After the completion of a water-diversion project that was years in the making, golf course maintenance and conditioning have been smooth(er) sailing for the grounds crew at the Branford, Conn. property.
Having a water view is a desirable feature for any golf course. Being water-logged, though? Not so much.
At Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club, a private club founded in 1901 on Long Island Sound in Branford, Conn., the first and ninth holes of its picturesque nine-hole, regulation golf course flooded for years after storms and during high tide. Those days, thankfully, are now a thing of the past, however.
In May 2020, the property completed a nine-month, $1.2 million water-diversion project to improve the golf course, which plays as an 18-hole course because of different sets of tees on each hole. The primary goals of the project were to raise the first fairway, expand the pond on No. 2, raise the fairway on the ninth hole to eliminate full-moon and high-tide flooding, and reduce or eliminate flooding after major storms.
In addition, the project included removing phragmites, an invasive species that grows along shorelines, and opening up course views on multiple holes.
“We took the two or three worst spots on the golf course and made them the best,” says Golf Course Superintendent Wes Mackie, who joined the staff in January 2019.
While the work took less than a year to complete once it finally got underway, the complex project was years in the making. Pine Orchard’s staff members credit the dogged determination of longtime member Nick Torello with making it happen.
“Nick and Wes really headed up the project,” says General Manager Chris Goodwin, CCM. “Nick was the driving factor. When I became involved, everything was more or less in place at that point.”
Sports have always been a driving force at Pine Orchard Y&CC. The property, which also includes a marina, tennis courts, food-and-beverage services, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the ocean, was deeded to the club in the 1950s by the family of Sid Noyes’ wife, with the stipulation that it be used as an athletic facility. Its golfing credentials are impeccable, as Noyes, an amateur golfer and Pine Orchard member, was invited by Bobby Jones in 1934 to participate in the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament, which later became the Masters.
The golf course underwent changes when it was rebuilt in the early 1960s. The first and ninth holes were constructed on wetlands, and the creek on No. 1 was rerouted. As the years went by, however, the holes became increasingly prone to saltwater flooding.
“The first hole and the landing area on the ninth hole would flood with every full moon, and it would take two holes out of play on a nine-hole course,” says Tim Gerrish, the project architect.
Certain greens would flood as well. “We had to water so much to flush the salt off,” says Mackie. “We didn’t have the ability to do that everywhere.”
Torello, who started his fourth stint on the Pine Orchard Board of Governors in December 2020, says the golf committee had its first meeting about the water-diversion project in 1999. A 2003 plan to renovate the golf course, he adds, met with opposition from members who felt that the creek, even though it was man-made, should not be changed.
In 2010, however, the Board of Governors gave Torello seed money to hire an engineering firm to explore the possibility of working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to create a project that, based on aerial photos of the original course, would move tidal water in and out of the property.
“In the 2000s, we had started using more sand to build up the fairways,” says Torello. “The course never dried out again after hurricanes. One inch of rain would shut down the course.”
Drainage issues came to light again in 2012 with the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, which, along with memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2005, increased the urgency to renovate the golf course.
“The storms left saltwater all over the property, and we couldn’t move it quickly,” Mackie says. “There are still high-water marks left, to remind us where the water was at the time.”
The membership ultimately approved the renovation project in 2012. However, there was no timetable for the plan, and it was shelved until 2019.
“Seven years later, things had changed since the approval,” says Goodwin, who has been General Manager for three years and was an assistant GM at the property in 2012. “But the members weren’t going to be assessed, and the original vote stood.”
Head Golf Professional Joe Starzec, who has worked at the club for 45 years and along with his uncle is one of only two pros Pine Orchard has ever had, is well-acquainted with the flooding history of the course and the lengthy approval process for the project. “It was a sell to the membership. We had to sell the project to make sure everybody was on board with it,” Starzec says.The property, particularly its influential members, was supportive of the project, notes Gerrish. However, with other stakeholders—including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Branford Inland Wetlands Commission in addition to the state DEEP—needing to be involved, the permitting alone took 10 years.
“You have to have all your T’s crossed and your I’s dotted, and you have to know exactly what you’re doing,” says Starzec.
Routine leadership changes to the Pine Orchard Board of Governors, as well as personnel changes within the other stakeholder organizations, also prolonged the permitting process. The two hurricanes, climate change, concerns about what flows out of a property, and flooding also altered state DEEP rules through the years. Pine Orchard had to get in the queue for state permits, and insurance policies changed because of flooding.
“Every person had to start from scratch, but they never lied to us,” Torello says. “They said, ‘Do what we tell you to do and don’t vary, and you’ll have no problem.’”
The Pine Orchard staff took that advice to heart. “Everything we were asked to do, we did every bit of it, and we went a little bit further,” notes Mackie, who also credits an engineering firm, BSC Group, and Lavoie Horticulture with key roles in helping the club through the process.
Elevation & Enhancement
As part of the renovation, the first and ninth holes, which drained poorly, were redesigned to improve their “uninspiring golf strategy,” says Gerrish.
On the first hole, the creek that had been rebuilt in the 1960s was filled in and moved about 65 yards away from the first tee to its original location, which could be seen in aerial photos from the 1930s through the 1950s. The creek was widened and deepened to increase water flow as well.
“We could see the natural route the water used to take,” says Mackie. “It was more straight lines in the creek and the pond.”
The project included removing bunkers and regrassing the first fairway with a more salt-tolerant bentgrass, and new irrigation was installed on the first and ninth holes.
“Most of the work was in the areas closest to the water—No. 9, No. 1, and the driving range,” says Mackie. “There was a lot of earth-moving. We completely lifted the elevation of the driving range.”
After digging a two-acre, 25-foot-deep hole, referred to as the “borrow pit,” and performing soil tests, the value of the soil on the property was discovered, notes Mackie. It was used to lift up the first, ninth and 18th fairways, which were then capped with sand-based soil.
“We took out all of the phragmites that were in the center of the golf course and buried them in the borrow pit,” Mackie says. “If you don’t bury phragmites at least six feet, they can resurge. But we didn’t have to move them off the property, so it saved us a lot of money.
“We made the area a water feature and replaced the phragmites with more native species like Spartina that are more desirable and less invasive,” he adds. “We added a lot more water features.”
The removal of the phragmites between the first and ninth holes increased the capacity for stormwater and floodwater storage. In addition, it gave the areas a more natural look. By nearly doubling the size of the tidal marsh pond on the second hole, where the tees were also rebuilt, the water feature has a more visual presence.
“On our property, the water level of the creek and the pond is different based on the tide,” Mackie says. “It’s almost full at high tide.”
A tidal water holding area on the left of the 18th fairway offers aesthetic appeal. “It’s almost empty at low tide, and you can see native plants,” Mackie says. However, the second half of the ninth hole, which is high and dry, didn’t require major changes.
Other aspects of the renovation included the addition of subsurface drainage to help move water; the relocation and renovation of tees on some holes, including Nos. 1, 6, 9, and 13; enlargement and regrassing of the tees on the second and 11th holes; and reconstruction of all of the bridges on the golf course.
Changing the CourseDuring the renovation, Pine Orchard also installed a couple of target greens on the driving range, which previously had only flags in the rough.
In addition to improving the playability of the layout, the renovations enhanced the seaside character of the golf course and the strategy of playing it.
“I want players to think when they’re standing on the tee. I don’t want them to just whack it down the fairway,” Gerrish says. “Any time you do a renovation, you want to find ways to make it more interesting and give golfers more options.”
On No. 1, for instance, the tidal creek previously forced women and seniors to lay up. Now with its realignment, golfers can hit to a landing area over the creek or play it safe.
“On No. 1 and 10, the creek was not in play before,” says Mackie. “Now you have to consider the creek location on your tee shot because the water is a reality. It can even affect your second shot.”
The renovation enhanced the aesthetics of the golf course as well. Tree work, which was performed by the Pine Orchard maintenance staff, highlighted natural features of the property. The removal of some trees showcased a rock outcrop feature on the ninth hole, and also on No. 9, the green is now visible from the tee after trees were taken out and the tee was shifted to the left.
“A hole is more desirable if you can see the green from the tee,” says Mackie.
With the removal of trees around the eighth green as well as the seventh and ninth tees, the golfers now have a view of the clubhouse and the ocean behind it. “It’s beautiful now,” Starzec says. “It opened it all up.”
Part of the property is covered with fescue, and many native plants have been installed. On a portion of the course called Birch Island, which is surrounded by water except for a land bridge, more native vegetation such as rose mallow, a type of hibiscus, has been planted.
“Now it’s a highlight of the first and second holes,” says Mackie. “We’re still adding plants to give it color. The plants can grow here, but not in other parts of the state.”
Pine Orchard also has other distinctive features. With different greens for the fourth and 13th holes, the golf course has 10 greens. The other holes share a putting surface.
A two-lane state road runs through the golf course, and golfers have to cross it on Nos. 3, 4, and 12. With a separate set of tees for the second nine, golfers get a different experience on the front and back nines.
“The holes are quite different because we have different tees,” says Starzec. “They create different angles, and the tees are 30 to 40 yards apart.”
Reaping the Rewards
All of the planning, teamwork and effort have come to fruition since the Pine Orchard course reopened on May 1, 2020. The staff says feedback has been positive from the members, including those who were skeptical of the project.
The renovation has benefited the maintenance staff as well. “Because we don’t have the flooding issues we had before, we have no problem mowing the fairways on Nos. 1 and 9, the landing area on the 18th fairway, or the driving-range rough,” says Mackie. “It’s so much easier to maintain areas now that they’re well-drained and dry.”
With improved drainage, the golf course is better equipped to handle rain events as well. “If we have giant hurricanes hit us, there’s nothing under the sun that can help us,” says Mackie. “But we’re more prepared for a 100-year storm than we were.”
The property has already been tested by Hurricane Isaias in 2020. Although the forecast called for three inches of rain, Mackie says, the property suffered more damage from wind than from precipitation. “We lost power, and we lost trees,” he adds. “But there was no flooding.”
Since the renovation was completed, Torello notes, “We haven’t lost one day from sitting water. We used to lose eight to 10 days a year.” Golfers can now take carts on the course after it rains in a matter of hours instead of days, Mackie adds.
Along with enhancing playability, the project has increased the membership’s enjoyment of the property. “Our members brought guests in droves [in 2020],” Torello says. By the end of the year, the number of rounds at Pine Orchard, typically 6,500 to 7,000 annually, more than doubled and were closing in on 14,000 for the year. “We got a lot of new golfers because of COVID,” notes Starzec.
The enhanced playability also lets Pine Orchard focus on capturing younger golfers who don’t have the time to play 18 holes, Goodwin notes. “We can introduce them slowly to the game,” he says. “We have small clinics where people can play three or four holes, and we coach them on the rules of the game.”
The renovation “is beyond what everyone thought it was going to be,” Goodwin adds. “It’s still evolving. It will probably take two years before the golf course is really filled in.”
Torello agrees. “It was the right thing for the club to do,” he says. “We have a beautiful piece of property. We have a lot to offer.”
PINE ORCHARD YACHT & COUNTRY CLUB
Location: Branford, Conn.
Club Website: www.poycc.org
Club Type: Private
No. of Members: 450
Year Opened: 1901
Golf Holes: 9
Course Designer: Robert Pryde
Golf Season: March to December
Annual Rounds of Golf: Average season – 7,000 (2020 season – 14,000)
Fairways: Bentgrass/Annual Bluegrass
Greens: Bentgrass/Annual Bluegrass
Years at Pine Orchard Yacht & Country Club: 2
Duties and Responsibilities: Oversee day-to-day operations of golf course; coordinate and set up all golf events/tournaments; manage staff and their duties; create mowing schedule; prepare and implement pesticide/fertilizer applications; manage watering schedule; oversee all construction projects; manage annual budget. Responsible for implementing the long-term capital and organizational planning of the golf course maintenance department.
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 12
> Senior Assistant Superintendent at The Stanwich Club, Greenwich, Conn.; Quaker Ridge Golf Club, Scarsdale, N.Y.; and The Bayonne (N.J.) Golf Club.
> Second Assistant Superintendent, Brae Burn Country Club, Purchase, N.Y.
Education and Training: B.S. in Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee
Certifications: Supervisory Pesticide Applicator License in Connecticut and New York
Honors and Awards: Graduated from UT with a 4.0 GPA
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
PINE ORCHARD YACHT & COUNTRY CLUB
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $763,000
Staff: 5 full-time, 7 seasonal, 1 part-time
Other Managers: George Forte, Mechanic; Joe McSherry, Assistant Superintendent; Kelsey McSherry, Foreman; Mark Palmieri, Asssistant Mechanic
Irrigation System: Toro Lynx VP, about 500 heads
Water Source and Usage: City water source; average usage, 5.5 million gallons
Equipment: Primarily a Toro fleet, from walk mowers to fairway units and sprayers; club owns the equipment
Technology: Playbooks (pesticide recordkeeping); Toro Lynx Irrigation software
Maintenance Facility: Composed of two buildings. The first houses the office, parts repair area, lift station, storage of the most important machines, breakroom, bathroom, lockers, and tool-storage area. The second building houses irrigation parts, staff carts, and supply items such as fertilizer and pesticides. A washwater recycling system is located outside the shop.
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Greens, tees, and approaches aerated each spring and fall. Greens are needle-tined monthly through the summer, and fairways and rough are aerated in the fall.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Renovation of sixth fairway and the golf maintenance facility. The fifth green is currently under consideration for redesign.