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Black Butte renovation is sign of the times

It's doubtful that when John Fought designed Centennial Golf Club, the renowned course architect had an inkling it would be among his last start-ups for a while.

But that's a distinction his southeast Medford endeavor, which opened in the spring of 2006, has.

"Things are a little slow right now," said Fought, who has had only a couple openings since.

Welcome to the state of the business, circa 2012.

In what industry experts say is an overdue correction, courses are closing at a much greater rate than they are being built.

An influx of courses in the 1990s saturated the market and outpaced player growth by an astounding margin. Even the Rogue Valley kept in step, as four courses were built over three years, ending with Eagle Point in 1996.

Now, Fought's focus — and that of most of his cohorts — is on renovation of existing facilities, like Black Butte Ranch's Glaze Meadow, which is slated for a full opening June 30 after having been closed for 11/2 years.

Fought and Co. coaxed the Central Oregon resort track into the 21st century, hoping to once again make it an appealing partner to the ranch's other course, Big Meadow.

"The era of building $25 million golf courses is over," Fought said during a sneak preview of Glaze Meadow last weekend. "How many courses do you know that can average $250 a round. It's just not gonna happen. People are back to reality now."

The National Golf Foundation reported in March that the U.S. lost 1571/2 courses — nine-hole courses represent a half — in 2011. Only 19 new ones opened.

Since the market correction in golf course supply began in 2006, there's been a net loss of 358.5 courses, or 2.4 percent off the peak supply year of 2005.

The number of courses has grown by 30 percent since 1991, while the number of golfers grew by only 6.5 percent, according to the NGF.

Fought welcomes the correction for the health of the game and because he's able to do the work he most enjoys.

While he's pleased with Centennial — a project that couldn't be more different than Glaze Meadow — it didn't represent his love for old-style course work in the manner favored by the likes of Donald Ross in the 1920s.

Through renovation, Fought has the best of both worlds: He works with venerable courses but uses modern equipment and state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Glaze Meadow was a project Fought yearned to do. A native Oregonian whose operation is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., it allowed him to return to his home state.

Further, his brother, Jeff, is director of golf at Black Butte.

John wasn't in the initial screening group of a half-dozen architects.

"My brother was nervous it would seem like a conflict of interest," he said. Then, with a grin, he added, "I don't know why."

Glaze Meadow was designed by Bunny Mason and built in 1978. In 30 years, the mountain course had become overgrown by towering pines and aspens. So thick were the trees that they choked off sunlight to the course, hung over hitting areas and spread roots under greens, compromising them in the process.

Antiquated irrigation and drainage systems hindered maintenance.

Play at Glaze Meadow had dipped to about 13,000 rounds a year when it closed in September 2010, said Jeff Fought. At it's peak in 2005, the course did about 20,000 rounds, helping the ranch to more than 50,000 annually.

"Big Meadow had stayed steady and had even gone up despite increased competition in the area," said Scott Huntsman, president and CEO of Black Butte. "Even through the recession, we were growing at Big Meadow, but we were losing rounds at Glaze Meadow pretty steadily."

Fought sold himself to the ranch's board of directors, then went to work on the $3.75 million project.

He didn't make many friends at the outset because tree removal — by the thousands — was necessary. He estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 trees were taken out. It sounds like a lot, he conceded, until you realize there are maybe 200,000 on the property. Pulling 1 or 2 percent of them didn't seem so bad.

Nevertheless, his brother and the home owners were uneasy as the trees fell.

"With me," said John, "it's get out of the way, I'm gonna fix this. I'm always very unpopular at the beginning of projects, and I'm OK with that because I know what it's going to be like at the end."

He figured he could make Glaze Meadow "300 percent better," and no one seems to be disputing his success.

Except for the first couple holes — where the greatest changes took place — the routing is largely the same. But all of the tees, greens and bunkers are new and every fairway was reseeded. Tree removal allowed for the widening of fairways and the addition of rough between fairways and trees.

In modernizing the course, Fought increased the size of the greens from an average of about 4,000 square feet to about 6,250, he said.

When Glaze Meadow was built, fairways were typically 300 feet wide, said Fought. Now they're about 400 feet.

"Trying to get those same modern playing characteristics in a 300-foot corridor is much harder," he said.

He also added nearly 500 yards to its length.

The original design was funky in some ways.

Norm Veronneau, of Medford, and a group of friends visited Black Butte for 10 years and routinely played both courses before work on Glaze Meadow began.

"On some of the holes," he said, "you couldn't hit a driver because if you did, it would go through the fairway and out into somebody's back yard. The next thing you know, you're done."

In particular, that was the case on the first hole, a downhill par 5 with so many turns it was better suited for a toboggan than a Titleist. It turned left, then right and had a big tree in the middle of the fairway.

"You'd have to hit like a 5-iron around the corner," said Veronneau.

Fought turned the tricky par 5 that left an unfavorable impression on some golfers into a par 4 that doglegs right and has plenty of hitting room.

He then converted the second hole from a par 5 to a 4.

He straightened out the third hole so players don't have to horseshoe a shot around a lake.

As is seen at Centennial, where Fought opens play with a comfortable par 4 with a wide fairway and big green — the better to ease one's way into a round — Glaze Meadow now has those characteristics.

Even better, the removal of trees on the first couple holes opened a spectacular view from the clubhouse of shimmering lake and wetlands beyond the first green.

Another hole that benefited immensely from tree removal was No. 16, said Fought, opening up a tight par 4.

"It's fun to take one of the worst holes and make it one of the best," said Fought.

Cliff Cowley, an English teacher at Scenic Middle School in Central Point and a freelance golf writer, played Glaze Meadow during the preview.

He had taken a tour of the course as it was getting its face lift and is pleased with the results.

"I thought it was great," he said, noting how nicely it had grown in and that fewer bunkers, compared to its sister course, is an enhancement. "It's more attuned to the regular golfer and families. It has a degree of difficulty, but it has generous fairways and bunkers in strategic places."

It won't take long for Glaze Meadow to be put to the test. It will be in the rotation when the Oregon Mid-Amateur is played at Black Butte in September.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com