(GRAND BLANC, Mich.) – Golfers at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club are about to see the light.
“I’m thrilled to be working with a club the caliber of Warwick Hills,” said Chris Wilczynski, ASGCA, whose five-year-old firm CW Golf Architecture continues to buck the trend by prospering during a downturn in golf course development. Wilczynski has forged a unique alliance for the Warwick Hills project, partnering with renown certified arborist/agronomist Julie Stachecki.
“We complement each other really well,” said Wilczynski, who like Stachecki is a Michigan State University alumnus. “Julie contributes to the project analysis from the viewpoint of tree and turfgrass science. I contribute from the golf course architect’s perspective of playability and aesthetics.”
“I would love to see this kind of relationship grow and develop throughout the golf industry,” said Stachecki. “Chris and I both have the same goal – to make the property more functional and improve the quality of the golf experience with less future maintenance. He shares his vision of how the course can be altered for improvement, and I share with him my expertise on which trees should stay or go, taking into account the tree species, structure and health.
“What’s been fun,” she said, “is that Chris is very willing to listen and ask why. He’s genuinely interested in understanding the choices.”
Wilczynski is quick to acknowledge the input. “Working with Julie, I’ve learned a ton about trees,” he said. “She has truly broadened my knowledge and my skill sets as a professional golf course architect.”
James Gilmore Harrison designed Warwick Hills’ original course, which opened in 1957. The following year it hosted the inaugural Buick Open, won by Billy Casper. The current layout is the product of a 1967-68 redesign by Joe Lee. Tiger Woods won the last (and his third) Buick Open at Warwick Hills in 2009.
John DeMarco is chairman of Warwick Hills’ Greens Committee, which reviewed proposals from seven golf course architects for the tree management project. “We selected Chris and Julie because of their team approach, expertise and qualifications,” said DeMarco. “They listened well and were very passionate about their work and desire to help us improve. Plus they were local. They made it clear they would be hands-on.”
An inventory conducted by Wilczynski and Stachecki revealed that the property contains more than 1,600 trees; they recommended 400 be removed or pruned. During this spring’s Phase One of the project, 124 trees – the most egregious offenders – will be removed and 29 trees will be pruned. Roughly 45 new trees will be planted in strategic locations in future phases.
“The plan that Chris and Julie presented to our club was very thorough,” said DeMarco. “They came across as very professional, not only in their presentation, but also in their responses to questions from the committee and membership.
“They devised a plan that was based on fact, not emotion,” said DeMarco, noting that trees are objects of beauty to which golfers often form attachments. “Evaluations were based on how each tree interfaced with the turf, and how it contributed or detracted from the playability and aesthetics of the course.”
DeMarco said Warwick Hills wants to introduce strategic changes to the course over a 3- to 7-year time frame. “The tree evaluation prompted us to take a further look at updating the golf course,” he said. “It won’t be a redesign, but an update that will enhance the original Joe Lee design.”
Shade issues have vexed superintendent Phil Owen, GCSAA, on eight different greens over the years. Putting surfaces are affected to varying degrees, and on some holes the reduced sunlight has been detrimental to green surrounds, where players find themselves faced with delicate short shots off bare lies, or having to hit difficult low-trajectory shots under tree branches.
“I’ve never gone through a comprehensive tree project like this,” said Owen, who has cared for Warwick Hills’ turf for 25 years. “But other superintendents I’ve talked to who have been part of similar projects all told me the results will be like night and day. Some of their worst greens turned into some of their best. I hope that’s what happens with us.”
Owen said he began advising club management 10 years ago that some trees were becoming problematic. “The superintendent is the first person to notice,” said Owen. “But the situation has to become noticeably worse before management senses the urgency, and then members need to be convinced. You have to be persistent.
“Our members know me and trust my judgment, but sometimes it takes someone from the outside to come in and verify your concerns,” he said. “It’s early in the project, but I’ve been impressed by how Chris listens. Not only does he ask my opinion, but he welcomes it.”
The architect, the arborist and the superintendent are unanimous in their opinion that Warwick Hills was over-planted in the 1980s and ‘90s. “I’m sure the intentions were good,” said Wilczynski, “but unfortunately a lot of those trees were set too close to greens and other playable areas.”
Stachecki said strategically removing or pruning trees will result in more southern and eastern sun exposure for Warwick Hills’ greens, which will lessen the effects of harsh winters such as Southeast Michigan has experienced the last two years. A succession of hard freezes and rapid thaws resulted in abnormal ice buildup on greens, which effectively suffocated the putting surfaces. Warwick Hills had winter damage to 16 greens last year, forcing the club to use 10 temporary greens into early August of the 2014 golf season. Stachecki said more Southern sun exposure during the winter months can mitigate the effects of ice buildup, and more Eastern sun exposure promotes greens health during the summer months.
Elsewhere on the course, trees have encroached on sight lines and corridors to the fairway landing areas and greens.
“At many older courses, trees have been planted without long range vision,” said Wilczynski. “When evaluating the result, we have to extrapolate the designer’s original intent.”
Wilczynski said trees are often positioned to fill a space or mitigate safety concerns on parallel holes. “But usually they’re planted too close together because of a desire for instant results,” he said.
Wilczynski and Stachecki said it’s common for golf course superintendents to “get pushback” from members and golfers when they propose removing trees. “We’ve been impressed with the process the Greens Committee at Warwick Hills has gone through to educate the membership. They’ve done it the right way.”
It’s a collaborative process Wilczynski always tries to foster with clients. “The results are always better when everyone’s on the same page, working toward the same goal and vision” he said.
For more information, visit www.cwgolfarch.com.