National environmental award winner James J. Roney Jr., has Saucon Valley Country Club’s Old Course in Bethlehem, Pa., ready to host the best female golfers in the world at the U.S. Women’s Open, July 9-12. Roney was the national private and overall winner of the 2008 Golf Course Superintendents Association of America/Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf Awards sponsored by Rain Bird and Syngenta. He is the first reigning overall winner to host a major.
Roney is a GCSAA Class A member and has been the director of golf course and grounds at Saucon Valley since 2005, the same year the U.S. Women’s Open was awarded to the club. He oversaw an extensive restoration of the Old Course in 2007, by Tom Marzolf, senior design associate for Tom Fazio Design. Marzolf directed key changes in bunkering through both relocation and layout lengthening to reflect the modern game, enlarged four greens and softened their contouring.
“It’s a much different golf course,” Roney told GCM Senior Staff Writer Terry Ostmeyer in the June issue of GCSAA’s official magazine. “While the bones of the course remain the same, we’ve lengthened and strengthened it. We’ve gone from a three-tee to a five-tee setup which allows more flexibility in golf course setup. We also made the bunkers relevant again by returning them to their original architectural intent.”
Roney also added to facility-wide drainage improvements that were instrumental in recent environmental acclaim. The more than 17 miles of drainage installed over the past four years has also been instrumental in drying out and firming up Saucon Valley following the four inches of rain received the week of the U.S. Open.
“I don’t know where we’d be without the drainage,” Roney told Mark Wogenrich of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call in a June 24 article. “A few years ago, after rain like this, the course would have been unplayable.”
“One of the things that this place always suffered from was that it was a very soft golf course,” USGA Senior Director of Rules and Competitions Mike Davis, told The Morning Call. “Maybe the most important thing Jim Roney and his staff have done is the thing you don’t even see. Because of the drainage work, the course is playing so much better. It’s just a firmer golf course. That makes for a much better championship test.”
With the graduated rough in place to grant players only a few yards from the fairway more options, plus five teeing grounds per hole at Davis’ disposal, Roney’s tournament preparations meld perfectly with the USGA’s desires for the flexibility in course setup and variability in the players’ course management each day.
“Mike Davis will have the flexibility here to set up some short par 4s and long par 3s on certain days, and the other way around on other days,” Roney said. “No. 10 could possibly play as a 240-yard par 4, which could be tempting to go for if someone needed to make up some strokes in the last round. USGA championships separate the very best from the best and we just want it to be fair.”
The 2009 U.S. Women’s Open will be the sixth USGA national championship held at Saucon Valley’s Old Course. The others were the 1951 U.S. Amateur, the 1983 U.S. Junior Amateur, the 1987 U.S. Senior Amateur, and the 1992 and 2000 U.S. Senior Opens.
Roney, a 15-year GCSAA member, procured Growing Greener grants totaling $391,202 from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to complete assessments of the stream, trout habitat, and a streambank restoration and stabilization plan for the 2.3 miles of Saucon Creek that flows through the country club’s property. Roney completed 1,700 lineal feet of streambank restoration in 2008.
Chemical and biological testing done to Saucon Creek the last four years as part of Saucon Valley Country Club’s Water Quality Management Program indicates the water exiting the property is of better quality than when it enters. And using electrofishing studies, Saucon Valley has found that its natural brown trout numbers have flourished.
With the support of the Saucon Sanctuary Committee, a group of members and staff organized to advise environmental stewardship efforts at the club, Roney converted more than 20 acres of out-of-play areas to naturalized low-maintenance meadow where the wild turkey population has tripled. Saucon Valley established a 12-mile nature walk that includes 26 bluebird nesting sites, 12 bat boxes and 22 owl boxes.
Saucon Valley Country Club is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and has created partnerships with Wildlands Conservancy, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Trout Unlimited, Land Studies Environmental Engineering and the Saucon Creek Watershed Committee.
The USGA will set up the Old Course at par 71 and over 6,700 yards, about the same as the last men’s U.S. Senior Open there. The Old Course features medium-sized, bentgrass greens with slopes and mounds to reward the well-placed iron shot. They will be rolling 12 feet on the stimpmeter. The bentgrass/Poa annua fairways are defined by mature evergreens and hardwood trees, drawing near Saucon Creek on five different holes. The Kentucky bluegrass/perennial ryegrass rough starts at 1 1/2 inches high closest to the fairway, 2 1/2 inches six feet out, and four inches 20 feet out.
The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America is a leading golf organization and has as its focus golf course management. Since 1926, GCSAA has been the top professional association for the men and women who manage golf courses in the United States and worldwide. From its headquarters in Lawrence, Kan., the association provides education, information and representation to more than 20,000 members in more than 72 countries. GCSAA’s mission is to serve its members, advance their profession and enhance the enjoyment, growth and vitality of the game of golf. The association’s philanthropic organization, The Environmental Institute for Golf, works to strengthen the compatibility of golf with the natural environment through research grants, support for education programs and outreach efforts. Visit GCSAA at www.gcsaa.org.