Friday, December 20, 2013

Quick Update, Reflections, and Merry Christmas!

Hello and welcome to "The Greenkeeper"! Today is Friday, December 20th and I want to quickly bring you up to speed with what's going on out on the golf course, then share something I hope you will enjoy.  Our bunker renovation project is moving along at warp speed.  At this time Golf Course Services has completed bunker renovations on holes 1,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,14,15,17&18.  This totals over 50 bunkers.  During my last post I referenced the new tee construction scheduled to begin once bunker renovations are complete.  Preparations for this work is underway as my staff has been clearing underbrush from the surrounding area, and sand is being stockpiled on site.  After GCS takes a short break for Christmas, they will return to renovate all the bunkers on holes 12 and 13, then we will turn our attention to the new tee construction. 

In other course related news, last week I met with the members of the Greens Committee.  The discussion went something like this...

The following day was what I will describe as a prototypical late fall day in North Carolina (remember the first day of winter is tomorrow) with bright sunshine and not a cloud in sight!

Thanks to all of you following along.  I hope you find these nuggets informative and helpful, as well as entertaining.

This past Tuesday I was attending the Past President's Dinner of Carolina Golf Club.  I have been very fortunate to receive an invitation to this annual event each year since becoming superintendent, and I always enjoy the stories about the club's history.  Anyway, this year a microphone was passed around the room giving each person a chance to say a little something, or not.  As the microphone made its way around the large table there were many great things said about Carolina Golf Club, its leadership (past and present), its membership, the golf course, and the staff.  When my turn came I simply passed the microphone, and an opportunity to say something meaningful and profound was momentarily lost.  However, knowing I have the luxury of this forum and having had a few more days to reflect...

Ahem (clears throat).

I was first introduced to the game of golf by my grandfather, John M. Hankins, Jr.  Pap Pa (pronounced Pap Paw) as he is affectionately known is a veteran of World War II and a retired railroad man.  He was a devoted husband for over 50 years to his late wife Margaret, and he still loves golf and fishing.  He will celebrate his 91st birthday this coming Monday (December 23rd). 

He made my very first golf club by cutting down an old Powerbilt 4-wood of his when I was about four years old.  I still have it on display in my home, and it is one of my most cherished possessions!

Old Faithful!

Remember These!
Hillerich and Bradsby (since 1916)

A few years later my first-cousin and I each received junior sets of clubs for Christmas.  That spring we took Pap Pa's riding mower and removed the pin used to control the mowing height on the floating deck.  We scalped a large circle out in front of the house then used a garden trowel to dig a small hole.  We placed an empty tin can in the hole for a cup, and took turns deciding where the tee was located and the route you had to take to get to the green (you were not allowed to go over the house or Granny would kill you!).  When I look back on these timesI believe I was destined to be a golf course superintendent.

Fast forward several years to 1988.  I am about a month shy of my 20th birthday and I get an offer to work at Lake Bonaventure Country Club in Castlewood, VA.  LBCC is a modest 9-hole private club formed in the late 1950's.  Although I had played there on a few occasions while growing up, this opportunity truly set me on a long, winding path that led to my current destination.  LBCC was designed by Alexander McKay (more on him later) and truth is during my tenure at Bonaventure nobody knew that (at least nobody I knew ever discussed it).  In fact, I never knew it until after I became superintendent of Carolina Golf Club in 2005.

Prior to coming to Carolina I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees at Virginia Tech and then worked at two other golf courses, Augustine Golf Club in Stafford, VA and Swan Point Yacht & Country Club in Issue, MD.  Augustine was designed in the early 1990's by Rick Jacobson, a former design associate of Jack Nicklaus.  Augustine was Jacobson's first solo design in the U.S. and it is widely considered to be the grandfather of upscale, daily fee golf in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.  Swan Point was designed by Bob Cupp in the late 1980's and both courses really are good golf courses, and I enjoyed playing them, but something was missing.  During those years, my wife Darless and I would travel when time allowed and play other courses in the region.  We found most other public access courses were also modern era designs, and although most were very well maintained, they too were not the most pleasing to our palettes.

In the spring of 2005 an opportunity to become the golf course superintendent of Carolina Golf Club became available.  Darless and I traveled from Virginia to see the course and explore the possibility of relocating to Charlotte.  During that first round at Carolina something clicked.  I saw features that reminded me of Bonaventure, and the game I remembered so fondly from my early greenkeeping days came rushing back.  It was this experience that prompted me to track down the original architect of Lake Bonaventure and ultimately discover Alex McKay and his history. 

Alexander G. McKay was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1893.  He learned golf at Cruden Bay Golf Club in Aberdeen and moved to the U.S. shortly after World War I.  After bouncing around with several odd jobs he became the superintendent and golf professional for the city of Louisville, KY in 1926, caring for their city parks and golf courses.  He remained in Louisville for ten years before moving to Charleston, WV and designing Meadowbrook CC.  He served as that club's first professional and superintendent, and remained there until after World War II.  Following World War II, Mr. McKay became the golf professional and superintendent of Holston Hills CC in Knoxville, TN and became famous for successfully converting their bermudagrass greens to bentgrass.  He remained at Holston Hills for a decade before becoming a full time course architect and turf consultant.

Why is all that significant you ask.  Anyone with any knowledge of Donald Ross knows Holston Hills is widely regarded in many circles as one of the top 10 golf courses ever designed by Donald Ross.  Thus, it is only natural someone entrusted with the care of a top 10 Donald Ross design would incorporate Ross like features in design work of his own down the road.  Thus, my love affair with Donald Ross originated via a surrogate!  (Sidebar: Alex McKay is credited for having designed Statesville CC just up the road in 1962.  He died in Nashville, TN in 1964 at the age of 71.)

Since arriving at Carolina I have had the pleasure of seeing first hand this well crafted layout transformed to a golf course which can hold its own with the finest of Ross designs.  Over the years I have managed to enhance my Ross education by traveling and experiencing several other courses of his in the Carolinas: Grove Park Inn (Asheville), Mimosa Hills CC (Morganton), Roaring Gap Club (Sparta), Catawba CC (Newton), Charlotte CC, Myers Park CC, CC of Salisbury, Camden CC, Forsyth CC (Winston-Salem), Sedgefield CC (Greensboro), Pine Needles, Mid-Pines, Southern Pines CC, and of course Pinehurst No. 2.  What I have discovered is how brilliant the man was and how he mastered the simple.  There are no gimmicks on a Donald Ross golf course, the challenge is right there in front of you.  His courses truly challenge the best players of the game, but are very playable and fun for the highest handicappers.  I am constantly amazed how courses like Carolina, Southern Pines, Mid-Pines, Catawba, Mimosa Hills or Camden still have a high resistance to scoring when played from between 6200 to 6600 yards!  Ross courses are brilliantly routed with holes cleverly crafted along some of the most beautiful, natural topography I have ever seen. 

Copy of Original Ross Routing

Being entrusted to care for Carolina Golf Club is an honor and a privilege, and I cannot think of anyplace else I would rather be... or play!  (Voice of the late Paul Harvey, " ...and now you know the rest of the story".)  Hey, I said it was long and winding!

Darless and I will be traveling tomorrow to Virginia to celebrate Christmas with both our families.  Although we both are looking forward to getting there and spending time with our loved-ones, we are already looking forward to getting back to Charlotte and to Carolina Golf Club, our home!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all the members of Carolina Golf Club!

See you on the course,

Matthew Wharton
Golf Course Superintendent

Information about Alexander G. McKay courtesy of "The Golf Course" by Geoffrey S. Cornish and Ronald E. Whitten, May 1985