As Seen in Club + Resort Business

With a complete, $12 million renovation of its 18-hole course, the Diablo, Calif. club has recreated its early-20th century design to secure a position of prominence for years to come.

Although steeped in history and tethered to golf royalty, Diablo (Calif.) Country Club, the sister property to Carnoustie Golf Club in Scotland, doesn’t dwell in the past. However, the property takes great pride in the distinguished heritage that has helped it lay the foundation for a promising future.

Diablo, which celebrated its centennial in 2014, recently completed a $12 million renovation of its 18-hole golf course to restore the layout to its Golden Age of golf design lineage. With the restoration project, the property, which held a reopening June 13-14, has positioned itself for the next 100 years as a preeminent golf experience in San Francisco’s East Bay region.

“Our history and our connection to the game of golf mean a lot to our members,” says Director of Golf and Member Services Jason Walter, who has been at Diablo since 2009. “The renovation brings a sense of tradition and history to the club.”

Legendary Connections

The pedigree of Diablo reads like a Who’s Who in the annals of golf lore. In 1915, 23-year-old, two-time California Amateur champion Jack Neville created the original nine holes at Diablo as his first golf course design. For an encore, his second project was none other than Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. 

Five years later, William Watson, one of California’s most successful and prolific Golden Age golf course architects, created the second nine at Diablo, crafting most of Neville’s original holes into a new 18-hole course. Watson’s next two designs were at The Olympic Club and Harding Park, both in nearby San Francisco.

By the end of the 2020 season, 12 major championships will have been decided on courses originally designed by those two legendary architects, including this year’s PGA Championship at Harding Park.

“Not only was our golf course designed by two icons, it’s the only collaboration between those two icons in the world,” says Frank Cordeiro, Diablo’s Chief Executive Officer.

Other key figures in golf history populate Diablo’s venerable past as well. Originally from Carnoustie, Scotland, John Smith, greenskeeper, and his wife, Joann, moved to Diablo in 1914. The land, which had been developed in 1872 by railroad barons, was converted into a recreational sanctuary for their families. Smith built the golf course on the property and also became its greenskeeper. 

The Smiths had five sons, all of whom played professional golf. Two of their sons were U.S. Open champions, two were inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame, and three of the boys served as Diablo club pros.

Diablo and Carnoustie even share a historian in David Mackesey. He documented Diablo’s past for its centennial celebration and provided historical context for the renovation project, including aerial photographs from the 1920s of the original routing of the golf course.

The golf course renovation was part of a three-phased, $31 million strategic and master plan, which Cordeiro implemented shortly after his 2015 arrival at Diablo to identify projects that would enhance the property’s future growth. The second and third phases of the plan will include construction of a Family Wellness and Activity Center and renovations to the clubhouse.

Staying the Course

“Sometimes properties change the routing of their golf courses when they follow trends or bow to real-estate issues. Maintaining the original routing was really important to us. Not only was our golf course designed by two icons [Jack Neville and William Watson], it’s the only collaboration between those two icons in the world.” — Frank Cordeiro, Chief Executive Officer

Diablo had four goals for the golf course renovation project: create a more enjoyable playing experience for golfers of all levels; recapture the historical attributes of the Golden Age of golf; reduce water usage and the demand for water, and update the golf course infrastructure and gain the ability to use recycled water.

The property engaged golf course architect Todd Eckenrode to craft the updated design. “It’s a wonderful historic club. We were thrilled to be commissioned for the master plan,” says Eckenrode, who does 90 percent of his work on Golden Age golf courses. “From the Board level to the management team, everyone was incredibly supportive and instrumental in the project turning out as well as it did.”

One of the people with whom Eckenrode worked most closely was Golf Course Superintendent Ryan Nicholson, who immediately became immersed in the project when he joined the Diablo staff in 2018. Working hand-in-hand with the architect and the contractor, Nicholson was involved in the planning, concept, design, implementation, construction and grow-in of the golf course.

“I wore a lot of different hats during the project,” he says. “I went from a golf course superintendent to a project manager-type role.”

Nicholson put together budgeting for the project, ordered materials in-house, and made sure everything was on hand when needed. He also served as a liaison between the architect, the contractor, and the property.

Return to the Roots

A key aspect of the renovation was to maintain the original routing of the golf course, so that Diablo’s members can play the layout the way it was intended to be played more than a century ago.

“Sometimes properties change the routing of their golf courses when they follow trends or bow to real-estate issues,” Cordeiro says. “Maintaining the original routing was really important to us.”

Through the years, however, the golf course had lost some of the attributes that made it special, such as the original footprints of the greens and fairways, and the original bunkering configurations. In addition, Nicholson notes, “The network of dry creekways had been smoothed over and piped underground.”

The renovation began in April 2019 and was finished October 1st with the regrassing of the course. The entire golf course, which previously had a mix of poa annua, ryegrass, common Bermudagrass, and some bentgrass, was resurfaced with new grasses—bentgrass on the greens and surrounds and Bermudagrass on the rest of the layout.“Every square inch of dirt was touched,” says Cordeiro.

The putting surfaces were reconstructed to their original dimensions, enlarged by about 30 percent to restore lost pin placements. They also were rebuilt to USGA specifications, to improve their playability and their overall health in the root zones.

Santa Ana Bermudagrass was installed in the fairways, Bandera Bermudagrass was planted in the rough, and hybrid Bermuda went everywhere else. The blue-green Santa Ana is known for its drought tolerance, short dormancy period, fall color retention, and early spring green-up. Able to withstand high traffic and to repair itself quickly, the disease-resistant Bandera Bermudagrass is drought-, shade-, and cold-tolerant.

All of the bunkers were rebuilt as well. Many are in the same location, but selected ones have been removed. Others were restored to their original location to bring historical character to the new design. In addition, proper drainage, along with a polymer liner and new sand, was installed in the bunkers to extend their life and to improve conditions and playability.

“We patterned the bunkers so there’s an avenue to the greens that is opened up now in areas that used to be bunkered,” Eckenrode says.

Reducing the Need for Rain

To reduce water usage and demand, maintained turf was reduced by 35 acres primarily in out-of-play areas. Drought-tolerant fescue and native California grasses, whose texture and color provide an appealing contrast to the manicured turf, were planted on 23 acres of open expanses on the golf course perimeter. The remaining portion of the 35 acres was covered with mulch under trees or along property lines. Over time, more drought-tolerant or native plants will be planted to further enhance golf course aesthetics and to provide select screening.

“Once they’re established, they will no longer require irrigation,” Cordeiro says of the naturalized areas.

In another effort to conserve water, the property installed a $3.4 million, state-of-the-art, dual irrigation system that is expected to create annual water savings of about 30 percent. Features of the new system include greater efficiency, a dual system for potable and effluent water, and three to four times more heads than the previous 30-year-old system, which was past its useful life.

“Now we can put water only where we need it, when we need it,” says Cordeiro.

In addition, Nicholson says, the new irrigation system has provided aesthetic and functional advantages, by eliminating unsightly satellite control boxes from the golf course. 

Multiple Benefits

With the renovation project, the Diablo golf course has reaped benefits from the standpoints of sustainability, maintenance and playability.

“Our history and our connection to the game of golf mean a lot to our members. The course renovation brings a sense of tradition and history to the club.” — Jason Walter, Director of Golf Member Services

The current membership continues to uphold the environmental stewardship values that were established by Diablo’s founders, says Cordeiro. “They want to leave it better than they found it,” he adds.

And the forward-looking membership certainly has an eye on the future. To continue its sustainability efforts, Diablo has plans to construct a satellite water-treatment plant on site. The facility would allow the property to divert effluent water from the community to the treatment plant, and then use the water for irrigation purposes.

With the dual irrigation system, Diablo would be able to maintain surfaces with reclaimed water and still have the option to use potable water.

Another sustainable aspect of the project includes the restoration of the natural creekways on the golf course which, along with the increased naturalized areas, create wildlife habitat.

These environmentally friendly features have spilled over into golf course maintenance practices as well. In addition to the expected water savings, pesticide usage has been reduced significantly because of the new grasses as well.

The bright green Pure Distinction bentgrass on the putting surfaces and the Pure Select bentgrass on the surrounds provide density; upright, aggressive growth; less thatch; resistance to disease, heat and cold; and easy maintenance. The Pure Select also can be mowed at a higher height.

“Drier, firmer turf is more conducive to good golf,” says Nicholson. “All of the things that make a classic course come to life will bring out the golf course architecture. Maintenance has to go hand-in-hand with the architecture of the golf course. To get better angles to the greens, the course needs conditions that emphasize the architecture.”

With the updated irrigation infrastructure, the maintenance staff can also irrigate the Bermudagrass and native grasses with one system, and the greens and low-mow areas with the secondary system.

Although grounds crew members water less on all surfaces now, they spend more time mowing, because the size of the fairways grew by about 45 percent.

However, Nicholson says, “We’re spending a lot less time just trying to keep grass alive. The renovation is allowing us to focus on the things that are most important to golf. Our maintenance practices have become much more focused on conditions and playability.”

And, so far, the feedback about the golf course’s conditioning has been positive.

“We have a uniform, consistent stand of grass, which makes for better aesthetics and playability,” says Cordeiro. “We wanted to make the golf course more interesting for proficient golfers and more playable for recreational golfers. People are enjoying the golf course and learning to play it differently. It will change during the seasons.”

Widening the View

With the renovation, most of the holes now have fewer, but larger, overall tees that offer more variety in setup and more resistance to wear and tear. Chipping areas have been added to select spots adjacent to the greens, and many of them flow into the next green to provide a seamless walking path. These areas also create multiple short-game options, including putting, bump and runs, pitches, and flop shots.

The expanded fairways reflect Eckenrode’s design philosophy, notes Nicholson.

“A lot of courses tend to get narrower as the years go by,” the superintendent continues. “Older golf courses had wider fairways to navigate the greens complexes and create more advantageous angles to the greens. You’re aiming at the sides of the fairways now, instead of right down the middle.”

Just as intended, the renovations have made the golf course more equitable for players of different skill levels. Players with higher handicaps and slower swing speeds no longer are punished by tight corridors. At the same time, Nicholson says, “The nuances around the greens complexes are more challenging for experts.”

Walter has found that the project—the first renovation in the property’s history—has completely changed the golf course.

“The fescue is not in play in all of the areas where we had trees and normal turf,” he says.  “It has changed the appearance, definition, and shots around the golf course. The course is playable not only for our ladies, seniors, and juniors. We believe we have a really good member golf course that is playable every day and is fun to play every day.”

Nicholson agrees. “Golfers can think their way through the golf course with more varieties of strategies and shots,” he reports. “The course has improved rollout on the fairways, and it has better movement of the ball around the greens.”

A First Taste

Diablo’s members got their initial look at the renovated golf course on February 28th when a soft opening of Nos. 5 through 15, the first set of holes to be renovated, was held. However, the property closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, before reopening in May.

The June 13–14 event was a coronavirus-modified, members-only affair that was spread out across two days to meet social-distancing guidelines. Foursomes were allowed to play together, but golf cars were limited to a single rider unless they were occupied by more than one member of the same family. Golf cars were also restricted to cart paths, because the grass was still in its infancy.

The club set up food-and-beverage stations at various places on the course, and Diablo personnel hope to have a proper grand opening at a later date, when large gatherings are once again permitted.

Diablo’s management team has pulled together during COVID-19 to do as much as possible to make the facility available to its members. The property offered curbside service for food pickups and video updates, featuring drone flyovers, about the golf course renovation project. Diablo personnel also e-mailed the members daily.

“The entire executive team works with member committees to think out of the box,” says Cordeiro. “We want to make as much of the facility as possible available to the membership.”

During the renovation project, the management staff worked together closely as well. Cordeiro facilitated the process and served as the liaison between the professionals and the membership.

As part of his duties for the renovation, Nicholson presented the infrastructure and agronomic needs of the project, as well as the budgeting process behind the numbers, to the Board of Directors. He also drew on the experience he gained as part of a similar renovation project for the North Course at Los Angeles (Calif.) Country Club, where he was an assistant in training about 10 years ago.

In addition, he enlisted his grounds crew to play a supporting role in the renovation project. “As the holes were completed and turned over by the contractors, we grassed behind them,” says Nicholson.

The maintenance staff also watered, fertilized and mowed the turf during the grow-in phase. And with the golf course remaining open for the first two-and-a-half months of the project, the grounds crew members still had to maintain the holes. In addition, they located and marked drainage mainlines and old irrigation lines.

As the management team member who has the closest contact with Diablo’s golfers, Walter, who had been involved in three previous golf course construction projects in his career, played an integral part in the renovation as well. He conducted tours of the golf course during the construction process for members, answered their questions about the project, offered input on play strategy, and altered operational patterns around the construction timeline.

However, it doesn’t take a global pandemic or a major overhaul of the golf course for the Diablo management personnel to work together. It’s part of their DNA.

“It’s all about the communication between the team,” says Cordeiro. “We have a shared understanding of what our vision is, and we work together to achieve that vision with the members’ best interests in mind.”

They talk to each other daily, and in the age of social distancing, they communicate several times a day by video conference, e-mail, or text.

“We are all on the same page. We know what the goal is. We want to offer our members the best experience possible for our club,” Nicholson states. “Anything less than the best we can be is not acceptable.

“Frank [Cordeiro] puts a lot of trust in us to bring him the right ideas and solutions,” he adds. “He’s a good sounding board. Frank and Jason have a lot of experience working at high-end clubs.”

While Walter focuses on providing a detailed, service-oriented experience for the golfers, Nicholson reports, he presents the golf course in a way that represents the property’s interests.

In collaborating with his fellow department heads, Walter says, “We work to review our policies and our procedures. We work to ensure that, operationally, we have the resources and the guidelines set so that we can run as efficiently as possible. We work together to ensure that our decisions are always in concert with one another. A lot of our discussions involve anticipating what we have to do to make the golf experience better and to improve operations.”

Walter and Nicholson also conduct extensive planning once a year to lock in the schedule for outings and major maintenance projects. Nicholson relies on his assistant superintendents, Roger Smidstra and Kellen Whaley, to help him produce optimum course conditions as well.

“Those two guys are awesome. They’re so good at their jobs,” he says. “They’re polar opposites, but they always come to me with well thought-out ideas. They talk them out before they bring them to me. It keeps all of us pushing forward, and we have a fun, interesting workplace.”

‘The Heart of the Community’

Diablo CC also strives to foster a fun, interesting atmosphere so its members can enjoy themselves. Cordeiro believes the people and the experience that the property offers are the main attractions for the members.

However, he adds, “Golf is the anchor. It’s our most valuable overall asset from an amenities perspective.

“I believe that people don’t join a club for golf,” Cordeiro continues. “They join a club to enjoy golf with people who have similar values. We applaud and celebrate the members who are committed to improving the club from an experience and a sustainability standpoint.”

Diablo’s members also celebrate the traditions established by the club’s founders.

“The golf course is really the heart of the community here,” Nicholson says. “When golf is happening, the club is a vibrant and fun place for people to be. The members have a sense of pride and ownership of the place, because they’re part of the community.”

That sense of community and shared family values will be a big part of Diablo’s contribution to the quality of life in the East Bay going forward.

“It’s a golf-centric property, but we also bring in other amenities,” says Walter. “We cater to family activities. That’s the direction the industry is going.”

Golf Scorecard

DIABLO COUNTRY CLUB 

Location: Diablo, Calif.
Club Website: www.diablocc.org
Golf Holes: 18
Course Designers: Jack Neville, William Watson, Todd Eckenrode
Property Type: Private
No. of Members: 750
Year Opened: 1914
Golf Season: Year-round
Annual Rounds of Golf: 23,000
Fairways: Santa Ana Bermudagrass
Greens: Pure Distinction Bentgrass