The eighth green at Canterbury Golf Club in suburban Cleveland.
© guy cipriano

Years of careful pitching and planning didn’t prepare the Canterbury Golf Club turf team for the equipment caravan it witnessed last September. A club that nearly had everything – major championship history, soothing land in the shadows of downtown Cleveland, golf-loving members and one of the best collection of Herbert Strong-designed greens – was beginning the physical process of correcting a painful secret by embarking on a bunker renovation. “I honestly didn’t believe it was real until I saw the equipment come down the driveway,” superintendent Mike LoPresti says.

Canterbury’s bunkers had been architecturally and structurally failing for decades. LoPresti understood the plight immediately after arriving from famed Oak Hill Country Club in December 2011, yet he followed a tradition of overcoming infrastructure challenges to produce solid conditions established by longtime superintendent Terry Bonar. When grueling days of pumping, pushing, shoveling and sand swapping ended, LoPresti quietly documented the strain the bunkers placed on his team. Cleveland averages 40 inches of annual rainfall, so bunker washouts and contaminated sand are as common in the region as losing professional football seasons.

Assistant superintendent Alan Hammond, who arrived in 2013 from Oak Hill, lives near the club and experienced dozens of deflating pre-renovation mornings, passing a greenside bunker protecting the left side of the ninth green on the way to the club’s maintenance building. The saturation in his yard and the bunker’s condition often foreshadowed the workday. “I could look into my yard and see puddles, and I knew what we were facing today,” he says. “It was like, ‘Aww man, these guys don’t know what they are in for. It’s going to be a long, long slug.’”

LoPresti, Hammond and the crew slugged it out, using nearly every available resource to repair the course’s 107 pre-renovation bunkers following significant storms: 60, 80, 100 hours … whatever it took. LoPresti and Hammond worked alongside their employees in the bunkers because every hour mattered, and the team often returned the bunkers to a playable condition before most members noticed the severity of the problem.

Once he settled into his Canterbury tenure, LoPresti started gently decreasing the ferocity of bunker maintenance. The tactic was difficult because of a superintendent’s prideful nature, but it proved important for the course’s future.

‘When I first got here, I was like, ‘What are we going to do? We have to fix these,’” he says. “And I would throw everybody at them. After I was here for a few years, sometimes I would leave them so the members would understand how bad they could be. What’s often the case in this industry is that we get out early, get out of everybody’s way and fix everything before people have an opportunity to see. I think that helped open some people’s eyes to how bad they really were. It’s a good opportunity to explain what the whole situation is.”

Bruce Hepner, Canterbury’s consulting architect since the late 1990s, worked on a long-range plan with the club, scoring victories over the years such as modest tree removal, returning greens to original sizes, improving the irrigation system and renovating tee complexes. The work strengthened what Hepner considered a Golden Age gem with “great bones,” but some of the external features remained feeble. Canterbury opened in 1922, and Hepner says based on his research bunkers were modified multiple times by different architects, although some of Strong’s original designs remained. “It was quite eclectic with all the different shapes and sizes,” Hepner says.

The Great Recession stalled bunker renovation discussions, but that didn’t stop outsiders, including Golf Digest architecture sage Ron Whitten, from chattering about Canterbury’s bunkers. Whitten told Hepner, “there wasn’t a golf course in the country that needed a bunker job more than Canterbury,” which has hosted the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Western Open and U.S. Amateur. “It was the missing piece of the puzzle,” Hepner adds.

As he waited on the club to approve the project, Hepner studied hundreds of bunkers, including the ones in early photographs of the Canterbury grounds. Strong’s original bunkers included sharp edges and fingers surrounded by penal turf. The bunkers strayed from their original form, becoming simpler and rounder over the years. Simple, though, led to complex maintenance, and Hepner worked to make them “functional first and then add a lot of character to them.”

Canterbury’s renovated bunkers fit with the Golden Age features found throughout the Herbert Strong-designed course.

The style Hepner devised included sod faces throughout the course, but also a few bunkers that included steep sand flaring. Using what he calls “old-world construction,” Hepner focused on the areas outside bunkers to ensure water from greens and surrounds flowed away from the hazards. Canterbury also installed a modern liner in the bunkers. Hepner doubled as the shaper, a tactic he deploys on many of his projects. GCBAA certified builder Frontier Golf served as the builder, mobilizing a crew in Northeast Ohio last September following the conclusion of the Tour’s DAP Championship, the first televised tournament hosted by the club since the 2009 Senior PGA Championship. The course remained opened during construction, allowing members to play their final 2016 rounds while witnessing the metamorphosis.

Heavy, slow-draining clay soils halted construction even after last fall’s minimal rains, Frontier Golf project manager Jason Sloan says. The project also included adding six miles of drainage throughout the course and renovating more than 20 tees. To accommodate repositioned fairway bunkers, the Canterbury crew moved irrigation lines and heads, a task led by second assistant superintendent Terrance DiLoreto.

“It is always a unique experience to work on a historic golf course dating back to the Golden Age of golf course architecture,” Sloan says. “It is a pleasure and an honor that we take very seriously, as we know our work becomes part of a rich and significant history of the golf course.”

Work started in a far corner of the cozy property, and by winter, construction reached the center of the club, where the paved driveway, parking lot and maintenance facility converge. The project finished this past spring. Canterbury received more than 1 ½ inches of rain in a short period on Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. Member-member weekend was even wetter, with the club absorbing 4 ½ inches in three hours.

“Last year we would have had to make a decision: Are we changing cups and cutting greens, or are we fixing bunkers?” LoPresti says. “This year it was just a normal day.”

Multiple years of weather data is needed to fully quantify labor savings, although LoPresti says it now takes three to four employees and less than two hours to fix bunkers following significant storms. Avoiding major washouts allows Canterbury’s specialized employees to execute detail-oriented tasks, Hammond adds. The new design requires more fly mowing, a process that has become more efficient as the crew learns the nuances of the 102 bunkers.

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.