Moraine Country Club reopened less than two weeks earlier and Jason Mahl had already shifted his attention to improving a product he played a big part in enhancing. Under a tree behind the 18th green – a symbolic location for an improvement conversation because removing thousands helped transform Moraine – a quartet of confidants encircled Mahl.
His former Louisville Country Club boss, Ric Kehres, and highly regarded Valhalla Golf Club superintendent Roger Meier traveled from Kentucky to see the course. Chad Dorrell made the 35-mile trip to Kettering, Ohio, from Springfield Country Club. Assistant Noah Pier arrived on the Moraine grounds with Mahl well before sunrise, preparing the course for visitors on this sultry late-June day.
Mahl accepted praise from his colleagues. He also proved to be the most inquisitive member of the group. Huge chunks of the last 10 years of his working life were dedicated to an effort that swelled into a $5 million renovation, the largest post-recession renovation in Ohio. The end of construction brings exhilaration, weariness and moments of reflection, all of which Mahl has experienced since the mid-June reopening. He also understands it can’t yield complacency, thus the extended conversations with superintendents who have parlayed upgrades via renovations into stronger courses. Mowing lines, maintaining approaches, topdressing. Mahl absorbed every topic discussed under that tree.
Slowing when construction stops isn’t in Mahl’s makeup, especially when you consider some of his bold moves in the last 10 years. Mahl arrived at Moraine in 2006 after serving as an assistant superintendent at Pine Valley, the sensational and sandy New Jersey course many consider among the world’s best golf venues. Before arriving at Pine Valley, Mahl worked for Kehres at Louisville Country Club. A young architect named Keith Foster oversaw a renovation during Mahl’s time in Louisville. Everything about the renovation, from the grueling days to Foster’s detail-driven approach, enthralled Mahl.
Starting a new job in September and recommending to his bosses in October a solid course with a PGA Championship pedigree needed significant work, might be viewed as a risky action for a superintendent. But Mahl proceeded with a comprehensive presentation to Moraine’s board anyway.
“It was a to-do list and one of the things on it was to develop a golf course master plan,” Mahl says. “I introduced the idea to the committee and board and told them about Keith Foster. At first, when I said something to them, they thought I was a little bit crazy. Finally, once I got Keith here and explained to them the vision Keith has … What I wanted was a working document, kind of a road map of any tree removal, any future changes.”
Foster is picky about where he works, limiting himself to no more than two projects per year. His relationship with Mahl, whom he considers a “top-shelf” superintendent, sparked Foster’s initial interest in Moraine.
Overgrown trees along key corridors causing obstructing views of the property, failing drainage and a stew of turfgrasses in playing areas altered Moraine, the most notable design by Alex “Nipper” Campbell, a Scottish professional golfer who settled in the Dayton area. The course opened in 1930 and hosted the 1945 PGA Championship won by Bryon Nelson. Moraine means earth carried and deposited by a glacier, and the club’s 170-acre property fits its geological namesake. The first time Foster walked the property alone, he noticed similarities with Cape Cod gem Eastward Ho! “The ground at Eastward Ho! is nothing short of inspiring,” Foster says. “It’s bold. It’s dynamic. It’s sweeping. It’s grand. In essence, I think it’s epic.”
Moraine, in Foster’s mind, had the same potential as Eastward Ho!, which he renovated in 2004. A savvy superintendent, glacial ties and throwback green complexes convinced him to pursue the project. “You put those three things together and go, ‘Sure, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. But in the end, it’s just such a special place,’” Foster says.
As the economic downturn reached Dayton, Mahl commenced the improvement process. In the winter of 2007-08, his team embarked on widespread tree removal. Out went seven acres of trees between the eighth and 17th holes. Out went two acres more between 14, 15 and 16. Out went another ½ acre between 7 and 16. Trees were removed in other select locations, and by the end of the winter, Mahl estimates they cleared 2,000 trees planted during the 1950s and ’60s.
“You could not believe how steep these hills and views and vistas were,” he says. “I was sending pictures to the board in the snow. The snow really shows the contours once you started dropping trees. We were all blown away. That was the cool part, kind of what we revealed underneath and what was hidden over the years.”
Tree removal teased what awaited. Renovation discussions started turning serious in 2011 and ’12 as the master plan devised by Foster made enhancements such as regrassing and adding drainage priorities. Mahl visited multiple Mid-Atlantic and East Coast clubs that had converted fairways to 007 bentgrass. He also visited Pine Valley and swung by southeastern Pennsylvania with multipe Moraine representatives to see Philadelphia Cricket Club, where Foster was completing a renovation. The group met with Philadelphia Cricket Club director of grounds Dan Meersman and then walked the course. Foster declined an invitation to join the group.
“I think it’s essential for clubs to visit other clubs that have done it,” Foster says. “I don’t feel like I have to be part of it. I want them to look at it from the perspective of not me selling them on what they should do, but rather allow them to see what really is possible.”
Moraine and Philadelphia Cricket Club are 550 miles apart and will never compete for the same members. But visiting Philadelphia Cricket Club near the end of a renovation further nudged Moraine’s leaders toward pursuing their own massive project.
“Moraine was a great golf course before, but it let them know how good it can with the clean lines and everything defined,” Mahl says. “That trip to Philadelphia was kind of the shining moment of what made things happen. It was a very good template.”
Everything happened fast after the trip, with Moraine members approving a renovation plan and the course closing in 2015 for construction. Members of Mahl’s crew remained employed during the renovation as they managed more than 1,000 truck deliveries. The crew seeded and hydromulched 115 acres and meticulously fertilized and watered the course during the grown-in.
All key areas of the course received attention. Fifteen greens were restored to resemble Campbell’s original intent and putting surfaces increased by 10 percent because of what Foster calls a 24- to 30-inch “belt cut” of low-mow Kentucky bluegrass replacing collars. Mahl and Foster worked together on grass selection and drainage. Greens were seeded with Pure Distinction bentgrass; fairways with 007. Fairways comprise 30 acres and are 11 percent larger than their pre-renovation size.
Mahl and his crew completed a series of in-house drainage projects from 2010-11, but the renovation gives Moraine gravity drainage capabilities. The club has nine miles of underground drainage that didn’t exist in 2006, increasing the chances of producing firm conditions when the new grasses mature.
Foster’s work increased the bunker total from 48 to 60. The bunkers feature flat bottoms and steep, grass faces. The bunkers, along with native areas lining numerous holes, will frame greens and fairways and provide golfers with memorable visuals. The crew mowed the native areas in late May, and Mahl tells industry friends the aesthetics should be different in 2017. When standing on mounds and gazing at the interior of the course, parts of Moraine already look painting-like. “As Keith says, ‘Moraine is a sleeping giant,’” Mahl says.
Foster knows Moraine has the right person overseeing his most recent work. Mahl, a Willard, Ohio, native who attended The Ohio State University, is primed to take Moraine to the level he envisioned when he boldly told the membership the course possessed unfulfilled potential.
“I believe my programs are better because the superintendents that I work with make my work better than it really is,” Foster says. “Jason is no exception to this.”