When Champions Golf Club in Houston was awarded the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, no one even considered it would be played in December. But with Covid-19 affecting sports calendars across the globe, the club found itself in the unique position of hosting a U.S. Women’s Open Championship two weeks ahead of the Christmas holiday (Dec. 10-13) — and preparing to do so on two golf courses to accommodate the lack of daylight.
Enter Jackrabbit, the second course at Champions, which will co-host along with the Cypress Creek Course during the first two rounds of the tournament. As part of the preparation work, course contractor Heritage Links, the architects at Beau Welling Design, and club Director of Agronomy Chris Ortmeier are busy renovating the bunkers on the Jackrabbit Course to ensure a successful championship.
“When the Open was rescheduled for December, there was concern about the limited amount of daylight that time of year – that it might be difficult to get a full, pre-cut field around a single course on Thursday and Friday, especially if there’s weather,” said Jon O’Donnell, president of Houston-based Heritage Links, a division of Lexicon, Inc.
“No one had anticipated it being thrust into this major championship role — not prior to the rescheduling. But we’re thrilled to be working with Beau and Chris to renovate all the bunkers on the Jackrabbit Course and make sure it’s thoroughly Open ready.”
The Jackrabbit Course, an original George Fazio design, was completely renovated by Tom Fazio in 2001. One of the young architects on the project was Shane Robichaud, today a senior vice president at Beau Welling Design (BWD). The contractor on that job nearly 20 years ago was Heritage Links.
“I’ll admit to a real soft spot for the Jackrabbit Course,” O’Donnell said. “That was our very first renovation job, as a company, here in the U.S. We’re honored to be part of the team getting it ready for the Women’s Open. And shoot, it’s basically right across the street from our headquarters here in Houston.”
“Shane and I have enjoyed a relationship with the Burkes (family) and the team at Champions for more than 20 years,” adds Beau Welling, BWD founder and president. “We were happy to help out with this expedited project. We were already working in Texas with Heritage on another project (the new PGA of America development in Frisco). So, we have easily been able to provide some guidance on the bunker restoration, which has gone very well. The visual drama of the golf course is back.”
Heritage Links is no stranger to major golf championship venues. In 2019, Heritage renovated Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., in preparation for the 2030 PGA Championship (and the 2021 Senior PGA). The firm built Chambers Bay GC in Tacoma, Washington, site of the 2017 U.S. Open, renovated Liberty National ahead of the recent President’s Cup, and prepped Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., and Trump National Doral in Miami ahead of their respective World Golf Championship engagements.
In regards to Champions, “Once we learned of the USGA’s intentions to use both golf courses, the plans evolved quickly, from just pulling old sand and rebuilding the bunkers in place (with new liners and drainage), to something more forward-looking,’’ said Heritage VP of Strategic Planning Doug Wright. “The club saw this as an opportunity to aesthetically enhance the bunkers, which really had not been touched since 2001.”
Even with all the issues relating to the pandemic, Wright said the project has gone smoothly. The bunkers are scheduled to be completely ready for member play come September 2020.
“Our clear, No. 1 goal was to improve playability for the championship in December,” Wright said. “That means premium sand, new liners and a overall playability that is equal to what players will experience on the Cypress Creek Course. With the field of competitors utilizing each course Thursday and Friday, that was a prerequisite.”
The club also called on BWD and Heritage to create a consistent aesthetic for the Jackrabbit’s 47 bunkers, along with improved design characteristics that addressed maintenance issues and playability for its members.
“We needed to reestablish some consistency along the edges,” said Chris Ortmeier, director of agronomy at Champions GC. “Nothing radical in terms of change. Over the last several years, large rain events have washed out some of the steeper faces compromising the stability of the grass edges. In addition, many of the bunkers had actually shrunk in size due to the encroachment of the surrounding bermudagrass. As with any course over two decades, things change.”
Photo: Jackrabbit Course (Heritage Links)