A beetle kill-necessitated redesign makes Grand Lake an intriguing, but much different, test than it once was
Windows across the back of the pro shop at Grand Lake Golf Course look out on an unobstructed expanse of course that begins with the curving par five opener and stretches to parts of the back nine. The panorama includes the driving range, once bordered on three sides by walls of giant pines but now open space, as well.
It is the landscape of “after.”
“It used to be that you could see only one pin—Number 9—from here,” director of golf Ted Roberts says, nodding toward the small green just behind the clubhouse. “But that was seven years ago. Now you can see eight pins from the pro shop.”
Venerable Grand Lake Golf Course marks its 50th anniversary with the beginning of the 2014 golf season, which comes in May at 8,000 feet. Because of the cursed mountain pine beetle, the course is vastly different than it was when it opened in 1964 as a nine-hole layout; or in 1976 when the back nine was added; or as most golfers who played it before 2003 came to know it. Hailed for decades as a one-of-a-kind gem carved out of a Rocky Mountain lodgepole forest, it’s now, oddly, a links-like circuit—the rough bordered by stretches of native grasses that provide character of another kind.
To be sure, it presents a totally different look. But one that’s surprisingly attractive, and a genuine miracle compared to the depressing scene in 2007 when the course was marred and scarred by dead trees awaiting removal and excavation to replace an outdated irrigation system.
“It’s different now,” says Roberts, who came to Grand County from California just after the devastation peaked. “But the vistas and views haven’t changed; they’re still spectacular. And it’s still a challenge. In fact, in some ways it may be a more difficult course now than when we had all of the pines.”
Indeed, players can try to cut the corner with their tee shots on No. 6, the No. 1 handicap hole, without fear of winding up in pine straw jail. Likewise on several other holes. But errant shots—into the tall “native”—mean those balls may never be seen again. If found, they’re usually unplayable.
The Colorado Golf Association seemed to agree with Roberts’ assessment when it re-rated Grand Lake in 2011. The slope rating for men increased by one from the Blue tees (to 130) and by five from the Whites (to 128). The slope for ladies playing the Red also rose by one to 131.
“Balls going off-line go farther off-line,” says the man who was in charge of reinventing Grand Lake Golf Course, the current Hyland Hills Director of Golf Allen Brown. “It was like playing golf in a hallway before. If you knocked your ball in the trees, you could find it and hit it out.”
PINING FOR THE PAST
Of course, pure aesthetics are another matter. For those who long admired the towering trees, the sense of loss is real and lasting. Eight years after the infestation, Janice Peck, for example, still says, “I miss the old course. It was…unique.”
Peck began mowing those tight fairways in the summers of her teen years. She served as course superintendent for a time years later, and still helps out during golf season, though not in an official capacity. In addition, she just completed her 32nd year as director of the Grand Lake Nordic Center, which takes over the Grand Lake Golf Course pro shop from October to the end of March. Five of the total 35 kilometers of Nordic trails are located on the golf course.
Now in her early 50s, Peck sounds a lot like an Olympian who graciously raves about a silver medal but can’t escape the feeling in her heart that it doesn’t begin to compare with a gold. “It’s an awesome course,” she insists, as if trying to convince herself. Then she adds: “It’s just a different course.” It’s also a much quieter course. The plunking of balls bouncing off the pines no longer provides the soundtrack to every round.
Indicative of just how much she misses the trees that lined the fairways and ringed the greens—and how much they meant to her, Peck keeps a set of digital photos on her computer, showing the way it was. She’s thinking about shooting the course today, from all the same angles, just to record the contrast.
“It’s still working on getting its character back,” she says. “Over the years the little trees will spring up. I’ve seen it already on the ski trails. Some are my height now.”
MEET THE BEETLES
Back in 1999, while everyone was preoccupied with the cataclysmic effect that Y2K might have on our computer-driven world, few saw the onslaught of the mountain pine beetle, which was approaching as fast as the turn of the century.
“The fire department and the Forest Service saw the beetles coming,” Peck notes. The concern was not tree loss itself, but the threat a resulting wildfire would pose.
Explains Brown: “If there was a fire, it would come from Columbine Lake (a community of almost 500 homes), through the golf course, and into town, because of the prevailing winds. Once a tree is dead or dying, you look at it as fuel. That’s all it is.”
Teepee-like piles of timber began popping up along Golf Course Road, a sign of early efforts to clean out the dead wood, especially along the Nordic trails. Some folks actually thought that would avert disaster. Peck, who was then golf course superintendent, even tried spraying the trees that ringed most greens, hoping to save them.
“Originally,” she recalls, “they said, ‘do this, and this, and this, and you won’t have a problem.’ But it turned out to be a bigger epidemic than anyone could imagine.”
The burrowing little insects—no bigger than a grain of rice—emerged in huge numbers in 2003 because of mild winters and dry summers, and killed literally millions of high country pines over the next three years. “We needed 40-below for two weeks during the winter,” Peck says, “but we didn’t get it. They wound up breeding two or three times a year instead of once.”
Grand was one of the Colorado counties hardest hit; scenic Grand Lake Golf Course was impacted to the point of despair. Rustred mountainsides, as far as the eye could see, replaced the endless green that had stretched to tree line.
“It was tragic,” says Scott Redder, a local boy who, like Peck, began working at the course while in high school. In 15 seasons—“eight with trees, seven without”—Redder became assistant superintendent, then Brown’s successor. “What happened to the course was a symbol of what happened to our world.”
CHARTING THE COURSE
Allen Brown had worked at Plum Creek Country Club from 1984 to through 2006, advancing from the summer course maintenance crew as he finished high school to course superintendent. He even had a working relationship with the PGA Tour for a while. He accepted the job as course superintendent at Grand Lake Golf Course in March 2007 because of the opportunity he felt it offered. Brown arrived a few months after voters in the Grand Lake Metropolitan Recreation District overwhelmingly approved a $4.2 million general obligation bond issue. The beetles didn’t cause the ballot issue, but they certainly helped garner support for it.
“The irrigation system was shot, and we needed a new maintenance building,” says Peck, who championed the bond campaign in the community. “There were a lot of things—bridges on the Nordic trails, dog-friendly biking and hiking trails, clubhouse renovation, new maintenance equipment.
“Without the beetle kill, we may have waited a couple more years to put a bond issue to a vote, but we were going to have to do it. After the beetles hit, we had to do it right away. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything to fix the course.”
The bond issue was the main reason Brown decided to leave Plum Creek. “I knew we had an opportunity to create something,” he says. “The funding was in place. Without that, I never would have taken the job.”
It sounds like a lot of money, but the $4.2 million actually went fast. In round figures, Brown says $1.2 million went for logging, and $700,000 for cleanup. The new irrigation system came in at $1.3 million, and a new maintenance building about a half-million.
That left $500,000 for ski trail bridges over the Colorado River, the new biking and hiking trails, some replacement maintenance equipment, and something to replace all those dead trees. How many trees? Estimates range from 100,000 to 400,000—in a total area of 500 acres (100 comprising the golf course footprint).
“The supply and demand got totally turned around,” explains Peck. “Before the beetle kill, loggers would pay us to log trees. After, we had to pay them, three-thousand an acre, to get it cleaned up. Pretty quickly, sawmills wouldn’t take the timber. They had more than they could use.”
Brown and Redder spent at least half of nearly every day for three years working on the cleanup, assisted by other course maintenance workers when available.
“Clean to a logger is different than clean to a course superintendent,” Redder notes with a grin. “They left behind tree stumps, rocks, and slash piles—branches, pine cones and smaller trees—sometimes thirty feet high. And smaller trees; they wouldn’t take anything they couldn’t market.”
LINKS TO THE FUTURE
An area on the course property—previously a large hole—is testament to all that had to be removed. Now, a normal-looking surface belies the huge pile of debris hauled there from all over the golf course. The only clue comes when one walks across it and experiences its unusual, springy feel underfoot.
In addition to that mess, Redder reminds that they “replaced the entire old center row irrigation system—every sprinkler head, and the pump house. And we built the new maintenance building.”
Yet, Brown declares proudly, “We opened on time—May 15, 2007—and never missed a day of golf that year.”
Play declined, as some golfers avoided what in many respects was a construction site. But sustaining play that summer was critically important. “We couldn’t close,” Brown says. “It would have buried the district.”
Janice Peck’s love for the course as it existed for decades was shared by most of the locals. That presented Brown with a delicate challenge as he worked on a plan for transforming the revered but devastated course into the intriguing but different test it has become as it marks its golden anniversary.
“There was a lot of emotion,” he recalls. “I had to rally the troops, so to speak. There was no choice: Either clean up these trees, or we don’t have a golf course.”
What followed, of course, was a debate about what to do.
“There was a lot of talk about replanting,” Brown says, “but that would take a generation, and you’d never have the forest that we lost. A lot of people said we should leave the pine straw: ‘That way golfers will be able to find their balls.’ But it would always look barren. There needed to be an aesthetic component to the golf course.”
Brown consulted with the agriculture experts at Colorado State University, and found his answer: native grasses that would do well in the harsh conditions common at elevations above 8,000 feet. He planted eight species.
“Native seed is cheap, which was a factor,” he explains. “Two thousand pounds of seed goes a long way because you’re not trying for a turf environment. And we could do that in-house. Seed in the fall; 300 inches of snow during the winter; and it comes up beautiful the next spring.”
HOW'S IT PLAY?
Waves of grain aren’t clusters of majestic pines, but the native grasses do give Grand Lake Golf Course a distinct appearance once again.
“It’s a beautiful course,” says Redder, who succeeded Brown at the end of the 2011 season. “We have challenges we didn’t have before. We get a lot more people who appreciate it for those new challenges.”
There are other benefits for golfers, as well, unexpected by all but those closest to the course. They include fewer frost delays and better turf—“a case study in what happens to turf health when you reduce the shade,” Brown says. Adds Roberts: “Players say they hit better shots now, because the grass is better.”
And the wildlife—one of Grand Lake Golf Course’s special charms—is “better than ever,” Redder assures, “fox, moose, elk—and more predator birds because they can see more without the trees hiding their prey.”
Some golfers, of course, grumbled about losing balls in the tall grass and the resulting slower pace of play. In response, Redder altered the conditions in a few key spots, usually by mowing some native areas to create a wider, more forgiving rough.
Redder moved on to become Main Campus Grounds Supervisor at the University of Colorado at the conclusion of Grand Lake’s 2013 golf season. Larry Burks, former General Manager of Pole Creek Golf Club in Tabernash, replaced him.
During Brown’s tenure as course superintendent, outdated greens on four holes—4, 5, 11 and 16—also were rebuilt and, most importantly, sodded with modern turf.
“Those greens sloped back to front, for drainage,” Roberts explains. “It was necessary when the course was built and expanded, because of the amount of snow we get. They used different grass then, too. When we cut the old grass on those greens, eight-and-a-half or nine on the Stimpmeter was like 11 or 12. You couldn’t stop a putt from above the hole. Now, eight-and-a-half or nine is eight-and-ahalf or nine.”
The result of all the efforts by Brown, Peck, Redder, Roberts and many other course workers is a remarkable reincarnated course—born again at age 50.
“A lot of courses built in the ’60s have been redesigned more than once,” Roberts muses, “holes made longer, trees added to create new hazards—all to make courses more challenging, more modern or more interesting.”
Implied as his voice trailed off: The pine beetles inspired a similar makeover at Grand Lake Golf Course.