In a year most would like to forget, the Johns Island, S.C. club made memorable upgrades to its Lowcountry property by renovating its golf course and adding a new performance center and a lighted, nine-hole putting green.
It’s hard to improve on perfection. But don’t tell that to the folks at The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek in Johns Island, S.C.
The property, set on 900 pristine acres that take advantage of the best that the Palmetto State’s Lowcountry has to offer, recently completed a two-year, $6.5 million renovation to its golf course and facilities. In addition to a transformation of its 18-hole course, Briar’s Creek opened the Robert C. McNair Golf Performance Center, built three onsite cottages, and added a nine-hole lighted putting green.
“This place is a nature preserve,” says General Manager Clint Wood, CCM, CCE. “As soon as you drive through the gate, your blood pressure goes down.”
No wonder. The property, where the golf course is routed along the Kiawah River and Briar’s Creek, features open spaces, farmland, woodland, wetlands, marshland, spectacular vistas, and eye-catching vegetation. Wildlife includes deer, turkeys, white ibis, wood stork, and other seabirds. Adjacent properties are largely obscured from the golf course, and golf and the natural environment complement each other to enhance the Briar’s Creek experience.
“It’s one of my favorite places in golf. It’s just a unique golf course,” says golf course architect Rees Jones, who designed the original course and the renovations. “It’s such a beautiful Lowcountry setting. When people drive in, they just know they’re somewhere special. It’s a pure golf course on an unbelievable piece of property.”
The Next Level
Additions and renovations to the facility, which is majority-owned by McNair Interests, a private investment and management company, were announced in 2019. McNair Interests was founded by Robert C. “Bob” McNair, the late entrepreneur, philanthropist and owner of the National Football League’s Houston Texans. In 2015, McNair, who was a member of Briar’s Creek, led the investment group’s purchase of the property. While he passed away three years later, his imprint remains on the Lowcountry property he sought to elevate to new heights.
“Originally, [the renovation and other changes were] Mr. McNair’s vision. He wanted to see what kind of changes we could make,” says Superintendent Kyle Bibler, CGCS. “I never really envisioned what we have now. I knew it was going to be better, but I didn’t know it was going to be this good.”
In addition to McNair’s desires to build the cottages and increase the club’s national membership, Wood says he wanted to “get the golf course to the next level.” The ultimate goal is for Briar’s Creek to host a USGA national championship, and “We wanted to have the course as good as it could possibly be for our members as well,” adds Wood.
To transform Briar’s Creek, which originally opened in 2001, into a more classic, old-school golf course, renovations included regrassing tees, fairways and greens. The putting surfaces were restored to their original size as well.
The layout of several holes was enhanced to open vistas and bring water features into play. For example, the 12th green was moved to incorporate an adjacent lagoon, and tee boxes on No. 13 were shifted to maximize course views and create more strategy and shot options.
“We diversified the holes and made every hole distinctively different,” Jones says. “The golf course is more thought-provoking now.”
The lagoon on No. 12 was dug to provide dirt for the property when the golf course was built, notes Bibler, but the mounding was so high it wasn’t visible until golfers left the hole. By shifting the 12th green closer to the water, however, the par-4 has become a different hole.
“It will be the signature hole on the golf course,” Bibler says. “Everything we’ve done has made the golf course much more playable.”
As part of the renovation, the native grass-covered mounding on the left between the par-5 fifth hole and the par-4 No. 6 was removed. Previously, the native grasses on the left and the marsh or hazard off the tee narrowed the holes.
“Those two holes share a fairway now,” Bibler reports. “They have a better look, and they’re more playable. Everything I have heard has been positive. The members love the changes to the fifth, sixth, 12th and 13th holes. We had a lot of high mounding that hid a lot of the beauty of Briar’s Creek.”
A New Bunker Mentality
Changes to the bunkers were a central aspect of the project. Throughout the course, 250,000 sq. ft. of bunkers was reduced to 125,000 sq. ft., and a “Better Billy Bunker” system was installed to improve the drainage and conditions of the hazards.
“Courses evolve as people play them, and you learn from them,” says Jones, who also aimed to improve the course rating and playability for the membership. “We listened to the members about things that affected their play. The location of some bunkers adversely affected short hitters, so we took them out. A lot of the bunkers were penalizing the poorer player and not the better player.”
Director of Golf Eve VanderWeele, PGA, has received positive feedback from the membership about the new bunkers. “We have always had spectacular greens, and minimizing the bunkers has helped playability,” she says.
Before the renovation, the bunkers were hard on the maintenance staff as well.
“A lot of the bunkers were really steep,” says Bibler. “It was hard to get people and machines in and out of them.”
In addition, he says, “They would wash out after rainstorms, and it would take eight men 30 hours over two or three days to repair them.” Just in case the condition of washed-out bunkers escaped any of the members’ attention, Wood would send them drone pictures of the bunkers after a rainstorm.
The property got a quick preview of the new and improved bunkers with several 3- to 5-inch rains during the renovation process, says Bibler, and the washout was minimal. And even though the golf course actually ended up with four more bunkers after the renovation, their maintenance has been reduced drastically.
“If we get a heavy rain, we don’t have any washing. The bunkers stay in place. They’re more consistent,” Bibler says. “Now, one guy can fix them in a couple of hours.”
In addition to incorporating a classic bunker style into the new design, the renovation created more chipping areas and a better playing surface on the regrassed turf.
Powering Through the Pandemic
The renovation reunited Jones and Bibler, who was the superintendent in 2000-01 when Briar’s Creek was built. They also worked with Wood, who facilitated the project; VanderWeele; and golf committee members, led by Chairman Doug Pauls.
COVID-19 was an uninvited interloper in the project, but other than shutting down the golf course two weeks earlier than planned, the virus had little effect on construction. When the renovation project began with work on the bunkers in January 2020, members were still allowed to play. After shutting down in mid-April to start killing the old grass on the fairways, and then regrassing and working on the greens complexes, the golf course reopened in mid-October.
However, the maintenance staff went through a minor COVID outbreak in July, after just finishing the planting of all of the grass the day before the outbreak.
Still, Bibler says, the renovation project actually provided a welcomed distraction from the pandemic. “We didn’t really realize the magnitude of it. We were at work all the time,” he says.
The Briar’s Creek maintenance staff, which includes 18 people counting Bibler in the peak season, played an integral part in the project. Once the weather got warmer, the grounds crew members performed all of the sprigging of the greens and tees. They hand-sprigged the fairways as well. In addition, the renovation gave the staff the opportunity to perform other tasks such as tree projects and clearing out grasslands.
Rees Jones collaborated with Bibler to ensure that the superintendent would be comfortable with the upkeep of the golf course after the changes were made, and eliminating bunkers and changing the grasses have lessened the burden on the maintenance staff.
“Interestingly, it doesn’t look like we’ve removed any sand from the golf course,” Bibler says. “It frees up labor hours to do other things.”
In her role during the renovation, VanderWeele, who has been at Briar’s Creek for 13 years in different capacities, shared the members’ feedback and their perspective of the playability of the golf course.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of the project and getting to work closely with Rees Jones,” she says. “It has been an incredible learning opportunity.”
During the project, the Briar’s Creek staff kept the membership in the loop as well. Bibler would tell the pro shop where work was being performed each day, so members would know what to expect.
“When the golf course was still open, we did a daily update by sending out an e-mail blast to the members,” he says. “Once we closed, we started doing videos. The members loved being able to see what was going on.”
For the videos, Bibler and VanderWeele would go out on the golf course, and he would answer her questions about the project.
Of Wood, who took his position at the start of 2018, Bibler says, “He has been the best hire at Briar’s Creek ever. He is such a people person. He gives us every tool we need to be successful. I’ve been in the business 30 years, and this is the best working relationship I’ve ever had. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing.”
VanderWeele agrees. “I feel fortunate having a great working relationship with both men,” she says. “Kyle and I try to create enhancements and improvements to create the best membership experience possible.”
Adds Wood: “It’s all about communication. We’re constantly on the phone or talking in person every day. We’re all about whatever is in the best interest of the club and the course, and we utilize member feedback.”
From its inception, standards for the maintenance and playability of the golf course were set high. Briar’s Creek has been certified as an Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary since 2002, and it was the first property in South Carolina to earn the designation.
Charleston County required the property to meet Silver Signature Sanctuary criteria when the golf course was under construction, Bibler says, because it is located in a sensitive area filled with wetlands and marshlands.
In addition, he says, “We don’t use certain chemicals, and we keep sprayers away from potential runoff areas.”
Briar’s Creek is also a popular birdwatching spot, with ornithologists participating in an annual Audubon International bird count. “A pair of bald eagles have nested here since 1999,” notes Bibler.
And maintenance at the property has only improved since the renovations were completed. “Installing the Better Billy bunkers has cut our repair maintenance down to nothing,” Bibler says.
It is now also easier, he adds, to mow around the new bunkers. Because the previous hazards had a lot of fingers and noses, five crew members would spend all day fly-mowing around the bunkers. “Now, three guys can finish fly-mowing by lunchtime,” Bibler says.
Crew members can get rough or fairway mowers close to the edge of the bunkers, and they have reduced hand-mowing.
“We can focus on what we need to focus on—the greens, tees and fairways,” says Bibler. “It’s going to make the experience for the members that much better.”
With the removal of irrigation heads from native areas on the golf course during the renovation, water usage has improved as well.
Along with its well-conditioned course, Briar’s Creek found the ideal companions in the new performance center and putting green to enhance its golf amenities.
“It’s the primary driver for our members,” Wood says of golf. “We have no tennis and no pool. We have golf, and food and beverage. It’s the reason folks join.”
And now prospective members have two more reasons to give Briar’s Creek a look.
The new 1,000-sq. ft. performance center features a dedicated putting room, a hitting bay with cameras and top-of-the-line swing and ball-flight monitors, a clubfitting room, and a simulator that allows golfers to practice, virtually, on actual courses throughout the United States.
“During the construction process, we called it the teaching facility or the learning building,” says Wood. “One day I said, ‘Can we just name the place after Mr. McNair?’ Mr. McNair’s favorite thing to do was practice.”
The performance center appeals to golfers who like to use technology, VanderWeele says. “All of these enhancements have just added to the overall offerings and beauty of Briar’s Creek,” she adds.
The new putting green is located between the performance center and the cottages. “It’s just a great gathering spot and a great way to practice some putts,” VanderWeele says.
According to Jones, the putting course is modeled after the Himalayas putting course at St. Andrews, which lies between the Old Course and West Sands beach.
Of course, the Briar’s Creek putting course needed a proper name as well, so Wood consulted McNair’s son, Cary, for an idea that would be meaningful to his father. He suggested “Churchill.”
“He said his dad always had respect for Winston Churchill; he always wanted to have a horse to run at Churchill Downs; and he loved a good Churchill cigar,” says Wood.
So, Churchill it was christened.
The 10,000-sq. ft. green features a lot of undulation, slope and movement. Although the putting surface is available to everyone, the original goal was to have a lighted green for people to use when they were staying overnight in the cottages. The nine holes are set up daily, but the frequency of when the hole locations are changed depends on the number of out-of-town guests staying in the cottages. A flag on the green indicates where people start their putts, and the length of a putt can measure 100 feet.
The lights go off at the putting course at 11 p.m., but that doesn’t mean the golfers leave then. “Some people play by moonlight or use their cell phones,” says Bibler. “When the only thing you have is golf, it’s an extra added feature to that experience.”
VanderWeele calls Briar’s Creek a course that golfers can enjoy playing every day. “It’s a hidden Lowcountry gem,” she says.
However, the redesign of the golf course makes the beauty of the Lowcountry difficult to conceal.
“Briar’s Creek just feels like it has been there forever—like nature was built around the golf course,” says Bibler. “By lowering the mounding and opening the vistas, it’s just panoramic now. You can stand out there and see forever.”
With the golf course renovations and the new amenities, Wood believes Briar’s Creek is “set up for a long time to come.
“We’re doing everything we can to realize Mr. McNair’s vision,” he says. “That’s the essence of the whole story.”
THE GOLF CLUB AT BRIAR’S CREEK
Location: Johns Island, S.C.
Club Website: www.briarscreek.com
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designer: Rees Jones
Property Type: Private
No. of Members: 305
Year Opened: 2001
Golf Season: Year-round
Annual Rounds of Golf: 11,500
Fairways: Tifway 419
Kyle Bibler, CGCS
Years at The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek: 20
Years in the Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 30
Previous Employment: Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort
Education and Training: Associate’s Degree in Applied Science with a Major in Agronomy, North Carolina State University
Certifications: S.C. pesticide license; CGCS since 2005
Honors and Awards:
– Golf Digest, Best New Private Courses, 2003;
– Golf Magazine, Top 100 Courses in the U.S.;
– Golf Digest, America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses;
– Golfweek, America’s Best Residential Courses;
– Audubon International Certified Silver Signature Sanctuary since 2002
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $1.5 million
Staff: 12 full-time; 5 seasonal
Other Managers: Preston Bibler, Assistant Superintendent; Jeremy Jenkins, Community Operations; Keith Bartleson, Head Mechanic
Irrigation System: Toro Lynx, 1,500-plus heads
Water Source and Usage: 70-plus acre lake; deep well treated with Reverse Osmosis System
Equipment: John Deere, 50/50 lease and own
Maintenance Facility: Audubon-approved maintenance facility
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Aerify June and July; no overseeding
Upcoming Capital Projects: Bridge repairs and drainage projects
Duties and Responsibilities: Oversee all aspects of golf maintenance