Conway Farms
Golf Club

Chicago’s Conway Farms Golf Club is a modern classic designed by Tom Fazio three decades ago. But, as with many courses of that era, time had taken its toll on bunkers and green complexes, and infrastructure like the original golf course irrigation system had aged. The question facing Superintendent Connor Healy and his club leadership was whether to fix a few things or do a full renovation, including new irrigation. Ultimately, they chose to completely update the design and install a new Rain Bird irrigation system featuring CirrusPRO™.

Here’s a look at four steps of their process and the keys to their success.

Start early, but be patient.

“You have to have a lot of patience with these big projects,” says Healy, who’s been superintendent at Conway Farms for 10 years. “They take a lot of time from the point you start talking about them to eventually finishing. You need to realize you’re going to be in it for the long run.”

And it’s important to consider infrastructure right from the start. “People gravitate toward the new bunkers or redesigned holes, and the boring stuff like irrigation sometimes takes a back seat. The partnership of the board, the management team here, the architects and my chairman, Joe Lamberti, were instrumental in saying we have to think big picture and make the right investment. It took a few years, but eventually we decided that it made sense to do it all together.”

Brian Vinchesi, the renowned irrigation consultant who worked with the club, stressed to the Conway Farms board that the costs of golf course irrigation go up annually 3% to 5%, and waiting would simply make the inevitable more expensive.

The club’s patient approach combined with pandemic delays kept the project on the back burner for a few years. But, in 2021 all systems were “go” with one caveat: The team decided early on to keep some version of golf live at all times, at least nine holes, and then, for two summers, have 18 holes available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Ultimately, everything was finished a week before Memorial Day in 2023.

So, the solution for Conway Farms Golf Club was to split construction and do nine holes at a time after it became clear that the best financial option was to go full-scale rather than just doing bunkers or greens.


  • Update the course and infrastructure.
  • Minimize disruption of play during the renovation process, keeping nine holes open at all times.
  • Install an irrigation system that would meet modern needs and be scalable for the future.

Do thorough research on your needs and options.

“The work that you do leading up to a golf course irrigation system begins years in advance,” says Healy. “It started with conversations with potential partners at the golf show and understanding what they were currently doing, what they saw in the future, and how they viewed their competitive advantages and our specific needs.”

The club’s priorities were to have the latest technology, eliminate satellite and radio use, ensure sprinkler head durability and reliability, make sure daily operations and costs were manageable, and feel confident about the ability to expand in the future.

Healy talked with Chicagoland superintendents who’d recently installed new systems to find out how they liked them. “We looked at two brands but found most of the newer ones around Chicago were two-wire systems from Rain Bird.”

The latest Rain Bird software was also an important plus. “One of the selling points that caused me to look at switching was the CirrusPRO demos I’d seen,” he said. “I felt it would be a game-changer because it was in alignment with everything else in the world when we operate from our cell phones and iPads. That’s why we decided radio systems weren’t an option.”

That particular decision was big. “As soon as we got rid of the radio, the simplicity was amazing. It’s so intuitive. People resist change, but I would have zero concern about that part of switching.”

The simplicity of the programming provided by the Rain Bird irrigation system was also compelling. “My assistants just went through the whole system, remapped sprinklers, and set up the entire central system—they pretty much did it themselves in a few days. In the past that would have taken a year or more to do. The Rain Bird programming makes it so much easier.”

Another example: “If you’re sitting on a sprayer and you’re ready to water in a wetting agent you’ve just applied, you can have a program for ‘wetting agent spray’ for that area. As you drive away, you press ‘start’ and it goes. The ability to do programs is amazing. You can have as many different programs for unique applications as you want because it’s so easy.”

Healy feels great about the decision. “The whole system is better now, but the best thing is that all of the dry spots we had before aren’t dry anymore. Last year, we might have actually been a little too wet sometimes, so one of my goals this year is to continue to refine it. Realistically, it’s kind of a five-year project to fine-tune a new system like this.”

Use your golf course irrigation consultant as a liaison.

Brian Vinchesi with Irrigation Consulting, Inc., helped manage the whole process. Healy says, “He was a good fit for the club because we needed a liaison between all the parties who would speak up on behalf of the club and have those difficult conversations if and when they were needed. If there was ever an issue, Brian would get to the right person and get an answer.”

Vinchesi has known Healy since 2002 when he was assistant at Olympia Fields. He notes that Healy’s MBA made a difference in the process. “His businesslike approach and his budget management were very much on point,” says Vinchesi.

He adds that things have changed, and the need for a long-term vision is more important than ever. “Plan early, early, early,” he says. “It’s not like the old days where you could decide to fund the project in May and then break ground in September. The design process takes longer, and the overall cost requires more time and consideration. There has to be consensus within the club. There’s too much money at stake.”

It was clear to Vinchesi that the renovation would demand a new system, so part of his role was to educate the club about why it was necessary and keep tabs on a design process that ebbed and flowed for several years. “There were several iterations of the layout, but ultimately the course’s ‘double-horseshoe’ layout made the split construction process simpler.”

From Vinchesi’s perspective, the objectives were to support the new irrigation demands (which included nearly all tees, plus five greens) while targeting the water better to use less. “We wanted to get the water where Connor wanted it, upgrade his technology, and achieve more sustainability,” says Vinchesi.

Ultimately, Vinchesi assembled a bid process based on Conway’s needs and Healy’s goals. After careful consideration, the club chose Rain Bird. “A tip of the hat goes to Connor and his team,” says Vinchesi. “Conway Farms was extremely professional and fun to work with.”

Divide and delegate.

Healy said it’s key on the front end to know what you’re going into and understand the challenges of your specific project. And, most important, have people in place for oversight. Each of his assistants had ownership of one key aspect of the overall renovation project.

Healy’s former assistant, Cole Lehman, now at nearby Shoreacres, was in charge of the irrigation side. “He would meet with Brian and the team from Leibold. He was on point, and they could call me in, but he handled the day-to-day. Most superintendents don’t like to delegate, but on a project like this, you have to learn to trust your team.”

Lehman looks back on the process as a great learning experience with an excellent outcome for Conway Farms. “We met with multiple people from Rain Bird and Toro in 2019 and 2020. A big selling point for Rain Bird was that they’re an engineering company solely focused on irrigation. They showed us that, as they continue to improve their products, they will make sure what we have in the ground stays compatible.”

What was most impressive to Lehman was being able to identify an exact station and know that there’s communication to it. “Even their map system will show exactly which heads need work or checking.”

His advice for others in his position? Build a good relationship with the consultant, distributor, and install team. “Be fearless about asking questions. When you have the right relationship, you should feel comfortable asking any question at any time. There should be no guesswork.”

He also suggests getting your hands dirty out in the field and playing with the software. “It’s very important to run the system and know how everything works before that install team leaves,” he says.

“Take advantage of having them there to show you how to troubleshoot a weeping head or something that’s stuck on. It’s so much better to work through that while they’re there.”

One final tip from Lehman: “Rain Bird has great videos on their website and housed within the software that answered a lot of our questions. I was able to research a lot of things myself. Those how-to videos are great.”

Ultimately, Lehman learned what matters most in the process of selecting a new system: “Reliability today and in the future.”

Why was Rain Bird the right choice for Conway Farms?

Echoing Lehman, Healy says it comes down to reliability. “The key factor was probably the reliability of the actual sprinkler components. Rain Bird’s heads are time-tested, and they’re always backwards compatible. They’re not always trying to sell you the next generation of stuff you have to install. Plus, there was an absolute commitment from Rain Bird to continue to improve and update CirrusPRO. It was clear that they weren’t going to just install it and walk away. Finally, they had an amazing warranty that they coupled with the system. It was a partnership that made sense.”

What advice does he have for other supers? “I tell anybody who asks to come out and I’ll show it to you. You can come out and drive around with an iPad and you’ll see pretty quickly how easy it is. When other superintendents come out and see our irrigation system live, it has a big impact. It kind of sells itself.”

And what has the project meant to Conway Farms? “We want to be one of the best in Chicago,” says Healy. “Our members want to showcase great golf here, and hosting events is always a possibility—but ultimately, this renovation was all about having a great course for our members to play every day. That’s the most important thing.”


“I felt CirrusPRO would be a game-changer … when we operate from our cell phones and iPads.”

-Connor Healy
Conway Farms Golf Club

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