Leading the charge for restoration: Cedar Rapids C.C.

Vaughn Halyard is a Fried Egg hero. There are plenty of golf tragics who can see an old course and recognize its hidden potential. Few of those tragics will try and do what it takes to bring that potential out, even at their home course. Fewer still are the champions who are willing to battle through the entire process to return a classic course to its glory. Vaughn, along with Superintendent Tom Feller, architects Ron Prichard and Tyler Rae, and a small group of members doggedly did just that with the Donald Ross designed Cedar Rapids Country Club. Having had the privilege of playing CRCC with Vaughn, I am grateful that he persevered. Cedar Rapids C.C. is brilliant.

The 18th at Cedar Rapids C.C.

How does a guy get involved in a transformative process such as this, become a champion, and ultimately our hero? The short answer is a mix of vision, serendipity, and self-interest. Vaughn provides a bit more background. “We have had many project champions who deserve credit. I became involved in part because I won a bunch of skins one day. My short game is suspect at best, and I tried to figure out how to replicate my luck. I realized I was finding slots to ‘Scottish run-up’ the ball. My golf-smart pal Steve Grief informed me I was subconsciously ‘Donald Ross-ing my way to the hole’. That sparked my interest in Ross (for more skins) and golf architecture. When I was on the Golf Committee, our brilliant Super, Tom Feller, convinced then Golf Chair and subsequent President Jason Haefner that we needed a long range course plan. They enlisted a number of us to promote the project to the membership. We worked diligently with two committees, our current Pro Dustin Toner, and his predecessor Tom McAnn.”

As is often the case with change efforts, the core group’s ideas were not initially well received. Relationships strained, but they fought on. “The biggest challenge was educating and conveying the value of a restoration on a piece of land that was indisputably beautiful,” Vaughn explains. “The number of people who recognized that the course was a weed-farm was small. Tom Feller and his team, who fought to keep mold off of suffocating greens, had no doubt it was time to reclaim light and air. Knowledge of or interest in agronomy, architecture, or our Ross history was scarce, and we had to educate on all fronts.”

‘It’s always been this way’

‘Nobody knows who Donald Ross is’

‘It’s the most beautiful course in the area’

The list of arguments against change was long, forcing the team to embark on an internal road show. According to Vaughn, “It was an educational effort focused on unlocking the member value through undertaking a restoration. Our increasingly aggressive flood plain necessitated infrastructural changes. The timing of this needed improvement supported a concurrent architectural restoration. More than 65% of the budget went to infrastructural improvements to move water off of the course as fast as possible, getting players back out faster after rain events.”

The project gained momentum as Ron Prichard and associate Tyler Rae worked diligently with Tom Feller to fix the infrastructure and bring out the strengths of the course. “Cedar Rapids was designed early in Ross’s career. The routing is superb, going up to the clubhouse and away from it multiple times. The green site locations are outstanding, especially on holes like 12 and 14. CRCC is likely Ross’s boldest early routing.”

Cedar Rapids routing

Tyler describes the project. “We focused on re-bunkering the golf course and fitting the hazards into the natural landforms like Ross would. We expanded the putting surfaces and fairway corridors, which are now almost double in size from my first visit! We executed a diligent tree management program to reinvigorate turf health and allow for the bold property to shine again. This also brought back the long views across the property from the clubhouse and other areas on the interior of the golfing grounds. We rebuilt and realigned all the tees while adding considerable length. Forward tees gave the course more elasticity, allowing it to play anywhere between 5,000-7,400 yards on a daily basis.

There now exists so much more variety than before; with two short par-4s late in the round (14th and 16th), two long par-5s (9th and 15th), a reachable par-5 (6th), a bunker-less hole (12th), heavily bunkered holes (1st, 4th, 6th, 13th, 18th), a long par-3 (12th), a short par-3 (5th), punchbowl greens (3rd and 9th), domed greens (1st and 14th), many Ross plateau greens and a beautiful Redan (5th)!”

Before and after the restoration on the 7th hole.

I echo Tyler’s enthusiastic assessment of both the routing and variety at CRCC. The course moves up, down and around the shoulders of the main hill on which the clubhouse sits, creating thrilling tee shots and approaches. The holes in the river valley include some of the most unique Ross offerings we have seen, like the “burial mound” greensite on the par-4 14th. From beginning to end, each hole presents a unique challenge without sacrificing an iota of fun.

I can also attest to the effectiveness of the restoration from a drainage perspective. The Midwest was pounded with late summer rain this year, and Mother Nature attempted to give Cedar Rapids a knockout blow 36 hours prior to our scheduled visit. Every golfer knows that sinking feeling as the rain continues to fall, and you watch your email Inbox for the dreaded cancellation notice. No such email ever arrived from Tom Feller. The course flooded, and then it drained as designed. Not only was it playable for our round, it was immaculate.

 The new drainage system at work on the 6th hole

The new drainage system at work on the 6th hole

Visiting architects like Tom Doak and golf tragics like us are all rightly over the moon about the restored Cedar Rapids. The real impact has been on the membership though, with happy locals and a growing roster of national members. We asked Vaughn how he knew when the project was a success. “When it was finished, I got out before sunset for a six hole solo twilight round after work. One of the initial and most vocal critics of the project walked across a fairway and a green to meet me on the upper box of our 6th tee. Post-restoration, that spot has a spectacular vista that was previously blocked by rows of weeds, in front of a grove of trees. It is now a reveal that delivers a panorama of ten or eleven flags. It was golden light as the sun was behind me looking out over the Indian Creek Valley. It was glow-time. The guy is now marching over, with a firm stride and ‘that look’ on is face. I’m thinking, ‘Oh s##t, here we go, and it was such a good day…’ He stops, looks at the view, slowly turns directly into my face, offers a handshake and says: ‘You guys were so right, this is spectacular,’ shakes my hand again, pivots and marches back to his ball.” Victory.

After a round at Cedar Rapids and hearing the story of its transformation, we are left wondering which had more drama - the holes that Donald Ross created on this terrific ground, or the process to restore those holes. No matter. What does matter is the dedication of the stewards of our special playing fields. We are fortunate to benefit so greatly from their efforts.