Sometimes, credit is the other side of blame. Consider Thomas Bastis, superintendent of the California Golf Club of San Francisco.
A $13 million restoration by architect Kyle Phillips in 2007-08 might be responsible for launching the Cal Club onto the Golfweek’s Best Classic Course list in 2009, at No. 60. But it’s Bastis who looks after the retro-look layout that keeps the Cal Club moving up the charts – to No. 54 last year and an eye-popping leap of 19 spots this year, to No. 35.
“It’s so fresh and different from where it was,” Phillips said. “Thomas has done a great job at keeping the course firm and fast. It’s a happy story; the kind you want when you get involved in a project.”
The restoration included removing hundreds of trees, rerouting several holes throughout the front nine, moving the practice range to the center of the property, filling in two ponds, rebuilding and adding bunkers, converting 44 acres of mixed fairway turf to a blend of colonial bentgrass and fine fescue, and regrassing pest-infested Poa greens with A-1/A-4 bentgrass.
With the course heading into its fourth season since the restoration, Phillips’ work has the 1926 A. Vernon Macan design looking more like it did when Alister MacKenzie tweaked it in 1927 than when Robert Trent Jones reworked the front nine in the 1960s to make room for a road being built through the property.
The project began as a greens renovation only when a nematode infestation – a common
problem on Poa greens in the San Francisco area – necessitated a conversion to bentgrass. Eventually the project turned into a full-blown restoration when Bastis and members of the renovation committee tried to convince membership of the club’s potential to be ranked among the country’s finest layouts.
“They knew they had some history here, and they wanted to get into the top 100 courses,” Phillips said. “They knew the course could be better, but they weren’t sure how much.”
Bastis and representatives from the restoration committee leaned on Ken Venturi, who has been an honorary member of the club since his amateur days in the early 1950s. He helped sell the project to the at-large membership.
“He told us, ‘You get one chance to do this. You don’t get a mulligan,’ ” said former club president Allan Jamieson, who was green chairman during the project. “He told us to do it right the first time so we don’t have to spend years doing fixes.
“Once we got Ken to sign off on the routing, then all hell broke loose. Everyone was an amateur architect. Thomas took a lot of heat from the members. When we had meetings, we had him stick to the agronomic plans, while the architect and I took the heat for the restoration.”
There were plenty of obstacles, including delays in the permitting process and an early rainy season in 2007 that delayed seeding. More prolonged rains later washed away a freshly seeded hillside off No. 7 and cost the club $350,000 to repair. The setbacks emboldened detractors.
The Bay area’s inhospitable growing conditions, which often include daytime high temperatures in the 50s and afternoon fog, made growing fescue a challenge in the first year after the restoration. Lean conditions in the fairways made getting the club under the ball tough for mid- and high-handicappers.
“You have to be patient growing fescue in the Bay area. If you overfertilize it, the Poa comes flying in,” Phillips said. “Thomas is an agronomist. He knew that, and he took his time. Unfortunately, many of the members were not patient enough for nature to run its course. They wanted instant perfect.”
Throughout the restoration, Jamieson served as a buffer between the vocal minority unhappy with the project and Bastis.
“Al has been my political adviser, my publicist and my mentor,” Bastis said. “It’s not like our relationship is a given. He’s (ticked) me off before, and I know I’ve (ticked) him off a few times. I would call what we have an extremely good business relationship. He’s the rush chairman of the golf club. He’s the closer. And he’s a layer of insulation for me, and everyone needs that.”
The fescue finally has filled in, and the combination of grasses in the fairway along with slick greens and tight surrounds belie the course’s U.S. Golf Association slope rating of 131. Well-played shots are rewarded, and anything thin is likely to ricochet into one of the 144 MacKenzie-style bunkers. A new irrigation system has enabled Bastis to control the application of water and produce a firmer, faster layout, one that allows more ground-game options.
“The members have had to improve their short game. Picking the ball off a tight lie is no easy task, even around the greens,” Bastis said. “Golfers now have to ask themselves, ‘Do I putt it? Do I chip it? Or do I take out a hybrid?’ We have put into question a second option of how you get onto the green. It plays with your head a lot more, and a lot of members have had to change the way they play.”
It has been a long road for Bastis and Jamieson, but their persistence has produced something that a few years ago was questionable for Cal Club members – a course worthy of being mentioned with other area classics, such as The Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club.
Not that Bastis has been content to rest on his Cal Club laurels. Last summer, he volunteered his time to oversee a reconstruction of the greens at Gleneagles Golf Club, a struggling San Francisco nine-hole municipal operation. Bastis’ dedication to Cal Club and to public golf earned him the 2010 Superintendent of the Year Award from Golfweek’s sister publication, TurfNet.
Greenkeepers get all the blame. But sometimes they deserve the credit, too.