Restoring the Grandeur

By | January 23rd, 2018

Omni Homestead Resort, Hot Springs, Va.

An in-house tree removal project at the Cascades Course, part of the historic Omni Homestead Resort, has improved maintenance inputs and turf health—and returned the iconic, William Flynn design to its roots.

Golf course renovations generally involve tearing up tees and greens and reconfiguring holes. But the restoration project at the Cascades Course—one of two acclaimed courses at the historic Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va.—has done none of that.

Instead, most of the work in the three-phase project has involved tree removal in key areas, to expose the creeks running along several fairways. The tree work has had an effect on maintenance, and is also designed to affect strategy and shot selection throughout the golf course while returning the layout to golf course architect William S. Flynn’s original intentions for the property.

One of Golf’s Most Historic Homes

The Cascades Course is one of two golf courses at the historic Homestead resort property in Hot Springs, Va., that was acquired in 2013 by Omni Hotels & Resorts and is now known as The Omni Homestead Resort.

The Homestead property traces its roots to 1766 and its iconic hotel tower was added in 1929.

In addition to the Cascades Course, the property also boasts the Old Course, an 18-hole layout that was completed in 1892 and is distinguished as the home of the nation’s oldest first tee in continuous use. Beyond golf, a spa that turned 125 years old in 2017 is another foundation of a resort property that now also offers more than 30 more-contemporary activities, ranging from archery and falconry to Segway tours.

In 2016, the property celebrated its 250th anniversary and heritage as “America’s first resort.” It traces its roots to when an 18-room, wooden hotel was opened in 1766 and named in honor of the Homesteaders who built it, as well as bathhouses, on property that was granted to Captain Thomas Bullitt for his service during the French and Indian War.

The Bullitt family retained ownership until 1832, when the resort was purchased by Dr. Thomas Goode, a prominent physician known for developing different spa therapies, many of which utilized the healing qualities of the waters from which Hot Springs takes its name. The Goode family retained ownership until the early 1880s, when investors that included M.E. Ingalls and J.P. Morgan acquired the property and began a series of major expansions and improvements. Even after a fire that started in a pastry shop destroyed much of the resort in 1901, rebuilding and expansion quickly continued, with the property’s signature Great Hall opening in 1902 and its iconic tower added in 1929.

The resort was acquired by Club Resorts, a unit of ClubCorp, in 1993 and then transferred to KSL Resorts as part of its acquisition of ClubCorp in 2006.

The Homestead’s golf heritage is not only linked to William Flynn as the designer of the Cascades Course, but also to Sam Snead, a native of the area who began caddying at the resort before he could drive and became an assistant pro there at age 19. Even while on the professional circuit and as the head professional at the nearby Greenbrier, Snead was a constant presence at the Homestead and the Cascades Course throughout his life, up until his death in Hot Springs in 2002, four days before his 90th birthday.

“We were thoughtful and intentional as we approached this project,” says Managing Director Brett Schoenfield. “We didn’t want to overstep or misinterpret what Flynn wanted. As someone told us, ‘You can’t put it back.’ That wasn’t lost on us.”

In-House Enhancements
The first phase of the three-phase project, using in-house labor to trim back the tree canopy, got underway in December 2016 and was completed at the end of March 2017.

“They’ve been trained in this for a long time,” Golf Course Superintendent Doug Miller says of the maintenance-staff members used for the project. “Tree maintenance goes along with the job.”

A lot of the trees that were taken down were on peripheral areas of the golf course and obscured long views. With their removal, the golf course has been opened up, so golfers can now see from one hole to the next.

To help recapture the originality of each hole, Schoenfield notes, mature trees were relied on, to recreate Flynn’s expectations for the holes. Taking down trees also gave a better sense of the scale of the golf course in the valley below the scenic Allegheny Mountains. “It gives the golf course the grandeur it deserves,” Schoenfield says.

The staff started on Phase II in November; this portion, scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2018, will include more canopy work, the removal of dead trees, work on the cart paths, and work on the creeks and streams. Under the third and final phase, which will begin in November 2018, the Cascades Course team will make sure that everything has been done properly and thoroughly.

“When you deal with some of the macro-issues [of a renovation], some of the micro-issues start to reveal themselves,” Schoenfield explains. “We will deal with the refinements in Phase III. Not all of those have revealed themselves at this point in time.”

Seeing Clearly Again
The Cascades Course, which opened in 1923 and is regarded as one of the finest mountain courses in the country, sits surrounded by densely wooded hills in a valley in the Alleghenies. Through the years, however, the tree canopies had not been maintained, and the views at the Cascades Course had been lost to their growth.

“Flynn was very much [interested] in the long view, where you could stand on the tee box and see in a variety of directions,” Schoenfield states.

All of the trees that were removed were native trees such as ash, oak, locust, poplar, hemlock, and pine varieties, and most had grown up in areas such as rock outcroppings, which did not get mowed.

“The golf course is surrounded by thousands of acres of forest, so it’s easy for trees to grow in areas that aren’t mowed,” notes Golf Course Superintendent Doug Miller.

Many of the ash and hemlock trees that were removed had died, he adds, so they were taken down for safety reasons. However, most of the trees that were removed were scrub trees. In fact, of the 540 trees that were removed, only six had been planted.

Wide and Open
In addition to doing the tree removal work in-house, the property did not hire an architect for the project. “The only architect we needed to reference was Flynn,” notes Schoenfield.

Brett Schoenfield, Managing Director

The Omni Homestead management team found historic photographs from 1923 and 1925 and overlaid them on a golf course map, to reshape tree canopies and fairway corridors. In addition, the property bought original blueprints and 1923 and 1925 drawings that Flynn made of the golf course from Wayne Morrison, a Flynn aficionado and historian, and put them in its archives.

As a result of taking this approach to the project, the Cascades Course has a much cleaner look.

“Once the [remaining] trees were in full foliage, many people didn’t know there were trees that had been removed from the golf course,” says Schoenfield. “We did a good job with cleanup and ground repair. The golfers knew something was different, but they didn’t know what.”

Director of Golf Barry Ryder agrees. “The golf course looked more bare in the wintertime,” he adds. “When the canopy came back in, it didn’t look like we had removed hardly anything.”

Going Beyond Bunkers
The tree-removal project was an outgrowth of two bunker renovations at the Cascades Course. The initial bunker restoration was conducted in 2005. “They were the worst in-play surfaces on the golf course,” says Schoenfield.

The Cascades Course did a second bunker renovation in 2014 and embarked on the current project, which also included reshaping the bank on the sixth hole to reflect the original design of the golf course, as a natural progression of the bunker renovations.

The Cascades Course at The Omni Homestead ResortLocation: Hot Springs, Va.
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designer: William Flynn
Type: Resort, semi-private
No. of Members: 225
Year Opened: 1923
Golf Season: First Friday in April to last Sunday in October
Annual Rounds of Golf: 12,000
Fairways: Annual Bluegrass/Native Bentgrass
Greens: Annual Bluegrass/Native Bentgrass

For the renovation of the Cascades Course,
historic photographs were overlaid on a map of the course to reshape tree canopies and fairway corridors and recapture William Flynn’s “long view.”

“The bunkers had lost their depth and shape,” says Schoenfield. “We put the bunkers in the right locations and shaped them according to the original design.” In addition, he says, “We saw how much the tree population had encroached onto the golf course, and said, ‘Let’s pull that back.’”

By reducing the tree population, the grounds crew has been able to push forward with its maintenance program and make better use of its time.

“It helped in a lot of ways,” says Miller. “It created better air movement to grow stronger turf. We have less storm damage to clean up. Leaves and tree seeds in bunkers can contaminate the sand. We have clearer bunkers.”

It is not practical, Miller notes, to maintain all areas on the 18-hole golf course, which now includes 52 bunkers, because some parts of it are too steep.

The removal of the trees widened the Cascades Course and opened it up so the turf can breathe. “Trees and grass both compete for water, and we know who wins,” says Schoenfield.

Miller says the staff’s mowing practices have not changed because of the tree removal project. In addition, he notes, with state-imposed limits to the amount of fertilizer that properties can use, the Cascades Course has continued its environmentally friendly maintenance input approach.

“A lot of those practices are inherent in what they do,” Schoenfield says of the course-and-grounds department’s eco-friendly turf management strategy.

In addition to the Cascades Course, Miller also oversees maintenance for the property’s Old Course, an 18-hole layout that was completed in 1892 and is distinguished as the home of the nation’s oldest first tee in continuous use.

Douglas Miller

Golf Course Superintendent Doug Miller

Years at The Omni Homestead Resort: 22
Years in Golf Course Maintenance: 39
Previous Employment:
• Canterbury Golf Club, Beachwood, Ohio;
• Lake Oswego Country Club, Oswego Lake, Ore.
Education and Training: Michigan State University, Turfgrass Management
Certifications: Virginia pesticide licenses, Virginia Nutrient Management Plan
Honors and Awards: Top 100 Golf Digest Courses, 9 USGA Championships, NCAA Men’s Championship, Southern Amateur Championship

“Each staff helps each other out sometimes, and staff from both golf courses helped on the [Cascades renovation] project,” he says.

Streaming Content
The Cascades Course, which was built on the Jake Rubino family estate where they raised horses and had a watercress farm, is also home to a significant number of streams.

“Streams flow down through the golf course and become significant sources for bodies of water downstream that provide drinking water,” says Schoenfield. “The borders of the golf course were carved out of the woods.”

Along with the streams, the interior of the golf course also has some wooded areas.

The tree-removal project has had no effect on the quality of play at the golf course, as Miller and Ryder have worked closely together to keep the course in top shape for the golfers.

“They’re very hands-on about everything from routine course maintenance to winter projects,” Schoenfield says of Miller and Ryder. “We spend a lot of time on the golf course. They don’t sit in an office. They check on the golf course on a regular basis. They’re not sitting behind a desk barking orders. They have mud under their fingernails.”

The maintenance staff would work on the trees and then turn around and prepare the golf course for play, notes Schoenfield. “The restoration has not affected play in any way,” he adds. “Doug and Barry had the golf course in pristine condition. The golf course was up and fully functional.”

Adding Fun and Challenge
Because of the renovation project, Ryder reports, golfers can once again use every club in their bag on the Cascades Course. And that fits well with another part of its tradition, as the original and longtime home course of the legendary Sam Snead.

The Cascades Course at The Omni Homestead ResortAnnual Maintenance Budget: $661,500
Staff: Eight full-time employees, seven seasonal employees
Other Managers: Kevin Moore, Assistant Golf Course Superintendent
Irrigation System: Toro Osmac, 720 sprinklers
Water Source and Usage: Spring-fed, 9,000,000 to 15,000,000 gallons/year
Equipment: Toro, own equipment
Technology: Toro Osmac irrigation control system
Maintenance Facility: Equipment storage, office, lockers, break room, storage facilities, washpad
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: November aerification; no overseeding
Upcoming Capital Projects: Thin tree population to increase air circulation for better turf health; construct #1 and #16 pro tees
Duties and Responsibilities: Management of all playing surfaces, equipment, staff, irrigation system, irrigation pump stations, and guest satisfaction

Of the 540 trees removed on the Cascades Course, only six had been planted; most had grown in areas such as rock outcroppings that did not get mowed. In addition to restoring the spirit of William Flynn’s original design, reducing the tree population has created better air movement and stronger turf.

“[Snead] was very fond of the [Cascades] course,” Ryder says. “He said you could play the golf course and use every club in your bag at least once.”

Because of that character and its scenic beauty, the Cascades Course has long held a ranking as one of the top 100 golf courses in the country, adding a level of prestige to the resort and setting the standard for the rest of the property. Over the years, nine USGA events have been contested on the Cascades Course.

“[Cascades] is steeped in history,” says Schoenfield. “Great amateur golfers have played and continue to play the golf course. People come because they know it’s a true test of golf.”

The tests posed by the Cascades Course, as well as its ties to history, add to its special appeal, Ryder believes.

“Playing the Old Course is fun, but when playing the Cascades Course, golfers get a little bit of a challenge,” says Ryder. “They can be challenged but also enjoy the scenery and design of [its] holes.”

And golfers aren’t the only ones who have a passion for the property. The members of the Omni Homestead management team share those sentiments as well, and make it a point to work together to continually enhance the golfers’ experience and enjoyment of playing the Cascades Course.

New Retro Looks
Just as the bunker renovations on the Cascades Course ultimately led to the tree-removal efforts, the tree project led to other upgrades at the property as well. In fact, the Omni Homestead looked beyond the overall aesthetic value of the grounds to make more improvements to its operations.

The property got new golf cars for both courses, and the management team also got new course accessories and equipment from a company in Michigan that once made old croquet equipment, but now produces specialty golf equipment. To give the golf course a look that matches its history, the property has wooden rakes as well as vintage pins, flags, and ball markers (see photos, left).

“Golf is absolutely a part of the fiber of the resort and who we are,” says Schoenfield. “We’re not a golf resort. We’re a resort with great golf.”

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