Scioto, Nicklaus, technology and me

Originally published in: Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective (Vol Five). Compiled & edited by Paul Daley. Pelican Publishing Company. 2008.

Even after more than fifty years in golf course design, working on hundreds of projects, worldwide, for all types of clients on all types of sites, there are some experiences that are so special that they stand out. One of my fondest memories had a gestation period of about fifty years, but came together in a matter of days, and only lasted a few weeks. In fact, as that experience started to materialise, I actually thought it was going to be a catastrophic nightmare. You can glean from the title of this article that the experience I am talking about is the total remodeling of Scioto Country Club golf course, and working with Jack Nicklaus on this, his boyhood golf course. To the uninitiated that doesn’t sound bad, until you look at it from my perspective. Firstly, a little bit about the players involved, both past and present.

Scioto Country Club’s golf course was designed by Donald Ross in 1916. Soon after, because of its superb routing, it became recognised as a superior test of golf. In 1926, Scioto hosted the US Open, followed by the 1931 Ryder Cup, then the 1950 PGA Championship. Next was the US Amateur in 1968 and, finally, the US Senior Open in 1986. It was also the place where young Jack Nicklaus learned the game and a need for course management—the latter skill, in particular, that ultimately earned him eighteen professional majors, worldwide fame and the title of the ‘greatest golfer ever’.

17th Green Scioto Country Club, Columbus OH
The seventeenth green after being remodeled by Hurdzan and Nicklaus in 2007. The new complex has a large “bailout” fairway, green closer to pond, with subtle slopes within the green, and entire area is better drained. (Photograph by John and Jeannine Henebry.)

In the early 1960s, Dick Wilson was hired by the club, on Nicklaus’s recommendation, to completely remodel the golf course—one nine at a time over two years. Wilson, in turn, sent two young associates to handle the design details, Robert Von Hagge on the front nine and Joe Lee on the back nine, both of whom had their own, distinct design concepts for greens.

Von Hagge’s inclination was to make the greens small with large, continuous slopes that flattened out near the edge of the put- ting surface. Lee, on the other hand, designed large greens with flatter areas in the interior and more slope on the outer edges. Both designers followed Wilson’s concept of raising greens up in the air four to six feet, as was a common style on flat land such as in Florida where Wilson was based.

Conversely, Donald Ross’s original greens were laid pretty close to existing grade. But the Ross Scioto greens were not ‘push-up’ greens as was common in those days; they were, instead, the predecessors of today’s USGA method of construction. Fortuitously, a very famous soil scientist and professor at nearby Ohio State University by the name of Professor Vivian had taken an interest in the construction of Scioto. The greens were built by creating a cavity like we do today, and then filling that cavity with some sort of rootzone material — not unlike what is done today. Ultimately, Vivian developed a golf green rootzone that he believed would resist compaction, drain well yet hold a great balance of soil, water and air. Extremely fertile, it would be easier to maintain than the standard push-up green. By whom, or why, the decision was made to rebuild these original Ross/Vivian greens remains a mystery. But rebuild them they did, using the Wilson/Von Hagge/Lee concepts.

Scioto Country Club Early 60s
Early 1960’s redesign by Dick Wilson moved number seventeen green to other side of creek, and built high above a newly formed pond in the creek. (Courtesy of Scioto Country Club.)
Scioto Country Club Hole 17
Original number seventeen green at Scioto Country club designed by Donald Ross in 1916. Creek is behind the green.(Courtesy of Scioto Country Club.)

Another figure of note in the saga of Scioto’s greens was the Ohio Governor, James Rhodes, whose political reign spanned from 1963 to 1971, and again from 1975 to 1983. A reasonably proficient golfer, Rhodes was a long-time member at Scioto and, by all accounts, a ‘dealmaker extraordinaire’. For Wilson to raise Scioto’s greens he needed fill material. As it transpired around that time, there was a new underground parking garage being built at the Ohio State House/Capital building. The story goes that Governor Rhodes arranged to have excess fill from that construction hauled to Scioto—the Wilson greens, therefore, were built on top of, and with, construction debris. This included a mishmash of soils, rock, concrete chunks, huge pieces of asphalt, pipe, wire, bricks, etc.

About this time in the early 1960s, the USGA had just introduced its green construction method. With the benefit of hind-sight we can see it was not well understood, with numerous case studies, country-wide, of poorly executed greens and, occasionally, disastrous outcomes—even at places like Scioto. The Scioto greens had suffered from a lack of quality control: of materials used; the depths that those materials were installed; the uniformity of the profiles. Succinctly, the greens were so poorly constructed that it was only through the superior dedication and skill of the golf-course superintendents (especially Mark Yoder for the past twenty-eight years) that the greens were even serviceable all-season long. Everyone knew the greens were a ticking ‘time bomb’—destined for failure—but members were not convinced they were sufficiently bad to warrant closing their course for a year to rebuild the greens. Although Scioto has been a Golf Digest Top 100 Course, seemingly, forever, the greens were just okay even during the best of times, and a near-embarrassment during bad times.

The ‘me’ part of this story is that growing up in Columbus, and being from a golfing family, we all considered Scioto Country Club to be the finest course we’d seen or played. Since our family status was blue collar at best, all we could ever do was marvel at Scioto from across the stonewall property fence. It seems like only yesterday that we’d try at every opportunity to gain a spot in the field, regardless of which local golf competition would be held at the venue. To our family members, Scioto was held in such high regard it verged on being our ideal of a golfing Camelot. Even today, we hold it in that same high regard. Indeed, Scioto is the best US country club I have ever visited. So in 2004, when asked to serve as their golf course architect and consultant, I considered it to be a crowning achievement; a professional validation that I had mastered my craft and earned the right to be trusted with improving what many consider to be a masterpiece. Needless to say I was eager, and flattered, but also slightly intimidated and nervous about measuring up to the task.

To our family members, Scioto was held in such high regard it verged on being our ideal of a golfing Camelot.

As with any major golf course improvement, Hurdzan/Fry does plans that are intended to offer suggested changes in a form that members can understand—and provide opportunities for their critical review. Finally, during the autumn and winter of 2005—after satisfying the critics and getting the approval of the committee and members—all of the greenside bunkers were rebuilt, or modified. Hot on the heels of this important success, we did all of the fairway bunkers the following fall and winter of 2006. By now the pressure had eased, somewhat, as we had earned the members’ trust and confidence that we were not going to mess up their golf course. Even so, they still did not want to rebuild their greens.

Convincing Scioto’s membership that it was necessary to rebuild their greens was achieved by utilising technology. The green staff set up a series of tests to demonstrate the effectiveness of possible remedies to the greens—all stopped short of rebuilding. This included various forms of aerification, drill and fill techniques, installing narrow trench tile into the greens, and even vacuum drainage. To measure the effectiveness of these tests, sensors were installed in the rootzones to measure soil moisture, soil temperature and soil salinity. That data was then transmitted, via wireless, back to a com- puter/data logger in the superintendent’s office.

Scioto, Nicklaus, technology and me 1
Slope analysis of number two green at Scioto Country Club. Left drawing is of Dick Wilson green showing very few hole locations (colored blue and white). Middle drawing is proposed contour changes to create hole locations shown on right drawing (colored blue and white). Wilson green had only 224 square feet of area less than 2% slope, while Hurdzan and Nicklaus green produced almost 1600 square feet of area with less than 2% slope. (Courtesy of Hurdzan/Fry)

The condition of Scioto’s greens at the start of the 2006 summer was flawless. All that changed, however, with several days of slow, prolonged rain followed by very hot, humid conditions around 4 July. The result: golf was wiped out and, almost immediately, the quality of greens noticeably started going downhill. When members saw how closely the decline of their greens correlated to the soil moisture sensor data gathered and graphed (of the rainy period), it became crystal clear that their greens needed to be rebuilt, even if it meant closing for a year.

Even though the front-nine and back-nine greens were distinctly different in style, and both halves suffered from lack of ‘pinnable’ hole locations to accommodate ultra-fast put- ting speeds, the members were reluctant to allow me to change the greens. To guarantee the membership we could reverse engineer the greens back to exactly what they were before, required another new piece of tech- nology called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping. Sensitivity is its strong suit, using laser scanners to map objects within fractions of an inch. A company called Woolpert Engineering mapped all of Scioto’s greens in what amounted to one point two (1.2) inch contours or ten contours per foot. Our firm then used a sophisticated slope-calculation program to develop colour- slope maps. The idea, being, that interested parties, upon inspection, could determine immediately whether the greens were too flat or too steep. On some greens, less than five per cent of the playing surface had less than two per cent slopes—the level, which is ideal for hole locations. This proved to be shocking and why, subsequently, I was permitted to slightly alter slopes within six of the greens to create more hole locations.

With all of this technical data and person- al observations of the greens by the members, the club voted by an eighty-five per cent margin to close the course on 9 July 2007. The notion of rebuilding the greens to my plans, under strict budgets of time and money, had finally been given the green light! All eighteen greens and practice greens had to be rebuilt for less than $1.2 million and the work done by 1 September, allowing just fifty-five days for construction. Many of my colleagues would say that this amount of budgeted time and money is ridiculous, if not impossibly low. There was no room for error or changes in either consideration.

Oh … by the way, Jack Nicklaus would like to stop by and offer some opinions on the green reconstruction.

Five weeks before the green-reconstruction program was due to begin, Jack Nicklaus happened to be in town for the Memorial Tournament, the classic event he created. Hearing on the ‘grapevine’ that Scioto was closing in order to rebuild its greens, he asked the club if he could visit and provide some input to the process, citing his boy- hood memories and experiences, coupled to his knowledge as a professional golfer and golf-course architect. Well … if you’ve ever met Jack Nicklaus, you know how hard it is to say ‘no’ to him, so the club naturally agreed to his request.

Scioto, Nicklaus, technology and me 3
Jack Nicklaus and Dr Mike Hurdzan collaborated on the redesign of Scioto Country Club greens in 2007. The results were great greens and a strong friendship. (Courtesy of Hurdzan/Fry Environmental Golf Design.)
Mike And Jack Nicklaus Scioto Country Club
Mike And Jack Nicklaus Scioto Country Club

Now I have met Jack numerous times, mostly at ASGCA meetings, to say ‘hello’ and that’s about it. We did, however, have a few things in common: we are both about the same age; we went to Ohio State University; and we care a lot about Scioto. Like most of the readership, I’d heard he had an ego of sorts, was pretty opinionated about golf-course architecture and architects, and really didn’t care about collaboration. And so when informed: ‘Oh … by the way, Jack Nicklaus would like to stop by and offer some opinions on the green reconstruction’, my initial reaction was this is either a very bad joke, or an ominous setback for the continuation of my tenure at Scioto. I was upset, disappointed and disheartened, for this project meant a lot to me and I thought that Jack would insist that he be the golf-course architect. On the other hand, I couldn’t fault him, or the club, in the advent that I was dumped in favour of the ‘Record Book of Golf’.

What I didn’t expect was for the members of the improvement committee to affirm that under no circumstance would I not remain as lead designer; and secondly, that Jack was in favour of that, too. Still, I was quietly sceptical, and remained so, until after the first couple of visits that Jack and I spent together sharing ideas about what could, or could not, be done to the greens. After a while, I really started to like the guy: I got to know Jack the man, and not the myth and legend. Ultimately, over the course of our seven or eight lengthy joint sessions spent at Scioto, I believe a friendship developed that will be ever-lasting. In fact, whatever success we may have achieved at Scioto—enough to earn it the honour of Renovation of the Year 2007 by Golf Inc magazine—was the result of melding our ideas and concepts.

One of the most interesting things to me was how Jack and I forged agreement on individual green design, but from two distinctly different approaches. For example, I looked at the green from the agronomic side of how many hole locations were available, surface drainage patterns onto and across the green, traffic patterns, room to turn or operate maintenance equipment, and aesthetics. Jack, too, was concerned with aesthetics, but he was also intensely interested in shot values and target sizes, the kind of break and speed of approach putts to each hole location, and bunker recoverability, to name a few—strictly player issues. Today, evidence abounds that Scioto’s greens are agronomically correct, player-friendly and flexible.

No. 8 Scioto Country Club
The eighth hole is known as its signature hole, where Hurdzan and Nicklaus also moved the green closer to the water. (Photograph by John and Jeannine Henebry.)

We also agreed on extending putting surfaces closer to water hazards, putting in small undulations within the putting surfaces, and how to mitigate severe grade changes. We disagreed on some bunker placements, the use of trees to shape strategy and some fairway contours. Overall, we enjoyed a most amicable collaboration and the proof is the quality of Scioto’s greens that are firm, fast, true, challenging and aesthetically pleasing. We stayed within the financial budget and seeded the green precisely on the projected target date. The grow-in phase was spectacular. I think we both feel that the kindred spirit of Donald Ross would be more appreciative of our greens, than Mr Wilson’s, to compliment his splendid and timeless routing.