Many years in the making, Seven Oaks GC was worth the wait—and along with Colgate University, the course that’s now under the care of Superintendent Jon McConville has helped many find their way to Hamilton, N.Y.
Located in central New York, the small town of Hamilton (population 4,100) is best known as the home of a highly regarded academic institution, Colgate University.
Super in the Spotlight
Current Position: Golf Course Superintendent, Seven Oaks Golf Club
After that, the community’s crown jewel is unquestionably Seven Oaks Golf Club—a golf course that was more than 20 years in the making. And though it’s off the beaten path, the facility draws customers from throughout New York state, as well as travelers from Canada and alumni from across the nation.
Despite a comparatively small maintenance budget of $500,000, the course has been ranked by Golf.com as one of the top 15 public courses in New York and as the No. 30 collegiate course in the nation, according to Golfweek.
“Seven Oaks is a gem; there’s no other way to describe it,” says John Painter, Chief Communications Director of Colgate University’s Department of Athletics, and a frequent player at Seven Oaks. “The course is in great shape every day you play it, and that’s no exaggeration.
“Every day, I know it’s a source of pride for all of the alums who come back to campus once or twice a year, or even once every few years, to have such a beautiful golf course to call their own,” Painter adds. “Seven Oaks’ combination of great beauty and great condition is tough to match in this part of the country.”
The course’s scorecard lists Robert Trent Jones, Sr. as its architect. But golf on the Colgate campus goes back to 1916, when faculty and citizens of Hamilton joined to create the Hamilton Golf Club on the upper part of a hill behind the student dorms.
According to historian Jim Ford, New York–based architect Thomas Winton redesigned the course in 1927, and the name was changed to Seven Oaks Golf Club at that time. In 1934, Colgate’s Athletics Director, William Reid, proposed that an 18-hole course be built on Dunn Farm, which the university had recently acquired northeast of the campus.
Reid was able to lure famed professional golfer Gene Sarazen to help design the course, along with Jones, then a young and still relatively unknown architect. Sarazen’s stated desire was to build an “Augusta of the North” on the new land.
Golf Course Profile
Seven Oaks Golf Club
A year later, it was proposed that the course be constructed as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project to help with the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression. But that was never approved, and the start of World War II brought further delays.
The University always kept the project alive, however, with Jones being called back several times to alter the plans as the school sought additional land and a source of funds to help build the course. In all, Jones ended up creating 13 different course-layout plans. And finally, after more land and financing was secured, the first nine of the new course was dedicated on July 4, 1958, followed by a second nine that opened on September 4, 1965. The course originally located on the hill was closed, and the new course was given the Seven Oaks name.
“It was a long time coming, but Colgate loves its golf, and [the university] was determined to get it built,” says Jon McConville, who has been Seven Oaks’ Superintendent since 2007. “If it was built the first time [it was proposed], it would have been one of Robert Trent Jones, Sr.’s original designs.”
One unusual aspect of Seven Oaks’ final design is that all 42 of the course’s bunkers surround the greens. As funds became limited, it has been said, the decision was made to eliminate fairway bunkers.
Still, the challenges that Jones was able to create (there are water hazards on 12 of the 18 holes) and the excellent conditioning that McConville and his staff have maintained have made Seven Oaks the choice for a number of high-profile events, including USGA Qualifiers (U.S. Amateur, annually), New York State Boys and Girls Amateur Championships, the 1983 Women’s State Amateur Tournament, the 1990 Ben Hogan Central New York Classic, the 1977 NCAA National Tournament, the 2010 and 2015 Patriot League championships, and numerous PGA sectional events.
Course & Grounds Operations Profile
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $500,000
We spoke with McConville about all that’s involved with keeping Seven Oaks’ well-deserved reputation intact.
C&RB: Who is your clientele at Seven Oaks?
McConville: We get play from students and faculty who play at a significantly reduced rate. But most of our rounds [16,000 annually] are in the summer. We are known as a quality golf course and the word seems to travel. We get quite a number of alumni who come back to visit. They are very proud of their school and golf course. There are also some Canadians who will travel down here, and some residual play from those who play other area courses, such as Turning Stone Resort. We also host several outside events. I think people are drawn to the Jones design as well.
C&RB: What is the relationship between the university and the golf course?
McConville: The course is owned by the university, but Billy Casper Golf manages the pro shop and another outside party manages the dining facility. I am a university employee, as are all of my staff members. I report to a university Vice President and present my budget to him. We are all golf; there is no swimming, tennis or other activity. There really aren’t any academic programs that tie into the golf course, although we do have archeology students who will do some digging around the driving range up on the hill.
C&RB: Is the course open whenever playable?
McConville: We keep it open as long as it is playable, but once we close it for the winter, we close it for good. That generally comes in November, with the reopening usually in mid-March. The winters can get pretty brutal in this region. We do allow cross-country skiing, usually around the perimeter of the course. There is some snowmobiling as well.
C&RB: What type of player scores well on this course?
McConville: You just can’t bomb it out here, because we have water on 12 of the 18 holes. We host college events and those guys like to grip it and rip it. You cannot do that out here. You have to position yourself to make sure you have a chance to hit the right part of the green. The greens run downhill from back to front and have subtle movement. They are pretty quick as well. You definitely want to be below the hole on these greens. You will use almost every club in your bag. The course sits in a valley and is walkable. It is very flat.
C&RB: What agronomic challenges do you face?
McConville: I scout daily for pests and diseases. I do some preventative spraying, because fungus can appear within hours.
The winter brings its own set of challenges. We’ve been able to keep the snow and ice damage on the greens to a minimum by covering the lower collection areas with spruce and fir branches. I started doing this after I noticed that ice never seemed to form under the branches or where the branches touched the ground.
In 2013, we did some work to improve the drainage. We sit in a flood plain, so that year we had about six to eight inches of silt buildup, due to a month-long flood. The fairways were lakes. We did some major regrading and built some drainage ditches. It used to be that an inch of rain would keep carts off the course for a day.
C&RB: Are any future improvements planned?
McConville: We are somewhat limited in budget. We had a master plan done in 2012 by Ron Forse and Jim Nagle, and have been addressing some of the smaller items. Our next project will be to rebuild the bunkers. They are the original ones, so we spend a lot of time to keep them in condition.
We’ve also eliminated about 800 to 1,000 trees since I’ve been here. It’s helped in terms of sight lines and has really opened up the course. We took out some spruce and firs that were scraggly and returned to a native, non-maintained look. The turf quality has benefited as well; we are getting better air flow and more sunlight on it. We’ve got some more [trees] to eliminate, but what we have done has helped significantly.
C&RB: Can you talk about Colgate’s Sustainability and Action Plan, which was established in 2009-10?
McConville: I was on a committee to look at what the campus could do to reduce its carbon footprint. For the golf course, that meant reducing the maintained area and going more native. Overall, the golf course is not looked at negatively by the university in terms of the environment. We are full of wildlife—deer, foxes, rabbits, herons, eagles. You name it, we have it. Our streams and ponds are stocked with various types of fish, especially trout, and we allow people to fish on the course; I will fish there with my kids, in fact.
C&RB: You have learned from the best. Tell us about your career influences.
McConville: I was fortunate to attend a very good school for turf management in SUNY Cobleskill. Bob Evans was the head of the department and was very good. As an assistant superintendent, I worked under Joe Hahn at the Country Club of Rochester. He was very well-respected and I learned a lot from him. Then I worked for another legend in the business, Bob Alonzi, Sr., at Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was demanding, but good; it was another great experience for me.