I recently had the opportunity to check out a local private club I’d never played before: The University Club. You probably know it as Tripoli, and great efforts are being expended to change that.
Debuting in 1921, The University Club is part of the northwest side of Milwaukee’s “Murderer’s row” of classic tracks off Good Hope Road, alongside The Wisconsin Club (fka Bryn Mawr), Brown Deer Park Golf Course, and a mile or so from Milwaukee Country Club.
I was really impressed with The University Club. The conditions were terrific, I enjoyed the variety of hole layouts and was pleasantly surprised by the topography and scale of the property. I expected a smaller footprint and had no idea there’d be as significant of elevation changes. Plus, I thought their men’s locker room is awesome (full wraparound bar with TV’s and seating areas).
The University Club is one of the most intact Tom Bendelow courses in the country. In fact, sixteen of the course’s greens survived numerous renovations over the past 96 years and are absolutely stalwart Bendelow designs. Highlighting those are the putting surfaces on four and thirteen, both strategically as good as you’ll find in the Milwaukee area.
A look at the 13th green, both undeveloped when Bendelow originally envisioned it and as a finished product nearly 100 years later:
In conjunction with their recent merger with The University Club’s downtown dining location, the FKA Tripoli Country Club is making huge updates to their golf facilities, bringing in nationally renowned course architect and a friend of mine, Andy Staples of Staples Golf Design.
While attention will be put toward improving the course’s play-ability and environmental sustainability (potentially including strategic tree removal, utility updates and some course design adjustments), one of the highlights for Staples’ renovation is the development of a world-class on-site practice facility.
Adding in the practice area will require adjusting the 12th green and making several other tweaks to the area it will occupy, as laid out above.
While modern architecture rains praise on Bendelow’s best designs – Medinah, East Lake, Mission Hills and Olympia Fields, to name a few – there are factions of the golf world who for a time were critical of his general body of work based on the volume of courses he designed between 1898 and 1933.
Coined the “Johnny Appleseed of Golf” by Golf Digest Senior Editor of Architecture Ron Whitten, Bendelow designed between 600 and 1,000 courses and also served as the initial Superintendent at the country’s first municipal course: New York’s Van Cortlandt Park, starting in 1899.
As a salesman for Spalding sporting goods, Tom worked hand-in-hand with A.G. Spalding to bring the great game of golf to the masses. Scores of courses were developed, new players were introduced to the game, and you guessed it – Spalding sold a ton of golf equipment.
Tripoli was one of Bendelow’s first projects after leaving Spalding to work full-time for American Park Builders, the group responsible for arranging the construction of Tripoli, in 1922.
The original criticism against Bendelow was that he was the “18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” architect during his time with Spalding. Basically, that he would show up and put stakes in the ground to denote where tees, fairways and greens should be – all in a single day – and move on to the next project. I’m not sure anyone could do more than that and be attributed with designing 1,000 golf courses, especially in the early 1900’s when travel was I’m sure at least a little less convenient.
“18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon” changed when Bendelow took over for William Langford at APB. Now having access to staff and other great resources, Bendelow was able to contribute the time and on-site TLC toward his projects that greatness requires. Tripoli was an original benefactor of that.
One thing noticed on Bendelow-designed courses is the ease of walking from green to tee. While I could tell The University Club would normally be a great walking course, it was far from an easy hike on our dreadfully hot 95-degree September morn. Several of the uphill climbs actually left me a little dizzy toward the end – as I was saying earlier, there’s a lot more elevation than I expected.
While having the next tee nearby makes for easy transitions, advances in golf equipment technology have made shots that were heroic during Bendelow’s days not only realistic now, but to long-ish hitters almost standard.
At 440 yards from the tips, and 418 from the first tees in, for example, the 16th should be a challenging par four. The course institutes in-play out-of-bounds to discourage players from trying to cut the corner, but a 240-yard carry here leads to a really good reward… And it’s not like someone who can carry 240 ever mishits the ball, which is a great thing because directly along the line of that 240 is the 12th green.
One potential solution to get players to play the 16th the way Bendelow meant for it to be played could be as simple as relocating the tee boxes further right. This would make the direct route toward the green much less possible and force players to aim down – or nearer to – the hole’s fairway.
Having to hit long- or mid-iron in over the creek to a heavily contoured green would bring back the bite on this pivotal par four.
Playing The University Club with Andy, it was fun to visualize his thoughts on the redesign. His great respect for the architecture that’s made golf’s golden age courses thrive over the past century I think will lead to changes that are often subtle to the eye, but will help reinstate Bendelow’s strategic themes while promoting a more fun environment for championship golf. These “subtle changes” should make massive impacts for a course that already has a lot going for it.
As shown in Bendelow’s 1922 color rendering (earlier/above), a lot of his time and efforts were spent on design features that have since been covered by trees.
It’s easy for club members to freak out when “tree removal” is mentioned. We hear numbers in the hundreds, even thousands, and imagine a course we’ve come to know and love looking like scorched earth (picture Lawsonia’s Links course or the updated Blue Mound Country Club). The truth is that most courses can lose hundreds, if not thousands of trees and leave the course visually comparable but strategically and environmentally better off.
“We don’t have a total number of trees in mind at this point. What I would say is, many courses of this age have seen trees planted for a variety of reasons, and now that they are 50-60 years old their impact on the course in terms of playability and turf health is significant. We’re going to concentrate on providing sunlight and air movement for all of the greens, and do our best to open up angles of play and approaches to greens that are more in line with how the course was originally intended to play. This isn’t to say we’re going to remove all the trees. We’re going to highlight the architecture through thoughtful removals and in some cases replacement, thinking about how members actually play golf.”
A few examples of areas where Bendelow’s design strategy has been overrun by tree growth:
A notable up-and-comer in the industry, GolfWeek recently email blasted their entire readership with a list of four keynote speakers headlining their 2017 Architecture Summit at Streamsong this December: Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Rich Mack of Mosaic (developers of Streamsong), and Andy Staples. That’s some good company to keep.
An expert in the field of sustainable golf design, his most famous work is probably the development of Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah. A famously tough critic, Even Tom Doak gave Sand Hollow one of the highest scores (an 8/10) in volume two of his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.
It’s Staples’ recent renovation of Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville, Michigan, though, that is probably most relevant to The University Club project.
Host of the 1955 PGA Championship, Meadowbrook celebrated their 100-year anniversary by hiring Staples and closing down for 18 months to make course updates. They entered that shut-down with 86 members on a waiting list to leave… And emerged with a full membership of 325 plus a waiting list to join¹.
Staples’ work in Northville has been hailed as a massive success, and Golf, Inc Magazine has named it one of five finalists for the world’s best course renovation project in 2017. It’s easy to see why from the pictures – it looks spectacular:
Like at Meadowbrook, I’m sure it’ll be tough for the membership at The University Club to endure a season without golf, but I think they made the absolutely right choice in hiring Staples, and I’m excited to follow the renovation’s progress and see all the great things he and his team do when it reopens down the road.
¹ Source: Crain’s Detroit article: “Meadowbrook Country Club Golf Risk Pays Off With Membership Surge,” July 23, 2017