A new irrigation system is part of $4 million in improvements at Seneca Golf Course outside Cleveland.
© courtesy of dave donner

President Franklin Roosevelt prioritized the public when he signed Executive Order 7034 in 1935 and created the Works Progress Administration. Through the WPA, people sustained themselves on infrastructure projects and other initiatives, including building and renovating public and private golf courses coast to coast. Located just south of Cleveland, Ohio, Seneca Golf Course was built with WPA funds and opened with nine holes in 1940. Crafted by hands in need of work and created for people in need of a local public course, those nine holes grew to 36 and were named Course A and Course B.

Owned by the city of Cleveland, the land is now on a $1-per-year lease to the Cleveland Metroparks for 99 years, starting in 2010. Sleepy Hollow, another Metroparks course, is three miles from Seneca and some people questioned why the Metroparks would want to add a course in such close proximity to their robust portfolio of properties.

Dave Donner

“We did it because it is a large tract of land with 400 acres of green space right on our parkway,” says Sean McHugh, CGCS and executive director of golf operations for the Metroparks since 1997. Thousands of year-round step counters, runners, hand-holding toddlers, furry companions and more constantly enjoy this lengthy, accessible pathway. “It was a no-brainer for us to be the stewards of this land,” McHugh adds.

Cleveland requested that the Metroparks maintain the golf course and improve it. The Metroparks agreed to invest $4 million and they have fulfilled that commitment already with a new design and a new irrigation system. Though more changes are in the works, there is time to carefully consider those options and people are enjoying every step forward.

Geoff Koller

Course renovations

Altogether the Metroparks has eight courses with 30 miles separating those on the west side – Big Met, Little Met and Mastick Woods – from the course farthest east, Donald Ross-designed Manakiki. The southern courses include Seneca, Sleepy Hollow and Shawnee Hills with Washington, an executive course, in the middle. These courses offer a variety of difficulty and the parks are collectively referred to as the “Emerald Necklace” because of the way they surround Cleveland with green spaces. Every facility has its own crew except for the three western courses, which combine for 36 holes, are within a mile of each other and can easily share staff.

Seneca was once a well-known course, hosting The Carling Open Invitational, a PGA Tour event, in 1959. It was won by Dow Finsterwald, and Arnold Palmer referred to Seneca as “a good testing course.” When it began to lose popularity and became neglected, Cleveland started losing money on the property and something needed to change. Enter the Metroparks.

In 2014, the Metroparks worked with Terry Baller of Sustainable Sports Solutions LLC to create Furnace Run, Chippewa and Baldwin, the three nines in the new 27-hole design. The course isn’t meant to be overly difficult. “We wanted it to be enjoyable and Baller made that vision work. Everyone is very happy with it,” McHugh says.

With Baldwin nestled in a horseshoe-shaped Chippewa, and Chippewa nestled within a horseshoe-shaped Furnace Run, this layout has every nine start and finish at the clubhouse which is creating lots of possibilities. The management can mix nines for people and it can track how long those nines are taking. The routing is easy to follow, adding to the enjoyment of playing, and short distances between greens and the next tee keep everybody moving.

Seneca Golf Course is one of eight courses operated by Cleveland Metroparks.

Named for one of the three headwaters on the property, mass excavation started on Furnace Run in January 2015 and it opened for play Memorial Day weekend 2016. Chippewa took just 14 months to renovate, opening in September 2017 and the Baldwin renovations began in April 2018. That course, now open, brings this part of the project to a close. One big challenge was maintaining greens and fairways for holes that had to be watered (using a water truck) before the irrigation came online. It was imperative for the course to remain open while work was being done to ensure people could continue to play.

In every phase of renovation, the Metroparks team followed the same steps: mass excavation (rough shaping, moving material, digging ponds); drainage; shaping bunkers; spreading topsoil; irrigation; green extensions; bunker drainage and bunker sand; cart paths; finish grade; seed prep; seeding; straw mulch and hydroseed. Though guests have been curious about the work, seeing the grass grow is when people start to get excited.

“Tees and fairways are a mix of low-mow bluegrass varieties. They have decent color and are more drought- and disease-resistant, which helps with conservation,” says David Donner, golf course manager for Seneca. Tees and fairways can be mowed down to half an inch without any problems and bluegrass surrounds the bunkers. The greens are pure bentgrass now, eliminating any of the bluegrass that was there previously.

Besides the changes in turf, the design lengthened the course in some places but also strategically provided more club and shot selections for golfers of different abilities. New irrigation was a massive part of the changes and Tony Altum from A.S. Altum & Associates created the irrigation plan in 2014. Throughout the renovation, this plan was executed in-house by McHugh, Donner and the team.

The irrigation was changed from the steel lines laid in the 1940s and ’50s to being high-density polyethylene pipe (HDPE). With the new system comes longevity but also new skills, as several maintenance employees were trained and certified in the installation and care for this material.

The Metroparks excel at employee development, and McHugh has created an in-house construction crew that works across the properties, not just for irrigation projects but for whatever needs doing. The Metroparks golf properties combine for about 300,000 nine-hole rounds a year and golf is financially self-sustaining.

Staff are (happily!) adjusting to the new two-wire Rain Bird system that conserves water in multiple ways. The irrigation is mostly single row, with double row being installed in only a few places near the landing areas on the fairways. “We do have ins and outs on the greens with heads that water the greens and heads that water the rough so we are not overwatering either area,” Donner says. “We have more options to control what we are putting out.”

Water conservation is an added benefit of the new no-mow areas too, incorporated to create pockets of wildlife habitat. The no-mow areas have been the most difficult change for the guests and are still being shaped as several balls (and some stray colorful phrases) have landed there. It’s important to get the balance of the improvements right and the Seneca team recognizes the value of listening as well as doing.

The Furnace Run course was the first revamped nine to open at Cleveland Metroparks-operated Seneca Golf Course.

Geoff Koller, Seneca’s clubhouse manager and PGA golf professional, helps immensely with this and he educates guests daily. Koller is friendly, attentive and sure to explain big changes as well as regular maintenance, such as aerating and topdressing. Signage in the clubhouse and throughout the course is also helping people.

Another course improvement is the tee schematics. Shifting away from the traditional red, white and blue, the tees from back to front are purple, black, gold, white and orange. The purple tees are reserved for select tournaments and the course championship, while the orange tees are for families. Koller encourages people to “consider the skill level they possess and to play from the tees that match the experience they want to have.” McHugh acknowledges the problem with pace of play at all the properties and changing the colors “invites people to think differently.”

Daily recreation

In acquiring Seneca, “the Metroparks aimed for renovations and improvements that would enhance the course and enable the land to be used 365 days a year,” says McHugh. This meant some extra initiatives.

For instance, cross-country skiing is possible and the trails are clearly marked. When it snows, tracks can be seen adjacent to the fairways and if someone accidentally crosses the greens, the turf damage is light and grows out quickly in the spring. People snowshoe here. Nesting boxes are being added and a local scout troop is helping with a bluebird trail. The parking lot is sloped so water flows into a retention area where it is filtered before it again becomes part of the water cycle. Donner describes himself as a “beekeeper who is learning,” but the fresh honey butter served at The Back Nine Grille, the clubhouse snack bar, is evidence of what he already knows.

Solorider carts have been at the courses for years and see use on at least a monthly basis. At Seneca, golf is accessible for everyone and the solorider carts can drive right onto the greens. Some people use them to play and others simply ride and spend time with friends and family while they play.

Plans for the future include a state-of-the-art driving range. Also being considered are a par-3 course, a short-game practice area and a sledding hill.The course was closed for only 85 days in 2019, but when golf is not possible, the property can be used for other adventures.

Another improvement is that the maintenance facility now has a wood-burning boiler. Trees line the fairways at Seneca and are in abundance throughout the Metroparks so there is no shortage of wood. Standing in the middle of Baldwin, you can’t see the maintenance facility but you can smell the fire burning. It’s smoky, earthy and wonderful. Who doesn’t love that smell, particularly on days that are cold and damp? Over the years a number of beech trees have had to be removed and the beech is given to the animals at another Metroparks property, the Zoo, where it is used for browse. Nothing is wasted.

Koller shares that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is hearing stories, like when people say they have played the course for decades. Working with people to help them enjoy golf not only as a sport, but as entertainment, he challenges himself to “recover discouraged golfers” and to help others improve. “It’s a pretty good split between people who just want to play and people who want to learn,” not just to golf better, but about everything that has to do with the property – from agronomic principles to plant identification.

“We couldn’t accomplish what we do without the great volunteers who work here,” says Donner, who is one of four full-time maintenance employees. Volunteers usually work two eight-hour shifts per week and have playing privileges at every Metroparks course. Donner enjoys and is exceptional at his job for many reasons, not the least of which is bonding with the seasonal employees (about 25) and volunteers with whom he gets to work. They possess a variety of backgrounds, occupations and ages, and are just another way that this is truly a course for everyone.

The Metroparks are treasured by Clevelanders and the public has been supportive, particularly after seeing the high-quality product produced by the first renovation. Funded 80 years ago by the WPA for golfers, in 2020 there is something at Seneca for everyone. Authentic and joyfully blooming, constant activity is the new heartbeat of this outstanding municipal course. Sounds of the renovation are fading, bees are buzzing and bluebirds will soon be singing. Is your management interested in improving conservation and encouraging wildlife? How about adding activities and areas that are naturally thrilling? Maybe. Listen to your land, see it from the eyes of the people and determine how your property can work for all walks of life.