The sight of dump trucks and front end loaders has been as common as golf carts scurrying down the fairways at the Country Club of Charleston. The revving of diesel engines and the beeping from heavy equipment backing up have been commonplace at the nearly century-old facility built on the confluence of Wappoo Creek and the Ashley River.
All of the activity serves as a reminder that the biggest tournament in women's golf, the U.S. Women's Open, is headed to the Country Club of Charleston a year from now.
The improvements have been massive. The club's golf shop operated out of a trailer as a new facility was built that boasts not only a golf shop and expanded club storage but also houses a new eight-lane pool, a 3,100-square foot fitness facility and a massive outdoor deck.
Immediately in front of this new facility and also a few hundred yards away on the 17th hole, backhoe operators have been busy digging and reshaping the soil, part of an ongoing restoration and renovation project of the course originally built in 1925 by Seth Raynor.
The slightly elevated tee on the first hole has been lowered to ground level and golfers will walk straight out of the new golf shop to hit their opening shots. Alongside the first tee, a practice putting green has been expanded from 4,500 to 6,000 square feet and adjacent to that a bunker on the par-5 ninth hole has been rebuilt.
The bunkering on the par-3 17th hole has been expanded, turning it into an island green, its only access hidden from the golfer's view from the tee.
The new golf shop, fitness and pool facility, the new tee on No. 1 and the bunkering on 17 completed in May were projects to meet the needs of a vibrant and growing country club. The upgrades weren't made because of the U.S. Women's Open, but will certainly enhance it for players and spectators.
Only 52 weeks away
As the general chairman of the 2018 U.S. Women's Open being played this week at Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club in Birmingham, Matthew Dent speaks from experience when he says the Country Club of Charleston's focal point is no longer the facilities.
"At this point, it's really all about building support within the local community," Dent said. "There's a lot of effort that goes into that. For the next year it will really be paramount for the championship committee to continue working on communicating with the fans."
Dent said that includes getting information out about what the parking plan will be, how people can volunteer and where to purchase tickets for the 2019 event scheduled for May 30-June 2.
Country Club of Charleston member Frank Ford III is Dent's contemporary for the 2019 U.S. Women's Open and is well aware of the challenges that must be met for the event to be successful.
"I think at this point in time my job as general chair is to bring all the constituencies that are involved together, the state, the county, the city, the USGA (U.S. Golf Association), the club and obviously the business community," Ford said. "I must have 50 or 60 people that are working for me as volunteers. Those jobs in and of themselves are as time-consuming as possibly could be. A lot of people are doing a lot of work."
Ford said major priorities are corporate sales and hospitality and volunteers. The volunteer program is going exceedingly well, he said, and ticket sales began this week.
"We have a goal we would like to meet on corporate hospitality and are doing fairly well but I would like to be further down the road. The USGA and their organization seems to be happy with where we are," Ford said.
Spoleto, housing and parking
The biggest event in women's golf and Spoleto, one of America's major performing arts festivals, will be going head to head competing for entertainment dollars and hotel rooms in Charleston a year from now.
"When I went to (then Charleston mayor) Joe Riley with the invitation in hand, I asked 'How do you feel about having the U.S. Women's Open in the city limits?' He said it was great, that he loved the idea," Ford recalled. "My next statement was that there was one problem, it would be taking place during Spoleto. He told me that hotel rooms wouldn't be a problem, that the Spoleto crowd was much more local than you might believe."
Ford said that every major event has positives and negatives, and that the U.S. Women's Open committee is working to turn the pairing with Spoleto into a positive.
"We've reached out to Spoleto and are putting together ticket packages that might include some of their events," Ford said. "We're going to be bringing 10,000 to 15,000 people to the city that week from offshore. Women's golf is a much more international game and a lot of people will be coming to town, eating our food, will see (the Women's Open) and also attend Spoleto. We are trying to turn that into a win-win for everybody."
The other inevitable question that arises when a major golf tournament chooses Charleston is where are spectators going to park. The Country Club of Charleston is in the middle of a neighborhood and has limited parking that will be gobbled up by players.
"You would be amazed at how many parking places are close by," Ford said. "I can say confidently that we have enough parking places. We just have to choose which venues we are going to end up using."
Places like the North Charleston Coliseum and Citadel Mall are possibilities. Ford said the committee also has worked with the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, which owns adjacent McLeod Plantation, and a lot of VIP parking will be located there. The College of Charleston has large intramural fields adjacent to James Island County Park that are a possibility.
"If you can have a U.S. Open at Merion (in suburban Philadelphia), you can have a Women's Open at the Country Club of Charleston," Ford said.
Few stones have been left unturned when it comes to addressing traffic and parking, right down to the times when the Wappoo Cut Bridge will open. Ford said the Country Club of Charleston had radio and phone contact with the bridge and the Coast Guard during the Women's Amateur and has made plans for emergencies such as the bridge being stuck open and players having difficulty making their tee times.
Staying on course
While the tournament itself is a year away, the fairways and rough lines already are being delineated.
Shannon Rouillard, U.S. Women's Open championship director, and Paul Corder, the golf course superintendent at the Country Club of Charleston, have walked the course and painted lines to be used for mowing fairways, and intermediate cut and rough lines.
Hart Brown, the Country Club of Charleston's director of sports, said Corder's crew has begun mowing the different cuts as this year's growing season kicks in. A lot of the fairways have been brought in.
Corder has been superintendent at the Country Club of Charleston since 2004 and prior to that served as superintendent for four PGA Tour Kemper Opens at the TPC at Avenel in Maryland.
"Have the golf course in as good a shape as we can get it, that's the goal," Corder said. "Obviously, this golf course isn't that long for that quality of golfer so we have to try and make it a little more challenging on and around the greens."
As the person in charge of growing and maintaining the turf, Corder said a later date would suit him better because it would offer more recovery time should there be weather issues.
"Strictly because of what happens over the winter, we don't have enough time to recover if we have a challenge during the winter," Corder explained.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew meandered up the East Coast and pounded Charleston. Hurricane Irma in September 2017 tracked through the Gulf Coast but its storm surge flooded the golf course and Corder and his crew are still battling its effects.
Unlike many area golf courses, the Country Club of Charleston was able to dodge a big bullet in January with the extended freeze. When the air temperature reached 32 degrees, Corder made the decision to turn on the irrigation system. The ensuing layer of ice helped protect the grass below from the 20-degree temperatures that followed.
"Either we were real lucky or what Paul did saved (the greens)," Brown said. "We have to give him a pat on the back. He really made this golf course survive."
'This is huge for Charleston'
Brown said the effort the club put into the 2013 Women's Amateur was a big factor in landing the U.S. Women's Open.
"Charleston is such a cool place. The players loved it and the club did such a good job running the event with our Southern hospitality," Brown said. "They wanted to come back. This is huge for Charleston, huge for South Carolina. This is not just a club event. This is a Charleston and South Carolina event and that's how we are pushing it."
Beth Daniel, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who grew up at the Country Club of Charleston, and entertainer Darius Rucker, now a member of the club, are serving as honorary co-chairpersons for the tournament.
Ford said the tournament attendance goal is 100,000 for the six days the event is open to the public. The Monday prior to the tournament is Memorial Day and the course will be closed to spectators.
Ford said the club will be prepared to handle up to 135,000 people for the tournament.
"I think for the city, certainly for golf fans and sports fans and young people, we're going to bring a show to town that's going to be exciting and fun to be a part of. That's what we hope people will buy into."