The odds were against this odd couple: a golf course owner-superintendent looking to open a second course mid-recession, and a former superintendent running a landscaping company amidst the housing market crash looking to reenter the golf industry.
Jim McNair Jr. took a gamble when he bought the semi-private Cedar Creek Golf Club, a 7,200-yard championship course in a retirement community in Aiken, S.C. As the owner of the nearby Aiken Golf Club for more than a quarter-century, McNair previously considered Cedar Creek competition. After he decided to buy it, five banks declined his loan requests before a local bank helped him out. He saw the potential to renovate the course — to preserve its Arthur Hills design and improve play for its members and guests. “What drove me to purchase it was No. 1, to combine the two courses, take away my competition, have an ability to draw from the greats,” he says. “The seniors that play out here — they’re all active; they’ve got the money and the time.”
Gary Frazier worked as McNair’s assistant superintendent at Aiken Golf Club from 1997 to 2000, and helped him complete a 100 percent in-house renovation. Frazier then took the roles of assistant superintendent at Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken and superintendent of the now closed North Augusta Country Club in North Augusta, S.C., before leaving the industry to open a landscaping company. In 2012, he heard McNair purchased Cedar Creek, so he knocked on McNair’s door at his home, and McNair hired him as superintendent.
That same year, the five-year in-house project began to transform Cedar Creek’s into a more playable destination for seniors and retirees. Standing in the shadow of renowned architect Hills, who designed the course in 1991, proved humbling. “You get a little nervous about it because you try to keep the architecture that was there intact as much as possible, but sometimes you just can’t,” Frazier says. “You’ve got to make the changes that you need to make to fit what you have at the club.” As the renovation nears its final days, those changes are beginning to lend aid to McNair and Frazier, and ease operations at the club.
For the Cedar Creek project, McNair pulled from his experience renovating Aiken Golf Club, which his father purchased in 1959 and he bought in 1985; Frazier pulled from that same experience as well as another renovation he experienced at North Augusta. At Cedar Creek, they performed the entire renovation themselves, save for tee laser-leveling and turf installation and the removal of 650 trees, which they contracted out. Major improvements included the tiering of fairways and reducing slopes; addition of higher handicap tees; conversion from TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens to MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens; conversion from 419 Bermudagrass tee tops, fairways and aprons to TifGrand Bermudagrass; installation of a new irrigation system and practice facility; and the decrease in rolls and undulations on putting surfaces.
In 2012, McNair heard news from his Toro representative that Charlotte Country Club was redoing its irrigation system and the superintendent was willing to sell satellite boxes for $200 apiece. “It saved us $60,000 that we were able to put to use in other areas of the golf course,” he says. Early renovation was also marked by the construction of a teaching center that includes three covered hitting bays, a 7,000 square-foot MiniVerde Bermudagrass chipping and putting green, and an indoor computer swing analysis.
McNair and Frazier completed the front nine renovation between mid-May and mid-October 2015, and plan to finish the back nine and reopen it in mid-October. When they renovated the front nine, they kept the back nine open for play. Now, as they renovate the back nine, the renovated front nine is open for play. Cedar Creek members, who McNair estimates make up about 60 to 70 percent of rounds played, and their guests can visit Aiken Golf Club, and vice versa.
The majority of architectural changes were in the fairways, while the 419 Bermudagrass roughs stayed intact following what McNair describes as Hills’ “fantastic” shaping. McNair and Frazier went in with a 450 bulldozer and made major design changes on a couple holes. “Jim and myself pretty much did the majority of the renovation work on the backside with all the heavy equipment and the architectural changes,” Frazier says. “And then I pull the staff off when we have days where we bring sod in. At that point, I cannot mow greens that day and rake bunkers and mow the rough and mow tee surrounds and green surrounds. The daily maintenance stuff we can leave for a day.”
The new grasses have helped Frazier balance daily maintenance with the renovation work he tackles later in the day. Crew cut the TifGrand less often than they used to, and they could cut the MiniVerde less often if they needed to. But high-quality ultradwarf Bermudagrasses such as MiniVerde can present a trade-off for superintendents, Frazier says. “To some degree you can have a little less maintenance, but there’s other avenues that you have to do on a regular basis, like the topdressing, verticutting, grooming and brushing on the putting surface,” he says.
When renovating the fairways, McNair and Frazier sprayed them three times with weed killer and sprigged in the TifGrand. They also sodded it on the aprons. TifGrand has been around for several years, but it is fairly new to South Carolina, McNair says. “It’s a very tight, very dense, dark Bermuda, and it’s drought-tolerant and it stays greener longer in the fall; it’s a fantastic grass,” he says.
The renovation also consisted of removing and improving bunkers, repaving cart paths and opening up native areas. McNair and Frazier removed bunkers and reworked existing ones by adding fingers, sharpening edges and installing TifGrand on their faces. They converted cart paths from asphalt to concrete (they still aren’t wall-to-wall) and added native sand areas where they planted native vegetation, which then allowed them to cut back on irrigation, chemicals and fertilization.
A lot of stress comes along with an in-house renovation, Frazier says, comparing the Cedar Creek project to the one he contributed to at North Augusta, which was primarily contracted out. Using Aiken Golf Club as a model — along with the last four years — McNair and Frazier have seen the opportunities their partnership can afford them. “It’s a tremendous amount of work that has to be done in a short period of time,” Frazier says. “We’ve done it with minimal resources, and I think we’re going to have a great quality product.”