Modern architects fulfill the vision of John Harbottle in the ‘retro’ renovation of Tacoma Country & Golf Club
by Tony Dear
Joel Kachmarek says that for 20 years or more Tacoma Country & Golf Club’s 108-year-old golf course just didn’t look that old, adding that a club claiming to be the oldest west of the Mississippi should really have a more traditional-looking layout.
The club’s head superintendent since 1999, Kachmarek knows the course wasn’t designed by A.W. Tilllinghast, Seth Raynor or any of the other leading Golden Age architects, but believes it should at least look like it was.
“John Steidel built three new holes here in the 1980s,” says Kachmarek. “The style then was for courses to appear lush and highly-maintained with clean, crisp bunker edges. My predecessor wanted all the bunkers to mimic the new ones, so he changed them all.”
Kachmarek didn’t much care for the modern look, calling it “too vanilla” for his tastes and unnecessarily costly and labor-intensive. Together with golf course architect and club member John Harbottle III, who also sat on the club’s board of directors, he convinced board members that the bunkers should be restored and assured them he and his team could do the work for less than $5,000 per bunker.
“Our bunkers were over 25 years old,” he says. “The sand was dirty and didn’t drain well at all. We were tired of band-aiding them, frankly. It was just time to do something.”
Kachmarek, Harbottle and Gig Harbor-based landscaper Kip Kalbrenner got to work in April 2012 implementing the first part of Harbottle’s master plan – creating old-style bunkers.
“John said they needed more muscle,” says Kachmarek. “He wanted them to be a little deeper and look a little unkempt with furry eyebrow edges.”
Six bunkers, on the sixth, 11th and 16th holes, were rebuilt to give the members a taste of what was to come. “They loved them,” says Kachmarek. “Everyone was so impressed they wanted us to finish the job as quickly as possible, not just do a few holes a year.”
On May 24th of 2012, however, the project suffered an almost irreparable setback when Harbottle tragically died after suffering a heart attack at LAX Airport in Los Angeles. On his blog – Tacomaturf.net – Kachmarek said everyone at the club was in a state of disbelief and noted how much he had loved working with Harbottle.
“It was devastating, obviously,” says Kachmarek. “It took us a while to get our heads together. We rode an emotional roller-coaster that summer, but we wanted to finish the job John had started. And we wanted to get back to work while his words were still quite fresh in our minds.”
The bulldozers spluttered back into action in October of that year by which time the club had appointed a new lead architect for the job. Nick Schaan began his career on Harbottle’s design team working on numerous renovations, master plans and two original courses including Palouse Ridge, the home course of Washington State University from which Schaan had graduated in 2001 with a degree in landscape architecture.
Schaan had also been heavily involved at Chambers Bay before moving, in late 2006, to Bend, Ore. where he joined the staff of architect David McLay Kidd. His first job working for the Scot was Huntsman Springs in Idaho where he oversaw virtually every detail during construction.
Kachmarek says Schaan was an obvious choice. “He grew up in the area and had obviously known John very well,” he adds. “David Kidd graciously let him work with us.”
The club told Schaan that Harbottle would still be credited with the renovation and that he was there to implement Harbottle’s vision, rather than create his own. “Of course I was happy to respect the club’s wishes out of respect for John,” says Schaan. “But I never really felt restrained or held back.”
Schaan had played at Tacoma with his former boss in early April when the two talked a lot about Harbottle’s ideas for the course. “It gave me a lot of good insight,” says Schaan, who believes the club was confident he could interpret the original plan successfully.
As the winter of 2013 progressed, Schaan discovered he was able to push the envelope a little harder than he had been at the outset. “You have to remember John was a member and though he definitely had some bold ideas for the course, he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. So he held back a little. I didn’t have that problem, and therefore felt comfortable fulfilling most of John’s proposals, and even suggesting a few ideas myself.”
Like the revised bunker arrangement short and right of the 10th green. Here, mainline irrigation pipes ran down the right side of the putting surface, making Harbottle’s plan to excavate the original bunker on the right to a depth consistent with the course’s other bunkers unworkable. So, to avoid the cost of moving the irrigation pipes, Schaan advised building two bunkers with the main line running between them, then taking out the bunker on the left side of the green. “The 10th hole at Tacoma has just turned really interesting,” Kachmarek posted on January 12th. “I just love this new green complex.”
The only problem Kachmarek had was that Schaan had become used to multi-million dollar budgets working with Kidd. “Here, we really had to watch our spending,” he says. “We took out 14 bunkers to save money because the bunkers John had planned were costing at least $8,000 each, and we had more than 60 of them. So we took the total number down to 51 and reduced the size of several of those we kept.”
Construction was completed on April 14th, 2013 when Kachmarek proudly showed off the new bunkers on his blog. “The results were amazing,” he says now. “I think the course is much more fun, and we did it all for under half a million. We built some new tees with the dirt we removed from bunkers, and have mowed the whole course, except for the greens, to fairway height. It drains so well, and definitely has a more traditional look. You can play the ground game now.”
Kachmarek stops short of calling it a new course, however. “It’s not a new course; it’s an old course reborn,” he says.
Visitors to the club have raved about the changes, though some of the members have yet to make up their minds, says Kachmarek. “We have a fairly mature membership, and some folks just have a hard time adapting to change.”
The club’s General Manager Josh Bridge agrees though estimates 85 percent or more of the membership has voiced its approval. “You will never receive a universal reaction to anything in the private club business,” he says. “Some still feel the bunkers are too severe, but even those grumblings lessened as play went on this summer. We received more complaints when it came to tree or garden removal in regards to the tees. Overall though, it was a wonderful project that I believe solidifies Tacoma as one of the best golf courses in the Pacific Northwest.”
But the missing 15 percent still irks Kachmarek who wants all the members to enjoy the course as much as he does. Perhaps even more important to the long-serving superintendent though is how Harbottle might have reacted. There, at least, he is content. “I’m certain my friend would have approved,” he says. “I think he’s looking down and smiling.”
A former British PGA apprentice professional and member of the University of Liverpool golf team, Tony Dear is an award-winning golf writer. He contributes to numerous golf publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and has authored several books on golf. He manages his own website, bellinghamgolfer.com.