By John Harvey, ASGCA
Club History and Audubon
Woodway Country Club is located 35 miles north of New York City in Darien, Conn. Darien is an old New England town and home to the successful Wall Street executive. The community is also home to three championship clubs of which Woodway is included. Founded in 1916, Woodway looked for a formidable golf course architect to sculpture the 180-acre property of rolling farmland terrain into the 18-hole, 84-year-old facility that exists today.
Under the direction of Theodore Hoyt, one of four founding fathers and first Club president, the plot of land was purchased in November of 1916. Walter J. Travis, one of the great golfers of the day, was asked to appraise the land for the new golf course. “If ever nature was intended a plot for a first class course, it is here,” said Travis after inspecting land.
In January 1917, Scotsman Willie Park, Jr. was selected from among a group of course architects to design the 18 holes. Park, a two-time winner of the British Open, was an experienced green keeper, club maker, and above all, a talented golf course architect. His plans approved in March of 1917, work could begin and the course was seeded in the fall of the same year and by summer of 1918 Woodway was complete. The new facility officially opened on Sunday, June 30, 1918.
Park’s design work was immediately acclaimed. George Duncan, the 1920 British Open Champion, pointed to Woodway as the finest course he had played in America at the time.
Many other greats played Woodway, including Jimmy Thompson, known in his day as the world’s longest ball striker and six time British Open Champion Harry Vardon.
But the most famous golfer to grace the fairways at Woodway was the late-great Bobby Jones. The former “Emperor” of golf played one of his last exhibition matches at Woodway in September of 1941.
Park, who recognized the importance of a variety of shot making requirements, created a thorough test for any golfer. All the clubs in the bag will be used throughout a typical round and the subtleties of the greens will test the eye of the best. Woodway currently measures 6,716 yards from the tips and plays to a par 71. The course rating is 72.8, with a slope of 139.
As well as being a great Club and formidable test of golf, Woodway is recognized as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary by the Audubon International. Woodway Property Manager, Larry Pakkala, CGCS, has been enrolled in ACSP since its inception in 1990. Preserving and protecting the golf course environment has been the main focus of Pakkala’s 10-member Audubon committee. Woodway was the first Club certified in Connecticut in 1991 and has excelled in its efforts to comply with Audubon International’s five-point plan for environmental stewardship.
Back in 1994 the Club was seriously considering renovating the existing clubhouse at its original site to the tune of 4 million dollars. After further investigation by the membership who found numerous faults in the infrastructure of the 84-year-old structure, which had undergone numerous remodeling and additions during that period, a plan to build a new facility at another location on Club property was initialized. A new committee was formed and after a two-year study, formal plans were brought to the membership for a vote. The plan was much more suitable to the Club as it had many more benefits than negatives. First and foremost, it took the clubhouse location from directly on a state highway and put it offset by a long entry road, more into the center of the property. Secondly, it gave the golf course returning nines and a chance to build a more suitable practice facility with all the modern amenities both for golf and Club functions.
The Roger Rulewich Group was hired to assist the Club with its improvements to the golf course because of the firm’s experience and reputation for remodeling world class golf courses. Rulewich’s Design Associate, A. John Harvey, ASGCA, was responsible for the preparation of concept design drawings and field design for the first three phases of course improvements.
Woodway’s Green Chairman, Jack Graham and Committee along with Golf Course Architect Harvey and Course Superintendent Pakkala structured extensive planning meetings. Before plans for returning nines and practice facilities could be implemented, support of the Golf Committee and Board of Directors had to be obtained. Although the internal approval process was rather lengthy for creating two new holes and a practice facility, the method of gathering support for the plan was necessary. The Cooperation of all parties has given Woodway a spectacular finish to some difficult course changes.
After about a year of planning and permitting, construction of the new par 3, hole #9 began in October of 1999. The greensite is located on the irrigation pond along the main viewing axis from the back of the new clubhouse. The pond was enlarged in the location which previously served as the tee to hole #7, some 30 feet above water level. The excavated fill consisting of approximately, 12,000 cubic yards of material was used to create the green for the new hole within the pond. The irrigation pond was enlarged as a source of fill for the green and to help offset the loss of water storage volume as the result of building the green in the pond. In order to properly construct a stable wall to retain the green, the irrigation pond was drained and a rock foundation wall was constructed and backfilled layer by layer throughout the winter months. Fortunately, once the pond was drained, it was evident that bedrock was at the base of the pond. This served as a good footing to lock the bottom of the rock wall onto. Once the foundation wall, which in section looks like a trapezoid, was built to a top elevation of about 3 feet below proposed water level, a finish stone masonry wall was built to about 4 feet above the water design elevation. This portion of the wall was constructed with weep holes at the interface of the two types of wall with a gravel and fabric blanket placed at the back of the wall from this point to approximately 1 foot below the finished grade of the greensite. Although wetlands are present along the back edge of the green adjacent to the Noroton River, the design was achieved without the need for fill placement in native wetlands.
In addition, these wetlands were enhanced with native wetland grass species, keeping in concert with the Audubon theme. When a platform where the green would sit was created with backfill to an elevation of 3-4 feet above the finished top of wall elevation by the site earthwork contractor Peter Welling of Durante Inc., one of the Roger Rulewich Group’s shapers started to mold and shape a green in similar fashion to what the Club had approved. The fine-tuning and finesse of the detailed shaping was a terrific evolution of what was depicted in sketch form to a green involving hands-on input from Harvey, Pakkala and Jack Graham.
The hole was designed to provide different tee angles and varied length from 90-195 yards. The putting surface, including the collar is approximately 7,300 square feet and offers multiple cupping areas with different degrees of difficulty. Two bunkers flanking the green were positioned to help define the target and help capture an errant tee-shot from the ever present water hazard. The green was built using the “California Method” of construction. The rootzone mixture consisted of a 12 inch profile of 70-20-10 by weight. With the aid of materials testing by Norm Hummel of N.W. Hummel & Co., the intent was to match the present growing medium of the existing push-up greens with the goal to produce uniform agronomic and playing conditions of the greens at Woodway. Both the sub-grade and the 6 inch rootzone mixture on the tees were laser leveled at a slope of 1% from front to back for consistency and uniformity. The hole was sodded and the green was seeded during April, 2000. The forward tee was opened-up in May, 2000 to serve as temporary tee to the old 7th green which plays some 90 degrees in a different direction from the new 9th hole which will be officially opened for play the in Spring of 2001.
During July of 2000, start of construction on the new practice fairway began. For many years this location served as the Club’s gun range and compost area. During construction of the new clubhouse, the gun club buildings located here were used as temporary field offices for Deluca, the clubhouse contractor. The site also served as a staging area for equipment, materials and supplies. Once clubhouse construction was well underway, this area was cleaned-up and about 7,000 cubic yards of fill was placed by truck at the new tee and target greens as per plan. The next step was to push about 8,000 cubic yards of material with a Cat D-6 while rough shaping the fairway and features. This was followed closely by installation of perforated drainage pipe and catch basins to pick-up surface and sub-surface water within the fairway. Pakkala and Harvey agreed that the only good way to handle water, ease ball-picking and maintenance of the range was to install this dual drainage system. Target greens with their respective bunkers were shaped at approximately 50, 100, 150 and 200 yards out from the center of the practice tee. Every effort was made in their set-up and location to reduce potential conflicts with the parking lot serving the clubhouse on the right side of the practice fairway. Mounding, trees and a 80′ netting structure are part of the program to assist in keeping balls within the range and away from the clubhouse area.
Located at the far end of the practice fairway lies a cemetery about 1/3 of an acre in size which dates back to the early-1800’s. Obviously the work zone avoids this location all together. But during Harvey’s initial visit to the site, while scrambling over rock walls which are a New England trademark used to define fields, and in this case, cemeteries, he noticed one of the tombstones read “Here lies John and Caroline Harvey”. As soon as he read that he got out of there as fast as he could. It was too bizarre. Caroline is also the name of his wife.
After installation of drainage was complete, finish shaping with a small dozer followed. Once finish shaping was completed, topsoil spreading, irrigation, finish preparation and grassing followed. While the majority of the practice area finished at this time, the tee will not be completed until late October, since an additional 3,500 cubic yards of fill used to elevate the tee another 3 feet will be transported from the third phase of work – new hole #1 fairway.
Positioned adjacent to the pro shop, bag drop and new 1st tee, the 7,500 square foot practice putting green was carved into a knoll. Again, the “California Method” of greens construction was used to complete the work within the shell. An effort was made during the shaping and finish floating of the seedbed mixture to try and capture some of the similarities and contours of the old Willie Park, Jr. greens.
This phase scheduled to start Oct. 2 is the last portion of work directly associated within the vicinity of the new clubhouse. It involves the reconstruction of the existing hole #8 into what will become the new hole #1. As mentioned in phase two, about 3,500 cubic yards of fill will be moved to the practice tee to complete the range.
This par-4 golf hole at present has two greens. The old Willie Park, Jr. green playing straight away, and, a newer green, a slight dogleg right on the bank of a pond which was created as a source of fill when Interstate 95 was built. About 2 acres of tree clearing is required since the new tee complex will be built developing a sharper dogleg but also to allow views from the putting green and 1st tee to the pond along the fairway and to hole #9. After fill is transported to the practice tee, the fairway will be graded and shaped to better receive the ball off the tee and to help direct the ball away from the pond. The bunkers adjacent to the old #8 green will be reshaped as part of this phase of work. The bunkers surrounding the abandoned hole #7 green will also be reshaped as part of a converted practice green adjacent to the new 1st tee.
Once the first three phases are completed this fall, the Club’s and The Rulewich Group’s concentration will be on the preparation of a master plan. This plan will be developed during the year 2001 with input from Green and Golf Committees. The intent is to show proposed course improvements in a graphic format and to serve as a guideline for continuity with future course improvements. Continuity is of foremost importance when it comes to role changes and Club leadership. It will address the remaining 16 holes and any other issues which may need attention. The plan will focus on tees, fairway bunkering, green-side bunkering, putting surfaces, cart paths, trees, drainage and areas that might be planted and nurtured as native grasses.
Working closely with a competent golf architect is paramount to the success of a major renovation project on any golf course. There were times when controversy over design techniques from members became difficult to handle, but Harvey and Rulewich convincingly held their ground over these important issues. This ultimately led to a product that helped bring a divided membership back together.
It is imperative that with every remodeling project, the golf course architect and superintendent communicate and work in a cooperative fashion in order to achieve the goals and produce a successful project. While work was underway, Pakkala and Harvey spoke frequently on the phone and met at the job site at representative stages of the work to discuss field design implementation and shaping and to collectively approve each segment of the work. A sense of humor is important, as Pakkala and Harvey will attest, and appreciation of the Club’s history and course subtleties a prerequisite. This relationship is an example of how even alumni from Big Ten rival schools can work together.
The only real conflict Pakkala had with Harvey was their alumni rivalry on the grid iron of Penn State and Michigan State and who had the better playing surface. If you like the smell of freshly cut grass, you know who wins that battle.