The 115-year-old club in Sparkill, N.Y. has built on its longtime standing as an environmental leader to complete a decade of improvements to the course and create a buzz among the membership and surrounding New York City metro area.
Forward thinking has long been a hallmark of the operations at Rockland Country Club in Sparkill, N.Y. Starting with its pursuit of Audubon International certification that began in 1997, Rockland, which was incorporated in 1906 just 15 miles northeast of Manhattan, has been an early environmental leader in the tri-state region. The property, which has implemented a master plan that included environmental parameters to enhance its beauty, garnered national recognition as one of six winners of the 2020 American Society of Golf Course Architects Environmental Excellence Awards.
However, the master plan, which began 10 to 12 years ago, included other components as well. For instance, in the last three years, the golf course underwent a complete redesign of the practice area and a comprehensive bunker renovation.
“We wanted to improve the quality of the golf course and bring it into the modern era,” says General Manager Michael Pacella, CCM. “All of this was to move us forward and get us set up for the future.”
Taking Advantage of Technology
The bunkers, which hadn’t been renovated in more than 20 years, had reached their life expectancy, adds Pacella, and functionality had become an issue.
“The bunkers had gotten old. Drainage had become compromised. The sand had become contaminated,” says Golf Course Superintendent Matt Ceplo, CGCS, who has worked at Rockland for 26 years. “We were having a lot of washouts, and we had to pump them out after every storm.”
As part of the bunker renovation project, which began Sept. 24, 2019, the property installed Better Billy Bunkers. Rockland also changed the sand to a local variety that is firm, more playable, and packs easily, so that players don’t have to contend with buried lies.
With the addition of bunker liners and improved drainage, the frequency and severity of washouts has lessened. In addition, sub-soils, drainage gravel, and organic material no longer contaminate the sand.
When the bunkers were renovated two decades ago, Ceplo notes, “The technology wasn’t there. There were no bunker liners. We just installed a normal bunker drainage system.”
In the latest renovation, the bunker surrounds were sodded to protect them from stormwater erosion before gravel was installed on the bunker floors. Once the gravel was in place and weather conditions allowed for it, the contractor sprayed the gravel floors before installing and compacting the sand.
Rockland also sought to deepen its greenside bunkers, to allow more of a blast shot from lowered sand elevations.
“You could almost putt out of a few of the bunkers,” says Head Golf Professional Bobby Everett, PGA. “The Better Billy Bunkers have a gravel base with a porous polymer on top. There’s no contamination from gravel or dirt. It’s like putting sand on concrete.”
The golf course, which had 69 bunkers before the renovation, now has 71 bunkers. Most of them were rebuilt where they were previously located, Ceplo says, but some were positioned farther off the tee, to put them in play for longer hitters.
Other renovations, such as rebuilding the first green, were part of the project as well.
“It was severely sloped in the back,” Ceplo says. “We raised the front of it and leveled out the green.”
While the renovations to the first hole had no effect on its maintenance, he reports, they have improved the playability of the hole.
Previously, notes Everett, only about one-third of the first green was available for pin positions because it was too steep in the back. “Now we can use 100% of the green for pin placements,” he adds.
The par-5 No. 18 was also redesigned to add strategic options off the tee and to improve its aesthetics. The property created a new borrow area from in front of the 11th hole, which is parallel to No. 18, and took fill from it to create mounding on the closing hole.
“By removing some of the material in front of the tee, it opened up a better view,” says Ceplo.
However, he says, connecting the fairways of the two holes did more than improve aesthetics. “Both 11 and 18 are now better holes,” Ceplo says.
As part of the renovation, Rockland also cut down about 100 trees to increase airflow, let in more sunshine, and improve turf conditions. Some of the trees had damaged root systems as well.
Ripping Off the Band-Aid
The master plan to renovate the bunkers was approved in February 2019, and Rockland personnel say the general consensus of the membership, which voted to increase dues slightly, was that the golf course improvements were necessary.
“It’s nice to be at a club where (a) they wanted to make it better and (b) they backed it up financially,” Ceplo says.
Initially, Rockland closed a few holes when the project got underway. However, the property shut down the entire course at the end of October 2019.
The golf course reopened April 1, 2020, with finishing touches left to be done on two pot bunkers on No. 8, before reopening all 18 holes on Memorial Day.
“It got messy for a little while because of COVID,” reports Ceplo, “primarily because there were a lot of questions about what the state would and would not allow. We were a little later opening than planned, but that was due to COVID.”
They discussed renovating nine holes one year, he says, and the remaining nine holes the following year.
However, Everett says, “We decided to rip the band-aid off and get it all done.”
The project was run by the club’s Greens Committee, Pacella says. Ceplo, Everett, some members and architect John Harvey worked closely together as well. Harvey came up with the master plan, Everett says, and it was then tweaked by the group.
“It was a total team effort,” he adds. “My biggest opinion was to make any fingers in the bunkers a little softer and a little bit deeper, to give them more character. We don’t have a real long golf course, so we needed our bunkers to be a little more penal. We also got more downhill lies.”
Throughout the renovation, Ceplo managed the contractors and made sure the project stayed within the budget. “Everything was contracted out because of the massive size of the project and the time frame,” he says.
The superintendent kept members informed about the renovations. He keeps a blog, where he updated members about the project, and many of them came out to walk the golf course to see the progress as it unfolded.
In addition, the department heads communicated with each other every day about which parts of the golf course were open or closed.
Even though Everett, who started working at Rockland 36 years ago as a 12-year-old caddie, goes to Florida during the winter, the golf pro kept up with Ceplo’s blog. By monitoring the progress of the renovations, Everett was able to answer questions from members when they called him.
“Communication is absolutely paramount,” says Pacella. “We all stay in constant contact with each other throughout the day and throughout the week on issues we see—all for the betterment of the club. Sometimes we have formal meetings, or we just sit down together for a coffee break.”
They speak daily one-on-one, Everett says, or all three of them get together to discuss matters. In addition, he says, each of them reports to committee chairmen who are members of the Board of Directors. Pacella is in charge of the clubhouse; Everett oversees the golf division; and Ceplo manages the golf course.
“I’m always in either one of their offices,” says Ceplo. “The membership has been very good. It’s a nice place to work.”
Spending What’s NeededIn addition to making the investment to improve the bunkers, notes Ceplo, the property has increased his maintenance budget.
While the cost of maintaining the bunkers hasn’t changed, he says, the staff’s ability to keep them in top condition has improved considerably.
“We’re able to keep our bunkers more consistent and more playable,” Ceplo says. “We can put more time into them. We can keep them raked, and it doesn’t take as long to fix them.”
Grounds crew members try to rake only the bottoms of the bunkers, but they have to keep an eye out for algae growth on the sides. The maintenance staff hand-raked the previous bunkers on Saturdays and touched them up on Sundays. With the new bunkers, however, the staff hand-rakes them Saturdays and Sundays.
“The older bunkers had a lot of fingers,” says Ceplo. “These bunkers don’t have as many fingers, but they’re deeper.”
Everett also says the property went through slight “growing pains” to determine the right degree of firmness for the bunkers.
Because the sand is more packed now, the grounds crew has to “fluff up” the bunkers as well. With the increased budget, Ceplo has also been able to add staff members, and, unlike in years past, the maintenance staff now sprays the rough for disease.
“The club has made an effort to keep the golf course in better shape and more consistent,” says Ceplo.
Weathering the Storms
In 2021, the new bunkers got unwanted but stern tests when Hurricane Henri and Hurricane Ida struck the area in rapid succession. Hurricane Henri, which brought heavy rains and widespread flooding to the Northeast and the New York City area on August 22nd, dumped five inches of rain on the golf course. The Rockland property then got six inches of rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which pounded New York City and surrounding areas on September 1st after making landfall in Louisiana three days earlier. The property also got more rain in a shorter period of time from Ida.
“Some bunkers were washed out from both storms, but none of the subsoil mixed in with the sand when they washed out,” says Ceplo. “They all drained. In prior years, we would have had to pump them all out.”
After the storms, he says, the grounds crew repaired the bunkers in about one-third the time it previously would have taken.
“They required some TLC from the greens crew, but overall, they definitely fared well through the storms,” says Pacella.
Ceplo agrees. “The bunkers held up very well, which helped a lot in terms of getting the golf course playable,” he says. “They held up much better than the old bunkers would have.”
Flooding was worse around the pond and low-lying areas, Ceplo adds, and the golf course was cart path-only for one day after each storm, plus a few more days on some holes after Ida.
“We actually were more concerned about staffing. It was hard to get here because a couple of roads were closed,” says Ceplo.
Force of Nature
The Rockland property includes 150 acres of rolling hills, woodlands, natural areas and ponds, and the golf course maintenance staff has improved its native-area management as part of the master plan as well. Years of experience have taught Ceplo that patience is paramount to cultivate native areas properly.
“The biggest problem with native areas is giving them time. In the short-term, they’re a headache and require a lot of maintenance,” he explains. “Keeping them looking attractive and giving the long-term plants that you want a chance to grow is certainly a challenge.”
Rockland has native areas throughout the property, and many of them have been established through trial and error.
Initially, Ceplo installed tall-growing plants such as blue stem, switch grass, and Indian grass, thinking that they could out-compete invasive species. When plants reach a height of six feet, however, they sometimes can look like they’re overgrown.
Under the master plan, Rockland created buffers and seeded areas with lower-growing grasses. The golf course has 2.5-inch rough, and the native areas have a mix of 30-plus species of grasses that are 6 to 12 inches high.
“We want to create an edge to give it a more maintained, manicured look,” Ceplo says. “We try to use as many native grasses as we can in out-of-play areas. They’re all different areas. They’re all low-mowing grasses. We also have fescue areas, even though they’re not native.”
In addition to planting native grasses and meadows through the years, the property incorporated some of the native plants into formal gardens around the halfway house and around some of the tees and cart paths. These areas require more maintenance, says Ceplo, because “they’re more up close and personal.”
Other natural zones are located off the beaten path and on the edges of wood lines. “People look at them from 20 to 30 yards away—at least if they hit the ball in the middle of the fairway,” Ceplo says.
Native areas can serve multiple purposes, he notes. “Most people think you’re going to put in a native plant because it will be adaptive to the environment,” says Ceplo. “We put in native plants as food sources for caterpillars.”
While milkweed attracts monarch butterflies, birds eat the caterpillars. In addition, Ceplo says, insects make up 20% of a fox’s diet.
Everett believes that these sustainability efforts counteract the public’s perception that golf courses merely take up space and use lots of chemicals. “We want to be as environmentally friendly as we can,” he says. “It’s good public relations with the neighbors and the town.”
“Overall, we all live on this planet together,” adds Pacella. “It’s important for everyone and every industry to do their part.”
Other updates in the past several years have elevated the Rockland golf course as well. When the property rebuilt its practice facility two years ago, it added a short-game area, expanded the range tees, and constructed a new indoor teaching studio.
In 2011-12, Rockland replaced its three-line irrigation system with a new five-line system, which covers more of the rough areas. The property also added a new pumphouse to serve the larger irrigation system, and its green roof helps with water runoff and erosion.
In addition, Rockland renovated 5.2 miles of cart paths and expanded the putting green, making it 50% larger, in 2012.
The reaction to the improvements from the membership has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Ceplo says, and the attention to detail has made Rockland more of a championship golf course.
The renovations in the last eight or nine years have generated a lot of buzz among the membership and the community at large. The property had a waiting list for membership this year, notes Everett, even though it raised the initiation fee.
“It was really a game changer for us,” Pacella says of the master plan. “Members truly enjoy playing now, and guests are very much awed when they come and play.”
ROCKLAND COUNTRY CLUB
Location: Sparkill, N.Y.
Club Websites: rocklandcountryclub.org and rocklandcountryclub.blogspot.com
Year Opened: 1906
Club Type: Private
No. of Members: 250 golfing members; 500-plus total members
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designers: Robert White, 1906; John Harvey, last 20 years
Golf Season: April to December
Annual Rounds of Golf: About 20,000
Years at Rockland Country Club: 26
• Assistant Superintendent, Ridgewood (N.J.) Country Club
• Superintendent, Westchester Hills Golf Club, White Plains, N.Y.
Education and Training: AS in horticulture, State University of New York-Delhi
Certifications: CGCS, New York pesticide license
Honors and Awards:
• 2013 GCSAA President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship
• Global Sports Alliance’s 2011 New York Environmental Steward Award
• Rockland Country Club has been certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program since 2000.
• Honors for the property include the Metropolitan Golf Association’s 2012 Arthur P. Weber Environmental Leader in Golf Award, and the 2020 American Society of Golf Course Architects Environmental Excellence Award.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
ROCKLAND COUNTRY CLUB
Annual Budget: $1,337,900
Staff: Four full-time; four part-time; 12 seasonal
Other Managers: Assistant Superintendent Andre Martin; Head Mechanic Mark Gallagher; Foreman Owel Torres
Irrigation System: Rain Bird IC System; more than 3,000 heads
Water Source and Usage: Irrigation pond; average usage 20 million gallons a year
Equipment: Standard equipment list; Rockland owns all of its equipment
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Core aeration of greens and tees in spring and late summer; fairways once per year late summer. No overseeding.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Addition of tees on Nos. 3 and 9
Duties and Responsibilities: Department oversees care and maintenance of entire property