For its first few decades after it opened in 1897, Brae Burn Country Club was an acclaimed layout in the upper tier of Massachusetts layouts that hosted national events and some of the biggest names in the game.
In 1906, Harriett Curtis captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the first of three held at the Newton, Massachusetts, layout.
Donald Ross redesigned the course in 1912 and the club’s renown rose when Walter Hagen won the 1919 U.S. Open there. In ’28, Ross was back for more work in preparation for that year’s U.S. Amateur, won by a fellow named Bobby Jones.
Brae Burn hosted Curtis Cup matches in 1958 and 1970, and two more women’s amateurs – with Beth Daniel winning in 1975 and Silvia Cavalleri in 1997.
A guy named Francis Ouimet won the Massachusetts Amateur in 1914, and Eddie Stimpson did the same in 1935.
Not a bad resume.
Brae Burn also had two well-known greenskeepers. John Shanahan tended the turf from 1903 to 1934, followed by Arthur Anderson, who was there from ’35 to ’65.
Shanahan was a longtime member of the USGA Green Section advisory committee and was profiled in a 1921 issue of the Green Section magazine. He is also the designer and builder of the second course at Brae Burn, a nine-hole routing made up of par-3s and par-4s, including a Reverse Redan some consider the best one-shotter on the property.
Anderson also was highly regarded. He penned an article about his methods of getting rid of Poa annua at Brae Burn in a 1953 issue of the same publication.
His bio read in part: “Mr. Anderson, graduate first turf class at UMass, followed Professor Dickinson’s philosophy all through his superintendent years … ‘Let the little grass plant grow! – Don’t force it to grow!’ “
In 2009, Tim Strano took over as superintendent at Brae Burn, the seventh to hold the position in 107 years. He faced a daunting task. The little grass plants were not doing well, and Brae Burn had lost its luster. For more than a decade the membership had made the decision not to aerify greens. By the time the folly of their ways became evident, a quick fix was not possible. In the opinion of one consulting company, the only remedy was to remove the turf on every green of the original 18 and start again.
The job of saving the putting surfaces was so daunting that at least one prospective hire turned down an invitation to apply when the superintendent position opened, fearing it was a situation that could only lead to failure.
Strano thought otherwise, even though conditions were poor.
When he arrived, Strano says the calcium level in the greens was less than half what it should have been. The pH level was 5.3 or lower, magnesium levels were high and thatch was 4 inches thick.
“I could not have enough people on hoses to keep them alive,” he says of the greens. “Anthracnose and nematodes were almost uncontrollable.”
Because of the lack of nutrients, according to Strano, aluminum became available and the roots “had a phenomenon called clubbing. They can’t take anything out of the soil they need.”
Strano says he corrected the nutrient and pH problem as he “made available what’s in the soil” for the plants.
To mitigate the thatch, he took an aggressive path by core aerating with 0.8 tines three times a year, drilled and filled in the spring, used a Graden between those procedures, verticut regularly, utilized a DryJect and an Air2G2, which injects compressed air into the playing surface.
“Now the greens have an environment where they can grow,” Strano says.
Along the way, he also reclaimed lost putting surfaces and convinced the club to take down trees.
Sitting in his office this summer, Strano talks of his tenure.
“It was more difficult than I thought,” he says. “It was harder to manage (member) expectations than manage the turf.”
Strano says some golfers who had not been interrupted in the golf season by aeration for years didn’t approve of his tactics.
“There is no shortcut to good agronomy,” he says he told them. “It costs a lot to do it right. It costs more to do it wrong.”
Strano’s success is evident by the health of his greens and by the fact that the club is once again looking to host state and national golf tournaments.
While there is still much work to be done, the hardest days are behind Strano.
“All I have to worry about is getting out of the way in the morning,” he says.