A Visionary Masterpiece

Situated on an actual island in the Fox River, the third hole at the Pottawatomie Golf Course in St. Charles, Ill., “looks simple, but it is not,” writes Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf World Magazine. A row of trees impedes a golfer’s tee shot, aerial approaches are compromised by overhanging branches, and a small pond provides a further challenge.

The island also contains the course’s fourth hole, which Whitten considers “more intimidating” due to the long stretch of the Fox River that lies just beyond the hole’s back fringe.

The course, completed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1939, marks the first time golf-course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. used an island green in his plans.

In an article that appeared in February 2010, Whitten listed the golf course at number 15 of the best 25 nine-hole courses in the country.

“This is a tremendous honor, not only for the park district, but for everyone who works here at the golf course,” says Jim Wheeler, the course’s manager and PGA golf pro.

Not An Overnight Success

An accomplishment like this didn’t happen overnight. Extensive improvement projects, such as shoreline stabilization, installation of a new irrigation system and a bunker reconstruction, began several years ago, marking the first time in more than 20 years that any major remodeling had been done.

“In today’s market, we’re competing against 18-hole facilities, and we’re competing against championship courses, yet we’re a nine-hole facility,” says Denise Gillett-Parchert, Pottawatomie golf course superintendent. “These changes brought the standards up, and yet it’s still the same friendly, local, hometown course that everybody can call their own.”

“Everybody” encompasses some 37,000 players who visit the course each year. With that amount of traffic, the district’s goal was to make improvements to accommodate players of all ages and abilities while remaining sensitive to the heritage of the facility and faithful to the original design.

“It was very important to him to keep the integrity of the Robert Trent Jones design, yet improve playability and enjoyment for all golfers,” says Gillett-Parchert.

One of the preeminent golf-course architects of the twentieth century, Jones designed or redesigned more than 500 courses throughout the United States and around the world. Noted for artistic blending of natural landscaping with bold placement of bunkers and water hazards, his courses revolutionized the concept of stimulating play, where strategy counts as much as technique. In designing the Pottawatomie Golf Course, he capitalized on the course’s riverbank location when laying out his design.

Opened in 1939, the course has endured for nearly 70 years, and while the district’s goal was to remain true to the original vision as much as possible, “the terrain, the conditions, the amount of people who are playing, the safety factors–all enter into whether you are able to maintain the design,” Wheeler says.

Building Better Bunkers

To begin the renovation process, Gillett-Parchert and Wheeler welcomed feedback from players, who confirmed the bunkers did not live up to the standard of play the course wanted to provide. While it’s one thing to hit a golf ball out of a few inches of sand, it’s quite another to do so while standing in a puddle of water or to unexpectedly lob out a small stone instead.

The bunkers were dug out to replace underlying drainage tiles, liners and pea gravel, and new sand was brought in to ensure consistency. In some areas, such as the first hole, an entire bunker was removed because it rested on a foundation of rock that was forcing stones up into the sand.

“The bunkers just weren’t playable,” explains Gillett-Parchert. “Players couldn’t get a decent bunker shot out of them. But now [players] can. It makes a big difference.”

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