Story & photos by Mike Besa
In November of last year, I wrote a feature on the challenges facing the Orchard Golf and Country Club ahead of the Founder’s Cup, the club’s annual member-guest tournament. For those that haven’t read that piece, it detailed the degradation of the condition of Orchard’s two championship courses and the controversy surrounding the events that happened shortly thereafter.
I used to refer to the Orchard as the best managed golf club in the country and have publicly acknowledged that this was one of the foremost reasons that I chose to invest in the club. Sadly, the management team that brought the club to the forefront of the golf industry are now gone. General Manager Rene Garrovillo, maintenance head Denis Nuevo, course superintendent Jelly Palmes were all let go because of allegations of malversation of funds stemming from the purchase of chemicals for the golf course. Even golf Director Raymund Sangil, who had no part in the maintenance of the golf course was relieved of his duties.
It is unusual that, despite all the allegations of corruption and malversation of the club’s funds, no charges were filed against any of the outgoing team. If there were illegal activities perpetrated by members of management, should not charges have been filed? None were. In fact, the outgoing management team received full benefits upon their exit.
Upon investigation, it turns out that the man that came forward and gave the information that led to the firing of the management team was a disgruntled former employee that was let go by Palmes for inefficiency. This casts suspicions on his credibility as a witness.
But, what of the golf course? It’s been nigh on 10 months since so how has it fared?
The greens are doing much better. They are still in the process of recovery, so the club hasn’t brought them back to the green speeds to which members are accustomed, but they are rolling very nicely. All well and good, but today, the fairways have issues.
At the height of summer, having only one functioning water pump, the fairways all turned brown without water. For healthy turf grass, it would have been a dormant stage until the rains returned but Orchard’s fairways were apparently quite stressed, and the turf was far from healthy. During summer, there were large areas almost completely devoid of grass of any sort. When the rains came, many thought the fairways would recover but they have not. Where the bare spots once were, with the rains they are mud flats.
Healthy turf grass is its own best defense against weeds and invasive endemic grasses. A strong root system prevents the invaders from taking a foothold, then taking over. Apparently, Orchard’s fairways were anything but healthy. From pristine, uniform fairways, Orchard’s are now dotted with invasive grasses. The pervasiveness of the endemics is such that only way to get rid of them would be to resod the fairways.
I played two large tournaments over the last month at the Orchard and the fairways were quagmires. It was tough just walking in some of the muddy areas, playing the ball was almost impossible. The bare areas on most of the fairways of the Palmer Course haven’t recovered and even with a relief distance of one club due to the conditions, it was difficult to find a suitable spot from which to play the ball.
It would be easy to blame the poor conditions of Orchard’s fairways on the amount of rain that fell, but the other Cavite golf courses aren’t suffering from the same issues. We played Riviera and Sherwood Hills around the same time and their fairways couldn’t have been further removed from the Orchard.
Of course, the members have been vocal in their displeasure over the current conditions of the golf course. The mood in the golfers’ lounge used to be light and filled with laughter. Today, it is dour, and the post round talk revolves around the poor conditions of the golf courses and about how the club is being run. Members have taken to social media to air their displeasure and the club’s response was frankly, shocking.
Instead of being the voice of calm and reason, management went on the offensive. They have threatened to sue some members for libel over comments made and images shared on social media. They’ve put out the message that unwanted criticism will be dealt with harshly. Gone are the policies of inclusion and consultation and in their place, vindictiveness. This is not good management. It would have been much simpler to call a townhall meeting and hash out all the members’ issues. The club chose to retaliate instead.
It isn’t just the members that are unhappy with the state of affairs; the conflicts in the club have boiled over and have begun to affect the employee morale. Another sure sign that something is amiss.
I closed the first part of the November article on the Orchard on an optimistic note; hopeful that Orchard President Conrad Benitez and his team would do the right things, turn the club around and give the courses back to the members in better shape than ever. Although there has been progress since the transition, it seems my optimism was misplaced. Things have gotten worse and I am worried that they can only worsen amid the bickering and infighting.
Most members used to view former General Manager Rene Garrovillo as aloof and not easily approachable in direct contrast to President Benitez who was usually quite gregarious. But the series of events leading to today have opened their eyes to the fact that it was Garrovillo that was the voice of reason at the Orchard that held the impulsive Mr. Benitez in check for the betterment of the club.
The intervening months between my initial feature on the club until today have raised more questions than have been answered at The Orchard. Most had hoped that the courses would be well on their way to recovery about now. That is in fact, the assessment that Sky 72 course superintendent and consultant to the Orchard, Jim Prusa gave me during our interview. Today, the golf course’s condition speaks for itself and is reflective of the situation at the club. Orchard remains a club embattled, with no real resolution in sight.
This has not been an easy piece to write. It has become a habit to highlight the positive in every feature that produced for these pages. But we owe our readers the truth and, sometimes, that’s a bitter pill to have to swallow.
The intramurals have not gone over well with the members. There is an election for the members of the board coming up soon, but the current board controls a sizeable number of shares and the members will have to coalesce to gain meaningful representation on the board. I had hoped that this piece would herald the return of Orchard to its place of prominence in Philippine golf, instead it is the second installment in a saga that is far from a conclusion.