Moving toward sustainability: Camp John Hay Golf Club is making big changes

In Photo: Cool season grasses that are more shade-tolerant are being used on the greens that get the least sun.

AT the height of the golf boom, everyone and his brother wanted and built golf courses that looked and felt like the venues on the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour, particularly the venue of the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club. With its immaculately landscaped fairways and flower beds, Augusta National set the bar for the desired aesthetics for all golf clubs.

The drainage around the second green is a work in progress.
The drainage around the second green is a work in progress.

No tournament has such allure, no course in major tournament use has Augusta National’s contours, especially on the greens, and no course has a back nine that can induce such drama.

That’s what makes us watch, but while we marvel at the drama and take in the beauty from the comfort of our living rooms, what we don’t know is that Augusta National spends more money on maintenance than any golf course in the world.

It’s like the supermodel that all young girls desire to emulate. Most turn anorexic in their desire to chase that dream, just as most golf courses realize too late just how much it costs to maintain their version of Augusta National until the superintendent outlines his budget to the owners.

Today, the buzzword in golf architecture and design is sustainability. Augusta National is the tip of the spear of golf courses. Its design and maintenance are without equal because no club spends as much money as they do on their golf course.

At no course is that need more acute than at Camp John Hay Golf Club (CJHGC) in Baguio City. The course was redesigned at the peak of the golf boom and no expense was spared to make the golf course as visually stunning as Augusta National. Not surprising, as CJHGC has fancied itself as the “Augusta of the North” right down to the white coveralls for the caddies.

The work on the tee boxes is nearly complete. This is the one on No. 10.
The work on the tee boxes is nearly complete. This is the one on No. 10.

But the design has taken its toll. Baguio gets meters of water every rainy season. That’s enough to drown the sensitive cool season bent that makes the greens of the mountain course roll like glass. There were other problems. Cool season bent isn’t very tolerant of shade and two of the club’s greens, Nos. 6 and 11, are almost completely shaded by lofty Benguet pines. This allowed moisture to build up and weakened the greens. This allowed the invasion of foreign grasses that ruined the playing experience.

The tee boxes were small and never really recover from the beating they take during peak season. Then there was the cost of maintaining the extravagant bunkering, the closely mown and landscaped areas. It was all a bit much and would cost the club if the market should take a turn for the worse.

General Manager Tim Allen and Southwoods Director of Maintenance John Cope, the course architect, spent weeks touring the property, identifying problem areas and how to address them. They came up with a multipronged solution.

The tee boxes were a fairly easy fix. They were expanded to have enough room to move tees around during the biggest tournaments (like the Fil-Am), which sees 1,100 golfers in two consecutive weeks. That gives the club more discretion with tee placement and allows the playing surface enough time to recover. This work is almost complete.

Cool season bent is not very tolerant to too much water or too much shade. To minimize the impact of runoff on the greens, drainage channels are being built in the problem areas to absorb the water and reroute it around the green. The greens on six and 11 posed additional challenges.

The club identified a more shade-tolerant cool season turf grass and are cultivating it as this goes to print. Once the inventory is sufficient, they will go about the business of regreening. In the case of 11, they intend to build a second playing green just short of the current one to be able to protect the green during the most severe weather of the year.

The team also decided to reduce the amount of bunkers to reduce maintenance costs. This is a delicate task as removing the wrong bunker will change the shot value of the hole. I was told that the number of bunker area would be cut down by a third. Some will be reduced in size and others will be eliminated altogether; replaced instead with grassy swales. During rainy season the course should play harder than it does now, given the wet grass in those swales will prove more difficult to play out of than the bunkers they replaced.

The team also addressed the amount of water they need to feed the golf course during the dry months. They decided to raise the level of the lake between holes four and 13, high enough for a month’s supply of water for the golf course. They are considering doing the same to the lake on 17 but are still working out how much to enlarge it and in what directions.

As a bonus to the members, the team decided to build par-3 length tee boxes of all of the longer holes, creating an 18-hole par-3 course. During the wettest months, the course has to close because the fairways are unplayable even if the greens are. This allows play during the wettest months to the delight of the members, I’m sure.

It is commendable that CJHDevco and the Camp John Hay Golf Club board are moving forward with the considerable investment required to make all of this happen. Their forward thinking is making the golf course more viable for the future and that makes it a worthwhile investment.

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A man of diverse interests; sports, the arts, travel and leisure fuel his passion for life. There aren't enough hours in the day for people like him.

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