A $3 million project is credited with helping the Pleasant Valley, Iowa club “turn back the clock” for its Charles Alison course to once again evoke a time when it hosted Western Opens and provided “grief” for golfing great Sam Snead.
In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the Quad City Times of Davenport, Iowa reported, the golf course at Davenport Country Club in Pleasant Valley, Iowa, designed by the renowned firm of Colt and Alison, was regarded as one of the finest golf courses in the country.
Davenport CC played host to the Western Open in both 1936 and 1951, the Times reported, at which time legendary players such as Sam Snead and Byron Nelson played the course and at least one of them (Snead) was humbled by it.
And prior to the 1936 Western Open, the Times reported, the Davenport Democrat described the course as “one of the sportiest in the middlewest.’’
But through the years, both Mother Nature and human nature took their toll on the old course, the Times reported. As a result, Davenport CC’s Board of Directors decided to give the course a wholesale facelift with the objective of restoring its original charm and mystique and returning it as much as possible to what Charles H. Alison came up with when he designed the layout back in 1924.
“We put it back the way [Alison] envisioned it,’’ Ron Forse, one of the architects who oversaw the $3 million project, told the Times. “It’s maybe a little different on 18 and 12, but we kept the same character that it had before.’’
John Panek, who has worked at Davenport CC since 2001 and has been its Head Golf Professional since 2006, described what was done through the project as “more of a renovation/restoration combination,” the Times reported.
“It still kept the modern aspects of what we wanted, but then also turned back the clock,’’ Panek said.
The renovations, overseen by Forse and partner Jim Nagle with the cooperation of course superintendent Dean Sparks, were almost completely done during a nine-month period from August 2014 through May 2015, the Times reported.
The project addressed how yrees and foliage had been allowed to grow too far, reducing the size of fairways and greens, endangering other plant life and impairing the natural sightlines of the old course, the Times reported.
Additionally, a series of superintendents and groundskeepers over the years had also attempted to put their own stamp on the original Colt and Alison design and not always for the better, adding trees, ponds and bunkers, and slowly, gradually, masking the original personality of the place.
“I think that happens and that’s why we went in with Ron is to get some uniformity, because the golf course was almost piece-mealed a little bit,’’ Panek told the Times. “Greens and grounds chairmen had changed it over the years and there were different thoughts, different visions.’’
Davenport CC wasn’t the first golf course in the Quad Cities region when it first opened in 1924, the Times reported. But from the very beginning, it was acclaimed as one of the grandest layouts in the area.
The land for the course had been owned by Joseph Reed Lane, a prominent Davenport attorney who served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lane lived in a large home in Davenport, the Times reported, but also had a little farm about 10 miles east of town on some bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. He donated a piece of the property to be made over into a golf course and Alison, who already was cultivating a worldwide reputation as a course architect, was hired to develop it.
Alisoin quickly saw great possibilities in the undulating landscape filled with towering trees and babbling brooks, the Times reported. “I looked at a topographic map and thought ‘This guy is a routing genius,’’’ Forse said after seeing Alison’s original plans 90 years later. “This guy really knew how to use the land.’’
Colt and Alison courses generally take full advantage of the natural obstacles and endeavor not to add artificial ones, the Times noted. They are earmarked by subtle contours in greens and a judicious use of bunkers, with the few traps that are used being placed at strategic locations for specific reasons. They also generally have wide-open fairways.
“They didn’t like too many trees in play,’’ Frank Pont, an expert on Colt and Alison courses, told the Times. “They felt trees were a flukey and obnoxious hazard.’’
The new course at Davenport CC was opened in stages, with the first six holes being made available for play around Memorial Day 1924, the Times reported. The rest of it was opened later in the summer.
The course was only 12 years old when it first hosted the Western Open, which at that time was considered a major tournament on the national golf scene. Fifteen years later, the Western came back for what is believed to be the first pro golf tournament ever to be televised, the Times reported. And that event included the famous moment when Sam Snead, in contention to win in the final round, hit an errant drive into Spencer Creek on No. 16 and took a double bogey. A plaque at the 16th hole, which has twice been named an “All-American hole” by Sports Illustrated, now proclaims it “the hole of grief,’’ the Times reported.
In the years that followed, however, the tinkering with Alison’s course began. A total of 2,500 new trees were planted in the early 1970s. A large pond was placed near the 12th green in the 1980s. Several bunkers were added, some in 1970 and more in 1999.
Quaint old pumps that had been manufactured by the Red Jacket company of Rock Island in the 19th century were removed. Hole No. 1 was altered to make room for a driving range. No. 18 was rerouted to accommodate a septic system. Mounds were built behind greens and in places that Alison intended as natural landing areas.
Joe Lane’s old dairy barn, which had been renovated into a clubhouse, burned to the ground in 1969, with a new clubhouse being opened in 2000, the Times reported. The club’s swimming pool was redone several times, and almost every time it was, chunks of concrete and other materials were dumped into one of the creeks on the property.
Not all of the alterations were man-made, the Times noted. All of those trees began to grow and develop and encroach on Alison’s original fairways, and to block views of the picturesque new clubhouse.
It’s something, Pont said, that has happened to many older courses. “Most Colt and Alison courses in America need a major haircut,’’ he told the Times.
As Davenport CC approached its 90th birthday, it was apparent that something needed to be done, the Times reported. Scott Azinger, who was then the club’s General Manager, formed a committee that included Panek and then-superintendent Warren West to do some long-range planning. Originally, the idea was to make incremental improvements over several years.
“It went from ‘We’re probably going to do this over a long period of time’ to ‘We’re going to do this in five months,’’’ Panek said. “That’s kind of what it ended up being.’’
Club officials decided to deal with the decades of distortion in a bold, aggressive way, the Times reported. A key point in the process came when Sparks was hired to be the new Superintendent. He was no stranger to the Quad Cities, as a 1996 graduate of Bettendorf (Iowa) High School, where he had played football but not golf. He then left the area to work at some of the country’s most iconic courses over the next 15 years, including TPC Scottsdale, Crooked Stick, Whistling Straits, Ocean View, French Lick, Piper Glen and TPC Sarasota. And with that experience, Sparks cultivated a reputation in course renovation, the Times noted.
“We needed somebody who had some real expertise in that area,’’ Panek said. “We knew we would be in good hands going forward. Because of the nature of the project and how quick it was going to go, we needed somebody that really had quite a bit of experience in that realm.’’
In July 2014, the course was completely shut down and stripped down. It was doused in Roundup weed and grass killer three times. “We just blitzed it,’’ Sparks said.
By the time Forse arrived in late July, the Times reported, the course was a sea of bare dirt and matted straw, with 125 workers standing ready to help.
One of first things the workers did, the Times reported, was to cut down hundreds of trees. “They were just overgrown and they were encroaching on the fairways and affecting the play of the golf course and the turf conditions as well,’’ Sparks said. “There just wasn’t a lot of sunlight.’’
They took out many of the trees that had been planted in the 1970s, but left older specimen trees, including several oaks and maples more than 100 years old, the Times reported. A large Chinkapin oak tree on the 18th hole originally was marked for removal until it was determined that it was the tallest tree of its species in the state of Iowa, so it was left untouched.
Spencer Creek and Condit Creek, which meander through the course and converge on No. 16, were cleaned up as part of the project that is still ongoing, the Times reported.
“They have natural limestone bottoms, which is really pretty crazy, so we’re trying to get the rocks and debris out of here so they flow naturally,’’ Sparks said. “When they’re flowing naturally, it will be 5 to 8 inches of water in there and they’ll be really pure. We’re actually starting to see some fish in there, which we hadn’t seen in a number of years. The water quality is really good. We even had an otter on No. 17.’’
The greens on almost every hole were enlarged to reflect the original design, being expanded from a total of 90,000 sq. ft. to 130,000, the Times reported. And while the number of bunkers was reduced from 52 to 39, the total space covered by sand was increased by 40,000 sq. ft. There are now more of the finger-style traps that Alison favored, and many of the bunkers now have flat bottoms with 3- to 5-foot lips and paint-roll faces, something that was common in 1920s designs and that Forse said also reflects Alison’s “subtle genius.”
“There really was a sparse number of bunkers on the course, but every bunker was really well thought-out,’’ he said. “He used it all to really good advantage.’’
The tees, fairways and greens all now have .007 bentgrass and the rough is all RTF fine fescue, providing a contrast in color, the Times reported. That makes Davenport CC one of the few golf courses in the world with that combination of grasses, Sparks said, and all of it is dollar-spot resistant, so it does not need to be sprayed for disease.
All of the course is now fed by a new irrigation system, the Times reported, and there were some cosmetic aspects to the renovations, too. Four of those old Red Jacket pumps were located and placed around the course purely as decorations.
Two holes in particular were major focal points of the renovation, the Times reported.
At No. 12, the big pond that was installed 30 years earlier was removed—much to the chagrin of a painted turtle that was relocated to a different pond but kept migrating back to No. 12 looking for its old home.
And on the left side of the 12th green, four small bunkers were blended into one big bunker.
Sparks told the Times that Forse redid the green on that hole four different times until he felt he had it right.
“Basically it was an irregular-shaped pancake,’’ Forse said. “It was just awful. It didn’t belong on the course. We went back a couple of times and kept redoing it. We tweaked it to where it looks like an original green.’’
No. 18 was also drastically changed, the Times reported. In Alison’s original design, it was a dogleg left, but it was changed to be a dogleg right in 2000 to accommodate a new septic system. It’s now pretty much a straight shot.
“We actually ended up with a better finishing hole than what Alison had,’’ Forse said.
Even with all of the improvements, Davenport CC isn’t likely to ever see another PGA-caliber event like the Western Open, the Times reported. It’s not an excessively long course, and it is limited by things such as available parking.
But next year it will host the Iowa PNC, which serves as a qualifier for the John Deere Classic. And other similar events could be forthcoming in the years to come.
“Part of the vision was to have a course that was enjoyable to all members, but also was the caliber of a classic championship venue,’’ Sparks told the Times. “So with that we had talked about possibly having a USGA amateur for women or a women’s amateur or something along those lines.’’
The renovation/restoration was really intended as a three-year project, Sparks told the Times. Some small fix-ups remain in progress, but the course should be fully mature and stable by next summer.
“At that point I think we would start to get some national recognition,’’ Sparks said. “We’ll see what happens, who knocks on the door and all that, but I would anticipate there would be some bigger events either on a local level or maybe on a national level.’’
Already, the Times reported, Charles Alison’s classic old design has been almost fully reincarnated. “We really were able to build on the structure, the bones of what Alison did,’’ Forse said. “It’s one of my favorite projects ever.’’
To view photos of the restored course that were presented as part of the Times’ report, go to: http://qctimes.com/sports/golf/davenport-country-club-restored-to-its-original-mystique/article_f9c3957b-09d2-53d0-9c66-0943bfe84eac.html