Whenever you transform the agronomic structure of a century-old golf course there are going to be growing pains. Nobody knows this better than John Hoyle, CGCS, who is in his sixth full season at Corning Country Club in Corning, N.Y.

Soon after his arrival at Corning in September of 2015 he began planning for a fairway renovation because of issues with fairway turf health, playability and aesthetics. The mix of grasses present simply wasn’t standing up to harsh weather or the demands of a modern golf course. Upgrading the fairways to the improved bentgrass variety ‘Luminary’ began on two holes as a trial run. Following good initial results, the project has since continued – with all the fairways scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2021.

Along the way, Hoyle and the club have learned a lot about the fairway conversion process through their own experience and the input of USGA agronomist Paul Jacobs – who first visited the course in the summer of 2019. Jacobs laid out a well-defined path for fairway conversion that would minimize disruption to play and optimize the establishment process. The results have already shown a vast improvement in the look, playability and environmental sustainability of the fairways at Corning.

Hoyle appreciates how the USGA Course Consulting Service (CCS) helped in the process. “Their advice has been indispensable,” said Hoyle. “They helped us select the right cultivar, explained the mistakes we made early on and got us on the right path. They helped ensure the kind of success that got the members squarely behind the project.”

Corning Country Club, located in the southern tier of New York’s Finger Lakes Region, dates to a 1919 design by transplanted Scotsman Thomas Winton. The scion of a prominent golfing family from the seaside town of Montrose, he came over to the States during World War One as a construction foreman for architect Willie Park Jr. and soon landed a job as superintendent for the Westchester (N.Y.) County Parks Commission. In between, he also designed a dozen or so courses, most of them public venues in the state. Corning remains his most noteworthy design.

With its push-up greens and tightly tree-lined fairways, Corning became a staple of the LPGA Tour, annually hosting the Corning Classic from 1979-2009, the LPGA’s longest running single-title sponsor event. It proved popular with regional sports fans and with the players. The list of winners reads like a who’s-who of USGA champions – including Donna Caponi, Patti Sheehan, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam.

Corning Country Club is a private club, though one with a decidedly modest sensibility. Push carts are commonplace; 80% of the rounds are by walkers. The club only has 36 motorized carts and paved cart paths are to be found only intermittently. Hoyle has 100 acres of the 158-acre site under active turf maintenance. The primarily loam soils drain well, in large part due to rolling terrain with 65 feet of elevation change.

For all the course’s distinguished history and attributes, the fairways were a perennial weakness. They struggled year after year due to a hodgepodge of grasses growing within tightly overgrown tree corridors. Jacobs’ reports document the coexistence of Poa annua, Poa trivialis, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue and numerous older varieties of bentgrass within the fairway turf. These grasses don’t perform the same, and they don’t all perform well under the typical weather and golf schedule at Corning. The result was unpredictability and inconsistency.

"For all the course’s distinguished history and attributes, the fairways were a perennial weakness. They struggled year after year due to a hodgepodge of grasses growing within tightly overgrown tree corridors."

A master plan from Forse Design in 2000 addressed bunker reconstruction, greens expansion and some initial tree work. The fairway grasses were another matter. Through conversations with Jacobs and USGA agronomist Adam Moeller, Hoyle decided to renovate the club’s two weakest fairways, the tree-lined fourth and fifth holes. These par fours would be regrassed with freshly seeded ‘Luminary’ bentgrass, the improved cultivar recommended by Jacobs. The work began in August of 2016 with Hoyle’s crew spraying out the existing grasses, replanting, and closing the fairways for the month it took for the new bentgrass to germinate and grow in.

It turns out those two fairways had been perennially weak because of heavy tree shade. Despite some initial tree removal and root pruning, the remaining trees limited the establishment and performance of the new bentgrass. The new turf was thin and the root structure was weak due to very limited sunlight. That led Hoyle and the club to rethink their approach to regrassing, with a focus on removing trees before planting the new grass so that it had the best chance of success.

Three more fairways were converted to ‘Luminary’ in 2017, and another three in 2018. Additional renovation work was held off in 2019 to allow Corning to celebrate its centennial – with the main event being a two-day LPGA Legends event that reunited 27 former tour pros, nine of them former winners of the Corning Classic. The club used the pause in fairway conversion to bring in Jacobs for two CCS visits that documented what had worked in the past and what should be the priorities in future fairway regrassing. That plan guided the regrassing of two holes during the pandemic summer of 2020 and will be used when the club does the entire back nine in the summer of 2021. Jacobs’ reports included detailed recommendations for timing of the regrassing, mainly focusing on a late-July or very early August seeding plan rather than waiting until late August or September, when germination of Poa annua was more likely.

Jacobs’ recommendations helped Hoyle develop a plan for moving forward: two rounds of nonselective herbicide applications within a week of each other, followed by slicing in two directions, thatch removal and aeration. Seeding would follow at a rate of 1-1.25 pounds per 1,000 square feet, followed by a drop spreader application of 0.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. The newly seeded areas would be kept moist, not wet. Jacobs also recommended regular use of the growth regular paclobutrazol (Trimmit) after establishment, which in his words “regulates Poa annua more than bentgrass.”

Mowing would begin two weeks after seeding. Within four to six weeks the newly planted fairways were ready for regular play, with carts kept off for another month or two. Holes were kept open while the seed established by either shortening them to par threes or allowing players to tee off as normal and then move balls in the new fairways to the rough for the approach shots. Fairways were to be maintained at a height of 0.562 inch the first season and could be reduced to 0.5 inch the second.

The first two rounds of fairway renovation had not included the immediate approaches because the membership initially thought these were in good shape. Eventually, however, their conditioning stood out in contrast to the newly renovated fairways and the club decided to regrass all of the approaches as well.

Jacobs advised relying upon ‘Luminary’ bentgrass sod for the approaches. It could either be taken from the club’s turf nursery or harvested from the beginning of some fairways. Trying to seed the approach areas would bring nonselective herbicide applications much too close to the greens and the inevitably higher foot traffic would greatly impede seed germination.

Fairway expansion became an increasingly important focus of the project. This entailed close consultation with the Forse Design team to make sure the newly widened fairways matched with the architecture of each hole and connected closely with the bunkering. The move to widen certain landing areas – some of which had narrowed down to as little as 15 yards wide – necessitated extensive tree work to make sure sunlight reached the newly established fairway turf.

When Hoyle started the program he had 22 acres of fairway. When he’s done this fall he’ll end up with 24 acres. Despite the marginal increase, there will be an improved golf experience and considerable savings in plant protectants, water use, pumping costs and fertilizer applications. The greater resistance to Dollar Spot offered by ‘Luminary’ is a big driver of the cost savings and improved playability.

Hoyle calculates the cost of fairway conversion at $1,100 per acre, which should pay for itself in a matter of only a few years thanks to the reduced inputs. In fact, the USGA Green Section has a Fairway Regrassing Calculator that helps golf courses figure out how quickly a regrassing can pay for itself with the savings that often come with improved turf varieties.

"In fact, the USGA Green Section has a Fairway Regrassing Calculator that helps golf courses figure out how quickly a regrassing can pay for itself with the savings that often come with improved turf varieties. "

Admittedly, the conversion process at Corning Country Club had its stops and starts, with the first couple of holes eventually being redone once Hoyle arrived at a satisfactory process. That is a testament to the club’s patience as well as to Hoyle’s efforts at communicating progress and being open to learning from experience. Jacobs and Moeller from the Green Section are proud to have played a role in the project’s success. Their knowledge of regional conditions and improved turf varieties proved invaluable throughout the process. In the end, Corning Country Club is enjoying better fairway turf that costs less to maintain – which is a winning combination in anyone’s book.

Brad Klein is a veteran freelance journalist whose biography, "Discovering Donald Ross," won the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award for 2001.