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Northampton Country Club confronts tree damage, and a healthy golf course grows anew (Aug 11)

August 11, 2015 – As their trees began to yellow and shrivel – the trees that had grown to define their club – the members of Northampton Country Club grew unsettled. What was happening to their golf course?

Ed Gross said he was anxious, too. In the spring of 2011, Northampton’s golf-course superintendent had applied a new weed-control product near trees across the property. And many of those trees began to die.

But four years later, the golf course at Northampton is alive with promise, renovated and restored to its century-old roots. Though about 550 trees are gone – nearly 500 because of herbicide damage – the course in Bethlehem Township is now airy, vibrant and more playable.

Without the widespread tree damage, and the settlement that it produced, Northampton Country Club likely wouldn’t be near the end of a long restoration plan.

“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” club President Joe DeCapua said. “We just didn’t know it at the time.”

Earlier this summer, Northampton Country Club, the Lehigh Valley’s oldest golf course, reopened all 18 of its renovated greens, among the last major works of a two-year project. During that time, the club augmented its significant tree-removal plan with bunker, green and tee-box renovations that both restored and energized the course, which dates to 1915.

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Northampton embarked on the ambitious project after settling its claim with DuPont, maker of the herbicide known as Imprelis. Used by golf-course superintendents, landscapers and homeowners nationwide, Imprelis not only killed weeds but also spruce and pine trees growing near them.

DuPont pulled Imprelis from the market in August 2011, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the product not be sold soon after. The damage caused by Imprelis produced a class action lawsuit in which nearly 25,000 claimants received almost $400 million.

Northampton Country Club did not join the suit, choosing instead to settle with DuPont separately. The damage, DeCapua said, was too far-reaching to be settled under a class action. The club wasn’t alone. According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, DuPont has paid out more than $1 billion in settlements with claimants.

“We felt that, because of the amount of damage we had, it was going to impact the club tremendously,” DeCapua said. “We felt we had a really good case going forward, and it turned out we did.”

Gross maintained that case by meticulously tracking the damage over the summer and fall of 2011. Upon settling, Northampton Country Club faced a decision: how much to renovate.

The club had hired Forse Design, a western Pennsylvania course firm, in 2000 to produce a master plan for renovations. Northampton’s course, though popular with members and guests, had become overgrown through years of tree-planting. Further, the greens had become oval-shaped, losing the characteristic angularity of their original design.

Northampton had implemented some elements of the master plan, but in 2013 the club was prepared to commit to a bigger project. That year, Jim Nagle of Forse Design produced a new, enhanced plan that addressed bunkers, greens and playing strategies.

Part of that plan involved removing trees, which had its pros and cons. The pines and spruce, some of them 100 years old, had become part of the course’s identity, DeCapua said. Members at first were hesitant about such a course-altering project.

“Sure, it’s tough to make changes,” said head professional Gary Hardin, who has been at Northampton since 1990. “Some of the members have been here 30, 40, 50 years, and they see the place daily. All of a sudden, you’re taking away what they remember as the heritage of their club.

“But when we first ran into this situation, we knew the course wasn’t going to be what it was. And in order to reinvent ourselves and become viable, the architects took a healthy look at the place and worked with our committee to come up with what we feel is a pretty good plan.”

The tree-removal opened Northampton’s sight lines and air flow, helping restore both views and turf health. Bunkers were added in some spots where trees once towered, changing some playing strategies.

“Part of Northampton’s look and culture and appeal was the pines,” DeCapua said. “It was a change, but most of the members now love the look of the course.”

Ten of the course’s greens were expanded, and four were rebuilt completely, in one of the project’s most significant components. The green work was conducted from last summer through this spring, with a soft reopening held Memorial Day weekend.

Some new tee boxes were built, with about 120 yards added to the championship tees, though length wasn’t a primary concern of the restoration. Club officials wanted a healthy course that members still could walk and that hewed closer to its original design.

The work isn’t finished at Northampton, which successfully hosted the Lehigh Valley Open through its construction. The driving range is scheduled for renovation, and Gross said he has to be delicate in maintaining the new greens.

In all, though, Northampton’s renovation has been successful – even though members’ scores have gone up this season.

“When all this stuff happened, it gave us a headache but also an opportunity,” Hardin said. “Now, we feel we’re in a pretty good position for the future.”

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