Golf course renovations that began as a quest for water independence have distinguished the award-winning Pelham County Club in Pelham Manor, N.Y., as an environmental leader.
Just 15 miles from Manhattan, Pelham Country Club in Pelham Manor, N.Y., is a green oasis in an urban landscape. Yet as the area around this 100-year-old golf course, where former caddie and local hero Gene Sarazen won the 1923 PGA Championship, built up through the years, the property began to flood on a regular basis. And rather than capturing the stormwater runoff that traveled through 480 acres of urban watershed and across the golf course on its way to Long Island Sound, Pelham purchased potable water for irrigation purposes from local entities.
To remedy these circumstances, the facility engaged golf course architect Michael DeVries for a three-part renovation project, which was divided into phases to minimize the disturbance of play on a tight parcel of land.
“The project started with a desire for water independence,” says Jeff Wentworth, CGCS, who has been at Pelham for 26 years. “The goal was to tick three boxes: improve water independence, improve the quality of the holes and member enjoyment, and decrease the property’s environmental footprint as a whole.”Wentworth worked closely with DeVries throughout the project, and they developed the master plan together. In March of 2021, Pelham CC won the 15th Arthur P. Weber MGA Club Environmental Leaders in Golf Award. The honor is presented annually to a property that is distinguished in environmental leadership.
“Jeff Wentworth worked hard on this. I think he does an incredible job,” says Gary Merjian, General Manager and Chief Operating Officer, who joined the Pelham team as the award was won. “I think [the Environmental Leaders in Golf Award] elevates our property. To be a finalist was great. To ultimately win says a lot about the club.”
Wentworth agrees. “To me, personally, it’s just nice to be recognized for the contribution we’re making to golf,” he adds. “I feel really happy for the club. It was a long process we started in 2014. It’s nice to be recognized by people other than those at the club.”
‘A NICER WALK’
The first phase of the renovation, which got underway in 2016, included extensive work on Nos. 17 and 18, where the greens and surrounds were expanded and the bunkers were improved. In addition, a pond was dredged on the par-3 18th hole. Two years later, the second phase included construction of a short-game practice area and a new green on the opening hole.
The third and final phase of the project started on August 6, 2019, and despite COVID-induced challenges, the golf course reopened on schedule on June 6, 2020. Five holes were taken out of play at the beginning of the project, to improve the drainage systems on the holes and create a second irrigation pond. With the new pond, Pelham tripled its water-storage capacity, for an annual savings of $80,000 to $100,000 in irrigation costs.
“Now, 100% of our irrigation water is coming from stormwater runoff. We don’t spend anything on water,” says Wentworth. “We still reserve our right to buy water, so we pay a meter fee.”
With the renovations, the property now collects and irrigates with 10 million gallons of water before it reaches Long Island Sound. In addition, the expansion of a pond at the north end of the property, along with the creation of the new pond, increased the golf course’s water-retention capacity from 1.3 million to 4.1 million gallons.
A new 1,200-ft. stream channel through the center of the five renovated holes collects stormwater and recharges the irrigation pond, which is located in a woodland area to the left of the 13th hole. A half-acre wetland was also added on the southern part of the golf course, to collect stormwater and prevent flooding.
Phase three began on Nos. 8, 11, 12, 13, and 16, but the project ultimately turned into a seven-hole renovation, with improvements to the first and fourth holes as well.
“[The seven holes] were integral to the re-routing of the new course,” Wentworth explains. “As the plans developed, we were looking to improve their playability.”
In addition to enhancing the design of the course and alleviating drainage issues, Head Golf Professional Mike Diffley, PGA, who has worked at Pelham for 34 years, says the renovation improved the flow of how players make their way around.
“We re-routed the course to bring in the most beautiful parts earlier in the round,” he explains. “It’s a nicer walk now. [Golfers] wind their way through the best part a couple of times.”
A GREENER PRODUCT
While water issues were the impetus for the renovations, Pelham has enjoyed other benefits as well. For example, the property installed new breeds of bentgrass, ‘Matchplay’ and ‘Coho,’ which were developed at Rutgers University and designed specifically to resist dollar spot.
The property planted a 50-50 mix of the two grasses on the course, and Wentworth says they grow well together. The top-performing bentgrasses also use less water and require less mowing.
“We’re getting exceptional conditions with lower inputs,” says Wentworth. “The grass has been great. It has done everything it was supposed to do. I would like to add more of these new grasses to other parts of the club.”
In addition, the bentgrasses decreased fungicide usage by 25% in the first year. The maintenance staff also uses integrated pest management inputs. “We monitor populations of pests before we make critical decisions,” Wentworth says.
As Pelham’s green footprint has evolved, the membership has become more involved in sustainability efforts as well.
“Members were interested to see what else we could do to be green,” says Wentworth. “We were able to piggyback other environmental initiatives on the renovation. A group of members wanted to start a bluebird nesting program. They put up boxes in six sites, and 10 members monitored the boxes throughout the season.”
So far, the boxes have only attracted tree swallows, but the club’s staff hopes to expand the program to also attract bluebirds this year.
A member also wanted to start a beekeeping colony, so Pelham now has two on-site beehives. The member has volunteered to take care of the hives, and in early August, the beekeeper plans to give a harvest demonstration to summer day-campers.
“With everything green now, you want every area of the golf course to be sustainable,” notes Merjian.
And the benefits of these initiatives carry beyond the borders of the golf course. “As a whole, everybody in the industry tries to champion that what we’re doing is environmentally friendly, rather than having a negative impact,” Wentworth says. “It’s important to get the message out.”
‘A LONG PROCESS’
Before the renovations came to fruition, however, Wentworth says the project required significant organization on the front end, through “a long process that was done in stages.”
He, along with Diffley and DeVries, attended multiple membership meetings to discuss the environmental impact, the financial impact, and the improvements to the golf course.
“We put ideas in front of the greens committee. Then we went to the long-range budget committee, and then to the Board,” says Wentworth. “Members added input as we went through the committees.”
The superintendent also acted as the general contractor and coordinator of the job. He managed materials and the subcontractors, and was the property contact for the project and the lead person for securing all local, state and federal permits.
Wentworth started working with city managers in 2015, long before the property applied for the first permit. “There was trepidation in what we were describing at first,” he acknowledges. “As we progressed, everybody was pulling in the same direction.”
Because 55 acres of the golf course are in Pelham Manor and 65 acres are in New Rochelle, N.Y., there had to be coordination with both municipalities, as well as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
During the renovation, members came to the golf course to see the progress. Wentworth did three scheduled golf course walks for the membership during construction, including one tour with more than 40 people. “It has generated tremendous excitement at the club,” he says.
He also continued to run the course maintenance department throughout the process, overseeing a staff that performed 30 to 35 percent of the work in-house. The grounds crew did a lot of the seeding, filled the bunkers, did the final grow-in, and was responsible for the cleanup. The crew also moved earth, seeded the golf course, and built structures in the fall.
The grow-in started in the spring. “COVID for us [caused] a real struggle for the project in the spring,” Wentworth relates. Because of the pandemic, he split his grounds crew into two teams, and the staff worked shorter days.
Throughout the renovation, the golf course never closed, even though members could play only 12 or 13 holes. Initially, members could get in an 18-hole round by playing 13 holes and then doubling back to complete five more. But the doubling back then had to stop after the pandemic brought increased play.
Wentworth also worked closely with Diffley to make sure the golfers had the best possible experience during the construction process. “We coordinated with each other about what holes would be open and the routing of play,” he says. “We started with 13 holes open, then decreased it to 11. We had to communicate and be positive through the process and keep the excitement going.”
Shutting down part of the golf course for one spring and one fall was a big ask of the membership, Diffley says, especially when the Northeast playing season lasts only eight or nine months. But he saw his job as “rallying the members around how the renovation would be beneficial for the club.”
“Nobody else knows the membership like I do,” he says. “I’m face-to-face with them every day. They respect my experience in the game and my knowledge as a teacher.”
He also played an integral role in the meetings with the membership. “The members trust Jeff and I to do the right thing for the golf course and golf operations,” Diffley says. “Our membership knows that we have a high standard of quality, and they know we know what’s right for the place.”
A STRONG RELATIONSHIP
How Wentworth and Diffley worked closely together during the renovation reflected the strong working relationship they have developed during their many years together at Pelham.
“We make an effort to accommodate the maintenance schedule and the golf schedule so they’re mutually beneficial,” says Wentworth. “We’ve done it long enough, so we both know what we need.”
Wentworth and Diffley’s offices are about 2,000 yards apart from each other. “We’re both always out on the course, and we communicate regularly,” says Diffley. “We have a teamwork atmosphere. It’s about presenting a quality product.”
Merjian oversees their budgets, and Diffley says the new GM has brought a lot of enthusiasm to the operation.
“It’s great to have Jeff and Mike here, and both of them have been here over 25 years,” says Merjian, who came to Pelham from the hotel industry. “That says a lot about our club and our membership. I’m lucky as the new COO to come and work with two true professionals. They’re very dedicated, and they love what they do. My job as COO is to support them and to give them the information they need. The three of us are aligned completely.”
Merjian does a “daily walk-through” with everyone who reports to him directly, and with Wentworth, that means meeting him at the pro shop, on the first tee, or at the halfway house.
“If Jeff has a concern, he takes me out on a golf cart to show it to me,” says Merjian. “Every day I’m looking at the different areas where we can make improvements. It’s all about being proactive instead of reactive. We want to enhance our member experience at every single touch point.”
A RESORT EXPERIENCE
With the completion of the golf course renovations, Pelham has received other accolades as well. In 2020, the United States Golf Association’s Green Section recognized the property for the quality and sustainability of its golf course renovation. In addition, the fourth hole—a risk-and-reward, drivable, 273-yard par-4 – was named the top new golf hole in Westchester County by readers of Westchester magazine.
Other renovations underway at Pelham include the expansion of the pool deck and construction of the Lookout Bar atop the pool house, as well as the installation of a dome over two of its tennis courts.Last year Pelham also earned recognition from the Forbes Travel Guide and from Sharecare, a digital health company, by completing—and maintaining—verification of more than 360 global health security standards. Pelham was “the first country club in the world to receive the verification,” Merjian says.
“It’s important to stay ahead of the competition,” he states. “A member has choices. Over 60% of our members live in Pelham Manor. This is their home away from home.”
And Wentworth, Diffley, and Merjian agree that golf is the main draw for the members.
“Without a golf course, we probably wouldn’t have a club,” says Diffley. “The golf is what attracts the members to the club. It’s a great game for life right now.”
Rounds were up by 25% at Pelham during COVID. Diffley believes that people are recognizing the exercise benefits of golf, the ability to be outdoors when they play, and the beauty of the game.
“We had a record number of tee times the day we opened the club, which was on a Saturday,” Wentworth says. “On Sunday, we exceeded our Saturday record. And I don’t think it was just COVID that filled the tee sheet.”
Merjian now wants to ensure that the golf course is playable every day in a safe and secure atmosphere, while also positioning Pelham as a family facility that offers amenities to all ages.
“It’s not about meeting expectations,” he says. “It’s about anticipating them and exceeding them. I look at my job as running a five-star resort without guest rooms. Service is the ultimate goal.”
PELHAM COUNTRY CLUB
Location: Pelham Manor, N.Y.
Club Website: www.pelhamcc.com
Club Type: Private
No. of Members: 582 total; 331 golf
Year Opened: 1921
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designer: Devereux Emmet
Golf Season: March to November
Annual Rounds of Golf: 14,000 pre-COVID; 22,000 post-COVID
Greens: Poa annua
JEFFREY WENTWORTH, CGCS
Years at Pelham Country Club: 26
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 35
Previous Employment: Assistant Superintendent, Westchester Country Club, Rye, N.Y.
Education and Training: AS, Turfgrass Science/BS, Urban Forestry from the University of Massachusetts
Certifications: New York state certified pesticide application
Honors and Awards: Pelham Country Club won the 2021 MGA Arthur P Weber Environmental Award; Wentworth is the University of Massachusetts Alumni Turf Group 2021 Distinguished Alumni Honoree.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
PELHAM COUNTRY CLUB
Annual Budget: $1.75 million
Staff: 7 full-time; 12 seasonal
Other Managers: Pete Charles, Assistant Superintendent; Travis Garner, Assistant Superintendent; Santiago Cacares, Equipment Manager; Hector Garcia, Irrigation Technician
Irrigation System: Rain Bird; 1,500 heads
Water Source and Usage: 100% stormwater runoff
Equipment: Toro fairway mowers, greens triplex and John Deere greens mowers. Mowing equipment is leased with a four-year/$1 buyout.
Technology: GPS mapping of golf features and irrigation system, digital moisture meters
Maintenance Facility: 11,000-sq. ft. building of concrete blocks and stucco includes conference room, Carbtrol washpad recycling system, etc.
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: April/August and October
Upcoming Capital Projects: TBA
Duties and Responsibilities: All outside property management