A very distinctive sound the crack of the driver striking flush against a golf ball once again can be heard through the trees and across the water at old Minot Country Club.
Renamed, reseeded and reopened, the Vardon Golf Club is ready for public use. After a lengthy hiatus forced by flood damage, the course opened for play Saturday.
The scenic layout was on the front line of the disastrous 2011 flood. Dikes protecting the facility were topped or torn apart by the rampaging Souris River. Deep floodwater inundated the course for so long that it killed grass on tees, fairways and greens.
When the water receded, it left behind a heavy layer of silt covering much of the course. The flood's current wreaked havoc on sand traps, too. Repair seemed improbable, too distant to comprehend.
What was once a picturesque mixture of brilliant green hues had been turned to pale gray. Hundreds of evergreens, trees sensitive to too much water, began to turn brown and die. The signature clubhouse, where golfers gathered to discuss shots made and missed and holiday buffets attracted numerous customers, was mangled so badly that it had to be torn down. The swimming pool was damaged beyond repair.
Facing a seemingly impossible task of rebuilding, the Minot Country Club sold the grounds to a group of Minot investors who are passionate about golf and the course they long enjoyed. Months of hard work followed. Remarkably, the golf course that has been part of Minot since 1929, is hosting golfers once again.
"The history of the course is one thing that appealed to us," said John Zimmerman, co-owner. "It has 85 years of history in Minot and still has ties to a lot of the old founders. We kind of look at this as a privilege to put this back together. We think this is going to be a real asset to the community. We are open to the public."
A familiar face at the Vardon Club is Todd Lee, long-time professional who served the old Minot Country Club. Lee has been busy helping oversee renovation projects at the new course, including the restoration and restocking of the Pro Shop, but he is most impressed with the condition of the renovated course.
"There's better conditions on tee boxes and fairways than there was pre-flood. No doubt," said Lee this past week. "I haven't seen grass like this here as long as I can remember. I think we've enhanced the layout and it's going to be a better golf course. Every time I come out here now it is amazing."
Golfers familiar with the previous Country Club will notice changes throughout the course. Some of the changes are subtle; others more obvious. A big change is the mixture of grasses on the fairways. Golf balls sit up on lush landing areas, producing an excellent lie for iron shots. A few sand traps have been added in challenging locations. The overall length of the course has also changed.
"From the back tees it will play a little over 6,600 yards," said Lee. "That's about 300 yards more than what it was before from the championship tees."
Ironically, for the time being, par at the Vardon Club is 71, not 72 as was the old layout. The difference comes from a change on the eighth hole, where a tee box has been moved up as a safety precaution, changing a par 5 to a par 4.
"I think golfers will see a very similar course, at least in elements," said Zimmerman. "The front nine is very similar with some small tweaks on a few holes. Some greens are a little bit larger. On the back nine, where it was hit harder by the flood, we made some changes on some holes. We'll let the golfers experience it. We're interested in what people think about the changes. This is a work in progress."
The contour of several greens has been changed, a process that would normally involve the shutting down of play for several months to allow grass to grow. However, with an entire course to be replanted, the opportunity and time was there to make grade adjustments.
"We know there's going to be some rough edges, but we're fine with that," explained Zimmerman. "Our focus has always been, first and foremost, on the course. We've worked hard to make sure it was ready to go. The integrity of the old course is still very much there."
Floodwater took a toll on trees throughout the course. Many succumbed to sitting in water for too many days. Some were older trees that had grown so large that, over time, golfers had to adjust their shots to avoid them. In all, 550 trees were removed from the course.
"Maybe, in a strange way, Mother Nature was doing some extreme pruning for us," said Zimmerman. "In the same way, it gives us a fresh start on the course. I think we'll see a better quality of play, speedier play as well. The chances of getting caught in a pine tree is a lot less now."
While veteran players of the previous Minot Country Club course will almost certainly notice the absence of some trees, newcomers to the layout are likely to marvel at tree-lined fairways and treed backdrops to greens. Despite the losses, thousands of trees remain throughout the course, giving it a very pleasant and protected appearance.
Even with fewer possibilities of a golf ball ending up on pine straw underneath low, overhanging limbs, the course still delivers an excellent balance of challenging shots for golfers of all skill levels. Additionally, many of the trees that were removed had begun to "choke" certain points on the course. With those trees gone, new grass is responding quickly to additional sunshine.
Although the old clubhouse was razed due to flood damage, the newer Pro Shop building fared far better. It has been completely renovated. The front portion of the building has a similar appearance to the old one, but the back portion has changed significantly. It now houses a bar and grill, complete with an outside deck.
"That gives us a gathering place for golfers to relax before and after a round of golf," said Zimmerman. "The restaurant is open to the public as well."