On Higher Ground

By | December 14th, 2017

The Preserve of Oak Meadows, Addison, Ill.

Thanks to a comprehensive reconstruction and restoration project that elevated and revamped the entire golf course, The Preserve at Oak Meadows can finally enjoy calm after any storm.

At first glance, a forest preserve might seem to be an unlikely place for a golf course. But The Preserve at Oak Meadows, an 18-hole Addison, Ill., layout in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, is now getting a lot of long and admiring looks as a place that qualifies as both.

The golf course, which had a “preview” season from early August to late October and will hold its grand opening in April 2018, underwent a two-year, $16.5 million renovation and reconstruction project to turn 27 holes into the 18-hole layout. The extensive transformation was designed to alleviate years of frequent flooding that was damaging the property, frustrating the maintenance staff, and hurting revenue.

The Preserve at Oak MeadowsLocation: Addison, Ill.
Website: www.dupagegolf.com
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designer: Greg Martin
Property Type: Municipal
Year Opened: Preview season – August – October 2017; Grand opening – April 2018
Golf Season: March to December
Fairways: T-1 bentgrass
Greens: T-1 bentgrass

A master renovation plan designed to alleviate chronic flooding of Salt Creek (at right in photo) also kick-started a drive to position The Preserve as a leader in sustainable maintenance practices.

“There was not a square inch of green, tee, bunker, or fairway that was not redone,” says Ed Stevenson, Executive Director of the Forest Preserve District.

In addition to the golf course—which became a conservation project as well—the 288-acre tract of land features woodlands, wetlands, native plants and flowers, a river corridor, prairie, and drought-tolerant fescue. “We started looking at this as a Forest Preserve improvement project that happened to include a golf course,” Stevenson reports. “We wanted to make the whole project relevant to the community.”

The Forest Preserve District covers almost 26,000 acres where people can bike, jog, canoe or kayak, and go on nature /fitness hikes or bird walks. A regional trail extends into the preserve property, and the golf course gives people another way to connect with all of the natural surroundings.

During the planning stages, the District secured funding from several organizations whose interests aligned with the project. About ten stakeholders and roughly a dozen agencies were ultimately involved in the project, and more than $5 million in contributions from third-party entities were crucial to its success.

“It got off the ground when environmental groups came in and supported the project,” notes Stevenson. “The third-party funds indicated that this would benefit the community as well. It wasn’t just a golf project.”

Steeped in History
The property has a longstanding connection with golf and the community. Originally called Elmhurst Country Club, the golf course was built in the 1920s, and it was home to major events such as the 1941 Chicago Open, won by Ben Hogan. In 1985, the Forest Preserve purchased the property for open space and stormwater retention, renaming it Oak Meadows Golf Course.

With Salt Creek running through the center of the property, however, it was prone to flooding. Increased development upstream pushed more water into the river corridor, and flooding became more frequent on the golf course through the years. From 2008 to 2015, 38 floods disrupted play when water spilled from the riverbanks and pooled on fairways, greens, and tee complexes for days at the time.

Ed Stevenson, Executive Director, Forest Preserve District

Berms, which had been built along the shoreline to keep water in the river corridor, just kept it from going back into the waterway instead. After a flood, some holes were not playable at all. Golfers had to play others at different lengths, and the par-4 third and 15th holes were played as par 3s, because the landing areas were flooded.

Like the weatherman who relives the same day again and again in “Groundhog Day,” the maintenance staff spent months trying to restore the golf course every time it flooded. “About the time we would get it restored, there would be another flood,” says Eric Ensign, The Preserve’s Golf Course Superintendent. “Once the water did go down, we immediately had to go back into re-seeding mode.”

Adds Stevenson: “The superintendent and his staff were always in a reactive mode because of stormwater damage, instead of staying ahead of maintenance needs.”

As a result, the property, which also had an aging infrastructure that dated back to the 1920s, had to reduce rates and lost revenue.

Flooding issues spilled over into pro shop operations as well, notes PGA Head Professional Austin Kopp, because they affected staffing and messaging to customers.

Eric EnsignTitle: Golf Course Superintendent
Years at The Preserve at Oak Meadows: 20 years with Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Assistant Superintendent of Oak Meadows 1997–2001; Superintendent of what is now The Preserve at Oak Meadows since September 2013
Years in Golf Course Maintenance: 34
Previous Employment:
• Assistant Superintendent, Ridgemoor Country Club, Chicago, 1994-1997
• Seasonal work, University of Illinois Golf Courses, Savoy, Ill., 1987-1990
• Seasonal work, Pontiac Elks Country Club, Pontiac, Ill., 1986-1988
• Seasonal work, Indian Creek Country Club, Fairbury, Ill., 1983-1985
Education and Training: Bachelor of Science in Ornamental Horticulture, University of Illinois
Certifications: Licensed pesticide applicator, Illinois

Chronic flooding was not the only issue at the property, however. The customer base continued to dwindle after the clubhouse was lost to fire when it was struck by lightning in 2009.

In addition, Salt Creek had erosion and vegetation problems along the shoreline, water-quality concerns, and a lack of aquatic biodiversity. The landscape habitat was underexposed and underdeveloped, and non-golf access and exposure to the preserve was limited. “It was time to look at a master plan for the property,” says Stevenson.

Lofty Goals
Such a plan was originally initiated in 2012 to redesign the golf course so it could hold stormwater. The golf course also needed to be high and dry, notes Stevenson, but the District officials didn’t think the two goals were compatible.

In addition to exploring the potential costs, benefits, and feasibility of a renovation project, the property identified other goals as well. The redesign of the layout also needed to develop new wetlands, improve the water quality of Salt Creek, and create additional aquatic habitat. The Preserve sought to improve its overall environmental quality, improve integration with adjacent open spaces and trail systems, and become a leader in sustainable maintenance practices.

“Golf and environmental aspects don’t just co-exist,” says Stevenson. “They actually elevate each other.”

The Preserve at Oak Meadows was actually on an environmentally friendly track before the renovation project, Stevenson says. The golf course featured many low-maintenance areas, and the grounds crew was selective about the products it used.

Now, Stevenson says, the maintenance staff can look at the big picture, and add to what it started.

Earth Works
The Forest Preserve District broke ground on the project in July 2015 and substantially finished construction by November 2016. Grow-in began in August 2016 and continued until mid-summer 2017.

Golfers can now experience a typical northern Illinois landscape, which includes woodlands, wetlands, savannah, prairie and a river corridor, on the renovated Preserve course.

In 2015, construction highlights included the demolition of two dams and construction of a temporary by-pass channel that diverted water from Salt Creek for nearly a year, so it could be dry for the 1.23 miles of river restoration work.

Workers cleared trees and shrubs that had grown up around the waterway, regraded the land, and removed the berms along the creek to open up the golf course.

“Removing the growth had the biggest impact for me,” says Ensign. “Now the creek is a prominent part of the design and much more of a visual asset. We have views now from one end of the golf course to another.”

Earthwork (which resulted in 700,000 cubic yards of dirt being moved) and grading continued through 2016, and 42 acre-feet of additional floodplain storage were incorporated into the project.

While the east side of the property has native oak, hickory, and specimen trees, a lot of nonnative trees had been planted on the west side. During the restoration project, however, more than 1,000 nonnative trees, such as boxelder and silver maples, buckthorn, and ash, were removed. Some of these trees were embedded in the shoreline, to fortify the banks.

With their root structures extending into the water, the trees improve the oxygen levels and create habitat in Salt Creek. In addition, 1,200 feet of metal sheet pile and 1.2 miles of concrete ajax were removed from the waterway. While Salt Creek had been an Achilles heel for the property, notes Stevenson, the restoration turned it into an asset.

“The water quality is better, and the sight line along the river is improved,” he explains. “The river corridor is better connected to the adjacent flood plains.”

The Preserve at Oak MeadowsAnnual Maintenance Budget: $870,000
Staff: Two full-time, two part-time, and 12 seasonal employees
Other Managers: Joseph Schneider, Golf Maintenance Supervisor; Brent Richard, Golf Maintenance Specialist
Irrigation System: Rainbird IC with Nimbus II central control; 1,200 heads
Water Source and Usage: Water source is Salt Creek gravity-feeding into a holding pond, then using a transfer pump to maintain the irrigation pond level. In 2017, about 92 million gallons of water were used. This amount is high for normal operations, but understandable, being the first year of establishment.
Equipment: Property owns all maintenance equipment; major pieces include: four Toro Triflex triplex mowers for greens and approaches; three Toro 3550-D fairway units; five Toro 1000 walking greens units; two Toro 3500 bank machines; one Toro 455-D rotary mower; one Toro Sandpro; one Toro Workman; six John Deere Gators; five Club Car Carryalls; one Dakota 4
Technology: GPS mapping on golf carts, through the Visage system
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: During preview season, course was aerified and seeded as frequently as possible.
Maintenance Facility: Maintenance facility consists of a heated equipment storage area, mechanic’s bay, mechanic’s office, manager’s office, supervisor’s office, washer/dryer unit, women’s restroom/locker room, men’s restroom/locker room, and a break room/conference room. Property also has a stand-alone chemical storage building and a stand-alone cold storage building for implement equipment.
Duties and responsibilities: Superintendent oversees maintenance operations at three golf courses operated by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County: The Preserve at Oak Meadows, Maple Meadows, and Green Meadows. Duties include budgeting, purchasing, chemical/fertilizer programming, establishing maintenance standards, hiring staff, coordinating work with other District departments and contractors, coordinating maintenance plans with the course professional staffs, and reporting to the executive director/director of business enterprises.

As part of the restoration, The Preserve at Oak Meadows also planted 517 new native trees and 1,035 native shrubs, primarily on the west side. The handful of native trees that are lost to natural decline on the east side every year were also replaced. “We are required to replace a percentage of trees that were taken out, as part of the permitting process,” Ensign explains.

The project also created 24.8 acres of new wetlands and restored more than 100 acres of savannah and prairie upland habitat. As a result, golfers now can experience a typical northern Illinois landscape, which includes woodlands, wetlands, savannah, prairie, and a river corridor on the course.

By moving tees, greens, and fairways, the property increased its stormwater capacity by nearly 20 million gallons. However, some of the original 27 holes, particularly Nos. 1 and 18, remained to give golfers a feeling of familiarity.

“There are a few holes that look similar to the old layout, but it plays as a completely different golf course,” says Kopp.

Other golf course improvements include a new irrigation system with 15 miles of pipe and 1,102 sprinkler heads, and a fertigation injection system. The Preserve at Oak Meadows, which gets its irrigation water from Salt Creek, also built a new irrigation pond that is no longer in the flood plain. Previously, the pump station was in the flood plain and exposed to the elements, but it is now enclosed in a building.

New Better Billy Bunkers have improved drainage, and The Preserve filled them with white PGA Tour sand. In addition, 5.6 miles of cart paths were installed, 10.4 acres of asphalt were removed, and the Salt Creek Greenway Trail extension was completed.

About a third of the project costs went toward golf course construction and features, Stevenson reports, and two-thirds on earthwork and environmental improvements.

Ensign, who has been with the district for 20 years, served as golf liaison between the project engineer and the general contractor during the reconstruction project. “If I saw something that concerned me from a maintenance standpoint, I had plenty of input,” he says. “On a couple of greens we were building, I was concerned about being able to maintain the slopes.”

Ensign was also involved in staking out all of the irrigation and suggested some design changes to the project as well, such as increasing the size of the driving range tee area.

Learning Process
During the preview season, the grounds crew got the chance to ease into maintenance operations. “Things weren’t going to be perfect,” says Ensign. “We were still trying to learn some of the things we needed to do differently, and to learn what was working.”

Within the first month of the preview season, Ensign realized that the grounds crew would have to walk-mow the tees, because a triplex couldn’t maintain their quality and shape. While it will require more labor, he may decide that the greens—some of which doubled in size, from 3,000 sq. ft. to 6,000 sq. ft.—need to be walk-mowed as well, to keep them from getting stressed.

When the edges of the greens started to show signs of stress last summer, the staff stopped rolling them at the end of August. “We also had to start using walk mowers around the edges of the greens,” Ensign reports.

The Preserve of Oak Meadows, Addison, Ill.

With more acres of bentgrass fairways, the property has added a third fairway mower and another operator. According to Ensign, the bentgrass will require more maintenance and inputs.

The staff also had to maintain the bunkers more frequently, because debris from surrounding trees was more noticeable in the white sand. Previously, the staff raked the bunkers, which are smaller now, by machine and constantly had to clean them out because of the repeated flooding. Now, however, “The best way to maintain the bunkers is to hand-rake them as much as possible,” notes Ensign.

The rough took a lot of traffic during the preview season as well, so the staff had to determine which areas needed to be protected from cart traffic. “We tried to visualize what people will do, but you don’t know until you actually have people on the golf course,” Ensign says.

The injection system will help the maintenance staff reduce the number of products it uses and provide more efficient absorption. “We can distribute fertilizer without running a tractor and burning fuel,” says Stevenson, who served as Director of Golf for the Preserve District until June 2017.

The maintenance staff has also adjusted the way it treats the water, to offset salt issues. “It’s a learning process,” explains Ensign.” We’ve made a few tweaks to the calcium and pH levels, to get them to the most effective level.”

Austin Kopp, PGA Head Professional

Overall, says Stevenson, “Our [maintenance] expenditures will be far more predictable moving forward, [and] it will be a big advantage to [not have] peaks and valleys.”

Before the reconstruction project, a gauge reading of 10 feet or higher resulted in flood impacts. Now, all key golf surfaces are at least 14.5 feet or higher, and the property is already seeing the benefits of higher ground. Since the construction, reports Ensign, The Preserve at Oak Meadows has flooded three times in the spring and once in the fall.

“We were playable even while the water was up,” he adds.

Keeping Golf Relevant
According to Stevenson, The Preserve at Oak Meadows needs to keep golf relevant by creating a fun and engaging experience and by providing benefits to the community. “We think the Chicago area has a great legacy of public golf,” he says.

The members of The Preserve management team intend to continue that legacy by working together as they did during the construction project. During that time, they met regularly to discuss how to promote the new golf course and how the grounds crew would maintain it.

“We considered all perspectives when making choices such as routing,” says Stevenson. “We didn’t just have office conversations. We made the effort to get out on the property and see the golf course. We would put a tee in the ground and play a hole, to see how it would play.”

According to Kopp, the public’s response to the layout has thus far been extremely positive. And while it was easy to get golfers out to see the renovated course for the first time, he says, the real sign of success has come from repeat customers. “What kept them coming back for the second and third times was twofold—a great layout that’s playable, and an all-new golf course with upgraded and improved features,” he says. “The course is getting better and better and better. It’s a two- to three-year process for a mature grow-in.”

It will be important, Kopp believes, to keep golfers connected to the course. “It’s an escape and an experience,” he says. “It’s a sanctuary-type of feeling where people can enjoy a round of golf and recreate within nature. It’s not just a golf course. It’s truly a golf preserve.”

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