Rochester Golf & Country Club is undergoing a multi-year enhancement of its A.W. Tillinghast-designed golf course.
© nick folk

East Coast bravado often doesn’t click in folksy, laid-back places. So, how did a Philadelphia-born, New York City-hardened architect like A.W. Tillinghast become a beloved figure in Rochester, a therapeutic city in southeast Minnesota? And why does this matter in 2018?

Family brought Tillinghast to Rochester. His daughter, Elsie, married Mayo Clinic physician Dr. William P. Finney and Tillinghast agreed to design an 18-hole golf course in the region. His fee was an unusual one in any era: lifetime memberships for Elsie and her husband.

Securing Tillinghast’s services represented a major triumph for Rochester Golf & Country Club members. Tillinghast had designed dozens of East Coast punchers, including exactas at Winged Foot Golf Club and Baltusrol Golf Club. By the end of his Hall of Fame career, Tillinghast’s portfolio included just two Upper Midwest designs: Rochester Golf & CC and Golden Valley Country Club in the Twin Cities. Both clubs hired Tillinghast in 1926, with Rochester Golf & CC debuting its course in 1927.

Had Elsie married somebody who worked elsewhere, Minnesota, a golf-crazed state with a participation rate surpassing 10 percent, might lack a Tillinghast layout. Today, Rochester Golf & CC members hold events, conduct meetings and raise glasses in Winged Foot I and II Ballroom, Baltusrol Boardroom, Cricket Club Room, Tillie’s Bar & Grill and Shawnee Dining Room. “There’s a sentiment here that Tillinghast kind of reigns supreme,” superintendent Nick Folk says.

That sentiment has guided one of the biggest renovations since the current construction wave reached the Upper Midwest.

Using funds from a sizable Imprelis settlement, Rochester Golf & CC has entered its second straight fall of golf course construction. The multimillion-dollar, multi-phase project will rekindle the Tillinghast flair while modernizing irrigation, drainage, bunkers and practice areas. All aspects of the course have already been enhanced by the removal of 2,000 trees over the past five years as part of the master plan. The club is working with multiple parties, including Tom Doak-led Renaissance Golf, Minnesota-based GCBAA member Duininck Golf and drainage specialists XGD Systems.

The tree removal has uncovered little change to key parts of the course since Tillinghast completed his work on the hilly land, which includes 185 feet of elevation, a hearty total for the Upper Midwest. The biggest alteration in the last 91 years involved removing the 13th and 14th holes from play and adding two holes on adjacent property purchased by the club. The club never stopped maintaining the holes and the original 13th and 14th returned to play less than a decade after they were removed from the scorecard. A young Doak, coincidentally, was consulting for another Minnesota club and visited Rochester Golf & CC around the time of the change.

A 1926 Tillinghast blueprint and black-and-white aerial from 1937 are among the materials aiding the Renaissance Golf work being directed onsite by associate Brian Slawnik. Folk worked closely with the green committee to select an architect motivated by restoring Tillinghast’s work. Folk arrived in 2013 after stops at multiple classic gems, including Minikahda Club, Olympia Fields, Janesville Country Club and Oakland Hills. Rochester Golf & CC is Folk’s first head superintendent job. Although engrossing, the project presents a rare opportunity for Folk, a superintendent who relishes Golden Age architecture, to play a major role in a restoration.

“It’s like uncovering a gem that has been hidden for a long time,” he says. “There’s not too many of those around. A lot of other courses that have been renovated have been touched by a few people over the years and it becomes more difficult to do true restoration work.”

Surrounding Folk are professionals with a similar enthusiasm for classic golf, including Slawnik and shaper Angela Moser. Duininck Golf division manager Judd Duininck says the company tries to assign golf enthusiasts to restorations. In addition to Rochester Golf & CC, Duininck Golf’s home-state workload this year includes projects at Minikahda Club (Donald Ross) and Minnesota Valley Country Club (Seth Raynor). “There’s a group of our employees who are really golf nuts and take great pride in being able to work on those projects, and we work pretty hard to get the right people on those projects,” Duininck says. “When work is fun, we all have fun and do good work.”

Slawnik, a former Oakland Hills greenkeeper approaching his two-decade anniversary with Renaissance Golf, also served as the lead design consultant during the restoration of Somerset Hills Country Club, one of Tillinghast’s renowned New Jersey designs. Tillinghast worked at Somerset Hills nearly a decade before he arrived in Rochester, but Slawnik says similarities between the courses exist. Experience gained at Somerset Hills has helped Slawnik make decisions on how to restore distinctive features such as greens, mounds and bunkers at Rochester Golf & CC.

“You can see in the ground where the greens wanted to be and where they had been at one point,” he says. “We didn’t need the aerial photos to figure it out. It was right there in the ground. One of the things I like about Tillinghast’s work and a lot of those Golden Age guys was the sort of purposeful way they built their features. They aren’t natural features, but they fit naturally into the ground. There’s an intent there and it’s born of the methodology.”

The second phase of significant golf course construction, which commenced Aug. 6, addresses course features and what Folk calls “non-infrastructure” parts of the project, including widening fairways, expanding greens to original fill pads, revamping tees, rebuilding cart paths and returning bunkers to a Tillinghast style protected by a modern liner. Construction on a new maintenance facility begins this fall.

To prepare for the greens expansion, Folk and his team aerified last summer and created a 17,000-square foot nursery using the cores. The nursery allowed Folk to establish Poa annua/bentgrass sod matching surfaces on the existing greens. Folk estimates Rochester Golf & CC’s greens will be around a half-acre larger than the surfaces members played this past season. Crews are installing an XGD System – a method to improve subsurface drainage of existing greens – to help meet conditioning demands. XGD turf drainage consultant Mark Luckhardt lauds Folk and the Rochester Golf & CC team for the steps taken to ensure uniform greens.

“It’s about consistency and trying to match up everything, not just what’s above ground,” he says. “We talk about transitions and expansions from Poa/bent to pure bent on the expansions. That kind of looks odd as well. I like it when you take a little bit of your existing Poa plugs, create a nursery and do all the expansions of taking the club back to their old days with the Poa/bent sod. That way you are matching your rootzone and drainage down below, and you’re matching up the visual on top with everything. That’s what they have done at Rochester.”

Crews worked on parts of the course members rarely see last year, installing a new pump house, advanced irrigation system and a 1½-acre irrigation pond behind the renovated practice facility. Parts of eight holes rest on a geological anomaly called the Decorah Edge, an impervious shale formation that yielded chronically wet spots. The club installed a highly engineered drainage system to shift lateral water to the irrigation pond. A sensor in the pumphouse triggers the recharge system when the pond reaches a low level. Recycling water via the pond allows Rochester Golf & CC to reduce its groundwater usage. An efficient irrigation system pumping water at 1,500 gallons per minute reduces irrigation windows and further decreases water usage.

Water isn’t the only reused resource:
  • A ½-inch layer of sand harvested from old bunkers helps prepare floors for sprayed polymer
  • Dirt from old bunkers and tees covers exposed tree roots
  • Limestone rock from the old swimming pool fills a drainage valley between the first and second holes, thus limiting dirt erosion
  • Course benches are being created using wood from removed white pines
  • Old cart path surfaces are crushed onsite and reused as a base layer for new paths

It’s likely Tillinghast would appreciate the ingenuity. In addition to designing golf courses, Tillinghast was a writer and ardent USGA Green Section supporter. Among his articles, he authored a short piece titled, “A Plea For Greenkeepers,” writing, “The true greenkeeper is not an ordinary laboring man but a highly specialized thinker, – and brains have always been worth something.”

Folk, only the fifth superintendent since Tillinghast designed the course, has added significant brainpower to the project devoting countless hours to helping the club document Imprelis damage, researching club and Tillinghast history, studying and interviewing architects, and serving as a liaison between the club and contractors. “Nick has done an excellent job of communicating on that project and keeping things moving along really well,” Duininck says.

Participating in the transformation energizes Folk, who endured vast agronomic challenges at the beginning of his tenure, including Pythium and brown patch caused by a lack of air movement and damp conditions, and a nearly 70-year-old cast iron hydraulic irrigation system. A Wisconsin native who started his career at 124-year-old Janesville CC, Folk often finds himself watching in amazement as the Renaissance Golf team sculpts Tillinghast features. The result should make two straight falls of construction worthwhile and position Rochester Golf & CC for a prosperous era.

“It’s pretty unreal,” Folk says. “If you would have told me when I got hired five years ago, I would be involved in a multimillion-dollar, multi-phase project with a new practice facility, new irrigation system, and a renovated golf course led by Tom Doak and company, I’d probably would have called you a liar. It’s humbling that in my first five years as a superintendent that I get to do something like this.”