URBANA — The further you get from the clubhouse at Atkins Golf Club, the more clear it becomes that a full course renovation is underway.
The project that will revamp the new home course for Illinois golf was launched in early May with a comprehensive, hole-by-hole approach. The 15th and 16th holes in the northwestern corner of the nearly 200-acre property — the furthest from the hub of operation for maintenance activities — were first.
The changes to the course will be rather comprehensive, too. From tee to green. All in an effort to elevate the level of play to suit the Illini men’s and women’s golf programs while maintaining an enjoyable experience for golfers in the Champaign-Urbana community on the still-public course.
“That’s what we’ve talked about since day one,” Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small said. “We’re going to get this playing firmer, faster and more the way it was designed to be played when it was designed over 20 years ago. … We’re designing the golf course to play in a way that will be beneficial to my players, challenge them in a correct manner and also be a fun experience for the public. That’s the intent of the renovation.”
Atkins Golf Club (neé Stone Creek) was gifted to the University of Illinois at the end of June last year by the Atkins family. An anonymous donation of $5 million followed in September to fund the renovation process.
A renovation process led by architect Drew Rogers. Rogers also developed the course improvement plan at Urbana Country Club in 2019 in addition to renovation work at golf courses nationwide and new course designs both in the United States and abroad.
“You must really survey the needs of the facility and user to establish a proper vision to follow,” Rogers said. “That never changes even though the site and client does. This opportunity was a a bit unique from some others, given the goals of the university and specifically the golf teams, but the overall process was in lock step with most any other project we typically undertake.”
Rogers said he felt the golf course was already a well-conceived layout and well-constructed facility.
“Our intent here, from the beginning, was to simply make thoughtfully inspired adjustments that would allow for the course to simply become more of an improved version of itself while serving the more acute needs of the university and the facility operator,” he said. “The course will certainly have a very similar feel and appearance to what has always been there, but the specific details will be more fine-tuned and the playing strategies will be much more apparent and impacting and that was the intent from the beginning.”
Goals in mind
The way Atkins Golf Club was initially constructed — rather wide — gave Rogers room to work considering the course exists within a residential neighborhood. That still provided some constraints, however, and so did the budget.
“Drew is really good of having the ability to come up with a renovation scope that still fits the mold in terms of what you have right there and use the landscape and things that are at your disposal and also get more creative with angles and different utilization of bunkers,” said Jackie Szymoniak, assistant athletic director for golf operations. “If you’re not thinking at all financially when you’re making a renovation, you could look at anything and say, ‘Let’s make that happen.’ If you’re trying to work within a budget and make sure you can fully capitalize on the plans, it’s interesting how he creates and sees these areas of disturbances and is able to flip areas.”
Small and Illinois women’s coach Renee Slone had specific goals in mind for the renovation process.
Goals they shared in consultation with Rogers.
Added length was key, and Atkins Golf Club will play at nearly 7,500 yards when it fully reopens next spring after playing at just more than 7,100 yards originally.
Tightening landing zones — shifting fairways, sight lines and approach angles — was also a priority. A fully reworked system of bunkers in addition to other contour changes on a hole-by-hole basis were also important.
“Every hole has been touched in some way,” Rogers said. “All of the bunkers have been addressed, either reconstructed or newly constructed. All of the greens have gone through a thatch removal process and are being completely re-grassed while retaining their original contours and character. Some tees have been adjusted as well, including quite a few new back tees that we’ve added to more effectively stretch the course out for the golf teams.”
Detailing the changes
The bunkers will be the biggest visual change. Atkins went with the “Better Billy Bunker” method, which includes a two-inch layer of peat gravel beneath the sand. New sand, in fact, with Pro/Angle white bunker sand giving the course a distinct look.
Bunker choice was about more than aesthetics, though. Bunker depth will vary dramatically, and they are positioned intentionally alongside refined fairway alignments to engage a necessary shot-making process.
Several changes that won’t be as visible will be just as important.
That includes multiple tweaks to the course infrastructure including drainage, irrigation, root zone materials and turf types. For example, 90 new sprinkler heads will be installed around greens that will allow for greater control and more efficient watering.
While not every hole will be dramatically altered by new or improved bunkers, changes to fairway positioning or the addition of a series of hummocks to the rough, all 18 greens will get a facelift. They’ve already had both the sod and several inches of sand removed. The contouring of the greens will remain the same, but they’ll be re-seeded with a modern 007 Creeping Bentgrass in groups of six starting this coming week.
“Renovating the greens and then truly reconstructing all the bunkers are going to be the most notable features or changes throughout the property,” said new course superintendent Nate Jordan.
Jordan comes to Atkins Golf Club after serving as superintendent at Mt. Hawley Country Club in Peoria for four years. He’s also worked at golf courses in Colorado, Ohio and New York, including a year as assistant superintendent at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which has hosted the U.S. Open five times total across three different centuries.
Jordan’s role currently includes managing the renovation project at large and serving as the interface between the university, Rogers and Wadsworth Golf Construction Company, which handled the original construction more than two decades ago. As superintendent, Jordan is also leading the way on course maintenance.
Maintenance is key
Improving playing surfaces that aren’t being altered through the renovation process is already underway.
Jordan’s staff has already taken the fairways through a verticutting and aeration process. Verticutting involves removing thatch buildup that allows the turf to breathe. Aeration helps relieve soil compaction and also controls thatch. The early stages of re-seeding and sod placement around the new bunker features, greens and fairways are also underway.
How Atkins Golf Club is maintained and conditioned will ultimately have as much of an impact on elevating how the course plays as the renovations. Jordan and the groundskeeping staff can change the conditions — and level of play — through a combination of agronomic practices like moisture management, rolling of surfaces and mowing height and direction.
“Really, the way in which the surfaces will be responding are going to offer a new and unique challenge,” Jordan said. “Some of the fairways are going to be in closer proximity to hazards. With the way those surfaces will respond, if you don’t keep your shot aligned well, it might be now rolling off into a bunker or water feature. The surfaces are going to be more responsive. Overall accuracy and managing your game throughout the golf course will become more critical. It will be playing more penal in certain areas.”
Illini coaches weigh in
That’s exactly what Small and Slone wanted.
Now that the university owns Atkins Golf Club, the Illinois coaches will also have a say in how conditions are set. Their preparations for in-season tournaments can now include having Jordan firm up the greens or let the rough grow a little longer.
“That was the impetus and the benefit for the teams behind this whole movement was to have control and have a say in the way the course is kept up and maintained,” Small said. “Nate’s going to do a great job. I’m impressed with him so far. I think he’s done a great job and has been very receptive of what we’ve wanted. That’s what my interest as a coach is that we’ll be able to maintain a golf course to where it’s beneficial to our guys to get some practice and training out of it.”
How the course is maintained and conditioned won’t be the only challenge, though. Rogers’ design will test both competitive and casual golfers. The hummocks in the rough are a more subtle element intended to affect both a golfer’s stance and the lie of the golf ball.
The renovated 18th hole is a perfect example of how the new design has changed the visuals created on the course. Bunkers were eliminated on the right side of the fairway and a new bunker installed on the left. The new bunker might not come into play with the fairway extended on the right — which could lead directly into a water hazard on a mishit — but it is the first thing golfers will see off the tee.
“So much of this game is mental and how we perceive things even though it might not necessarily be there,” Slone said. “So many course architects and designers, that is what they do. They create things in our minds — in the players’ mind — so it sets up that we see things that really don’t necessarily come into play.”
Opening set for spring
The goal for the completion of the Atkins Golf Club renovation is this fall with limited rounds played.
A full opening is then set for when the winter weather breaks in early 2022.
That’s when course maintenance and other improvements will take precedence for Jordan and his staff. Those other improvements will include landscaping throughout the property, including on the clubhouse grounds, care and maintenance for ponds and water features and out of play areas reverting to native or naturalized spaces.
“While the renovation offers a big change, that’s just kind of the starting point,” Jordan said. “Right now the microscope is pretty much honed in on the acute playing surfaces, but takes on more of a wide-angle lens once we have those refined and we can start chipping away at some of these secondary priorities.”
A fully renovated Atkins Golf Club could also open the door for higher level college tournaments in Urbana.
The Illinois programs have had neither the facilities nor the ideal weather to host events. While the Big Ten has moved away from hosting its championship at campus sites, an NCAA regional in Urbana is the goal.
The “when” of that possibility is now the question. The 2022 regional sites are already set, and Small said the list could be as long as five or six years long. An NCAA regional in Urbana won’t be immediate.
“If something happens — a hiccup — and somewhere else can’t host we’ll definitely try to jump in there and get that once we get this place up,” Small said. “That was a motivating force behind this. We would love to be able to play in Champaign. Because of our success and the demand and the interest in watching us, we’ve heard people want to come see us. But we can’t host events. The courses were never set up to do that the way they were conditioned and set up, and the schedule being where we’re at and the weather was always restrictive.”
Future event planning
While conversations about trying to lure a Korn Ferry Tour or Symetra Tour event — the “minor leagues” for the PGA and LPGA — to Urbana haven’t yet happened, it’s not out of the question. Other amateur events in Illinois could also be an option like the AJGA event that’s been held previously at Urbana Country Club.
Small said he would consider a renovated Atkins Golf Club “one of the fairest and difficult tests for top players” and hosting any number of events would make sense.
“You can’t do everything — and you can’t do them every year — but obviously it’s great if you can sprinkle in some premier amateur events or junior events,” Szymoniak said. “There’s definitely a lot of tournament options or perhaps opportunities to come in the future after we do our due diligence, finish up this renovation and have it manicured in an awesome, competitive environment.
“On a challenging standpoint or distance standpoint, we shouldn’t run into a hurdle that that would keep us from getting any tournament that we want. I feel like the options will be open. It’s just a matter of what fits with what we’re trying to offer to our community, our golf team members and the Champaign-Urbana area in general.”