Klein: Palmer design team rewires Old Tabby Links

A worker with MacCurrach Golf Construction works on leveling the tee box at Hole No. 9 during renovations at Old Tabby Links on Spring Island in South Carolina.

OKATIE, S.C. -- Welcome to spaghetti junction. No, it’s not the freeway bypass around Atlanta. Instead, it’s the guts of a rewired golf course here at Spring Island, on the Intracoastal Waterway midway between Hilton Head Island and Beaufort.

Old Tabby Links, designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay and opened to rave reviews in 1994, is closed for the summer for a head-to-toe makeover that includes new greens, bunkers and tees, as well as a new irrigation system.

To precisely link the new system of 2,800 irrigation heads, construction foreman Frank Arsenault and his crew from MacCurrach Golf unspool yellow, green, blue and red copper wire – 300 miles worth in all. Yellow is the common color for all of the irrigation heads; green for greens, blue for tees and red for fairways and roughs. It’s all part of a $2 million irrigation system, one that also includes pumps, spray heads, control boxes, ponds and power station. If this vast underground network works as well as it has been planned and designed by irrigation guru Tony Altum, golfers at this idyllic Lowcountry private club and real estate development will not have the slightest idea it even exists.

That’s the irony of much redesign work today. It takes place out of sight. After a decade-plus era of well-publicized course openings that showcased celebrity architects, the golf-course industry has gone back to basics, working away quietly, pursuing themes such as efficiency, functionality and fun.

All of which is fine for 38-year-old Brandon Johnson, a 6-handicap who is the on-site point man for Arnold Palmer Design Co. He’s the architect responsible for shepherding a renovation that, including the irrigation system, is budgeted at $4.5 million.

When it comes to sound golf design values such as fun and playability, Johnson has the training. A native of Charlotte, N.C., he studied landscape architecture at North Carolina State and earned his masters in the subject at Harvard.

Along the way, he interned for course designer Rick Robbins, then spent two years on the construction side for PGA Tour Design Services before working for The First Tee from 1999 to 2006 on site evaluation and course designs. It was the kind of experience that helps a young architect learn quickly.

“I was doing site evaluation around the whole country,” Johnson said. “I got to see a lot of different places.”

By the time Johnson went to work full time for Palmer in 2006, the company had moved its offices from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to Bay Hill in Orlando and was downsizing – as was the rest of the golf architecture industry. At its peak in the mid-1990s, Palmer Design had more than 20 designers on its payroll. When Johnson came on board, he was No. 11. Today, he is one of two. That means he has a lot of responsibility. It also means he reports directly to The King himself. And though Palmer isn’t on site at Spring Island, it’s certainly a project he monitors.

Old Tabby Links is the highest-rated course the Palmer group has created, ranked as high as No. 37 on Golfweek’s Best Modern list in 1997 before starting a gradual slide to fall out of the top 100 in 2010. The course, on the site of an old cotton plantation, is part of a 3,000-acre property, one-third of which was permanently deeded away for a nature preserve.

The original land plan called for only 400 homes to be platted. Because of some combined lot sales, home development now won’t exceed 350. Small wonder that during a round here, you don’t see any homes. The course ambles lazily through corridors of heavily draped live oaks, with ponds lapping some fairways, and the back nine is routed alongside open tidal marshland.

All of that character will be preserved, indeed enhanced. Some tight hole corridors, such as along the par-5 fourth hole, are being widened to provide more strategic options on second shots. On the green at the par-3 third hole, the putting surface is being nudged 15 feet to the left to keep the new green from being shaded by a live oak. All putting surfaces are being regrassed, with the original Tifdwarf Bermudagrass replaced by a tidier, more efficient and heat-tolerant Miniverde Bermudagrass.

All of the work is slated to end in time for an Oct. 12 reopening. That’s seven months after bulldozers, trenchers and back hoes hit the ground running – crawling, actually. The goal is to update a course that had become dated: trees overgrown, too much Bermudagrass incursion on playing areas, bunkers that no longer drained properly, waste areas whose moundings obscured views of landing areas, a watering system that needed to be more efficient and a changing game, with standard landing areas requiring slightly more distance off the tee than 18 years ago, before the contemporary era of the modern two-piece golf ball.

Back then, Palmer and Seay tried to make a statement with beach bunkers; they turned out to be a maintenance nightmare and awkward to play, so they are on their way out at Old Tabby Links. When the course opened, an average year produced 5,000 rounds; last year, the round count reached 11,000, and more players also are spending time on the practice range, so that’s also being expanded.

Communicating the club’s needs to Palmer’s design team fell to Spring Island resident Gary Shimmin, the club’s green chairman, a retired insurance executive and an avid, knowledgeable golfer. The past three years, he has spent a lot of time talking one-on-one with members, explaining the need for the master plan and for the seven-month course closure it requires. Along the way, he developed a 12-point list of agenda items to help orient the process (See box, p10).

“We didn’t tell the Palmer people what to do on this or that hole; we didn’t try to micromanage them,”

Shimmin said. “We just asked them to make it better.”

Renovating an 18-year-old course is not unusual. Trees grow. Crepe myrtles and cord grass take over. And the site’s heavy soil began to lose some of its shape. Jay Gratton, superintendent at Old Tabby Links for the past 15 years, describes the growing medium as “clay, gumbo, mush.” It’s not ideal, but manageable.

Drainage is especially a problem for the bunkers. To solve that, MacCurrach Golf is relying upon an innovative technique by agronomy consultant Billy Fuller, a course designer and former superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club. It’s called a “Better Billy Bunker,” and the clumsily named process involves shaping the bunker floor, then lining it with a polymer compound that, once dried and sealed, provides a firm but permeable subsurface that holds the sand in place while allowing water to seep through.

It’s all part of the invisible, underground golf course on which architect Johnson gets to work. If he does his job right, no one will know or care.

Except his boss, Arnold Palmer, and the golfers on Spring Island who will have a better playing surface, even if they can’t see what produced it.

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