HARVARD -- Work is afoot to not only restore the Shaker Hills golf course, but to also push the clubhouse to a new lvel of splendor for weddings, functions and spectators.
Timothy Valas has been tapped to serve as general manager of the new Shaker Hills Country Club (formerly known as Shaker Hills Golf Club). Valas was approached on April 12, immediately after the course was purchased at foreclosure auction by his longtime friend, Princeton businessman Frederick "Skip" Curtis Jr.
It's been decided that the "Shaker Hills" portion of the prior name will remain in the title of the course in deference to the neighboring Shaker Village in Harvard and the course's own illustrious history. Shaker Hills was ranked number one golf course in New England by Golf Digest in 1992. A new logo is in the works.
Curtis' winning bid was $3.4 million, not including outstanding real-estate taxes and utility fees due and payable at closing to the town of Ayer (where the 13,000-square-foot clubhouse and maintenance buildings are located on 5.3 acres) and the town of Harvard (where the 18-hole golf course expands across 163 acres).
Valas and Curtis have been friends for 30 years. The two both attended St. John's High School in Shrewsbury and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The two are members of the Worcester Country Club and love the sport.
This is Valas' first pass at managing a golf course, having worked 25 years in the corporate world. He smiles broadly, confirming this is a dream job, allowing him to pursue his passion.
"My gosh, it's September this week," said Valas on Aug. 30. "We're working all over the place. I've been trying not to do seven days a week, but it's hard not to get dragged back."
No figures were provided on the overhaul costs, but suffice it to say there has been much capital, time and labor, said Valas. The soft opening date for the club is Monday, Oct. 1.
The course, opened in 1992, was originally designed by golf course architect Brian Silva. But several areas have been refreshed by the new ownership.
"We drove around the course a bunch of times and talked to former players and former and current employees. We listened to suggestions from those who played here a lot." From there, Curtis and Valas crafted a plan to rework some areas of the course and grounds.
There's a new brick walkway from the front gate, stretching past the clubhouse to a newly-expanded 10,000-square-foot practice green that's roughly double the size of the old green. The practice green is large enough to allow four separate players to warm up at a time.
Aside the parking lot is a new par 3 19th hole. The short fairway will serve as another warm up area for teams waiting to tee off.
The driving range has been moved into a central area between the fairways which was cleared of trees and ledge by summertime blasting. Fifteen tons of material was removed over weeks of blasting at the lower landing area.
"That was Fred's vision," said Valas. "We took out a mountain of rock." A short video of the blasting work can be seen at the course website, www.shakerhills.com, which is still under construction.
The first tee box, which was 20 yards long, has been expanded to 60 yards in length. The men's and ladies' tees, which were separate, are now one. The effect makes for a "more visually appealing look, which shows the undulation down the fairway up to the green," said Valas.
"It creates a natural amphitheater, allowing you to see the course better while playing and here from the clubhouse," said Valas.
Half of the cart paths were repaved. The landing area was expanded on the par 3 3rd hole.
Aside the 6th tee there are plans for a different approach and a revamped resting spot for refreshments mid-play with a pavilion to seat up to 100 players. The permitting process is afoot on that project.
There have been some tweaks to the landing area on the 8th hole. The 18th hole finishes closer to the clubhouse. Course-wide there have been improvements to the bunkers in terms of "both aesthetics and playability," said Valas.
"Believers in the course and faithful golfers here will appreciate the changes made," said Valas. And the existing beauty of the land has been improved, with overgrown areas cleared and natural rock outcroppings exposed which "lends to the natural beauty of the course," said Valas.
All the talk of the course's inherent beauty led Valas to talk about the clubhouse. A sneak peek at draft plans being drafted by Maugel Architects of Harvard shows an ambitious redesign for the clubhouse, which aims to capitalize on the course's views.
"We're going to do a total overhaul in there," said Valas. The specifics will follow but Valas said there are plans for a vastly expanded patio area at ground level, topped by a second tier deck which will allow visitors and spectators to enjoy the course's panoramic views.
"They talked about it for years, but we're going to pull the trigger on it," said Valas.
The bar area and function areas will be totally overhauled for golfers, weddings and corporate events. Fittings were largely stripped during the prior ownership, so the facility will be freshly outfitted with new appliances, tables and chairs.
But that's all work for later in the fall and winter. The initial permitting process is afoot now.
"The emphasis has been to get the course done first. That's been the plan for these first three months," said Valas. And that has entailed a concerted effort to unveil the "natural beauty of the landscape."
For the fall, gas-powered carts will be used. In the spring, a relocated electric-cart charging station will be in place for a new fleet of DC-powered golf carts.
And there is no residential development afoot at Shaker Hills.
"We didn't know how much of a fear it was until we talked to public officials who expressed their gratitude with our plans," said Valas.
Valas said the former owners had the option to build condominiums, but Curtis' passion is golf.
Valas said Golf Magazine pegged the course as #1 in New England in 1992. "Our goal is to regain that position," said Valas. "We just want to send it back to its former glory" and cement the club as the best in Boston and beyond.
Membership and public fees are available online at shakerhills.com. So confident is the company that they'll complete work on time for next season, Valas said he's meeting with couples now to book weddings. "It takes a little bit of faith -- from the bride especially," said Valas.
There is work to provide refreshments and sandwiches at the course this fall while the main kitchen is retooled. The course had full liquor licenses issued by Ayer for the clubhouse and the course by Harvard in prior years. Valas said they intend to apply for those again for next season.
For now, "come out for the fall foliage, come out for the cool weather," said Valas. "It's going to be a great place to enjoy a round of golf."