Dulac on Golf: Pheasant Ridge overhauled in part as tribute to a friend

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Maybe Eric Knapp was a visionary, a person who saw a nine-hole golf course that he called "a pasture with nine flags in it" and turned it into an upscale layout with holes that looked as though they were from North Carolina.

But, to his friends, he was someone who always needed to be doing something, a person who never relaxed. If his world was a 90-yard gym, he was doing a 100-yard dash. Satisfaction was not a word with which Knapp associated. His mind was a closet of ideas, and each day a new one came out, like a shirt being removed from a hanger.

This is what led him to Pheasant Ridge Golf Club in Gibsonia, an 18-hole layout built, renovated and expanded on property that once housed the Sandy Hill Golf Course, a nine-hole mom-and-pop operation where the cashier/starter was a silver milk can. And it was Knapp and Joe Zassic, the man he called the hardest worker he has ever seen, who did most, if not all, of the work.

Together they built a two-story clubhouse with a deck, an outdoor pavilion for parties, grew grass and planted trees. Knapp, a fine amateur player from New Jersey who golfed at Rutgers, wore more hats than Ethel Kennedy. He was player, owner, builder, architect, and when that work was complete, he became something else at Pheasant Ridge -- course superintendent. He cut grass and mowed fairways, hopping on the tractor early and almost never getting off until late.

He did that faithfully, right up until he died.

Knapp, a father of three, was 49 when he lost his battle with cancer -- one he fought for three years, longer than the doctors expected. He was having dinner one night in the South Side when he told a friend he was going for a checkup to see why he had trouble swallowing. That was the beginning of the cancer. It started in his throat, and it really never stopped growing. Or spreading.

Knapp has been gone for nearly five years, since October 2009, and his 18-hole course has struggled financially without him.

Enter Mike Reimer, a North Park resident, insurance man and friend of Knapp.

Dismayed by the course's problems but also determined to carry on what his pal started, Reimer, 49, purchased Pheasant Ridge from Knapp's estate and retained Zassic and Knapp's youngest son, Christian, a student at Robert Morris, as part of his team.

His goal is to rejuvenate and re-energize Pheasant Ridge. And, like Knapp, he has plenty of ideas how to do it.

"It was under complete mismanagement," Reimer said. "You have to have an owner running it. You can't have a manager with no incentives running it. It just didn't work."

Reimer is trying to make it work. He is putting money back in the golf course, paying particular attention to improving the fairways and greens that were Knapp's passion and re-doing the sand in the bunkers.

"We are spending money like it should have been spent," Reimer said. "It's come full-circle. It's nice to see."

But Reimer, a self-proclaimed "people person," also wants to connect with his customers.

In an attempt to attract more beginners and even cater to women's leagues and seniors, Reimer has established an 18-hole par-3 course within the current layout. He has done that by putting tee markers on the 13 other par-4 and par-5 holes that turn those holes into shorter par-3s.

Golfers who don't want to play the regulation 18 holes can use the par-3 course on certain days. Kids play free on Fridays and the weekend.

"I'm listening to my demographics," Reimer said.

"My Tuesday and Thursday night ladies, my seniors and juniors, they're going out to these great par-3 holes, they are real holes, and they get to enjoy all the hazards. It's been sensational."

Just like his friend envisioned.

Setting up a showdown

One of the perks for winning the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Fox Chapel Golf Club is that Bernhard Langer receives a spot in next year's Players Championship on the PGA Tour.

That means Langer will get to compete against his German countryman, Martin Kaymer, who is more than just the defending champ. Kaymer, who also won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, considers Langer his mentor and idol.

"I'm really looking forward to playing against Martin Kaymer next year in the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra (Fla.), because this will get me there," Langer said shortly after beating Jeff Sluman in a playoff last weekend. "And he will defend and I will try and make his life a bit difficult."

Rules corner

When he addresses the ball on the putting green, Champions Tour player Doug Garwood puts his putter on the ground in front of the ball, lifts the club over the ball and places the putter behind it.

Does this violate Rule 16-1a, which says the line of putt must not be touched?

Answer at end.

'A special place'

The Pittsburgh Field Club, which originally opened in 1882 as a six-hole course at the corner of Forbes and Braddock Avenues in Frick Park, has already celebrated its 100th anniversary.

But the existing 18-hole layout, designed by Alexander Findlay and opened in June 1915, will celebrate its 100th anniversary of being located in Fox Chapel next summer.

Right now, they should celebrate something else: The spectacular look and playability of their course, which is among the best in Western Pennsylvania.

Over the years, the Field Club has had any number of different architects apply their touch to the layout, including Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Emil Loeffler, Robert Trent Jones and, more recently, Arthur Hills, in addition to Findlay.

"We've had a lot of chefs stirring the pot," said Dave Martin, the Field Club's long-time head professional.

But the man credited with the bunker renovation that has elevated the Field Club to another level is architect Keith Foster, who came in two years ago and did a spectacular job reshaping the greens complexes.

Mini-tour professional Mike Van Sickle, who won the 2013 Frank B. Fuhrer Invitational at the Field Club and finished second there last week, called it "a special place ... a spectacular test of golf." Fuhrer, who hosts his 72-hole tournament with a $200,000 purse there annually, said the Field Club "gets better and better every year."

Fuhrer and Van Sickle are right. The club has taken down a number of trees that has not only improved turf quality, it has dramatically improved the visual appearance of the holes -- 16 of which sit in a valley 12 stories below the clubhouse.

And the course conditioning, which has always been superb, is even better under the guidance of grounds superintendent Paul Myers, who came to the Field Club five years ago after working at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

Rules answer

Garwood does not commit a violation because one of the exceptions to Rule 16-1a is "the player may place the club in front of the ball when addressing it, provided he does not press anything down."

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac. Listen to "The Golf Show with Gerry Dulac" every Thursday 6-7:30 p.m. on 970 ESPN.

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