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Maintenance by members
The membership at Wamego CC gives a lesson in
If ever a truly self-sustained golf course existed, Wamego Country Club would be it.
Volunteerism runs in the blood of members spanning multiple generations at this club in the central Kansas town of Wamego (pop. 4,246).
Since its opening in 1920 as a Chick Trout-designed nine-hole course, Wamego CC has relied on its uncommonly benevolent members, many of whom today hail from and live in this small town about 15 miles from Manhattan, home of Kansas State University.
Its members mounted tractors, plowed up the field and sanded greens and holes for Wamego’s humble beginnings, says Stan Symons, vice president of the board. Tomato cans doubled as golf cups, and pieces of cloth served as pole flags.
A lot has changed in 87 years, but the membership’s pitch-in mentality has stuck. Wamego’s membership has continually rolled up its sleeves to help keep the course afloat in countless ways, from chopping down trees, laying down irrigation lines, extricating boulders, laying sod, landscaping and building a halfway house.
It’s a concept that wouldn’t go over well everywhere that golf is played, but it’s the running standard for the 210 or so golfing members at Wamego.
“In a lot of small towns, people are willing to pitch in and help their neighbors,” says Randy Peterson, past president of the board. “In this case, they’re pitching in and helping their fellow country club members. They have a desire to better the club and make it better for the community. In the long run, it helps the businesses, it helps attract people to the town and we have more to offer.”
When added up, the value of members’ time and labor spent getting their hands dirty, not to mention opening their wallets to the tune of nearly $1 million, is virtually incalculable for a club whose annual working budget is just under $600,000.
Doubling in size
Securing the main element for the back nine — the land — didn’t ensure its completion, though. Every other factor of the back nine, which turned the course into a 70-par, 160-acre layout, wouldn’t have been possible without the effort and commitment from the members.
“We’re not a big enough club to be able to buy land to do something like that or even hire all that work done,” Peterson says. “We have members who have their own businesses that have the equipment. We had to pay something to get that done, but it was done at cost. If it wasn’t done by members at cost, it wouldn’t have happened. We basically built that whole course on undisturbed ground of solid trees for somewhere around $1.1 million.”
No one thought it could be done for less than $4 million, Symons adds.
The project started with the board’s approval and the donated land, whose contents made the transformation to nine golf course holes particularly complicated. An overgrown pasture filled with thousands of native trees, a creek and some territorial cattle occupied the land for the back nine.
But it was an assignment the club’s membership was ready to tackle.
“Talk about volunteer labor, every hole over there was literally cut out and pulled out (by members),” Peterson says. “It was almost solid trees.”
Symons estimates more than 100,000 trees were removed from the land.
“It was full of native cedars and almost any native tree to Kansas you can think of — walnut, oak, red buds, poplars, cottonwoods, it was just full,” Peterson says. “And there was a creek underneath there, and we found a spring in there, too, that feeds our lake.
“When we first opened up, the cattle had been moved off to a pasture across the road, and I guess cattle are territorial, because several times they got through the fence across the road and were back grazing on our fairway,” Peterson continues. “I had to wait for a flock of turkeys to get off the green the other day.”
GCSAA Class A superintendent Trampis Nickel, who joined the club in June 2006 a couple of years after the back nine project was complete, has reconciled with one of the most prominent critters found on the fairways.
“It’s a mutual agreement,” Nickel says of the turkeys. “They don’t do any damage, and I won’t shoot them.”
But the task of fending off wild turkeys was a mere cream puff to these members. After they removed hundreds of thousands of trees and the fairways were ready to seed, “The membership literally went shoulder to shoulder and walked those fairways and picked up rocks and sticks,” Symons says. “We’ve done that forever. When we needed cart paths, we had a little benefit, and people just came out of their pockets with money.”
Construction of the back nine started in August 2002, but by the time those nine holes opened for play in June 2004, the club lacked funds to build a continuous car path.
“What they did was took donations to build the minimal amount of cart paths we could just to get by for awhile,” Peterson says. “A playable course, which means we had cart paths around the tee boxes and around the greens. Par 3s did have continuous cart paths, (but for) all the other holes, it was just the tee box and the greens.”
This deficit deprived the club of potential revenues, says Todd King, immediate past president and secretary of the board.
“We had to cancel tournaments because we couldn’t play the back side, and that’s when we raised donations for the cart paths,” King says. “We added more tournaments because of the back nine because everybody wants to play it.”
In 2005, members donated yet more of their time and money to complete the golf car path trail.
“Two of the holes back there were donated by private individuals who sat there and did the work and laid it,” Peterson adds. “All we had to do was pay for the concrete, then formed them in, and we got the concrete at cost from a member who owns a company.”
In addition to the quarter-million dollars in cash donations that supported many back nine amenities, the club decided to garner more funds with commemorative plaques to members who purchased an item.
“We sold linear footage of cart path,” Symons says. “We could get it at cost and installed for $11 a foot, and people would buy 500 or 1,000 or 1,500 feet, and we’d put plaques in the concrete saying, donated by (the donor). And we bought cedar benches and covered benches … and we got the cost of the material donated from one of the members who built them for free. And we sold them to raise money in that way.”
Peterson adds that boulders used as tee landmarks also were sold for additional funds toward the improvements.
Build it, and they will come
“This is definitely the field of dreams — build it, and they will come,” Peterson says. “We built it, now we’re waiting for them to come fill out our membership. We could easily accommodate another 100 members, and then our budget gets a little more fun to play with. We’re in the process of trying to expand the membership now that we’ve got a great product to offer. You’ll see the camaraderie of a small town club like this.”
Wamego’s history of members pitching in to enliven the club is so remarkable it earned some attention and rewards from a golf course accessory company. In fall of 2006, Standard Golf Co. launched its Extreme Course Makeover Challenge, in which it rewarded one of its customers with $10,000 worth of its golf accessories. Second-, third- and fourth-place winners received $1,000, but the company identified Wamego as a clear grand prize winner.
Wamego’s entry, written by Peterson, highlighted the members’ community effort of volunteering their work and time, particularly for the addition of continuous golf car paths, says John Kelly, Standard Golf’s director of marketing.
“They just weren’t able to update their accessories as well as they’d liked to,” Kelly says. “(The entry said that) basically, if they could, the award would really help upgrade the course and reward their members for all the hard work that they did.”
In his entry letter for the contest, Peterson wrote, “As the membership is still not where it needs to be to fully support an 18-hole course, the money is not available to purchase some of the products needed at the course… The Extreme Makeover would be a tremendous award to the faithful members that have given so much. Also, WCC has just hired a new superintendent (Nickel). The makeover would be an excellent reward to him for coming to work at WCC.”
And a handsome reward it was for Nickel, but he also inherited a group of members eager to help him do his job. That mentality is one that Peterson says the membership has mostly relinquished, perhaps begrudgingly, since Nickel’s arrival last summer.
“When we opened the new nine, it was the first time we ever had a professional course superintendent,” Symons says. “I guess there was a little bit of consciousness there, because a professional doesn’t want people doing a lot of stuff because he runs the course, and it’s hard for a club like us that has survived on the involvement and volunteerism to back away.”
“The members have backed off a little and let the professional run the course, but the members are still available anytime, on call,” Peterson adds.
But the nature of Wamego’s membership is welcomed by Nickel, an eight-year GCSAA member.
“I saw it as a benefit,” Nickel says. “A lot of guys try to get that and can’t. They’ll put up a sheet for a volunteer committee and have two guys show up. We get so many that I can’t supervise them.”
Much planning and prep time is needed before a member project such as a tree-trimming takes place, Nickel adds.
His crew consists of mostly college students from Nickel’s alma mater, Kansas State University, which is renowned for its agricultural programs.
“We don’t have a lot right now, but we want to get a horticulture student to come work on beds,” he says. “There are pros and cons (to working with students) because you are hiring and trusting college students with your livelihood.”
A familial design
In 1993 when the board first considered building a back nine, Eric Langvardt was earning a degree in landscape architecture from K-State. To substitute for an internship, Langvardt designed a nine-hole golf course for Wamego CC as an independent class project, which he doubted would ultimately serve as the blueprint for an actual golf course anywhere.
But Eric Langvardt’s family had a long history at Wamego. His grandfather, Chris Langvardt, helped build the club as it evolved into a legitimate entity and was instrumental in getting grass greens, Eric says.
Additionally, his grandfather; his father, Chris Langvardt; his brother, Tysen; and he have all won Wamego club championships at some point.
“There were times we had to beat the other out to get there,” he says with a laugh from his Scottsdale, Ariz., office of the firm he founded in March 2006, Langvardt Design Group.
So when the back nine came to fruition almost a decade later in 2002, Langvardt’s design was the natural choice. A main difficulty in crafting the design was the size of the land, he says.
“It was just big enough to make nine holes viable, but we had to be really sensitive to placement,” Langvardt says. “It was a phenomenal site, but making sure we got nine good holes over there was the biggest challenge.”
Today, Langvardt works with golf course developers and master planning on golf courses in regard to the general location and how it relates to the development, he says. He recently worked with Gary Panks in the design of Poston Butte Golf Club in Florence, Ariz., and brings other big names to golf course developers.
But the small-town name of Wamego will undoubtedly remain one of his proudest achievements of his burgeoning
“When you grow up in a town of 4,000, everybody knows everybody, and you can walk out to the golf course and you’re going to know most of the people there,” he says. “To have the opportunity to be involved in that and to see it on a daily basis and be associated with it, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s with great pride in my hometown and the golf course to be a part of that, and most people who were involved in the project feel the same way. It was easy for them to donate their time because they have such a strong connection to it.”
Want to makeover your own course?
Making minor aesthetic improvements to your course with golf course accessories can pay dividends in customer satisfaction. What golfer wouldn’t appreciate knowing his distance from a brass tee distance marker or seeing her club logo on a new embroidered flag?
But beautifying select areas of a course and the course’s surrounding areas doesn’t have to be expensive. Here, Standard Golf Co. suggests installing a variety of accessories to easily makeover the golf course.
Level 1: Financially sensible
Level 2: Budget-conscious
Level 3: Economically minded
Level 4: Resource-savvy
Using any of these tips is a simple method to improve a course’s appearance.