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April 3, 2009

Veenker Memorial Golf Course

Veenker's makeover gives the course different shades of green with new turf varieties. In this view, taken last week from the No. 2 tee box, the bentgrass fairway is framed by a darker Kentucky bluegrass in the first-cut rough. Tee boxes and greens also were sown with creeping bentgrass. The primary rough remains a mix of perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Improved Veenker makes April debut

by Erin Rosacker

After last year's harsh winter and spring flooding, the turf at Veenker Memorial Golf Course was in bad shape.

On top of that, portions of the turf -- including some original 1930s greens and renovations dating back to the 1970s and 1980s -- were riddled with disease. So, after weeks of planning and prepping for a much-needed facelift, the course closed Sept. 8 for the remainder of the season.

"We were going to have to do something last fall, so we decided to go all in and make the change," said John Newton, course manager and superintendent at Veenker.

He said the idea to replace the course's disease-prone perennial ryegrass had been floating around for about 15 years. The greens were "struggling, at best," because most of the effective pesticides were banned. A newer turf variety would be better for both the environment and the bottom line.

"We thought we could get more consistency if we had one turf variety, and we'd also reduce our pesticide usage. The newer varieties are much more resistant to diseases," Newton said.

The plan

Newton cast a wide net in the planning process, drawing on the experience of fellow golf course superintendents and former assistants. Since the course serves as a classroom of sorts for ISU turfgrass and plant pathology faculty, he was able to tap into their expertise.

A plan and a timeline were developed with a budget of $110,000. Improvements to the course overhauled about 30 of the course's 150 acres of maintained areas, including turf replacement for:

  • Fairways
  • Tee boxes
  • Intermediate (first-cut) roughs
  • Greens

The creeping bentgrass seeded on the fairways, tee boxes and greens better tolerate the Iowa climate, and -- as an added bonus -- require less mowing and chemical applications. The Kentucky bluegrass seeded in the intermediate rough areas (10- to 12-foot swaths between the fairways and heavy rough) grows slowly and remains healthy at a lower cut (1 to 1.5 inches). Newton said the darker color of the bluegrass "frames the fairways."

Other improvements included:

  • Adding two new championship tees on No. 10
  • Expanding tees on No. 9 (red) and No. 18 (gold)
  • Digging a drainage ditch to alleviate standing water along the No. 9 fairway
  • Establishing a nursery green
  • Refurbishing the maintenance shed damaged by flood waters
  • Constructing a short-game practice area for ISU's golf teams (paid for by the athletics department)

Without golfers on the course, Newton and his staff also were able to tackle a lot of tree trimming and remove diseased trees. He said it opened up overly shaded areas, helping both the turf's performance and the playability of the course.

"We spent a lot of time doing prep work we couldn't normally get done," Newton said. "It was a big advantage time for us."

Watch and wait

Mother Nature has been relatively kind so far, Newton said. The fall and winter months weren't too hard on the new turf -- which was established well enough last fall to be regularly mowed -- and the project is sticking to its timeline. Now he needs warmer weather so he can pull off the tarps and start up the mowers. There are some small areas to patch, but Newton is pleased with the results and thinks that golfers will be, too.

"Golfers will be amazed at the playability of the golf course," Newton said. "The consistency of the greens and tees is the biggest improvement. The target zones should be more defined with the color differential. I think we outlined the fairways really well."

Tess Balsley, clubhouse manager, said the course opens to season-pass holders on April 1. The plan is to ease into an April 15 public debut. A grand reopening event tentatively is scheduled for mid-May.


"Golfers will be amazed at the playability of the golf course. The consistency of the greens and tees is the biggest improvement."

John Newton