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    • Turf Talk: Sycamore Hills GC

    • The par-4 18th hole has a redesigned water hazard down the left side. The par-4 18th hole has a redesigned water hazard down the left side.

    FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- Sycamore Hills Golf Club superintendent John Thompson has been in the course maintenance business for 26 years, but last year presented a whole new challenge. Sycamore Hills was tasked with hosting two top-flight events in a five-week span: the U.S. Girls’ Junior in July, and the inaugural Hotel Fitness Championship in August.

    Getting the course ready for last year’s Hotel Fitness Championship was tough, Thompson said, and understandably so. The staff did the best it could, but this time around, the Sycamore Hills maintenance team has been able to plan its season strategy around preparation for this year’s Hotel Fitness Championship -- the first leg of the Web.com Tour Finals.

    Last year was Thompson’s first at Sycamore Hills, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and it was an educational one.

    “Having two big events last year, and seeing what the events did to the golf course, and being new to the course, my programs changed,” Thompson said. “Our chemical program for this year, we started at this week and worked backwards. Every spring program I had -- a lot of the aerifying, the mowing, the rough – it was designed with this week in mind.”

    Preparing for one major event instead of two might be simpler, but the Sycamore Hills crew had another challenge to face in 2014: a major course redesign, headed by Nicklaus Design. Jack Nicklaus designed the course in 1989, and it had gone without substantial renovation for more than two decades.

    Five days after Trevor Immelman shot 20 under to win last year’s Hotel Fitness Championship, work started on what had originally begun as just a bunker project. Fourteen holes and the driving range were all altered in some capacity, including the par-4 18th hole, which now has a narrower fairway and a redesigned water hazard down the left side.

    The Sycamore Hills staff was planning to work through the latter part of the winter, but Mother Nature made things more difficult. The Fort Wayne area experienced one of its snowiest winters on record, also one of the coldest, and construction didn’t resume until late April.

    “It was crazy, and it was cold,” Thompson said. “We couldn’t start until late April, because nothing had melted. Usually we measure our snow in inches, but this year it was feet.”

    Still, the first phase of construction was completed in time for this week’s event, and the second phase (holes 3, 5, 12 and 14, and the driving range’s north end) will resume in early September.

    The fairways have been narrowed for the most part, and Thompson said the rough should present a challenge for this week’s field, particularly around the greens. The bluegrass rough has been mowed at about 3.5 inches for most of the summer, and the staff stopped mowing it last week to let it grow out for the event.

    Sycamore Hills’ greens are a mix of poa annua and bentgrass, and they should run between 11.5 and 12.5 on the Stimpmeter for most of the week, maybe up to 13 on Sunday, Thompson said.

    The course has been hit by rain early this week (10 inches in a 26-hour span), and the humidity is high, so it might take a while to dry the greens out fully. Still, as long as heavy rain stays away, Thompson is optimistic about the greens as the week progresses.

    “This place dries out really well in about three hours,” Thompson said. “We can take a half inch; we can take six or seven tenths. We’re really ramping up for the last day. The greens are going to be fantastic on Thursday, but hopefully they’ll be even better on Sunday.”

    The winter was cold in Fort Wayne, and the trend continued into the summer, which Thompson described as one of the coolest summers the area has seen in a long time. For this, though, he was grateful.

    The reconstruction involved moving five acres of fairway grass from different areas of the course to others, which in turn required laying bluegrass sod on affected areas. Cool weather was best for the sod, Thompson said.

    “We have about 15 acres of bluegrass sod out there, so Mother Nature was very nice to me this year,” Thompson said. “I was envisioning standing out there trying to keep 15 acres of bluegrass alive in August. We have sod out there that we laid out the first week of June, and you wouldn’t know; you would think it has been there forever. You have to just let it grow in, and I would say now we have five-to-six-inch roots.”

    With a year at Sycamore Hills under his belt, Thompson attacked 2014 with a carefully constructed plan, and he executed that plan. Although it’s the same course as last year, players will find it different in a lot of ways, both layout-wise and maintenance-wise. And if all goes according to plan, the same will be true next year.

    “We’ve been planning the whole year for this tournament,” Thompson said. “We have very high standards at Sycamore, I have very high standards myself, and after the two tournaments last year we really had something to prove. The players this year, they’ll be pleasantly surprised … and they probably aren’t going to recognize it next year. They’re going to stand up on No. 3 tee and go, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t remember this.’”

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