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Out of the Shadows - Enter the Fox

Golf Today Magazine
May, 2003

By Barry Salberg

It used to be one of the best muni tracks in the Bay Area. But that was two decades ago, when pastel stripes were in, tee times were tight, and options for public play were fairly limited. A nice new course, with plenty of airspace, good turf, and a little nuance to the layout, was a welcome addition to the straight up-and-back glorified cow fields that comprised many of the alternatives. The drive to Rohnert Park, for something a notch above the norm, became a natural part of the avid players' regular rotation.

And then came the golf boom, and a proliferation of quality daily-fee operations. The competitive dynamics in the Bay Area had changed, and as they did, the North course at Mountain Shadows had become decidedly haggard and long-of-tooth. Design flaws and maintenance issues became glaringly apparent. Winter rains often rendered it unplayable for weeks at a time. Golfers went elsewhere and never came back. And as things got worse, cynicism in the community became pervasive. The place was snidely referred to by locals and other players, as Mountain Shambles.

Then, in 2001, Petaluma-based CourseCo entered into a 30-year lease situation with the City of Rohnert Park. Included in the deal was a substantial CourseCo investment in a two-part modernization and revival of the City-owned golf complex. A contest was held to coincide with the re-opening and re-tooling of the South Course, and the facility was renamed Foxtail Golf Club. Now this May, the North course makes it's debut, to the tune of a $3.5 million overhaul. "This should not be considered a tune-up or a remodel," proclaims CourseCo CEO, Tom Isaak. "This is a new golf course. We plowed virtually every square foot of land out there and re-contoured it. The only things that are the same, are that the holes are in the same places they used to be." And though the routing remains essentially intact, even that has been slightly altered, as several greens and tees have been relocated to accommodate the new aesthetics and length modification.

In all, 95 acres were reconstructed, including the building of 7 brand new greens. The 11 others were completely re-contoured, and all were resurfaced with dominant-plus bent grass "The old greens were sloped back-to-front, monotonously about 4%," says Isaak. "That's simply too radical - they were dysfunctional." Architect Gary Linn concurs, "they were back-to-front ski slopes that weren't really pinnable from a fairness standpoint." Also in the new mix are a total of 45 new bunkers, 150,000 square feet of real tee boxes, 20,000 lineal feet of concrete cart path, and the creation of 20 acres of native meadowland. These meadow areas will replace formerly out-of-play rough sections, and when fully grown with a variety of long fescue grasses, will provide environmental habitat, as well as significant textural contrast and artistic value to the overall landscape. The meadow areas will also compliment substantially increased wetlands and water acreage, as all the ponds and lakes were drained and regraded to provide new size, shape and edge treatments. Visually, the changes are dramatic.

To anyone who remembers the old Mountain Shadows a decade or two back, characterized by staked trees, free wielding air space, bland fairways surrounded by housing, this new version offers a totally different feel. The redwoods and sycamores have grown up, the holes are now framed, giving rise to the hillside backdrops beyond, and a sense of a much more mature and cultivated golf course.

To institute the re-do, Isaak interviewed several architects, among them notables John Harbottle, Fred Bliss, and Ron Fream. Ultimately the decision went to former VP of Design from the Robert Trent Jones II group, Gary Linn. "He not only has the artistry and track record, but is a consummate professional," says Isaak. One of the key criteria was geographic proximity, so that the architect could truly focus on this particular project. Isaak comments that Linn's documentation and field notes were impeccable and that his instructions to contractors and ownership were integral in ensuring that the process proceeded smoothly. "He made it clear to contractors in pre-bid conferences that we would not tolerate change orders," explains Isaak. But beyond that, "when you look at the shape and contouring of his greens and bunkers, you can see that this is not just an engineer, but a guy with legitimate artistic ability."

That sense is perhaps best exemplified in Linn's stylish bunker work. "The old bunkers were both artistically and technically cookie cutter shapes on mounds, they didn't have visual appeal," says Linn. "There are different ways to do bunkers, and I believe you ought to see them. You can put in new irrigation and drainage, but for the guy in the street, that doesn't catch anybody's eye. But standing on the tee and seeing these new bunkers and what they do strategically and visually, that really jumps out as being something different."

Linn favors flashed faces and what he calls descending noses, as characteristics of his bunkering. Rather than a deepened hole filled with sand, his bunkers have a definitive upward sweep, often blocking the player's view with a less than subtle dare to try and carry them. The grass portions (noses) extend downward into the bunker, lending more definition and style. And where in most bunker types the grass occupies a high point on a rounded mound, "we did just the opposite, and made them saddled and dished out, so the sand flashes up high, and the grass is low," explains Linn. "It tends to show off the sand more."

A prime example is hole #5-now the number one handicap-a dog-leg left, that used to have a fairway bunker that was easily flown, encouraging players to cut the corner and totally avoid the water on the right. That tee has been moved back, and the bunker now presents a definitive barrier, with a raised upshoot. At 268 yards out, with a skyward tilt, the bunker now forces players to go to the right, bringing the water into play and making the hole much longer and far more dangerous. At 460 from the back tees, it is an infinitely more challenging and interesting par four.

Instrumental to the overall project at both courses, is Foxtail course superintendent, Dick Rudolph, who offers stellar credentials from former positions at prestigious La Costa and Aviara. The installation of totally new drainage and irrigation systems will avail the property of his significant expertise and commitment to maintaining top-level turf conditions. This was a virtual impossibility and source of ongoing frustration for Rudolph, when operating with the previous systems.
Rudolph joins Director of Golf, John Theilade, as part of the on-site Foxtail management team. "We're focusing on getting people back from the surrounding area that have found other places to go," says Theilade. "I want people to know we've completely redone this golf course - quality for affordable pricing, it's hard to believe until you see it, especially compared to what it was!" One subtle example is the construction of legitimate elevated tee boxes, each slightly higher than the one in front of it. "The old ones were free form amoeba's that added to some of the problems out there," says Linn. "By adding classic style rectangular tees, we're able to spread out play and get them aimed where people are intended to go."

A snack bar has also been added to the pro shop, where before, golfers were relegated to the banquet facilities, often leaving them with nowhere to go, during a conflicting event.

Integral to the new Foxtail package, is the CourseCo corporate strategy and commitment to affordability and bang-for-the-buck. With a number of courses in their management arsenal, CourseCo deliberately eschews the higher end, opting for genuine value at the mid range. Foxtail North will be priced at $32 Monday-Thursday, $36 on Friday's, and $48 on weekends. Cart fees are an additional $12 per player. "I don't consider it a muni," says Theilade. "It has more of the feel of a high-end daily-fee course, because that's what it is - only without the high-end price." And while environmental concerns have long been a hot button within the industry, the North Bay can now claim an endangered species of it's own — a first-class golf course of genuine architectural quality for under $50 a round. The shadows are gone, and the Fox has emerged triumphant.


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Knott & Linn Golf Design Group, LLC
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Photography Courtesy of John & Jeannine Henebry

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