The halfway house at Columbus Country Club sits at the confluence of refreshment and history. It’s a rare golfing perch on Columbus’ relatively flat east side – the bulk of the booming Ohio city’s other prominent courses are on other sides of town – with a patio overlooking parts of five holes.
Staring below the bluffs in the first half of the 20th century, a member might have spotted Tom Bendelow, Donald Ross and H.S. Colt inspecting the land adjacent to Big Walnut Creek. Similar glances in the second half of the century would have yielded glimpses of Dick Wilson and Geoffrey Cornish analyzing the course. From July 16-19, 1964, the course hosted the PGA Championship, Bobby Nichols’ lone major championship triumph, making the area a delightful spot for spectator indulgence. There’s Arnie on No. 5! Is that the hometown boy Jack approaching the 12th green?
The club has indulged in consultation with at least 12 architects in its 111 golfing years. Ross shimmied the course in multiple directions from 1915-40; others shifted away from his intent, altering greens and planting trees on generous bluffs abutting multiple holes.
Anybody resting at the halfway house from 2016-17 saw a symbolic occurrence: Columbus’s oldest private club using its past to preserve its future. On its greatest asset, a golf course with a major championship pedigree Ross molded in its infancy, Columbus Country Club is relying on a restoration to attract a multi-generational membership. “We want to be the best family oriented private club in Central Ohio,” general manager Jay Frank says.
Trending in that direction involved selecting an outside company, Troon, to manage the club, followed by three straight years of construction, beginning with a clubhouse renovation in 2015. Kevin Hargrave, a Louisville, Ky.-based associate of restoration guru Keith Foster, oversaw work to the golf course. Foster and Hargrave’s involvement with Columbus Country Club commenced in 2011, two years before Troon’s arrival at the club. Foster and Hargrave created a master plan as the club mulled its options. Foster then moved from Kentucky to Virginia, handing the project to Hargrave, who guided Columbus Country Club through two construction phases, beginning with front-nine work from fall 2016 until spring 2017. Work on the back nine started in September 2017 and a golf course featuring two restored nines reopened this past spring.
Hargrave’s first impressions of Columbus Country Club had thousands of obstructions. “When we first got there, they had so many trees,” he says. “You couldn’t see anything. There were so many trees that it was choking out the turf underneath.”
The club removed more than 1,500 trees during the two phases. A lukewarm response from some members, a commonality in private club restorations, greeted the initial tree work, a necessity if Columbus Country Club wanted to return the Ross flavor via fairway expansion. Working for Foster ingrained into Hargrave the importance of using an original architect’s intent to guide a modern project.
Although it started later than expected, the first round of significant tree removal represented a breakthrough in Columbus Country Club’s restoration. Members of the renovation committee wanted trees cleared from bluffs on three separate parts of the golf course: left of the first hole, between the fifth and 10th holes, and between the 12th and 14th holes. Proponents of thinning the bluffs, Hargrave says, convinced the club to increase its budget for the project.
Among the lauded projects where Hargrave assisted Foster is Moraine Country Club, 95 miles to the west of Columbus Country Club. Moraine, coincidentally, also has a PGA Championship pedigree (Byron Nelson won his final major at the Dayton-area course in 1945) and removing thousands of trees opened vistas between holes, exposing indelible golf land. Moraine reopened in June 2016, a few months before work at Columbus Country Club commenced.
The similarities between Columbus Country Club and Moraine extended to many of the people working in the dirt, as GCBAA member TDI Golf served as the builder on both projects, increasing Hargrave’s comfort level as the Columbus work headed in a bold direction. Other objectives at Columbus Country Club included lifting the fronts of 12 greens to enhance drainage on approaches, returning bunkers to a flat-bottom style, thus improving drainage and playability, and repositioning multiple tees. The course now plays anywhere from 5,400 to 7,200, providing flexibility to attract a variety of players.
Columbus Country Club boasts a nine-hole, par-3 course at the front of the property. The land where the short course sits served as a parking lot during the PGA Championship. The club used funds from the tournament to construct the par-3 course, a forward-thinking move five decades before adding short courses became vogue. The presence of the course allowed members to play a form of 18-hole golf as it closed alternate nines during the restoration. Upgrading the short course, along with the 18-hole course’s irrigation system, is part of the club’s long-range plans.
With two phases of construction completed and the 18-hole course in service, enthusiastic superintendent J.R. Lynn and his team are now working to provide the family friendly playing conditions club leaders are seeking. Lynn assigned four members of his Columbus Country Club team each day to assist construction crews with nettlesome tasks such as locating and relocating drainage and irrigation points. His team also sprayed more than 60 acres with Roundup, as the club proceeded with transforming the bluffs and other wayward spots into fescue areas.
Establishing playable fescue areas represents one of Lynn’s biggest post-construction challenges. The initial fescue planting this year included using ryegrass as a nursegrass. By early June, the ryegrass had reached three feet and produced thick spots near the surface. Over time, the fescue will thin out, creating visually appealing areas surrounding primary turf.
The bluffs promise to be a feature unlike anything in Columbus, with Lynn and Hargrave envisioning a wispy, colorful appearance. Golfer education and patience are critical parts of the fescue establishment process.
“The fine fescue that’s planted looks really good and healthy underneath,” says Lynn, who previously worked at Crooked Stick. “We will start to eliminate the ryegrass and encourage the fine fescue growth and turn irritation off in those areas as we need to. If we need to dump some sand in some spots, we will do that to get that thin, wispy get in and find your golf ball feel. We will keep pushing for that. We are going to be managing to not manage those areas so hard.”
Lynn adds he wants members to “not feel like they are in the Columbus zip code” while on the course. An unimpeded view of Big Walnut Creek on the third hole’s uphill approach shot provide wildlife watching opportunities; simple tee box presentations featuring markers and wooden benches amplify the early 20th century vibe crafted through the restoration. This spring and summer proved soggy, but producing firm conditions, which becomes obtainable because of wider fairways and fewer trees, ranks high on Lynn’s ways of blending the past with the future. “From a management standpoint and maintenance standpoint, over the next three to five years, we’re going to hone in on how we manage the course in the most family friendly way,” he says.