Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series devoted to restorations of courses built during the golden age of course architecture.
One Tuesday afternoon in late June, Gil Hanse was standing in the grill at the Baltusrol Golf Club, located about 20 miles west of New York City in Springfield, NJ, and he shared with a select group of media and of club members his point of view and point of view. on the nearly two-year restoration project his team carried out on the lower reaches. The intention of the project was to turn the track into the championship site that AW Tillinghast had envisioned and built almost a century ago.
As Hanse explained, it is always his goal during a restoration project to focus solely on the work of the original architect. He never expects – or wants – his name to appear anywhere on the updated course scorecard. But he also sees the overall process as a collaboration, and as the restoration of the lower course began, he was keen to share with the membership committee his initial plans on how these 18 holes would change.
“The members in this room will know this golf course better than I will ever know it,” he said in his opening remarks at the course’s media unveiling this summer. “And for us, it is professional misconduct for us not to put their thoughts, opinions and understanding of the property into context. It’s an important part of what we do to understand what members want and need from their golf course and to educate us on how best to prepare for it.
Related: Seven restored Golden Age courses you can play
Three weeks earlier, Tom Marzolf, a senior design associate at Fazio Design, stood in a similar room at the Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh and also spoke about the recently completed restoration he oversaw of the championship plan designed by Seth Raynor.
“The layout of this golf course on the course – the routing plan that Raynor has staked out on the course – is very well done. Each hole is in the best location. The routing makes for the best course, the best next hole you can get at this site, ”said Marzolf. “Seth Raynor has marked out a long-lasting route, a routing plan worthy of being restored. Our job here was simply to restore a masterpiece by Seth Raynor. “
Restoration projects at Baltusrol and Fox Chapel, in addition to similar efforts recently at other prestigious Golden Age courses – Southern Hills Country Club, the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club, and the East and West courses at Winged Foot Golf Club, among others – suggest that we have entered a golden age of restoring classic courses. In other words, this era is defined by the restoration efforts applied to courtyards built during the second and third decades of the 20th century.
While many leading contemporary golf architects would agree, others politely argue that restoration efforts have permeated the game of golf and the course design industry for decades. In their opinion, course restoration is only popular now because golf writers and other media have chosen to focus on these projects.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Yes, more attention is being paid to course restorations, but this is partly due to the fact that fewer new courses are being built. In addition, it is the prestige of the courses being restored that makes the difference. “The competition among top clubs across America has created the need to advance and continually improve these facilities,” said Marzolf. “There are a lot of clubs that have hosted major events in the past and would like to continue to do so in the future, so they feel like they need to restore and keep cool to have the opportunity to host again an event. “
Whatever their position on the times in which we live today, all the architects interviewed agree that the restoration work carried out today only reinforces the design quality of the original courtyards which are intended to the future.
Approaches to restoration
When it comes to restoring a classic design, research is key, no matter which architect is leading the restoration. Yet the way contemporary designers implement this research – and the particular information they choose to focus on – can vary wildly from project to project.
“I have read everything an architect has written in his life,” says Marzolf. As an example, he cites the Country Club of Scranton, a design by Walter Travis, circa 1925, which Marzolf restored a decade ago. For this project, Marzolf met with a representative of the Walter J. Travis Society, who provided him with copies of all the golf writings Travis had ever written. “I read it all,” he said. “This is an important step in helping you render the work of the designer. Your own prejudices will get in your way if you don’t.
Richard Mandell, who restored more than half a dozen Donald Ross courses across the country, still refers to the book Golf has never failed me. This is a collection of articles and essays that Ross has written on course design throughout his career. “This is my bible,” Mandell said. “I’m looking for a precedent there.”
Like Mandell and Marzolf, Hanse makes good use of his library card, reading as much (ideally everything) as a particular architect has written about the craft. And while he also reflects on the life and times of a given architect whose work he is restoring, he takes a keen interest in the position of the architect in his career arc as he designed the specific route that Hanse is preparing to restore. Has the architect been established? Was he trying to make a name for himself? Was he at the peak of his career? Or was it the course project that the architect thought would make him a serious designer? These are the questions Hanse seeks to answer.
As Hanse discovered, Tillinghast was not at the height of his powers when he innovated on the lower course at Baltusrol in the early 1920s, but the late architect considered the course to be an important point in his resume. .
“It shows that he didn’t lack the confidence or the tenacity to come in and say, ‘Yeah, you’ve had five national championships, but I’m going to come and do something better,’” Hanse said. “He was not lacking in confidence. It was something that was a trait of her throughout her career.
As the restorations went on, Hanse’s work at Baltusrol transformed the lower course into an 18-hole course that was both recognizable to club members but also remarkably alien to them. Over the decades after Tillinghast completed the course – and as the club prepared to host a combination of US Opens, US Women’s Opens, PGA Championships and American Amateurs from 1954 to 2016 – renovations to courses run first by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and later by his son, Rees, prepared these holes for the highest level of competitive play.
In the process, however, these adjustments changed the course as Tillinghast had anticipated. So when the course reopened for gaming on May 18, the longtime members quickly realized that their years of previous gaming experience couldn’t help them anymore. The restored lower course, which followed Tillinghast’s original design, now played three to four harder strokes, and it remained so even after an entire season of play.
On paper, the lower course in 2021 is not a carbon copy of the plan Tillinghast sketched out 99 years ago. Although the vast majority of the course is reborn exactly as Tillinghast had designed it, the back tees have been lengthened and some fairway bunkers have been moved, but only to keep them relevant and in play as modern equipment has changed the way even average amateurs can drive the Ball.
As such, the work that Hanse and his team performed is what Mandell calls “sympathetic restoration,” and it is the kind of work that he himself often performed. On the 8th hole of the Bacon Park Golf Course in Savannah, Georgia (a design by Donald Ross, circa 1926), for example, Mandell extended the fairway past a bunker on the right side of the hole.
“I took an artistic license to convert the barren rough into a fairway beyond one of the bunkers because I thought it would be a more convincing hole,” he says. “If Donald Ross was only talking about the penalty, I might not have done that because I was creating more strategy. But we do know that Ross spoke of strategy from his own writings. He talked a lot about strategy. So I took an artistic license, but kept it in the realm of what Ross believed in. “
Ultimately, when today’s golf course architects undertake a restoration project – no matter who sketched the original design – they have to bring tremendous confidence.
“Making a course playable for everyone while being challenging for the best players in the world is the magic sauce for golf architects,” says Hanse. “I hope that in our own design work we will achieve this balance. But when we focus on these types of restorations, at the end of the day, that’s not our primary focus. Our main focus is this original architect. It is confidence that Tillinghast understood; that he was able to find that balance.