Anatomy of a renovation: Fort Wayne Country Club

The Indiana club’s “Greens + Project” added up to more than just new putting surfaces and offers valuable know-how for other golf courses facing a renovation.


Fort Wayne Country Club
The grounds crew at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club strips sod from the No. 18 green. The club’s crew took on many of the tasks during the 2013 renovation project. Photos courtesy of Brian Chalifoux

Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club, built in 1908, has withstood the test of time as a wonderful and enjoyable property. Originally designed by David B. McIntosh and completed by William B. Langford, the course has seen plenty of changes over the years, but its No. 1 asset has always been its members. Without their foresight and willingness to improve their club, our greens renovation project would never have come to fruition.

Looking back through the records of this 106-year-old club, I found an interesting 1949 analysis from a USGA agronomist, who reported that the root structure of our greens was “too shallow and totally inadequate.” Sound familiar? What stood out to me was the fact that greens were resurfaced about every 30 years, which seemed to match the increasing Poa annua populations as the demand for higher green speeds steadily grew.

When I first came to Fort Wayne CC in 1988, we were cutting greens at 0.156 inch, and in 2013 at 0.097 inch. For my first 20 years at the club, we maintained some of the best putting surfaces anywhere, but with the newer bentgrass varieties starting to dominate the market, we could no longer compete at the highest level with speed, firmness and overall plant health.

In 2010, my assistant superintendent — my son, Brian John Chalifoux — and I began discussing how the new bentgrasses would surely correct some of the problems we were experiencing, which were due largely to the weather. In 2011, we had an extremely hot summer that caused even more difficulties, and it was time to put a plan together to outline what we knew and did not know about our greens.

First steps

Independent lab testing reported that the main disease problem with our greens was pythium root dysfunction. Next, Mavis Consulting charted the depth of greens mix on all 19 greens using an accurate probe to find the gravel layer, and found that depths varied from 5 to 24 inches. Digital Turf Imaging conducted a subsurface drainage study on all greens and confirmed our suspicion that many greens had limited drainage tile. Finally, a shade study conducted by Arbor Com proved we had a serious shade problem on several greens.

Architect Bob Lohmann of Lohmann Golf Design was called in to put together a solid plan and prepare cost estimates, which he then presented to the newly formed greens task force committee. The new committee decided that several items other than the greens should be addressed: rough renovation, perimeter green irrigation, new green irrigation heads, bluegrass sodding and bunker modifications. A 23-page report prepared by international golf course consultant Richard M. Bator following a site visit covered all details of the Greens + Project. Now that all known costs had been put together, we had a preliminary budget, contingencies, weather issues and lost revenue to consider.

Because the club had just completed an expansion of the grill room in 2011, the board considered a modified plan that deleted some options, but ultimately approved the premium plan as recommended. It was decided that the work would begin Aug. 1, 2013, and be completed by Oct. 1.

Weather watch

With the project dates in place, we had to figure out how to get through the summers of 2012 (which turned out to be worse than 2011) and 2013. On our most problematic greens (Nos. 6 and 12), we were allowed to establish six different bentgrass cultivars or blends that were under consideration: T-1, Penn A-1/A-4, Dominator, 007/Tyee, V8 and Pure Distinction. The No. 12 collar was seeded with Crystal Blue Links.

Rebuilding golf course green
The No. 2 green was completely rebuilt to correct problems with drainage and the greens mix depth.

We approached the 2013 season with extreme caution, using a prevent-defense approach. We went to higher cutting heights, increased rolling, additional fungicide applications and lab testing every month. The grow-in on No. 6 and No. 12 greens came in fine, and those holes were in play throughout the 2013 season. Following much discussion and a field trip and presentation by fellow superintendent Aaron McMaster at Orchard Lake Country Club, Pure Distinction was selected when it came out on top in terms of density, root growth, disease resistance, wear tolerance and leaf texture.

As the Aug. 1, 2013, closing date approached, we were relieved to have gotten through the season with relatively few issues. In analyzing the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, we still cannot pinpoint exactly what happened: Was it too much shade or too much Poa? Was it poor drainage or heavy traffic and ultra-low mowing that stressed the root zone to a depth of less than 1 inch in August? Managing the same set of greens for 26 years has taught us many things, but mostly to stay humble and be ready to deal with the unforeseen.

All details of the Greens + Project were presented at a town hall meeting in 2012. The information was well received by our membership, but one of their big questions pertained to where they would play golf during the renovation. Todd Firestone, our head golf professional, used his connections with fellow professionals both regionally and statewide. Locally, our friends at Coyote Creek allowed him to run both men’s and women’s leagues at their normal times.

Gas and grass

All preliminary planning was completed by Lohmann Golf Design and Fort Wayne CC. Our grounds staff worked with a professional service to remove trees in 2011 and 2012.

Gas and grass was the main focus when layout work began on all green locations on Aug. 1, 2013, with only two complete rebuilds (No. 2 and the practice putting green). Lohmann’s group stripped the sod on greens, collars, partial approaches and 15 feet of bluegrass. Golf Preservations installed green drainage on eight greens, completing about one per day. Green contours determined layout, with 6-foot spacing, 2-inch tile and cleanouts placed on perimeters.

Mavis Consulting approved a mix of 70 percent sand, 20 percent peat and 10 percent soil to backfill all trenches. With the goal to provide an open soil structure to provide optimal gas movement in the greens and surrounds, the Fort Wayne CC grounds staff thoroughly hosed down all trenches to settle the backfill and aerated with the Verti-Drain set at 9-inch maximum kick and the Aera-vator set at 4 to 5 inches.

Lohmann Golf Designs continued with the grading modifications on 10 greens to remove excess mix, correct surface runoff and remove pocketed low areas. They also completed bunker modifications on three holes. Our crew installed bunker boards on all greenside bunkers and corrected years of “blast shots” by digging out and replacing with topsoil — a major undertaking.

The complete rebuilds of No. 2 and the practice green provided a different set of challenges. The putting green subgrade was so bad that it had to be removed and replaced with good clay. This set us back and added unexpected cost. Materials hauled out of these two areas were stockpiled for mounding behind No. 17 green.Once prep work was complete, Chris Furman of TriEst Ag Group Inc. executed the gassing phase of the project. First, we stripped a pass around the greens. Next, gas tubes were placed throughout the green and covered with plastic tarps that were glued together. We then placed the sod strips on the outer edges of the tarps to hold them down. TriEst then pumped methyl bromide into the sealed plastic. Strict safety measures included two rows of fumigation/closure warning signs, partial fencing and air quality monitoring. Tarps were removed after five days using a tractor-mounted reel. We rented a large dumpster for disposal of the tarps.

Green renovation
Plastic tarps are glued together over tubing for methyl bromide gas on the No. 12 green.

After a three-day aeration period, we used a Sand Pro to rough-grade. Light raking of the collars and approaches smoothed the transition from the final float by Lohmann Golf. Collars were marked in at 25 inches, and a pre-plant fertilizer designed by Mavis Consulting was applied. Seeding began on Aug. 22. The highlights are listed below in operational order:

  • Greens seeded with Pure Distinction at 0.90 pound per square foot; collars seeded with Crystal Blue Links at 1 pound per square foot in three days using a Finn hydroseeder. Seeding two grasses was difficult but highly worthwhile.
  • Double-dimpling with Sand Pro followed by hydromulching with wood fiber mulch at 30 pounds per 1,000 square feet to prevent washouts.
  • Application of Subdue at 1 ounce per 1,000 square feet to protect seedlings from damping-off disease.
  • Irrigation and hand watering as needed.

Most of this work was accomplished by the Fort Wayne CC grounds staff, with Lohmann Golf installing about 15,000 square yards of bluegrass sod in the surrounds. A Ryan Rollaire hand unit was used before the first cut on several of the new greens on Sept. 3, 2013, at 0.25 inch. We steadily dropped the cutting height by 0.10 inch until we reached our goal of 0.125 inch.

Fertilizer was applied weekly at 0.3 to 0.5 pound per 1,000 square feet of starter 13-25-12 and 10-49-0. Out of the 23 surfaces we completed, only No. 2 green had problems, which turned out to be fertilizer burn. It’s still hard to believe the damage that was caused by our mowers prematurely fracturing the coated nitrogen we had applied before planting. It goes to show you that nothing is automatic and to expect the unexpected. Fortunately, the new Pure Distinction nursery was ready for us to use for plugging and sodding damaged spots. Dormant fertilization and snow mold applications put our greens to bed until spring 2014.

Off the greens: Rough renovation

As part of the renovation program, we always had nine holes closed for seeding with disease- and drought-resistant varieties of fescue (55 percent), bluegrass (40 percent) and ryegrass (5 percent) and applications of Tenacity to eliminate bentgrass and Poa annua in the rough. The following observations may help fellow superintendents who are embarking on a rough renovation:

  • Total acreage exceeded our original estimation.
  • Seed availability was limited — order early.
  • Tenacity applications were difficult because of high acreage, and a second 300-gallon sprayer was needed.
  • We had some Tenacity tracking from the carts, but it wasn’t a big problem.
  • Be prepared for a shocking visual during the process.
  • With so many acres to seed, having an extra set of bearings, discs and chains is highly recommended.
  • Drag off morning dew before seeding.
  • Our goal of seeding 4 acres per day was not always met because of precipitation, variable soil conditions, machine breakdowns, etc.
  • We could have lowered the percentage of ryegrass from 5 percent to 2-3 percent.
  • Tenacity cleaned up bentgrass and many other weed species.

Results by the end of the 2013 growing season were excellent, and further evaluation will continue in 2014. The high seeding rate is critical in a rough seeding project. Follow-up Tenacity applications on a much smaller scale continue in 2014. We do have concerns about Tenacity and its effect on certain fine fescues. Selective fertility will be necessary as certain grasses begin to dominate in different locations.

Perimeter green irrigation

Member requests for improved playing conditions around the greens led to planning and installing perimeter irrigation heads. After several meetings on the golf course, we came up with a budget and a plan that would work. Each green was laid out to provide specific coverage and to be adaptable to existing satellites. We were able to accommodate most station requirements, but we did have to add three satellites. Routing was also a concern, trying to navigate around or through three old systems that were still partially live.

Marking green collars
Father (left) and son team up to mark 25-inch collars before the greens are seeded.

We scheduled this project to start in spring 2013 to keep the installation away from the planned August activities, which were going to be substantial. Also, it would be smarter to have the irrigation off during March and April rather than in August. However, we did run into a few problems with hit-or-miss spring weather and soft ground conditions, as well as a few early-morning starts compromised by frost.

Commercial Irrigation started the install in March 2013, locating existing equipment and preparing to pull wires and place new irrigation heads. Many golf course design changes over the past 105 years led to many false assumptions. Existing piping that we had planned on connecting to was not always where it was thought to be. We also encountered old pipe that was much deeper than anticipated. The loop system around the greens, which is fairly standard, was not always looped. New fittings leaked, and patience became a virtue. Our crew took a hands-on approach and helped when necessary to move things along and to get our daily operations back to normal. Final testing went smoothly, and computer programming with help from Automatic Irrigation finalized the install.

Throughout the entire process, the membership was kept well informed with letters from the club president and weekly verbal and written communications. A great tool was “Friday Flix,” a weekly video report developed by Firestone, our golf pro. Each week, my assistant and I were guests on the “show” to talk about the project’s progress. Communication is vital, especially in a project of this size, and our entire professional staff handled plenty of questions throughout the project.

I am so grateful to all of our members, club president, chairmen, committee members and professional staff who spent hundreds of hours to plan and execute this project. Skilled, dedicated, loyal, deep and committed only begin to describe this entire great group of people who know how to get work done.

Brian C. Chalifoux is in his 27th year as the GCSAA Class A superintendent at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club, where he works with his wife, Carol, who is the office assistant for the grounds department, and his son, Brian John Chalifoux, who is the assistant superintendent. Daughters Laurie and Jennifer also worked at the golf course during their high school years.