be maintained by superintendent Matt Dachowski and team. Rodriguez reported that 75,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved at Lake Merced, and “that’s still a lot, for a renovation.” Of course, that total was inflated by the creation of two golf holes — the par-4 10th and par-3 16th holes— in the MacKenzie style.

"Sixteen was an attempt to achieve that vibe," Wagner said. "It plays over the beginning of a barranca, to a green on this little ridge that sits across the expanse. Very much like you would see at (MacKenzie’s) Pasatiempo. At the same time, that green is set right beside the green at 13, which is a hole we restored using great old photos that really showed everything, the unique green setting tucked into that hillside. So, that was daunting, to create a new green in the MacKenzie style that sits beside a restored original."

What does mimicking the MacKenzie style actually mean?

“It’s the size, scale, look and placement of the bunkering, mainly,” Wagner said, “with the edging that reminds a lot of people of cloud formations. But it’s also the way they sit in the landscape: down into the green, while some float above grade. When you put that look into a landscape with vegetation, like Cypress trees, it just screams MacKenzie. The greens here are actually sort of simple compared to some others, but they work well in this setting."

> Restoration specialist Tyler Rae will begin work next year on his master-planned restoration of the Wakonda Club in Des Moines, Iowa. Designed in 1922 by Midwest masters William Langford and Theodore Moreau, Wakonda played host to the 1963 U.S. Amateur, won by Deane Beman, and is current host to the PGA Tour Champions’ Principal Charity Classic, where winners since 2013 have included Mark Calcavecchia, Tom Lehman and Jerry Kelly.

Rae’s plan is being implemented beginning in 2023 with groundbreaking scheduled for June. The plan’s driving force was to install a new irrigation system, which will make the club more sustainable environmentally and improve turf and tree conditions. Paying homage to Langford and Moreau’s original design intentions was another major aspect in creating this master plan. Restoring and reorienting tees, bunkers and greens, thinning and removing trees and adding new tees are among the highlights of the intended work.

In particular, Rae and his team will endeavor to bring back the imposing bunkers in place originally.

“The bunkers were angled and severe in particular circumstances,” Rae said. “The challenge will be replicating their style and making sure we nail the bold scale of the features.”

Work is expected to be completed by the end of spring 2024.

> Oxmoor Valley, a Robert Trent Jones Trail layout in suburban Birmingham, Alabama, is engineering a full makeover of its 18-hole par-3 course. Architect Clyde Johnston began work in spring 2022 to reimagine the very idea of what purpose the facility’s existing Short Course served.

In its original incarnation from 1992, designers Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Roger Rulewich crafted an 18-hole miniature version of their two championship designs, with strong shot values, muscular par-3s, cart paths and elevated greens. It was a great test for better players, but not so much for kids and beginning golfers. SunBelt Golf Corporation, which operates the Trail courses, decided it was time for a change.

Currently under construction, the new Oxmoor Valley Short Course will feature a much smaller footprint. Its nine holes will occupy only 14 acres, one-tenth of the size of the old 18-hole par-3 layout. It will be called The Back Yard, and its holes will range from 70 to 123 yards. It will be walkable, with only five bunkers. The bulk of the challenge will center on contouring on and around the greens. Expected opening of The Back Yard is mid-October 2022.

> Architects Blake Stirling and Marco Martin will design a new course in Castellon, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, with work expected to begin in September. The two architects have a long history with the site, being first approached about designing a course there in 2004. The project, known as St. Gregory Golf, stalled, but the architects were approached again in 2020 by a different developer, who sought to establish a community that included real estate, parks and sports academies, in addition to the golf. In the proposed environmental plan, a nature reservoir for native turtles will be created, as well as an overflow channel to divert rainwater during major storms.

Martin was especially pleased to unfold a routing that incorporates quality golf amid all of the environmental, engineering and land use restrictions.

"The final routing is a great example of what a golf course master plan should be when it relates to residential and tourist areas," said Martin. "The first, 15th, 16th and 17th holes all have excellent views toward the Mediterranean Sea. The golf course plays from 5,000 to 7,000 yards. This will offer golfers many different ways to plot their way around."