September 22, 2003. Green Committees

By: Jeff Shelley

Though the subject of green committees* at private clubs has been wrought in all manner of high-falutin', high-minded grandiloquence, these one-of-a-kind gatherings remain worthy of pontification. Like dozens of golf writers, I'm blockheaded enough to tackle the subject. And like all those other whiners, I'll attempt to understand how a group of doctors, lawyers, insurance executives, businessmen and other so-called "professional people" can better a golf course.

I'm in the second year of a three-year gig on the green committee at my club, Sand Point CC in Seattle. Sharing seats in the card room during our monthly meetings are a batch of friends and fellow playing partners: well-meaning people who sincerely want to improve the conditions of our motley little course, a 75-acre 18-holer that spans a tilted hillside next to the View Ridge neighborhood in the city's northeast end.

Built in 1927 in the manner of the day - i.e., clear all the trees and lay out 18 holes of pseudo-links on unprepared ground, Sand Point's 6,000-yard, par-71 course has evolved - like most of its brethren - into a parkland-style experience with fairways now dwarfed by thousands of towering trees. Justifying the color of their club status, members of revolving green committees over the decades have pursued tree-planting programs that, in an effort to "beautify" the course, have transmogrified the work of Sand Point's Scottish-born architect, Francis L. James.

Whether the club bought from local nurseries, or members planted their own evergreen, cottonwood, alder, hawthorn, photinia and apple trees, Sand Point's arboreal zeal has permanently altered the character of its golf course. Once-10-foot-high trees now soar 100 feet, creating chip-back-into-the-fairway jail. They also cast shadows, constrict air circulation, and make turfgrass conditioning tough.

Disease has also been a problem, particularly for our Puget Sound hemlocks, which have been stricken by a nasty bacteria that is killing them throughout the region. So we're implementing a 10-year-old "tree enhancement" plan, one that involves sowing replacement specimens that will replace their majestic predecessors, long after those of us on the 2003 green committee are gone. The membership, generally in favor of preserving Sand Point's woodsiness, can be assured that our course will remain a testament to claustrophobic golf, our "Hogan's Alleys" staying eternally constrictive and appropriately "challenging."

Obviously, I'm against the tree-planting plan, feeling that it would be nice to play some semblance of the alfresco course envisioned by James. Circa late-'20s aerial photos show a hilly, open layout with no more than 30 trees scattered about. The original Sand Point also had eight or nine gullies, actually gravity-fed wash-outs that bore drainage water off our hill-top perch and into Lake Washington, 200 feet below. The chance to play a heady target-style track is long gone, as only a solitary gully remains, tha solitary reminder of ancient cuts filled in years ago.

Our committee's current hot topic - other than a proposed (not to mention arrogant and goofy) abolishment of free lunches for the maintenance crew - is the addition of new forward tees. I'm on this "gold tee" sub-committee with two others, one of which is in my corner. The other member, a noted Seattle orthopedic surgeon - let's call him "Dave" - is on the opposite side of the ring.

Dave is a good man and a friend, someone who's helped me in the past when I've had problems with my wrist and shoulder. Dave is a pretty good stick, too, about a 7 handicap, and his high school-aged son, a worker on the greens crew this summer, is a fine player. Dave joined Sand Point about 14 years ago as a 20-plus handicap, and as is the wont of such dedicated people, has lowered his handicap through diligence and practice.

Unlike most of us, though, Dave hits long irons on many of Sand Point's par-4s and par-5s, seeking to control the course's devilishly tricky terrain, with all its bumps and humps, and to find fairways. Dave also has a great short game, a must at a course with greens that average a mere 3,200 square feet in size.

Dave has devised a successful approach to playing Sand Point, and he wants fellow members to benefit from his system. He feels everyone should play sub-four-hour rounds like him (no problem there), and by significantly shortening an already-short course for higher handicappers, that will happen (nix on this - to change the habits of slow players, education is needed). He swears that by placing the new forward tees at a maximum of 250 yards from the greens on all the par-4s, the higher handicappers who use them will have 9-irons or wedges in, they'll shoot in the mid-70s or low 80s, play fast, and derive a greater enjoyment of the game and the course.

As kindly as possible, I've disputed Dave's claims in meetings, saying that plopping tees in the middle of the fairways of 400-yard holes would be unsightly and a pain to maintain. They'd also make the people who'd use such prominent starting points feel like second-class citizens and send club scuttlebutt to new levels ("Oh, did you see Jeff all alone playing from the gold tees the other day? He can't get it up anymore and his game is in the toilet.")

I believe the only way Sand Point can be improved is through creative use of its tidy, available space. There's simply no room to add yardage, so remodeling efforts must revolve around the tee and green complexes. Thanks to our architect, Mark Miller, we've made significant strides here. With the complete rebuilding of the once-blah 15th hole, a perfunctory 135-yard par-3, we've now got a beautiful one-shotter with an elevated, wind-affected back tee that offers blissful views of Lake Washington and mandates a finessed 165-yard tee shot to a hill-cut green with five bunkers left and a nasty slope right.

Work is now underway on reconstructing our 14th and 17th greens, the only "push-up" (non-USGA spec) putting surfaces left from James's original course. When completed next spring, all our greens will be well-draining, easy to maintain, and fun to play - a timeless formula for a member golf course.

The board of directors doesn't want to spend a bunch of money on the forward tees, and I understand, primarily because we're not sure how many people will use them. It's critical they be inviting, otherwise everyone involved will be you-know-whatting into the wind, another common result of green committees.

So Dave, me and the third sub-committee member are stuck with a job no one wants. Dave is passionate, so we'll see how our opposing views pan out. In the spirit of membership, I'm compiling evidence for him and everyone else.

After all, a green committee should always make sure to see the forest from the trees.

*We need to work harder on making more consistent use of the word GREEN. Weren't these groups that I've just discussed once called GREENS committees? (After all, isn't there more than one green on a golf course?) Also, is the person who maintains a putting surface called a GREENkeeper or a GREENSkeeper? Furthermore, before playing do you pay a GREEN fee or GREENS fee? Personally, I'd like to putt more than one green after shelling out $50 for a round, and I'd like to see more than one green kept up. On the other hand, it might be better if a green committee is in charge of only one green at its golf course.