Vermont Open Departs Lake Morey

Luke Bell of Orford takes the flag from the hole on a Lake Morey Country Club green Thursday, May 15, 2014. 
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Luke Bell of Orford takes the flag from the hole on a Lake Morey Country Club green Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Fairlee — Given the snow and ice of winter and the late-arriving spring, it has been no easy task these past few weeks trying to round Lake Morey Country Club into championship shape.

The 6,024-yard layout has been employing several temporary greens and rehabilitating others, which makes it absolutely no different than dozens of courses around the Twin States that experienced severe winterkill this year.

What does make the Lake Morey situation different is that each June it plays host to the Vermont Open, meaning the repair work this spring has been a race against time.

Director of Golf Bill Ross isn’t ruling out the chance that Lake Morey could be ready to go for the Open, but he knows that no matter how hard his grounds crew works, the final say belongs to Mother Nature. Which is why the 54-hole event, held at Lake Morey every year but one since 1955, will be conducted next month at Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington.

“We knew in the middle of winter there were ice issues,” said Ross. “We plowed the greens. We covered. We went out and did what we could do, but there’s only so much you can do. We should be fine by July, but there’s no guarantee for the Open.”

The Lake Morey greens were punched and seeded as early as possible with the hope that they would be ready for the tournament.

“Unfortunately,” Ross said, “the growing season was two or three weeks late. It takes 7-to-14 days go germinate, and you have to wait and see how that goes.

“We waited as long as we could (to make a decision about the Open). About 30 days out we decided that no matter what happened, the golf course wouldn’t be in good enough condition.”

Ross has been at Lake Morey since 1989 and a Vermont head pro for more than 30 years. This spring, he said, is one of the two worst he’s seen for winterkill. The other was in 2009, when the Vermont Open had to be shifted to St. Johnsbury Country Club.

“But they have issues this year, too,” Ross said of St. Johnsbury. “Fortunately, I had phone calls from Quechee and Green Mountain, who had heard about our damage and knew we had decisions to make.”

After consultation with David Soucy, Green Mountain National general manager, Dave Pfannenstein, executive director of the Vermont Golf Association, and others, Ross made the decision to move this year’s event to the mountain course off Route 100 in Killington. The low gross tournament will be held on Sunday, June 15, and the Vermont Open will be conducted the following three days.

“One of the reasons why Green Mountain was a good choice is they could do it on the exact same dates we had scheduled,” Ross said. “They could have the low gross and the course was available through Wednesday. There will be certain things that they have to tweak, but it was a good fit.”

While the Vermont Open is a Lake Morey event, Pfannensein and the VGA help run it and the organization’s executive director thinks Green Mountain’s offer to serve as foster home to the tournament says something about golf in the state.

“The golf community here is a pretty tight-knit group of people who do that type of thing,” he said. “I was a club pro in Vermont for 26 years and through all that time I always saw people stepping up and helping each other.

“The majority of our clubs came through this year with some damage. We have a few that had more than their share. Green Mountain came through the winter pretty well and seems to be a good pick. It is a very good, championship golf course.”

Voted the No. 1 public golf course in Vermont, 6,589-yard Green Mountain National plays to a par-71 and is no stranger to championship tournaments, dating back to hosting the LPGA’s Futures Tour for seven years.

“In the last two years we have had the Vermont Amateur and the New England Amateur there,” said Pfannenstein. “A lot of the work went into those events in terms of rule sheets, hole locations, pace of play and schedules. A lot of the behind the scenes planning and organizing of the event for those events can be adapted for the Vermont Open. It will make that side of it a little bit of an easier transition.”

Ross said he and his staff will continue to be responsible for registration, taking in fees, handling the purse and the administrative side of the tournament. “We’ve been running this tournament for more than 50 years,” he said in a Lake Morey press release, “and we’re taking all that history and knowledge with us to this temporary new location.”

That leaves the golf side to Green Mountain National, which will offer a different kind of test than Lake Morey, which annually teases those who play in the Open each year into thinking they are going to tear it up.

“I am one of those guys,” laughed Soucy, GMN’s head pro. “Every time I tee it up at Lake Morey, I think I am going to shoot 59. For the record, I haven’t done that yet.

“At our course, accuracy off the tee is critical. If you don’t hit it in the fairway or the rough that we have, you are going to have a tough time scoring. And, because we have undulating greens, to be able to score you are going to need to be in the quadrant of the green where the pin is.”

According to Ross, a few players changed their minds about playing after the change was announced, but registrations at this point are just about on par with most years and a field of about 165 pros and amateurs is expected.

One week after the Vermont Open, Green Mountain National will be the landing spot for 225 or so talented young golfers from upward of 20 states and five foreign countries as the club plays host to an American Junior Golf Association event. Together with the Open, it will make for a busy couple of weeks, but that’s just fine with Soucy.

“That’s one thing here in Vermont,” he said. “We all try to help each other whenever it’s needed. It certainly happened during Hurricane Irene, although that is an extreme example. We are always here for each other.”