Mission: Possible
Penn Oaks Golf Club in West Chester proves that, with teamwork, dedication and drive, anything can happen
by Leigh Stuart

Many thought it couldn’t be done, but Penn Oaks Golf Club accomplished the impossible: renovating the entirety of its greens, from dirt to grass, in just 74 days.

Brothers John and Steve DiMarco, along with a likeminded group of associates, purchased the club in 2005 and vowed that, upon taking over the club, they would make it better than ever. They succeeded. Over the course of the decade or so the club has been under their ownership, it has blossomed into a place with rolling greens, challenging holes and a staff that greets every guest with a warm smile, like family.

“We started doing things on both sides of the equation,” Steve says. “We were improving the food, the venue and the golf course, and enhancing the whole clubhouse, from dining facilities to the locker rooms also adding a tented patio and making the grounds more picturesque.”

Everything was looking up for Penn Oaks. Then, tragedy struck.

Last spring, a contaminated fungicide led to the killing off of all the greens throughout the course. The grounds turned fallow, leaving members and staff heartbroken to see the once beautiful course ravaged.

“[The chemical] killed all of our greens,” Steve explains. “It was a total, total, total disaster. By mid-May, the greens were turning black and we were in crisis mode.”

Yet, Penn Oaks refused to stay down. What transpired in the weeks and months following that devastating event was, in Steve’s words, “simply amazing.”

“We had to get a plan together so that we could get the golf course back open and playable as soon as possible,” Steve says. Therefore, utilizing the help of industry experts, the management at Penn Oaks came up with a plan to reconstruct the greens.

“Because of the financial burden we realized we had to do the construction in-house, but [in conjunction with] using the proper consultants including Stephen Kay and [plant pathologist] Steve MacDonald,” says Mark Williams, club superintendent, who also played an integral role in the renovations.

“When we started, we didn’t realize the severity of it,” says Steve, explaining that 16 inches of earth had to be removed in order to refurbish the greens. “We had 74 days to dig up—with backhoes and bulldozers—and tear the whole course apart.”

Few people know the complexities that lie beneath the cheerful, verdant fields golfers play upon. Layers upon layers of gravel, soil and seed make up the earth under players’ feet.

Steve explains that the first hole the group chose to tackle was the ninth; this section alone took nearly two weeks to complete. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “After we started reconstruction of the ninth green, I realized the difficulty of the task at hand and could not believe we only had 74 days to get this done so we could get open for spring.”

From that initial project, one might think such a task would be insurmountable. Yet, with diligence and ingenuity, the Penn Oaks team pressed on.

Steve explains that a meeting with all the members of the Penn Oaks staff was called, and heavy matters were laid bare on the discussion table. The choices were stark; either lay off nearly all of the employees at the club, or involve those same individuals in the renovation process. The choice the team made was to avoid the “easy” road; instead, the entire clubhouse staff rallied together to roll up their sleeves and help the maintenance staff accomplish the task at hand.

“We all went out on the golf course and started working,” Steve says. And when he says “working,” he means it. Penn Oaks’ staff got its hands dirty, working 18 hours a day together in the heat and humidity of summer to lay sod and gravel and puzzle the course back into one piece, one blade of grass at a time.

“The rest of our staff really stepped up to the plate,” says Mark. “If I didn’t have these guys, this staff, we never could’ve gotten this done.”

At the enhanced pace, and with the full cooperation of the entire Penn Oaks staff, they jumped from renovating one green in two weeks to three greens per week.

The staff was, of course, helped along by a dedicated team of professionals—Scott Gallagher, who Steve and colleagues describe as “an artist with a bulldozer,” among them. John and Steve agree that what Scott was able to achieve by sculpting and creating mounds, bunkers and hollows throughout the course was nothing short of remarkable.

Of note, the Penn Oaks team didn’t just seek to rebuild the course as it was. Because the undertaking was so massive, the team turned tragedy into an opportunity by making the greens even better than they had been before.

The team, John says, “showed their dedication, how strong they were, and how committed they were to not getting course to where it was but getting it to another level.”

For example, the renovation team chose to install a new variety of creeping bentgrass known as “007,” which is a particularly agreeable strain of tough yet yielding turf that has brought new vigor to the whole of Penn Oaks. In addition, the course architecture evolved to provide fairer cupping space around the greens, thereby enhancing the putting experience for members and guests alike.

Moreover, Penn Oaks, in partnership with golf course designer Kay, now has a “master plan” featuring a host of improvements beyond the $2 million already spent on renovations that will be hitting the course in the near future.

“We think [members] are going to be very favorable to the changes because they will be fairly challenged on these greens,” Williams says. “Continued course improvements are in our future plans driving us toward ‘simply perfect.’”

“Our greens were always great,” John adds, “but through [the team’s] ingenuity and my brother’s, we weathered the storm, and I see a brighter future ahead for the golf club.”

Penn Oaks Golf Club
150 Penn Oaks Drive
West Chester, PA 19382

Photograph by Jody Robinson