A Visionary Masterpiece

Situated on an actual island in the Fox River, the third hole at the Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles, Ill., “looks simple, but it is not,” writes Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf World Magazine. A row of trees impedes a golfer’s tee shot, aerial approaches are compromised by overhanging branches, and a small pond provides a further challenge.

The island also contains the course’s fourth hole, which Whitten considers “more intimidating” due to the long stretch of the Fox River that lies just beyond the hole’s back fringe.

The course, completed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1939, marks the first time golf-course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. used an island green in his plans.

In an article that appeared in February 2010, Whitten listed the golf course at number 15 of the best 25 nine-hole courses in the country.

“This is a tremendous honor, not only for the park district, but for everyone who works here at the golf course,” says Jim Wheeler, the course’s manager and PGA golf pro.

Not An Overnight Success

An accomplishment like this didn’t happen overnight. Extensive improvement projects, such as shoreline stabilization, installation of a new irrigation system and a bunker reconstruction, began several years ago, marking the first time in more than 20 years that any major remodeling had been done.

“In today’s market, we’re competing against 18-hole facilities, and we’re competing against championship courses, yet we’re a nine-hole facility,” says Denise Gillett-Parchert, Pottawatomie golf course superintendent. “These changes brought the standards up, and yet it’s still the same friendly, local, hometown course that everybody can call their own.”

“Everybody” encompasses some 37,000 players who visit the course each year. With that amount of traffic, the district’s goal was to make improvements to accommodate players of all ages and abilities while remaining sensitive to the heritage of the facility and faithful to the original design.

“It was very important to him to keep the integrity of the Robert Trent Jones design, yet improve playability and enjoyment for all golfers,” says Gillett-Parchert.

One of the preeminent golf-course architects of the twentieth century, Jones designed or redesigned more than 500 courses throughout the United States and around the world. Noted for artistic blending of natural landscaping with bold placement of bunkers and water hazards, his courses revolutionized the concept of stimulating play, where strategy counts as much as technique. In designing the Pottawatomie Golf Course, he capitalized on the course’s riverbank location when laying out his design.

Opened in 1939, the course has endured for nearly 70 years, and while the district’s goal was to remain true to the original vision as much as possible, “the terrain, the conditions, the amount of people who are playing, the safety factors--all enter into whether you are able to maintain the design,” Wheeler says.

Building Better Bunkers

To begin the renovation process, Gillett-Parchert and Wheeler welcomed feedback from players, who confirmed the bunkers did not live up to the standard of play the course wanted to provide. While it’s one thing to hit a golf ball out of a few inches of sand, it’s quite another to do so while standing in a puddle of water or to unexpectedly lob out a small stone instead.

The bunkers were dug out to replace underlying drainage tiles, liners and pea gravel, and new sand was brought in to ensure consistency. In some areas, such as the first hole, an entire bunker was removed because it rested on a foundation of rock that was forcing stones up into the sand.

“The bunkers just weren’t playable,” explains Gillett-Parchert. “Players couldn’t get a decent bunker shot out of them. But now [players] can. It makes a big difference.”

Because some of the proposed renovations were located within a flood plain, regulations prohibited adding new materials. The district was able to comply with the county’s guidelines by reusing materials for tee construction on five of the course’s holes.

A Natural Conclusion

In addition to bunker and tee renovations, extensive landscape restoration involving native vegetation took place on the approaches to several holes, as well as on buffers around the existing lagoon. Aiding in the filtration of fertilizers and pesticides through a fibrous root system that helps purify the run-off before it enters the Fox River, native plants also provide an essential habitat for the various birds and animals found on the golf course.

While landscaping is a key component of the natural environment, keeping another plant group--grass--is, naturally, a major focus. Healthy turf not only contributes to the overall level of course playability, but also is an important aesthetic component. The challenge was finding a way to consistently make the course lush and green without stressing fragile natural resources.

Water conservation, in the form of an upgraded and redesigned underground sprinkler system, was therefore part of the district’s environmental game plan. Replacing the old single-row system with a double-row system and installing a new variable-frequency drive system provided better direction and control.

“It made a huge difference in that the course became almost wall-to-wall green,” says Wheeler. A new pump also allowed for more efficient use of resources, in that water was no longer drawn from the river, but instead removed directly from the district’s well.

Indeed, accessing the river itself had become more problematic over the years, especially as its shoreline continued to erode. Since the river played such an essential role in the original course design, controlling riverbank deterioration was of paramount concern.

Collaborating with the Kane-DuPage Soil and Water Conservation District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the district undertook a shoreline stabilization project designed by local architect Jim Spear, who installed gabion baskets--interconnecting wire baskets filled with rocks--that functioned as retention walls. The baskets were then covered with horticultural cloth imbedded with native plant material that not only helped secure precious soil, but provided yet another wildlife habitat.

Concern for the environment was also evident in the choice of material used in renovating cart paths throughout the course. Limestone flagstone was used to line the paths and, instead of asphalt, the paths were filled with gravel and other natural screening products.

Playing Through

In following standards put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the course installed a new drinking fountain at hole seven; it also constructed a second protective storm shelter at hole nine; and replaced a connecting bridge between holes three and seven. In this way, the seven-year renovation program was as considerate as it was comprehensive. Yet, through it all, the course remained open for play, which dictated a certain amount of inconvenience for players.

“We didn’t have the ability to shut down, do everything, and then reopen,” says Gillett-Parchert.

Sometimes, the course needed to be divided into specific sections in order to allow continued play. Such disturbances were taken in stride, according to Wheeler.

“Players were OK with it when they knew it was something they had asked for, and they knew there was logical reasoning behind the things we were doing.”

The district took special pains to keep golfers abreast of the renovations, such as displaying presentation boards featuring conceptual plans and updated photos in the Pro Shop, and encouraging comments on the work being done.

“I think these projects were a testimony to our players, to let them know that we want to give them the best product we can,” says Gillett-Parchert.

How’s the feedback now? “It’s great, it’s wonderful,” declares Wheeler.

Erika Young is the public relations and marketing manager of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached via e-mail at scpd@st-charlesparks.org.

Bryan BuchkoComment