This Olympic Season, full re-design Of The Refuge By Nathan Crace, Asgca wins Silver as Public Course Runner-up in “Renovation Of The Year” for 2021.
Online PR News – 03-August-2021 – Flowood, MS – Originally opened in 1998, The Refuge closed in 2017 for a $1.9 million renovation led by golf course architect Nathan Crace, ASGCA in conjunction with a new $50 million hotel and conference center being built on property adjacent to the course near the Jackson Evers International Airport. The re-design and renovation featured a number of innovative changes, including three new holes that enable golfers to now play 5, 9, or 18 holes and return to the clubhouse. The opening of the hotel was delayed by weather and COVID, pushing back the re-opening of the course; but when the course re-opened for play in the spring of 2021, the renovation caught the eye of the judges for Golf Inc. Magazine’s annual “Renovation of the Year” competition. This week Golf Inc. named Crace’s re-design the runner-up in “Renovation of the Year” for 2021 among public courses.
“There’s no shame in a silver medal when you consider the other courses in the competition this year,” Crace says, referencing the 2021 Olympic Games. “There were courses from coast to coast in the competition and when you look at the broader view of both the private and public entries, you see names like Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Gil Hanse, and more. This is big news for golf in the Magnolia State.”
To that point, Crace explains that the award if not only an honor for his golf course architecture firm, but also for the entire team behind the project and the game of golf as a whole. “This is a win for the entire state as we continue to show people that courses across Mississippi can host Tour events, win national awards, and be players on the national golf stage. And with proper planning and the right team, you don’t have to break the bank to do it.”
Golf course contractor Eagle Golf & Athletics won the publicly-bid contract and Crace credits them, Better Billy Bunker, Premier Sand, and RainBird irrigation as critical members of the project team. “What the team was able to achieve is even more impressive when you consider that we had to install nearly five miles of new cart paths and those concrete paths amounted to more than $700,000 of the overall construction budget,” Crace explains. “That’s roughly 40% of the overall construction budget invested in cart paths, which makes the work on the actual golf course renovation even more impressive because it was actually more like $1.1 million.”
The renovation of the course, which is owned by the City of Flowood, was driven by a new hotel and conference center built adjacent to the course by a developer from New Orleans. So adjacent, in fact, that the new pro shop is in the first floor of the 10-story hotel tower. The new 200+ room Sheraton branded hotel and conference center also boasts a world-class spa, several restaurants offering choices from fine dining to casual, a pool with a lazy river, and a large event lawn for concerts, outdoor weddings, and other gatherings on the banks of a new 15-acre lake, which the developer refers to as an “urban resort.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time on-site over the last twenty years and I’ve played the course more times than I can remember,” recalls Crace. “So when we started discussing the renovation, I knew there were key factors we had to include and just how to make them work. We had to create returning nines instead of the nine out/nine back from the original design, we had to open up the course and make it more playable, we had to add more tees to stretch the course forward and backward to offer more flexibility, and we had to renovate the greens, tees and bunkers, and expand irrigation where the budget would allow.” The project also included installing new TiffEagle ultradwarf on the new greens and expanded putting surfaces and using the Better Billy Bunker liner system with bunker sand from Premier Sand in Arkansas in all bunkers. “In addition to public play, the course will also be catering to hotel guests. Those resort guests hold a certain expectation they want met on a golf course. Now they will be able to provide that higher level of conditioning, playability, and service for anyone who wants to play—public or resort.”
When asked how the course was “opened up,” Crace explains that a careful plan was put into place to widen playing corridors—making the course more playable for the average golfer without eliminating the challenge better players look for in a round of golf. To maximize flexibility, he installed the Longleaf Tee System to stretch the course from 4,000 yards at the Family Tees to 7,000+ yards from the Championship Tees (before the renovation, the back tees were around 6,500 yards). A number of hidden water hazards and tight landing areas took driver out of play for many players, so Crace’s plan relocated or eliminated most of those hidden hazards to make the landing areas more receptive while widening corridors throughout the course.
“One of my goals from day one was to allow every player the realistic option of hitting driver on every par-4 and par-5 and we were able to accomplish that goal,” Crace explains. “Next, we inventoried trees throughout the course. We began by taking out the invasive tree species, then trees that were dead or dying, and then trees which posed a risk to people either because they were leaning significantly or otherwise damaged. After that, we removed a few trees that were close enough to greens or tees to cause turf damage or playability issues. By the time we did that and under-brushed everything that was left, it really opened-up the course. You can see across the entire property and still have plenty of trees to frame holes. Now it’s more of a parkland setting instead of a series of 18 myopic bowling alleys crowded by overgrown trees.”
How bad were the “bowling alleys” prior to the renovation? On more than a few holes, the upper canopies of the trees on the left were touching the upper canopies of the trees on the right for the first 50 yards off the tee. The recent project fixed all of that and opened up views of beautiful white oaks and other specimen trees that were previously hidden, enabling those trees to live longer, healthier lives.
“The pandemic has been a strange thing for the golf industry,” Crace says. “When lockdown began in 2020, golf was one of the few things people could still get out and do safely. As a result, the National Golf Foundation is reporting rounds played nationwide over the last 18 months unlike anything seen since the last golf boom when Tiger came on the scene in 1997. As a result, our firm has been busy with a number of projects wrapping up now in four states and more lined up for next year. The bulk is renovation work as people want to take advantage of the opportunity to invest in capital projects, but the bottom line is that golf feels like it’s back and it’s great to see all of the new faces enjoying a game they can play for a lifetime!”