Vaughn is the Golf Chairman and a board member at Cedar Rapids Country Club. As such, he was one of a core group of people that helped drive the outstanding Ron Prichard restoration of their Donald Ross golf course. What they accomplished is a celebration of achieving top results at a reasonable cost, something that has been sorely lacking from the American golf landscape for several decades. It is an important story to both understand and from which to learn.
1. Tell us about the architectural history of Cedar Rapids Country Club.
Would love to tell you about it and thank you for the invitation. My day job is running a small firm that tells creative and media stories and this is a good one. Not long ago, the Cedar Rapids Country Club (CRCC) golf course was an architectural mirage. From the distance, the routing and features resembled a Donald Ross course but the image would fade upon closer scrutiny. With the bulk of our restoration complete, the mirage has been transformed into an oasis. It took a significant amount of creativity and heavy lifting but the results have made CRCC members and guests the beneficiaries of a refreshingly authentic, challenging and delightful golf experience in a bucolic setting. Our way is not for everyone. It was not a walk in the park but it was a long time coming. CRCC’s current location is the club’s second. The interest in golf was sparked in 1896 when George and Walter Douglas, founders of Douglas & Co. the precursor to the Quaker Oats Company, returned from a visit to Scotland with golf fever. With their brother Will, the Douglas’ subsequently laid out several fairway-like environs in Judge Green’s low lying pasture near the Milwaukee Road rail main line running north east out of Cedar Rapids. In 1900, sharing the pasture with livestock soon resulted in tee time conflicts leading a group of ten to lease 30 acres on what are now part of the Brucemore Mansion, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. They built a course that would support more dedicated play with fewer bio-animal hazards.
In 1904, as the city grew, a more permanent location was sought resulting in the formation of the Country Club Land Company whose 96 subscribers raised $15,000. The club’s current location, one hundred eighty acres along Indian Creek, were purchased at $75 an acre accompanied by a five-fold increase in annual dues from $5 year to $25. A larger clubhouse was built in1904 as the Indian Creek adjacent property was converted into a nine-hole golf course with clubhouse. Scottish golf course architect Tom Bendelow, designed that initial nine hole course with the longest hole measured 400 yards. In 1914, the land company exchanged some hilly terrain west of fairway #1, for 36 acres of more level ground providing space for tennis courts.
Of note, in 1920, Bendelow also designed the original 9 holes for Cedar Rapids’ Ellis Park Municipal golf Course. That nine was expanded to 18 holes in 1949 by William Langford. Most of Ellis Park’s Golden Age characteristics have been renovated into submission.
In 1914, Donald Ross was hired to lengthen the course from nine to eighteen holes. It has been verified that Mr. Ross was sent to Cedar Rapids by Ralph Van Vechten, older brother of the famous writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, to lay out the extended course. He made a site visit to Cedar Rapids during a trip to the west including visits to Illinois, Lakewood and the Broadmoor.
Plans were generated from that trip and there is published verification that Ross came to physically lay out the course in its present location. The plans were received sometime during late fall, November- December 1914 as reported by the Cedar Rapids Daily Republican.
We have not found verification of Ross returning to spend any extended time on-site during construction. Construction were handled by Cedar Rapidian, W. F. Bickel who’s detailed topographical plan of the entire 170 acre site are credited as having been approved by Ross and informed the construction.
CRCC’s current location is the club’s second. The interest in golf was sparked in 1896 when George and Walter Douglas, founders of Douglas & Co. the precursor to the Quaker Oats Company, returned from a visit to Scotland with golf fever. With their brother Will, the Douglas’ subsequently laid out several fairway-like environs in a low lying pasture near the Milwaukee Road rail main line running north east out of Cedar Rapids near an area called Mound Farm. In 1900, the pasture soon began to experience tee time conflicts leading a group of ten to lease 30 acres on what are now part of the Brucemore Mansion, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. They built a course that would support more dedicated play with refreshingly fewer bio-animal hazards.
During the years after Ross’ work, the course experienced an evolution not unlike other golden age clubs. With no master plan per se the course became subject to a progression of historical and natural events. Wars, economics, demographics, management, membership, committees, superintendents, city expansion, zoning and development introduced a myriad of new features and foliage. The usual suspect list of golf trends influenced course alterations. Most of these will not be revelatory to the GCA readership, none the less, collectively, they represent the forces that ultimately forced our restoration.
- The King: Some long-time members have shared that the television and the success, marketing and management innovations led by Arnold Palmer introduced a new vigor to the membership during the 60’s and 70’s. This spawned numerous course alterations in an attempt to mimic courses seen on TV.
- Augusta: The visual perspective of television in Full color broadcasts of the Masters led to the planting of trees to replicate the tree lined fairways and white sand effect delivered by Augusta. Ponds were added in 1975 and tee boxes were reconfigured. During the early part of our restoration, there were some lively member discussions highlighting that the fact that well before 2011, Augusta had taken to removing trees, raising the canopy and increasing air and light access to all of their putting complexes and fairways.
- Tiger Effect: The 90’s and Y2K produced player/celebrity architects, MOI-Driver Face-spring like effect, Pro-V1, carbon fiber shafts, titanium club faces, player fitness and the need to “Tiger Proof” courses that Tiger would probably never see. This plus increasingly intense and frequent flooding led to additional emergency and ad-hoc bunker construction and tree planting to defend the course against mother nature as well as those that would declare themselves enemies of par. Most of us would never pose a threat to par but none the less, we built and planted. The club luckily declined to embark upon a proposed full scale redesign that would have most likely eradicated the Ross features and routing.
- Water and Mother Nature: Since Ross’ visit, Cedar Rapids had expanded well beyond and around CRCC. Our rolling Hill/Valley site sits in the Indian Creek Watershed . Our valley vistas are framed by hills which form a geologic gauntlet that bends at the edge of CRCC. Urbanization of historically rural areas upstream now direct a spigot of increasingly flash flood level events onto the property. Previous to the restoration, when it rained too hard, we closed. Mother Nature and the ghost of Donald Ross issued a clear joint communiqué, “Fix It”.
Water always wins. Our signature man made feature and logo is our “Swinging Bridge”. There have have been multiple swinging bridge crossings and bridge versions throughout the history of the club. The sole remaining swinging bridge connects the #15 and #17 Fairways to their respective greens. During one particularly violent flood, a member watched something float by miles from the club thinking to himself… “Hmmm that looks like the Swinging Bridge…”. That particular bridge was never found and we assume its remnants are spread between Cedar Rapids and the Gulf of Mexico.
The community has worked to improve upstream flood mitigation but a powerful rain can still thrust the creek from its banks. Testament to the efficacy of the restoration, during the writing of this article, the course received a deluge of over 6 inches of rain in 24 hours yet was able to be fully open for play by noon… with carts. Previous to the restoration, the course would have been closed for a minimum of 2 days
5. Infrastructure-Current Day: Although the design and restoration delivers outstanding vistas, classically framed golf holes and lines of play, a majority of the budget and time was spent reconfiguring the course infrastructure to enhance airflow, water management and promote water evacuation during the inevitable flood events. The bunkers have been reconstructed and the swales and fairways now work to move water off of the course faster and more efficiently. This delivers increased enjoyment for members and guests by delivering a drier course and fewer lost days of play. Focused tree management has delivered consistent rough, firmer fairways and healthier putting surfaces free of fungus, mold and excessive moisture. This gives Tom Feller, our superintendent, the ability to tailor and tune the performance of the course. Fast and firm for a U.S. Open qualifier, longer and lush to withstand sweltering hot dog days of extended 90 degree plus summer.
The community has worked to improve upstream flood mitigation but a powerful rain can still thrust the creek from its banks. Testament to the efficacy of the restoration, during the writing of this article, the course received a deluge of over 6 inches of rain in 24 hours yet was able to be fully open for play by noon… with carts. Previous to the restoration, the course would have been closed for a minimum of 2 days.
2. Besides the amazing 14th green what, if any, Bendelow features survive?
The bones of both the Bendelow and Ross routings have been reinvigorated and celebrated by Ron Prichard’s restoration. Prior to the Bendelow routing our current location, the land was an undeveloped mix of woodlands and prairie with a sprinkling of swamp. Ross incorporated parts of the Bendelow course within his routing. As Ross expanded the course from 9 holes to 18, he kept Bendelow’s original first and ninth holes in their entirety. Bendelow hole #9 the became Ross’ #18. Ross rerouted and lengthened hole #2 doglegging it left up and over a hill to the south. He cut a new dogleg right hole #3. This converted Bendlow’s #2 green to Ross’ #3.
Bendelow #5 became Ross’ #14 reversing the direction of the hole presenting the approaching player with a dramatic/intimidating visual and an off-camber putting surface that slopes away from the approaching fairway. Local knowledge will also inform the player that #14 gets baked and wind-polished more than any other putting surface on the property. Ross then utilized the lower part of the sloping mound feature to build and shape the triangular Ross signature #12 green complex and putting surface.
Hole #12 is fairly beloved whereas #14 is a polarizing figure. Simultaneously revered and reviled, #14, aka Burial Mound, receives love letters as well as death threats, some sealed with stickers depicting bulldozers and dynamite . The resultant two-green complex has become a signature feature. The restoration has also made the fourteen green watchtower of sorts with a vista of 10 flags previously obscured by tree overgrowth. Indian creek became a prominent feature of the approach shots on the new #6, #11 and #17. The Creek also comes into play along the right side of #15 and as a crossing hazard to green approach on #15 and #17.
3. This is Ross’s sole effort in Iowa. Do you know if Donald Ross himself was on property? Who was his construction superintendent?
We know that Donald Ross physically visited the property and generated plans during his travels coinciding with the period he spent time in Illinois, Kansas and Colorado. It is not known if he was accompanied by one of his construction associates although, I was told by iconic Iowa broadcaster and CRCC member, the late Bob Brooks that he was told that Ross associate Walter Hatch was on site for some portion of the layout and initial shaping but we have not been able to find any verification. Local engineer W. F. Bickel made a detailed topographical map based on Ross’ plans and is credited with the extensive physical construction of the course. In 1916 CRCC’s President Cyrenus Cole praised Bickel in an article stating:
“Mr. Ross laid out the course out on paper. Mr. Bickel laid them out on the ground… No. 10, was holy his creation. It was a swamp that Mr. Ross skipped. Mr.Bickel proved to me that he could take out the water and kill the mosquitos and where there was a bog there is now going to be green grass- not two blades but millions of them.”
Ross’ initial plans called for construction to be done in tranches, one of which included a bunkering phase. In a community of Golden Age golf clubs, it would be cliché for us to say that those plans were “lost in a clubhouse fire…” The Cedar Rapids Country Club built a brand new brick clubhouse in 1928. replacing the wooden clubhouse that burned to the ground in 1927, which places us in the community of Golden Age golf clubs whose original plans were “lost in a clubhouse fire.” WW1 and the crash of 1929 delayed further bunker and other subsequent course construction projects for decades.
4. What was the impetus for consulting Ron Prichard in 2011?
Need for Restoration and Reinvigoration. The course was fatigued, and had become costly to maintain and greens were unhealthy. The intent of our CRCC project was to reinvigorate appropriate Ross characteristics while simultaneously delivering playability for the modern game. Trees and floods took a toll on the original layout moving it far afield from the original spirt of the Ross design. Historical aerials illustrate that 1970 to 2000 was the most prolific era for tree planting, contraction of fairway and putting surfaces. Additionally, a series of ponds were cut into the property to provide some flood and drainage relief but were not placed in character with the Ross routing.
Floods, Foliage and Father time, drove our need to make soil based infrastructure changes. it presented us with a fiscally timely opportunity to simultaneously address human generated course alterations which included; out of character bunkers, tee box complexes, mounds, trees and circular shrunken putting surfaces. Combining these projects enabled us to cost effectively revitalize Donald Ross characteristics lost or obscured over time. Ron, Tyler and Tom Feller developed a master plan that simultaneously addressed hydro and infrastructural issues and defined the Ross design components. Equally important, the master plan defined a process for future course alterations.
5. How did you select Ron Prichard?
The committees narrowed the field to three finalists who were contacted with Requests For Proposals (RFP’s). Each architect delivered outstanding proposals via presentation to membership and committee. Ultimately it was decided that the approach presented by Ron and his associate, Tyler Rae best fit the fiscal and construction philosophy of the membership and staff. We also sought advise and consul from expert external resources such as Donald Ross expert Brad Klein who was very educative, accessible, informative and instructive with regard to ebb and flow of Ross’ style and influences. Given the nature of our property and the era of Ross’ involvement, the same three or four names kept rising to the top, one of which was Ron’s.
Each proposal was strong. Given that we were already in progress with our flood plain and drainage work, we were enthused by Ron’s willingness to collaborate with our in-house crew. Especially attractive was his intent to utilize the majority of our existing fairway and putting surfaces which significantly reduced the project’s budget.
Ron: “Hey, this grass has survived for 100 years, lets stop suffocating it, give it some light and see how it does.”
6. What became the scope of his project?
Our Project Mission Statement:
Address the soil based infrastructural upgrades, provide the membership with a plan that reinvigorates and preserves the unique characteristics of the Cedar Rapids Country Club golf course and to ensure a fair, playable and highly enjoyable golf experience for modern era golfers of all skill levels.
We had an unhealthy course that had gone to the far side of a tipping point. Ron’s design served all of our golfer/member constituencies. It appeals to the weekend walker as well as our second generation of Tiger/golf athletes. It is designed to handle technological innovation, advanced golf instruction and fitness. Most of our members are hitting the ball farther, faster and more accurately. We are primarily a walking club with members who love a nice walk sprinkled with golf for relaxation and camaraderie as well as a increasingly scoring oriented group of competitive players.
Customer Experience Approach the Restoration
Ron’s design concept was to deliver a course able to attract and support a sustainable level of membership, from the recreational golfer to the contemporary athletic/competitive player. Below is a summary of our scope.
1: Delivery of a fair and enjoyable experience for all membership and handicaps. Correctly placed tee boxes and lines of play are the key to this strategy. Previous tee complexes did not reflect true differences in carry distances. White, Blue and Black tee markers were routinely placed ten paces apart on the same tee box with little relevance to the difference in player capabilities.
2: The restoration would “defend par” not with trees but with appropriately configured tee complexes, lines of play and bunkering to introduce a variety of fair risk/reward opportunities. The result enables golfers of all levels to experience an enjoyable round. The wider fairways, lack of intrusive overhanging trees and limbs, expanded green complexes and putting surfaces have made the course more fun for all. Gone are the “Trunnels” (Tree-Tunnels).
As I shared with one of our USGA U.S. Open qualifying guests: “You don’t need to be super long to go low from your tees (Tournament Tees), but you best bring a dart gun and a smooth putter.
7. What kind of source material from the 1930s existed to help guide the restoration?
In addition to the 1914 Bendelow era survey plat, golf committee and restoration committee member Dr. Steven Greif had researched and located a treasure trove of aerial photographs dating back to the 1930’s. These proved invaluable to the effort. There were some on-course and historical archival photos but the most informative content assets proved to be that progression of aerial photographs including some unique LIDAR images. They enhanced the team’s efforts to locate original surface features including green fill pads and geographic points of reference.
Execution of the tree management plan and Ron Prichard’s design reclaims many of Ross’ open vistas, reestablishes original lines of play, delivers watershed driven infrastructure, green complex improvements and Ross characteristic bunkering.
8. How was the membership approached regarding this project?
– The concept of a restoration was first presented and rejected during the late 90’s. Over the years as the infrastructure and playability of the course showed signs of accelerating deterioration, it was time to take some form of restorative action. The trees were fully encroached on the fairways and the greens were in very poor health.
– The project was re-launched in 2011 by then Golf Chair Jason Haefner. As incoming president, it became clear to Jason it was time to stop making ad-hoc uncharacteristic course changes and short term fixes. The club and committees determined the need for a master plan for the golf course. Simultaneously and thankfully the appreciation of classic and minimalist course design had expanded, construction, agronomy and hydro-sciences improved, the concept was revisited.
– I assumed the golf chair in 2012 and credit much of the heavy lifting to the previous and subsequent club Presidents, Tom Peffer and Haefner who took some fairly nasty arrows yet continued to support and rally a group of members to seed the project and accelerate the construction of a Prichard designed, 3-Hole playing prototype of the course’s most visible holes, holes 1, 3 and 4. This effort was not without controversy but the group persevered and received a majority membership vote of support. This effort jump started the restoration.
– Our mission statement outlined need to make significant repairs to the course and enhance the value of the member experience. The course in the flood plain was functionally broken and it was a good time to define master plan and make the aesthetic improvements. We stayed in our lane financially as the project was not seeking to capture a US Open but did aspire to be the best course in the area and proudly fly the “Donald Ross” flag.
– We embarked on an internal “Road Show”that presented to various interested constituencies including long standing senior golfers, Women’s Golf programming and competitive golfers seeking a more contemporary and competitive golf environment. The presentations included detailed explanation of the reason for restoration, value of investment in the course as an asset, drawings. Many of the slides in this article incorporate elements from our “Road Shows.”
– We also contracted with Best Approach who delivered 18 holes of outstanding architectural plan based animations. The clips delivered effective visualization enabling members to “flyover” each hole before it was constructed. All of these assets were placed behind our firewall so our out of town members could be kept apprised of project progress.
– The effort was informed by various committee and member visits specifically to Pinehurst #2, Interlachen, Winged Foot, Pine Valley, St. Louis Country Club, Chicago Golf Club, Old Elm, The Valley Club of Montecito, Cypress Point, Golden Valley, Riviera, LACC and Shoreacres to expand familiarity with classic golf architecture. These visits served to enlighten and highlight the potential of our classic Donald Ross course. We also played courses such as Skokie, Exmoor, Beverly, Aronimink, and Minikahda, original Ross Courses restored by Ron Prichard.
– These visits illuminated how far CRCC had strayed from a Ross original and our potential for excellence given the outstanding quality of CRCC’s property. The 3-hole prototype launched a number of long needed infrastructural, agronomic and tree management projects needed to return the property to health. Raising the canopy, improved the health of the putting surfaces and restored some vistas as seen by Donald Ross as he walked the property.
– The project was enthusiastically supported by Superintendent Tom Feller who welcomed the challenge to deliver a significant amount of in-house construction.