Ben Rink saves emails. The mundane. The long. The brief. The technical. When he needs a reference, or a midday chuckle, he visits the e-chives. Sometimes reading old emails can be – ready for a word we don’t hear often in golf course maintenance – fun.
Champaign Country Club, where Rink has served as superintendent since 2003, completed renovations last year. The work addressed the practice area, drainage and bunkers. Email chains are descendants of renovations, and Rink started and extended numerous exchanges with golf course architect Mark Fine.
Improving Champaign Country Club’s 112-year-old course represented an eight-year process. Rereading emails are part of Rink’s post-renovation reflection. “It was a lot of fun to read them,” he says. “It’s just keeping at it. The alternative is that you give up and not make any improvements.”
Watching members or owners approve a multimillion dollar renovation plan in January and the arrival of dump trucks and excavators in March contrast the renovation experiences of most superintendents. Plans are developed, committees meet, changes are made, bids are exchanged, outsiders are hired and superintendents play a waiting game. The economic downturn from 2008-13 prolonged the waiting at Champaign Country Club, a club wedged in a section of central Illinois where significant development stalled for reasons far beyond the control of anybody responsible for maintaining, operating or managing a private golf course.
Sometimes, in Rink’s words, a superintendent must just keep at it. A mild form of renovation frenzy has reinvigorated hundreds of facilities the last two years. But nobody is certain whether the infusion of capital represents extended financial security or a temporary trend between recessions. If another recession begins, solid course improvement plans will stall or die.
Persistence among Rink, pro Lance Olson and general manager Chris Collins, a trio of veteran club employees, kept Champaign’s plans alive, even in bleak economic times. Their triumph offers guidance for others who might encounter similar uncontrollable obstacles, frustration and skepticism when trying to improve their own courses.
It doesn’t drain
Rink started his current job Sept. 1, 2003. He realized on Sept. 2, 2003 what Olson started understanding shortly after he became Champaign’s head pro in 2000: major drainage blunders had become common. The problems weren’t a secret, and they provided fodder during Rink’s first greens committee meeting. The entire course drained through one pipe. The pipe measured 12 inches.
“When Ben came on board, it’s a situation where you get used to the same kind of playing conditions you always had,” Olson says. “It was, ‘Well, if it rains, there’s going to be water in the bunkers. If it rains, the ponds are going to overflow. If it rains too much, the fish are going to swim down Waverly Avenue.’”
I put a lot of our old emails in an archive and it was a lot of fun to read them. It’s just keeping at it. The alternative is that you give up and not make any improvements.” - Ben Rink, Champaign Country Club
Big storms caused bunkers to look more like stocked fishing ponds than playing surfaces. “It wasn’t an issue with draining bunkers because they didn’t drain,” Rink says.
Champaign Country Club opened in 1904 and Tom Bendelow reworked the course in 1923. A 1968 renovation transformed the faces of the bunkers from grass to flash, bringing problems that became magnified by the time Rink arrived. Rink and Olson visited other clubs to examine restored bunkers, leading to internal conservations about the club’s identity. Not only had Champaign’s bunkers strayed from the classic look, they placed major strain on Rink’s peak season staff of 15.
Following significant rain, workers mounted pumps on mechanical rakes, spending days trying to polish the unsalvageable. If the dousing occurred close to a tournament, Rink and Olson agreed to contest the event with water-filled bunkers so the maintenance crew could focus on other areas of the course. “I don’t want to say we gave up on them,” Rink says, “but we really didn’t put a lot of effort into them.” Still, labor and resources devoted to bunkers surpassed everything else in Rink’s budget.
With no short-term fix available, Rink and Olson used knowledge obtained from visiting other courses and a relationship with a local shaper to experiment on the par-3 10th hole. The project consisted of reducing the size of the hole’s three bunkers and installing grass faces. They picked the 10th hole for symbolic and logistical reasons. The hole is near the clubhouse and members could easily see the throwback appearance. The hole is also near access roads, allowing materials to be hauled onto the property without damaging other parts of the course. Rink, Olson and Collins received encouraging feedback regarding the new look, sparking hundreds of course and clubhouse conversations about Champaign’s future.
The redesigned 10th debuted in 2005. The trio of managers let the redesigned hole simmer until December 2007, when Fine’s firm created a preliminary assessment report after visiting the course multiple times. The report confirmed what Rink discovered early in his Champaign tenure.
“The course had been changed a lot over the years, like a lot of these older courses,” Fine says. “It was kind of quasi-modern and quasi-classic. They knew they had to do something and that’s why they invited us to take a look at it. We explained that the course can be a lot better, but it needs a fair amount of work. It will take a sizable commitment on behalf of the club to make it better and improve it. They fully understood that. There were no real surprises.”
Staying with the plan
As menacing as the drainage and bunkers proved, the practice area was the first area the club wanted to address, Olson says. The club sits on just 95 acres – a total that includes the parking lot – and classic architects such as Bendelow didn’t anticipate time and competitive demands transforming practice areas into valuable assets for clubs in markets such as Champaign-Urbana, Ill. Champaign Country Club competes with two other private clubs and four public facilities for customers in a market of 83,000 residents. “Everybody is fighting for the same dollars,” Olson says. “There’s probably one too many private courses and one too many public courses for everybody to be healthy across the board.”
Champaign Country Club’s three-acre practice facility lacked areas to hit practice pitch shots from prepared bentgrass to a bentgrass green, short holes for juniors to learn the game and targets to hone imaginative shots. A long-term future without those amenities would hurt the club’s prospects of attracting time-crunched, family-first members.
Fine crafted a plan for the practice area in 2007. The plan sat because the recession started and then intensified.
Champaign Country Club started losing members. But Rink never lost confidence the club would endure the recession and emerge with an improved golf product. “Looking back on it, that downturn was sort of a blessing in disguise,” he says. “It gave us time.”
Here’s how the club, Fine and his partner Scott Witter used the time: the club voted to begin a strategic improvement plan to guide future work in 2009; a strategic planning committee formed in 2010; the strategic improvement plan was finalized and Turf Drainage Company of America developed a long-term drainage plan in 2011; the club board of directors embarked on plans for the clubhouse and pool in 2012; and the strategic planning committee and board of directors hosted town hall meetings regarding golf course improvements in 2013.
“It could have died easily when we hit that downturn,” Rink says. “It was a point of discussion just enough to keep things going. They were OK with spending money with Mark and doing some of the planning work. We knew we weren’t going to get it done right away. In fact, we knew pretty much all along that this was not a project, it was a roadmap to get to an end to when as money became available, we would know how we were going to do it. We wanted to get a design together that we could then put on my shelf in my office.”
The design sat until 2014, when the club hired GCBAA member Aspen Golf and Turf Drainage Company to execute the strategic improvement plan. Nine holes closed July 28, 2014; the other nine closed Sept. 21, 2014. Leaving nine holes open for two months during construction generated member curiosity and excitement. The final product left Champaign Country Club with a modern, repurposed practice area, 65 redesigned and rebuilt bunkers, and what Rink describes as “miles” of fairway and bunker drainage including two flood control pump stations.
Wheels and feet are one way to understand the agronomic differences in the course since the renovation. Champaign Country Club doesn’t have wall-to-wall cart paths, and Rink looks below his vehicle to determine saturation levels. “My sense of firmness is under the wheels of my cart,” he says. “There is far, far less standing water after a heavy rain.” The renovation has changed how Rink approaches daily maintenance. Small, intricate bunkers with grass faces mean more hand raking and fly mowing. Formal drainage means less scrambling following heavy rain. The bunkers received immediate tests last year as a trio of storms each dumped three inches of water on the course. Rink’s crew had bunkers playable by 9 a.m. the following morning. Olson judges how the course handles water by staring at members’ shoes. “How dirty are they,” he says. “We have a lot less mud on them.”
Olson is observing more shoes since the renovation. A recovering economy and renovation buzz helped Champaign Country Club attract more than 100 new members in 2015, he says. Keeping stalled plans in the forefront has positioned the club to handle future climatic and economic uncertainties.
“It’s a dramatic improvement,” Fine says. “If you played the golf course before and after, it’s night and day. Now all of the sudden you have a much better product offering and anybody who’s looking to join a club is going to have to take a look at Champaign Country Club. You need to differentiate yourself and constantly be improving, and that’s what Champaign did. My hat’s off to them for having the patience and following through on it. It was truly a long-range plan that got carried out.”
Rink has seven years of emails with Fine to prove how persistence can foster prosperity.
“It’s ultimately up to your membership or owner or whoever is controlling the money whether it’s going to get done,” he says. “We felt like we had a pretty solid plan. There was a lot of education that took place. There was a lot of mutual support between Lance and I. When one of us was questioning whether it was going to get done, the other guy seemed to be a little more positive. We had a lot of one-on-one conversations figuring out how to keep it going. And seven years is a long time to keep that going.”