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Port Royal Golf Club PGA Grand Slam of Golf
Port Royal's breathtaking par-3 16th ranks as one of the world's most famous holes. (Photo: Port Royal Golf Course)

Re-built Port Royal re-emerges as one of Bermuda's gems

Time, the elements and literally millions of golf spikes can conspire to wear the luster off even the most brilliant of golf courses. But as is being proven at Port Royal Golf Course in Bermuda, the new home of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, it's amazing what a talented architect, a tireless crew and an accommodating ownership can achieve. Call it, Extreme Makeover: Golf Course Edition.

By T.J. Auclair, Interactive Producer

When the PGA Grand Slam of Golf -- the game's most exclusive foursome, which includes the winners of the year's four majors -- tees off at its new home later this year, you'll be taken by the natural beauty of Bermuda's Port Royal Golf Course on the island's south shore.

After a two-year run up the road at another Bermudian gem in Mid Ocean Club, the Grand Slam has moved to Port Royal, a government-owned public course ranked among the world's best by Golf Digest.

While Port Royal, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, has been around since 1970, trust us when we tell you there will be a different look when the Grand Slam comes to town.

Call it, Extreme Makeover: Golf Course Edition.

Port Royal has always been held in high regard because of its magnificent layout. However, over the years the quality of the course deteriorated. That's what happens on a small island forever exposed to the elements.

Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Port Royal has its share of wind, which never helped the bunkers. And, for a country whose primary source of water is rainfall, well, you can imagine what type of havoc that can cause when it comes to irrigating a world-class golf destination.

For those reasons and because of the exposure Bermuda had already received in hosting the Grand Slam at Mid Ocean, everyone knew it was time to give Port Royal that much-needed upgrade.

"The biggest challenge was for the board of directors or the government to say, 'Yes, it's a go,'" said Bill Pitt, the general manager of Port Royal. "Then the challenge after that was to get it started so that it could finish as soon as possible. That also was tough because you have to pick your contractors and have them put in place.

"So the plan in general was a challenge because we were trying to turn it around so quickly."

That's where Boston-based architect Roger Rulewich entered the equation.

Rulewich, who spent several years working for Jones and even helped on the initial construction of Port Royal more than 30 years ago, was the obvious choice to head the restoration project.

Along with maintaining the integrity of the layout set forth by Jones, Rulewich could give Port Royal his own twist because of his knowledge of the property, the weather patterns in Bermuda and his passion to breathe some life into a tarnished gem.

"Some of these remodeling projects are very small and modest," Rulewich said. "Sometimes we close a course and redo the entire thing. Sometimes the initial problems are more work than the people originally thought, but when they shut down you can do an entire project. When a client is willing to close you can get at it, not have to work around play and get it done more quickly."

And that's precisely what Port Royal did. It shut down completely and in January of 2008, Rulewich and his crew got to work re-grassing the property so it would have time to germinate. Talk about a quick turnaround: Port Royal is on schedule to re-open on June 1, just 18 months after breaking ground on this massive project.

"With a short timeframe, it means you have to work efficiently and quickly," said Rulewich, who was able to get Port Royal an extra 300 yards in length to 6,800 yards. "Equipment and workers aren't available there like here in the States. We used a contractor there that we knew from Tucker's Point (another course in Bermuda). We brought in additional equipment and were able to complete the contouring and shaping with a local contractor. We brought in a crew of 20 workers or more and housed them in the old clubhouse."

There's got to be pressure, too. Not only were the powers that be asking Rulewich to bring Port Royal back to life, but, if it isn't too much trouble, please also prepare it to stage a world-class golf event.

"Sure, there's pressure," Rulewich admitted. "We also have the Robert Trent Jones Trail course that we're working on in Alabama. We got started on that at the end of last year and it's going to host an LPGA event in November. The good news is we're moving along well on both projects."

Pitt said there may have been pressure at the start, but not anymore with the course taking shape.

"I don't think it's more pressure," Pitt said. "The groundwork is complete, now it's a matter of the director of agronomy getting it in shape for the event and we're positive he'll be able to achieve that goal."

The biggest challenge facing Port Royal, aside from getting the remodeling permits approved, was the issue of irrigation. Again, for a place that relies primarily on rain for its water supply, how do you maintain a renowned course?

"The key was getting irrigation, that's why the course was deteriorating in the first place," Rulewich said. "They were rainfall dependant. There wasn't much sense in doing anything until they fixed the irrigation. Now it's probably the first course in Bermuda to be able to water the whole course, including fairways."

Rulewich's local knowledge from his work with Jones was invaluable in devising the plan for the new vision of Port Royal, which included the removal of several trees that were planted over the years and just looked out of place on the seaside course.

"I was working for Jones when he built the course in the late 60s -- not that I was involved in the design," Rulewich said. "It was a tight site, hilly property and Jones made the best of it. The greens were smallish and when they decided they needed new ones, we rebunkered and with new irrigation we had to create some ponds and lakes within the golf course. That changes several of the holes, the expanded watering. Bunkers had deteriorated the most. There's obviously a lot of wind on that site and you couldn't keep sand in them. Even with our new design had to take that into account.

"We had to create deeper bunkers to protect them," he added. "A flatter sand contour is in there now. I think these will be much more challenging. We've done everything over, restructuring to USGA specs. When we were grading the fairways we found more topsoil than expected. That was a pleasant surprise since we ended up with enough soil to put over the whole golf course."

Along with irrigation and new sand, Pitt explained how Rulewich brought in new grass -- another effect of the wind was that different types of grass mixed together over time, causing inconsistencies throughout the course.

"Bermuda 419 was selected for tees, fairways and rough," Pitt said. "TifEagle was selected for greens. This 'ultra-dwarf' grass now offers the best green playability. It has been used worldwide for several years and is definitely more challenging than any other grasses used for greens."

"I'm very pleased with this project," Pitt continued. "All the new development that took place. ... After 37 years, one can see the wear and tear. We had 52,000 rounds per year before. It was a popular track. As time goes on the wear showed. To bring this fine facility and layout up to today's standards was necessary. It will give Port Royal an even better image than what it was before and the government and the people can be extremely proud of."

Oh yeah, and then there's that matter of the Grand Slam in October.

"It's," Pitt paused for a few moments, "the words are unexplainable. It will be an honor to have it here at a Bermuda public course. It's going to show our beauty, the Atlantic Ocean, the vistas of the ocean and we think it's one of the great designs that was put forth by Robert Trent Jones Sr. The redesign by Roger Rulewich has without question enhanced the facility."

As for Rulewich, he's both proud and humble about the project.

"Port Royal was a seaside course that was hiding," he said. "We took it out of hiding."

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