Turf Valley plans major golf course renovations, starting in July

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

October 17, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

BIG CHANGE is in the works for the golf courses at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center, a western Ellicott City landmark off U.S. 40 since the late 1950s.

If you're a member there, you know that sand traps and cart paths for what management calls the Original and Hialeah golf courses - both of them 18-hole layouts - have been replaced or upgraded this year.

But you haven't seen anything yet.

In July, the Original course is to be shut down for about 10 months to undergo a comprehensive, tee-to-green renovation carrying a price tag of just under $1 million. If plans go the way they're mapped out, said golf director Nick Spinnato, the Hialeah course will undergo similar surgery in the middle of 2007.

"It's part, really, of a complete change in direction for the golf side of the business here," said Spinnato. "We've always been a private club, of course, but we're focusing on becoming more of an exclusive club in the future."

Turf Valley's owners closed a third 18-hole golf course last year to develop that acreage as housing and commercial facilities. Spinnato also said Turf Valley's trade in golf outings used as fund-raisers by organizations throughout Central Maryland is being channeled into, mainly, a Monday-only thing, business-as-usual in golf.

The complex has been proud for years of playing host to numerous outings, at one point more than 300 a year. Such affairs bring in business but, depending on their size, also can irritate regular club members by making tee times harder to obtain and lengthening the time it takes to play.

For golfers, though, the serious updating of Turf Valley's remaining two courses is what's news here.

Turf Valley's first course was built in 1959, and both the Original and Hialeah layouts reflect the technology then, which is primitive by today's standards. Some people call it "push-up" work, as in you push around the dirt and plant grass seed.

"They did a tremendous job, knowing what they did back then," said Charles Ulevich, director of golf course maintenance at Turf Valley and Baltimore County's Hayfields Golf Club, both owned by Baltimore's Mangione family.

But under today's U.S. Golf Association standards, greens and tees are layered, better-drained, virtually sculpted aspects of a golf course.

So all of Turf Valley's tees are to be cleaned out and rebuilt, and every green is to be rebuilt using current concepts for layering dirt, stone and sand, as well as draining and seeding putting surfaces with much-improved strains of bent grass.

"We're not going to just replicate the old greens, either," said Ulevich.

Instead, they're being re- designed with more contemporary principles by golf course architect Brian Ault, son of Turf Valley's original architect, the noted Edward Ault.

Greens at Turf Valley have become increasingly problematic, said Spinnato, primarily because of poor drainage that in recent years has sometimes limited play after rainy periods longer than delays at competing courses. Poor drainage, in turn, compounded problems with grass on the greens.

If this sounds familiar, the same problems lay behind the $600,000 refurbishment last year of greens at the Columbia Park and Recreation Association's showcase Hobbit's Glen Golf Course. That work was completed this spring after a fall, winter and early spring shuttering. The Hobbit's Glen project also faced far more public contention than, apparently, Turf Valley's operators have experienced.

At Turf Valley, some fairways will be redone, as well, also to address drainage issues. And, the Original course will be lengthened to just under 7,000 yards, a nod to today's metal golf clubs and higher-compression balls. The better gear simply means that even hackers can hit a golf ball farther than their counterparts 40 and 50 years ago. Lengthening of courses is going on nationwide.

Hobbit's Glen, meanwhile, reopened around Memorial Day and since then has been creating a vibe that is quite a turn-around, given the loud, ugly spat management had with some longtime members before finally renovating the course and clubhouse.

For perspective, David Leonard, chairman of the Columbia Association's golf advisory committee, bluntly told management publicly in September 2002: "You can't stop a bleeding artery with a Band-Aid. This penny-wise, pound-foolish approach that has been followed in trying to correct all the problems we're seeing on those greens is just too shortsighted, and it's not working."

But last week, Leonard said: "It's absolutely perfect, the way it's worked out. The comments from members, from casual players to guests has been great, very positive. The work certainly has met our expectations. And with fall here, the greens have gotten even faster and better."

Joan Lovelace, PGA pro and the association's general manager for its two golf courses, said Hobbit's Glen membership has returned "to about where we want it to be, and daily rounds are about where we want to be as well. We're looking at about 42,000 rounds being played [by the end of the association's fiscal year, April 30]."

Lovelace said some players who left have not returned. "But I see a lot of new faces in memberships," he said, "and I think that some of the others will be returning."

Turf Valley, you can bet, hopes things go as positively when its work is done.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@balt sun.com.

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