Santa Ana Country Club, the oldest private club in Orange County, Calif., is building a new golf course on a piece of property it has owned since 1923.
© Guy Cipriano

Passengers on flights arriving and departing from John Wayne Airport are receiving unobstructed views of Southern California’s changing golf mentality.

Santa Ana Country Club, established in 1901, is building a new golf course on the same property it has occupied since 1923. Club leaders are calling the ambitious project “Golden Age Golf for the 21st Century.” Major construction started in late February immediately after members hit their final shots on a course with 105 acres of irrigated golf turf.

Failing infrastructure and anticipated future political wrangling over water convinced club leaders to pursue the project. Santa Ana is the oldest club in Orange County, and architect Jay Blasi says the club’s age showed below the surface. Problems included irrigation leaks, small Poa annua greens with plenty of slope yet little room to place pins, and soil profiles ineffective at moving water. Clever work by director of agronomy Matt Marsh and his crew masked many of the issues.

“I give Matt a hard time because when we first got in and started talking about all of these things, it was a much harder sell,” Blasi says. “Members were saying, ‘What are you talking about? The golf course has been in the best shape it has ever been. We don’t need to change anything.’ But they weren’t able to see what’s going on below ground.”

Modernizing the course infrastructure would have cost the club more than $5 million, according to Blasi, who started developing a master plan in 2014. Santa Ana receives water from a private well, although the quality of the water is poor (think the color of iced tea), and the club invested in a reverse osmosis system in 2011.

Water concerns loomed as the club explored options, and the plan approved by members includes replacing turf with drought-tolerant plants and grasses. The amount of irrigated turf on the course will be reduced by 36 acres, Marsh says.

Santa Ana Country Club is eliminating 36 acres of irrigated turf. The reduction and a reverse osmosis system purchased in 2011 could create a water management model other clubs emulate.
© Guy Cipriano

“When you start looking at everything and think about how much water we are putting out on the golf course, do we really need 105 acres of wall-to-wall green turf?” he says. “No. We need to have really good turf in the high-play areas, but we can find areas with a new design where it’s going to give some contrast and some pop, and it’s going to save us a lot of money and water.”

Marsh and his crew will be maintaining a course designed to provide contrasting conditions to the previous layout. Instead of lush, target golf, members will experience a course intended to play open and firm with one cut of kikuyugrass from tee to green.

The club has kept Marsh’s entire crew employed throughout construction, which is scheduled to end June 30, followed by three months of grow-in. Blasi, who worked with Robert Trent Jones II at Chambers Bay, moved from Northern to Southern California to oversee the project. The construction team includes GCBAA member Landscapes Unlimited and irrigation consultant Brent Harvey. Shapers Derek Dirksen, Kye Goalby and Brett Hochstein are working closely with Blasi. Jeff Anderson is the project manager.

Industry relationships provide further assistance. In early March, California Golf Club superintendent Thomas Bastis visited Santa Ana to provide guidance on maintaining native grasses. Blasi visited The Valley Club of Montecito later in the month to observe the club’s firm playing conditions. Marsh also exchanges ideas with USGA Green Section agronomist Pat Gross.

Director of agronomy Matt Marsh at Santa Ana Country Club.
© Guy Cipriano

“We are asking Matt and his team to essentially do the opposite of what’s been done for so long,” Blasi says. “We are looking to craft a golf course that’s firm and fast. We will have a lot of open-entranced greens where you can play the ball through the air or on the ground. That’s very challenging with kikuyu. From a greens standpoint, Matt has done a great job with what was here before, but they were Poa greens with big ball marks. Now we are going to a new strand of bentgrass, and that’s a whole new dilemma.”

Marsh made methodical pre-construction decisions, including spending 14 months researching different turfgrass varieties before selecting Pure Distinction bentgrass for the putting surfaces. He spoke with other superintendents and Harvey when selecting the new irrigation system and pump station. Keeping regular employees involved in the process creates understanding of new systems as they are placed into the ground. Marsh has helped the club recycle existing assets, using industry contacts to find facilities that can use kikuyugrass and Poa annua sod stripped from the course. Benches and tee markers are being crafted using wood from removed trees.

Embracing the project helps Marsh handle the challenges associated with construction. Marsh and Blasi are posting enthusiastic construction updates on social media, and the club purchased a drone so Marsh can provide video updates. General manager JJ Wagner and pro Geoff Cochrane are also playing key roles in communicating messages to members. Mike Pettit, the club’s board chairman for the project, serves as a liaison between the membership and workers, and provided leadership as the club its options. Santa Ana finalized plans in time to become eligible for the Metropolitan Water District’s turf removal rebate.

Architect Jay Blasi at Santa Ana Country Club.
© Guy Cipriano

Watching heavy equipment quickly storm into a course many members thoroughly enjoyed isn’t for the meek. But with this past winter’s El Niño providing little drought relief, and the threat of soaring potable and reclaimed water costs, decreasing water availability and increasing political interference, means other clubs will likely face similar decisions.

A stagnant golf market adds further challenges, and Santa Ana’s new product also includes a modern practice facility with a double-ended range with 2 ½ acres of tee space. The range will convert into a short course for junior play and social events.

“For members who have been here for a number of years and have been playing wall-to-wall turf, it can be a bit of a shock,” Blasi says. “But the reality is either we were going to do this or five years from now the state or the county was going to force you to do it. At that point, you are being reactive. You might not be able to take the turf out where you want to. This is one way where we can strategically do it in one fell swoop, and make sure what we are doing ties into with everything else.”