Crews from Houston-based Heritage Links are helping prepare Champions Golf Club for the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open.
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When Champions Golf Club was awarded the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, no one thought it would be played in December. But with COVID-19 affecting sports calendars across the globe, the club found itself in the unique position of hosting a U.S. Women’s Open Championship two weeks ahead of Christmas — and preparing to do so on two golf courses to accommodate the lack of daylight.

Enter Jackrabbit, the second course at Champions, which will play co-host with the Cypress Creek course during the first two rounds of the tournament. As part of the preparation work, course contractor Heritage Links, the architects at Beau Welling Design and club director of agronomy Chris Ortmeier are busy renovating the bunkers on the Jackrabbit course to ensure a successful championship. Founded by golf stars Jackie Burke Jr. and Jimmy Demaret, Champions has hosted numerous big events on Cypress Creek, including the 1967 Ryder Cup and 1969 U.S. Open.

“When the Open was rescheduled for December, there was concern about the limited amount of daylight that time of year — that it might be difficult to get a full, pre-cut field around a single course on Thursday and Friday, especially if there’s weather,” says Jon O’Donnell, president of Houston-based Heritage Links, a division of Lexicon, Inc. “Champions has an excellent second 18, the Jackrabbit. No one had anticipated it being thrust into this major championship role — not prior to the rescheduling. But we’re thrilled to be working with Beau and Chris to renovate all the bunkers on the Jackrabbit Course and make sure it’s thoroughly Open ready.”

The Jackrabbit Course, an original George Fazio design, was completely renovated by Tom Fazio in 2001. One of the young architects on the project was Shane Robichaud, today a senior vice president at Beau Welling Design. The contractor on that job nearly 20 years ago: Heritage Links.

“I’ll admit to a real soft spot for the Jackrabbit Course,” O’Donnell says. “That was our very first renovation job, as a company, here in the U.S. We’re honored to be part of the team getting it ready for the Women’s Open. And shoot, it’s basically right across the street from our headquarters here in Houston.”

“Shane and I have enjoyed a relationship with the Burkes and the team at Champions for more than 20 years,” adds Beau Welling, BWD founder and president. “We were happy to help out with this expedited project. We were already working in Texas with Heritage on another project [the new PGA of America development in Frisco]. So, we have easily been able to provide some guidance on the bunker restoration, which has gone very well. The visual drama of the golf course is back.”

In 2019, Heritage renovated Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in preparation for the 2030 PGA Championship as well as the 2021 Senior PGA. The firm built Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Washington, site of the 2017 U.S. Open, renovated Liberty National ahead of the recent President’s Cup, and prepped both Dove Mountain and Doral ahead of their respective World Golf Championship engagements.

“Once we learned of the USGA’s intentions to use both golf courses, the plans evolved quickly, from just pulling old sand and rebuilding the bunkers in place (with new liners and drainage), to something more forward-looking,” Heritage vice president of strategic planning Doug Wright says. “The club saw this as an opportunity to aesthetically enhance the bunkers, which really had not been touched since 2001.”

Ortmeier

Even with all the issues relating to the pandemic, the project has gone smoothly. And the bunkers are scheduled to be completely ready for member play in September.

“Our clear, No. 1 goal was to improve playability for the championship in December,” Wright says. “That means premium sand, new liners and an overall playability that is equal to what players will experience on the Cypress Creek course. With the field of competitors utilizing each course Thursday and Friday, that was a prerequisite.”

But the club also called on BWD and Heritage to create a consistent aesthetic for the Jackrabbit’s 47 bunkers, along with improved design characteristics that addressed maintenance issues and playability for its members.

“We needed to reestablish some consistency along the edges,” Ortmeier says. “Nothing radical in terms of change. Over the last several years, large rain events have washed out some of the steeper faces compromising the stability of the grass edges. In addition, many of the bunkers had actually shrunk in size due to the encroachment of the surrounding bermudagrass. As with any course over two decades, things change.”

Regarding the aesthetic of the new bunkers, Ortmeier adds, “Beau and Shane have largely maintained the high, flashed look while also creating a 6-inch brow that gives the bunkers a consistent vertical edge — all the way around. Nothing bull-nosed, but there is a little bit of grass rolled over before you hit that vertical edge. Similar to the previous bunkers, we still have those long, slow, gracefully curved edges. Maybe there’s a little more wiggle in there, but nothing crazy.”

This aesthetic will stand in purposeful contrast to the largely rolled-grass edges on the Cypress Creek course. Maintaining distinct styles between the two tracks was something Ortmeier and club founder Burke were determined to maintain. The effort started with Chet Williams’ 2018 renovation of Cypress and will conclude with this year’s work on Jackrabbit. Not coincidentally, Heritage Links handled both jobs.

“Mr. Burke doesn’t trust too many people like he does Jon O’Donnell,” Ortmeier says. “That’s a relationship that goes back a long way — to the Fazio renovation in 2001, which was sort of a springboard toward all the success Heritage has earned since. Jon and Doug Wright, project manager Mike Webb, and every Heritage employee I’ve ever interacted with has been top notch. You have to evaluate other contractors and conduct a formal bid process for any renovation job, but we really appreciate the ability of Heritage to step up and deliver a really good product. And they are just across the street.”

Hal Phillips is a Maine-based freelance writer, managing director of Mandarin Media, Inc., and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.