Mother Nature handed the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail a bushel of lemons when an April 27 tornado tore into Silver Lakes like a 9-iron ripping through thick rough, but instead of fretting about the aftermath, Rulewich fired up his ever-present pipe and found solutions to make the place viable again.
The design mind behind the Trail’s original construction was on site last week to put some 3-D perspective on the notes he made on aerial photos of the property he was supplied while officials debated the future of the facility.
As he stood with SunBelt Golf vice president for golf operations Steve Mack and several other Trail and Silver Lakes officials on the most elevated tee on the property, exposed to a view one didn’t have 12 weeks earlier, you could see his mind’s pencil sketching his vision for a new-look Silver Lakes.
And make no mistake, it will be a new look.
“But I like it; I think it’s exciting,” he said. “(The storm) hasn’t done us any favors, but there are so many good things that came out of it.
“The long views they can see back to the clubhouse; look at these things you never had before. This had so much terrain and it used to die at the tree line. Now, you see the terrain rolling over to another hole. I’m all for letting this be open and get rid of all these snags and things that took damage.”
The restoration won’t change the playability of the golf course, which Rulewich has long considered “probably the strongest collection of golf holes of anywhere on the Trail.” In fact, with the exception of debris, the tees, fairways and greens looked as if they could handle a tournament the morning after the EF-4 storm hit.
It’s the tree line that provided much of the course’s intimacy that took the beating, and the challenge is to replace it while maintaining the course’s integrity.
Rulewich’s recommendation is not to replace the trees that were lost (estimates range from 38,000 to 100,000) — except along the buffer with the housing development — but to fill the voids with more native roughs and a variety of grasses. It will give the facility a links-parkland hybrid look that will expand across each of its three nines, but Rulewich likes it. And he’s confident golfers will, too, once they return. The projected reopening is Sept. 23.
“The course is so wide,” he said. “The playable areas are here and the trees were outside basically those areas, so if we lose those and replace it with grasses, we’re not adding a hazard that we play. I think it’s going to create a new look ... and (the golfing public) will get used to that, I think, real quickly.”
While most of the renovations will be aesthetic in nature, there will be some modifications made on the course.
Perhaps the most significant change will come on Heartbreaker 1. The knoll that split the fairway lost all its trees to the tornado. The plan is to reduce its height to make the green more visible from the tee and fairway and perhaps add a bunker on the right side.
“It’ll play a little more straightaway, but there are still options to play right or left,” Rulewich said. “I think it’ll be an improvement in a way from what it was.”
The introduction of the grass roughs will be most noticed on Heartbreaker 7. That hole lost all the trees down the left side of the hazard.
One of the options off that tee was to play up No. 1 Backbreaker and back over the trees. That’s the way Gary Wilborn won the inaugural event in the Calhoun County Golf Tour, then called the Best of the Best Series, in 2007.
“I can’t stop that, but I don’t want to encourage that,” Rulewich said.
Don’t look for anything like an Eisenhower tree being planted there to discourage that play, but do expect a more inviting look to the right. They plan to carve down the fairway roll, expose the creek channel more and remove the first of the two bunkers on the right side of the fairway.
“I want to give them a little more of a look (and) create a little more fairway width, letting people see the play is to the right and giving them the room to do it,” Rulewich said.
The other major alternation is on Mindbreaker 7. The short par-4 lost the tree that protected its right side. A bunker will be added just beyond where the tree stood, challenging the longer hitter to thread the tee shot between it and the slope that terraces the fairway. Shorter hitters will be able to play short of the bunker or to the upper tier.
And just as Ruelwich is not much for putting back trees simply because they were there, he’s not into creating a frame because they lost trees. That means elevated greens like No. 9 Backbreaker and No. 7 Heartbreaker that once had somewhat of batter’s eye backdrop now will be exposed like the sixth at Pebble Beach or something at Winged Foot or Shinnecock Hills.
And while all the debris removal and replanting is taking place, crews are softening the higher points on some of the undulating greens and regrassed the putting surface on all 36 holes with Champion bermuda.
“I think what that brings is great greens for 50 weeks out of the year,” said Mack, allowing for the two weeks of aerification. “We’re not going to change the way the golf course plays at all. It’s just going to have a different look. I think the golf course is going to be better than it was.”
Don’t expect a complete picture when Silver Lakes reopens its doors in September. The course will be relying on the force that put them in this position in the first place to help bring them back.
“It’s going to take a little time; it’s not going to be instantaneous,” Rulewich said. “Planting trees would be a much longer-term thing to get them back to anything like they were before. This was a wooded site.
“You just can’t be impatient with it. You have to go with Mother Nature a bit. But we’ve done this before.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.