Highlands renovation returns course to championship form

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

JOHNS CREEK -- After redesigning the Riverside Course at the Atlanta Athletic Club in 2006, the shortcomings of the Club's signature and championship course stood out.

Ken Mangum, the director of golf courses and grounds, decided to change his goals in the renovations of the Highlands course. This was the course that hosted, most recently, the 2001 PGA Championship and has hosted championship events dating back to the 1976 U.S. Open.

"All of a sudden our championship course was kind of the No. 2 course on the property so that put us into action," Mangum said. "The Highlands course looked a little dated."

The renovations started that year and included a complete overhaul of the hole designs, the irrigation system and grasses throughout the course. The goal was to return the course to its championship level with the hopes of continuing to host major golf events, including the 2011 PGA Championship.

They added tees, deepened and moved bunkers, altered the sizes of greens and brought water into play and into view on more holes.

Mangum worked with Rees Jones, the course designer and son of the original architect Robert Trent Jones on the renovations. Jones visited the site constantly during the transformation to ensure his designs translated properly on the course.

"That is one of the things I really enjoyed with Rees, we would work off a sketch and then we would fit things into the field," Mangum said. "Nothing got grassed without him seeing it at a point we could make changes.

"That gives us the best golf course."

Rees also redesigned the Riverside Course and has continued to build on his father's work at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

"Doing both courses, following up on his father's work, he really took a real interest in the thing," Mangum said. "He calls (the Highlands course) his Baltusrol. We are kind of on the same page. This is the third project I have done with him."

Having two courses and a par-3 course allows the Atlanta Athletic Club to make Highlands a course challenging to Tour professionals. Mangum said he felt little pressure to keep the course member-friendly.

"The goal we set out with was to build a championship golf course, knowing that not every hole would be member friendly to a high-handicap player," Mangum said. "We have a lot of very good players here. It suits a certain segment of our membership. It's hard to have a one-size-fits-all when you are trying to have a major championship golf course."

It's supposed to be a difficult course. It must challenge golf's best.

"With the PGA coming, it's a lot of coordination," Mangum said.

Being in contact with the PGA allowed Mangum and designer Rees Jones, the son of the original designer Robert Trent Jones, to install an advanced irrigation system to not only conserve water, but to allow only certain areas of the course to be changed if needed.

Mangum described the system as "inside-outside irrigation." The sprinkler heads run along the intermediate grass between the fairways and the rough. If the superintendent wishes, he can only water one side or the other and at the very least alter which side gets which amount of water. There are also sensors in the ground keeping the proper moisture levels at specific locations.

"We get weather input, we get moisture readings and that goes into the computer and the computer is smart," Mangum said. "You have a global adjustment and local adjustment to provide consistent playing conditions."

Adjusting how much and where the water goes became even more important when the course altered its grasses. The greens are Champion ultra-dwarf Bermuda, the fairways are Diamond zoysia and the rough was changed to Tifton 10, a form of Bermuda.

Mangum is most pleased with the rough, a hearty grass he calls one of the most "green turf grasses."

It was discovered in a trash bag in Tifton by Dr. Wayne Hanna.

"When I say green, I mean low mowing requirement, low fertility requirement, high winter heartiness," Mangum said. "It is one of the best grasses we have because one guy saw something and pulled it out of the trash."

The whole renovation kept the course a championship course, but Mangum admits the goal was not to make it an impossible course.

"If you make the golf course too difficult, you take away the roars," Mangum said. "You want the guy trying. When you take away the ability to try, that is when you cross the line."