Sweetgrass Golf Club at Island Resort & Casino - Part 4

By: Paul Albanese

In the previous journal entries, we've taken Sweetgrass Golf Club in Michigan's Upper Peninsula from the initial walk-through to early schematics and implementation of the master plan. Because this golf course and the neighboring Island Resort & Casino are both owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian Community - a band of the Potawatomi Nation - we've also incorporated aspects of their proud culture and tribal legends. It's been a very unique and interesting project from the beginning, and as we come out of winter, and head toward opening day, we are all excited at experiencing this landscape with a club and ball.

In this journal entry, I'd like to touch upon the final details of the construction process, and how we continue to add final details even as opening day approaches for the course at Island Resort & Casino (www.islandresortandcasino.com).

All of the turf on the project has been seeded, but there are still details to which attention needs to be paid.

I will spend a lot of time with the golf course superintendent, John Holberton, and director of golf Dave Douglas on working out such details as the final sand lines in the bunkers, the specific look of long-term erosion-control measures, the heights of cut for the different grasses, the style of yard markers and furniture used on the golf course.

The location of the final sand lines in the bunkers may sound rather simple, but I believe in ensuring these are completed by our design team in the field. We intentionally utilized a local sand, as it was imperative to the overall concept of this course to use as much local and on-site material as possible in order to save energy, and take advantage of what nature has provided. This is in following with the Potawatomi culture.

The sand in the bunkers is part of the color palette of the course's artistic composition. In some areas, the sand was never meant to be completely visible, and the shadow created by the bunker's depression is all that is necessary to create the desired visual effect. In other areas, the lighter color of the bunker sand was meant to complement the colors in the darker roughs and/or wetlands. Although a golf course is created on hundreds of acres, the final visual compositions created via bunkers and features come down to details measuring in mere feet.

Throughout the project we utilized measures to ensure erosion on the site would be minimized. This included using native rock to protect the stream banks and water features that evolved from the design process. As inevitably occurs when humans intervene, even while intending to minimize impact the final result sometimes appears man-made. So as we review all the measures that have protected the site during the construction process, we strive to modify them at this point so they harmoniously blend into the natural landscape. We emphasize to crews to work in a more random fashion or to emulate the patterns that would be seen in that part of their environment.

As mentioned above, the game may be played on five miles of landscape, but many of the game's nuances come down to feet. Nowhere is this more noticeable than the heights of cut for the turf on the golf course. Literally changing the height of cut on the green by a quarter of an inch can change greens from being boring or on the brink of unplayable. The approaches to the greens, for the most part, are all designed in a way to make the approach shot playable in a number of different ways. If the turf height is not where it should be, some of these shots will be eliminated, which will remove the desired variety incorporated into the design. Holberton, who is very cognizant of utilizing as much natural product as possible in his maintenance regime, has to carefully balance all the tools at his disposal to ensure the final turf conditions embody the overall design intentions.

"God is in the details" is a statement made by famous building architect Mies Van Der Rohe, and we take this to heart in our projects. And, on a golf project, this includes facets that may seem inconsequential, such as the type and style of yardage markers, furniture and signage on the course. We understand that playing golf is a complete experience; therefore everything that affects that experience should be accounted for and designed. Yardage markers and signage on a course are much like the furniture in a person's home. A building architect rarely has the chance to have much of a say in a how a house is to be furnished, yet if done in a way inconsistent with the design theme can negate the intended ambience. The same can be said for the furniture, yardage markers and signage on a golf course. We will be working with Douglas on choosing and/or creating markers, signage and course furniture that will fit with the ideas we incorporated in the golf course proper, namely how to reflect the principles of sustainability and culture of the Potawatomi.

As the course gets closer to opening, everyone involved in the process gets excited about the possibility of playing it, while letting patrons of the resort finally experience what they've watched come alive over the past several months. It's easy to take an eye off the ball, especially with loose ends to tie up. But there is a concerted effort by the team to stay focused, complete the job and attend to the details.

About the Architect

Paul Albanese is a principal of Albanese & Lutzke, a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and Director of Golf Course Architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. He has worked previously on such notable projects as Timberstone in Iron Mountain, Mich., Mill Creek in Rochester, N.Y., Moose Ridge in South Lyon, Mich., Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville, N.Y, Tam-O-Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield, Mich., and Traditions Golf Club in Edmond, Okla. For more information about Albanese & Lutzke, call 734/667-5150 or visit www.golf-designs.com.