Novelist Thomas Wolfe told us “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Dick Stuntz’s return to Alvamar Golf Club is not a permanent homecoming, but for as long as he is there, he plans to enjoy every minute of it – and prove Wolfe wrong.
For almost 30 years, Stuntz’s drive to work was no more than an eight iron from doorstep to doorstep.
Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kansas, was his second home, although truth be told, he spent more time there than anywhere else. Not only did he excel directing golf course maintenance operations there, but the former All-Big Eight Conference golfer at Iowa State also wielded a pretty mean stick, frequently playing the 36-hole layout. So when he retired in 2012, he knew there was a good chance that his days there – at least with course responsibilities – were over.
But Stuntz is back, and one only has to see the bounce in his step, the sparkle in his eyes and the smile on his face to know he indeed has returned home. His role is different this time around, serving as an independent consultant to Fritzel Construction, the new owners of the golf club. His duties – and the route he took in his return – are an interesting case study in their own right.
Stuntz arrived at Alvamar in January 1983 after serving six years in a similar capacity at Ames Country Club in Iowa. However, his first visit to the facility came a few years prior, competing in the Kansas Open Golf Tournament. It was at that time he had a fortuitous meeting with Bob Billings, founder and president of Alvamar Inc. The company was the owner of the Alvamar golf and recreation facilities, as well as several hundred acres of development property in the area. When Billings went searching for a superintendent in late 1982, his first and only call went to Stuntz.
“Alvamar had an outstanding reputation,” Stuntz said. “It was really the first course in the Kansas City region to bring country club-like conditions to a public golf course. You also had a man in Bob Billings who was a visionary and let his people do their thing. The first superintendent, Mel Anderson, did a great job to make Alvamar a well-conditioned course. It was a wonderful opportunity for me.”
Billings and the Alvamar Inc. board of directors recognized Stuntz’s talents immediately, as did many others. He was elevated from superintendent to vice president, then, after Billings’ death, to interim general manager and then president. If golfers and outside group events cramming the course weren’t enough, there was the steady stream of superintendents and others in the industry wanting to learn from Stuntz’s knowledge about course management.
Stuntz: Get Out and Play
Dick Stuntz is a five-time U.S. Mid-Am qualifier (having reached the quarterfinals of match play in 1988), was an All-Big Eight Conference performer at Iowa State University in 1974 and won the 1993 GCSAA golf championship. He makes no apologies for regularly playing the game.
Stuntz credits his knowledge of the game and the rules with putting him in position to oversee the re-routing of the Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kansas. Without it, he readily admits he would not be capable of handling the assignment. It is also the reason he was able to do a considerable amount of the work through his years as superintendent at Alvamar with his own staff, rather than hiring outside firms.
“Superintendents need to get out and play,” Stuntz said. “I know it can get tough, especially in the summer, but it is important to play your course. Even if the superintendent is not a low handicapper, just playing the course, learning the rules and etiquette and being an enjoyable playing partner will go a long way toward strengthening your job performance and credibility with your members and patrons.”
“Dick’s so good,” says Darin Pearson, general manager/superintendent at Eagle Bend Golf Course and a 19-year understudy to Stuntz. “People reached out to him because he had such a great knowledge of turfgrass, drainage, irrigation and the game itself. He was so good at helping you see the big picture. He had the respect of everybody – the board, the members, superintendents, you name it. Dick was the go-to-guy.”
But the death of Billings, a college teammate of the legendary Wilt Chamberlain at the University of Kansas, cast a pall on the Alvamar development, which included the golf course. In 2010, the course was put up for sale, and in early 2011, the board opted to hire a management company in a cost-cutting measure. The board so respected Stuntz that they not only kept him on as president, but also had the management company hire him as the general manager.
“Bob Billings was Alvamar, but Dick Stuntz was the person who made it go,” said Richard Konzem, former GCSAA chief operating officer. “He is so well respected. He is such a great listener and a great communicator.”
Stuntz made the decision to retire in February 2012 to devote time to his own golf properties and start a golf management company aimed at helping small-budget courses. He even made a run at building a coalition to buy Alvamar.
“Bob Billings was an amazing person with such love for Lawrence,” Stuntz said. “Alvamar golf course and the development associated with it were crucial to the growth of the city. I don’t think a community of this size anywhere has seen anything like this. So it was tough to watch the struggle to sell the course. When I stepped down, I really wasn’t sure if I was done because there was a chance I would be part of an ownership group.”
Ultimately the board did not accept the bid from Stuntz’s group. He was realistic and accepting that his days as a part of the Alvamar team were done. It wasn’t as if he had nothing to do. In addition to his course ownership and consulting management, he serves on the board of directors for the National Golf Course Owners Association (he is currently the vice president).
“I loved my time at Alvamar,” Stuntz said. “The board, the members, the pubic and the staff were great. I had chances to leave earlier in my career, but this is where I wanted to be. Even after leaving in 2012, I stayed around. I became of member of the club, still owned shares of Alvamar Inc. stock and interacted with the staff.”
Alvamar was ultimately sold in 2015 to the Fritzel family, owners of Fritzel Construction. The plan was to significantly alter the footprint of the 36-hole facility (18 private and 18 public). The number of holes would be reduced to 27 (all private), with new housing development to be added, including single-family and multifamily units.
“I had reached out the Fritzel family and offered to help them – I figured I knew the course as well as anyone,” Stuntz said. “Over the next few months I would get a few emails. Then we had a few conversations. I really did not think I would be involved until I was asked to sit in on some presentations with golf course architects about the project. After doing that, the Fritzel people asked me if I had some ideas, and I gave them my thoughts. Then they asked me to be involved.”
In April 2016 Stuntz was back on the Alvamar grounds as a golf course designer, charged with working a golf course redesign around new housing development. It was not, however, a project for which Stuntz was starting from scratch.
Alvamar: The Second Home of GCSAA
This past fall, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) recognized its 90th anniversary.
Sylvania Country Club in Ohio was the birthplace of the association, serving as the venue where on Sept. 13, 1926, 60 greenkeepers met for the purpose of networking and education. It was here that they formalized their association.
Alvamar Golf Club in Lawrence, Kansas, also figures prominently in the development of GCSAA — and in a most unusual way. As GCSAA grew, its leaders determined that a permanent headquarters and professional staff would be necessary to support it. Before then, the headquarters moved around to where the executive director lived. A request for proposal was sent out in the early 1970s, and after an exhaustive process, an agreement in principle was reached to purchase land and build an office in metropolitan Kansas City.
The deal fell through, however, and the board was back in the market. While they were in Kansas City, they decided to visit Alvamar, some 40 miles to the west. They wanted to visit because the facility was purported to be the first golf course in the United States to be built with zoysia fairways and tees (this has not been disproved).
While meeting with superintendent Mel Anderson, the board was introduced to Alvamar founder and president Bob Billings (the course was named after his father, Alva, and mother, Margaretta). A college teammate of NBA basketball hall of famer Wilt Chamberlain, Billings ended up making the GCSAA board a deal it could not refuse. Overlooking the 16th hole, the first permanent office for the association opened in 1974.
“Bob Billings had the utmost respect for superintendents,” Stuntz said. “He was always supportive of my staff and enjoyed hosting association events. It was just another visionary move by him. He knew it would be good for the city to have a national association headquartered here.”
The association outgrew the building and, thanks again to an attractive offer by Billings, broke ground on land he had owned in the early 1990s to construct the current headquarters. It is located approximately 1 mile west of the original office building.
“I think every golf course superintendent has sketched out plans on how their course could be changed,” Stuntz said. “I am not a professional architect by any means, but I think my knowledge of Alvamar, irrigation, the game of golf, etc., gave me the background knowledge and skill set to do the re-routing. I recommended we bring in an independent shaper to work the project, and we have done that. It’s definitely a team effort working alongside superintendent Mike Marshall and his team.”
Pearson and Marshall are not surprised Stuntz was asked to lead the project. They point to the fact that he led numerous improvements from adding new tee boxes, rebuilding bunkers, renovating greens, upgrading the irrigation system, building a turf nursery and more.
“I would say this is somewhat of a destiny for Dick,” said Marshall, who is also back for a second go-around at Alvamar after serving as the superintendent for the private course from 1985 to 1990. “He had the vision for this a long time ago. He knew there might be a time when a project like this might come along, so he had this well-thought out. Alvamar is not just a golf course to him. Having Dick do the redesign has a certain amount of symmetry.”
The project, which Stuntz indicates does not have a targeted completion date because of the need to coordinate golf course and development work, will not close the golf course. He indicated that 18 of the eventual 27-hole final product will remain open. The front nine of the private course will remain as is for the most part. The holes affected will be the back nine of the private side and all 18 public holes.
In the re-routing, Stuntz said 16 of the new 18 holes of the championship course will be played to existing greens. Because the goal of the redesign is to be able to host college-level events, considerable length will be added to the championship 18. In order to accommodate membership play, five sets of tees will used with the yardage ranging from 7,485 yards from the “Jayhawk” tees to 4,865 yards from the forward tees. Noting the course was “bunker poor,” Stuntz said 25 new bunkers will be added along with a rebuilding of those that remain.
Other new amenities will be a swimming pool, fitness center, renovated clubhouse and enhanced practice area and facility for the Kansas men’s and women’s golf teams.
“It’s quite a project,” he said. “It’s the biggest one here since construction. But I am excited about it. I’m having the time of my life. It’s more fun than I thought it would be. It feels great to be here.”