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How Restoring Golden Age Courses is Good for Future Designs

In the second of a two-part series, Morning Read's Shaun Tolson explores how going to great lengths to return classic courses to their original design intent is helping current-day architects refine their vision for the future.
In gradually restoring the Donald Ross-designed Mountain Ridge Country Club over two decades, course architect Ron Prichard believes he has a better understanding of Ross' sense of fairness.

In gradually restoring the Donald Ross-designed Mountain Ridge Country Club over two decades, course architect Ron Prichard believes he has a better understanding of Ross' sense of fairness.

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series looking at restorations of courses built during the Golden Age of course architecture.

There’s an ongoing debate about the era in which we live, at least as it pertains to course design and restoration work. Some opine that we’re amidst the golden age of classic course restoration; others argue that such restoration work has been a prevalent component of course refinement for decades. 

Regardless of their respective stance on the matter, all of the surveyed architects agree that the restorative work being done today only strengthens the design quality of original courses that are destined for the future.

RELATED: Part 1: Restorative Powers: Are We in a Golden Age of Course Restorations?
RELATED: Seven Golden Age Courses You Can Play

Tools of the Trade

Baltusrol Golf Club members who played the Lower Course prior to Gil Hanse’s recent restoration will see evidence of the 7,135-yard layout’s modernity everywhere they look: reshaped fairways; dramatic, eye-catching bunkers; expansive greens; and new sightlines thanks to the removal of about 400 evergreen trees provide plenty of evidence that what once was old is now new. Even first-time guests at the Springfield, N.J., club will get the sense that the Lower Course is strikingly modern, at least on wet and rainy days when the course’s new, state-of-the-art PrecisionAire system hums consistently along the eastern perimeter of the course.

That such an advanced, subterranean system now exists at Baltusrol is evidence of the type of technology that course architects have at their disposal — namely, laser-guided, topographical measurement tools that allow for the precise mapping of putting surfaces.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago you’d never get a club like Baltusrol or Winged Foot or Merion to say, ‘Oh yeah, tear our greens up. We’re confident that you’ll put them back exactly the way they were.’ Because that technology didn’t exist,” says Hanse.

“Now you not only have the opportunity to be as specific as possible when getting the details right, but you also have a level of specificity and accuracy that you can put the best possible agronomic conditions underneath the putting surface, which gives the club the opportunity to present the course better day in and day out.”

Also, Hanse points to troves of digital information, along with personal electronic devices, like iPads, as key implements that allow architects to now access all of that info and archival photographs out in the field while they’re working. Those tools assure architects not only that they can get the details right, but that they can do so as efficiently as possible.

Yet, sometimes the most important tools during and after a restoration are the most archaic ones.

At Fox Chapel Golf Club outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., course architect Tom Marzolf and his team were steadfast in their mission to redesign many of the 6,705-yard course’s greens and bunkers to their authentic, geometric shapes with squared-off corners. In Marzolf’s opinion, doing so was the commitment needed to complete an honest restoration of a Seth Raynor masterpiece. Yet, as he explains, it also required the club to retrain the grounds crew in how they must tend to the course on a daily basis.

“You alter how you take care of it because of the rectangular forms and geometry,” Marzolf says. “You have to be conscious of it each and every day. You have to hand rake that bunker, and when you’re cutting with a mower, you have to protect the corner. It takes a disciplined crew because it could quickly erode.”

Richard Mandell, of Richard Mandell Golf Architecture, doubles down on the necessity for simple tools, even during the construction process, as those details can make a difference in a restoration’s overall effectiveness.

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“A lot of architects and shapers get it wrong because you can see that certain mounds were built by machines,” he says. “To do it correctly you have to use smaller machines. It’s going to take you twice as long to do it, but you’re going to move to the level of detail that you need. Then you’ll need people with rakes, shaving six inches here or shoving a wheelbarrow of dirt there. When you restore, you have to use the right equipment to replicate what it looks like. Getting out there with rakes like it was done in the old days is a quaint notion, but those are the instruments that are needed to do it correctly.”

Challenges and Rewards

Depending on the course and the architects involved — both the original creator and the specialist charged with bringing the course back to life — a Golden Age course restoration can deliver both unique obstacles and points of pride once the work is completed. As Mandell explains, the challenge that he has faced on many Donald Ross course restorations is the intermingling of strategic elements from the past with expectations of how a course today should both look and play.

“Today, we shave the edges of greens down to really tight lies,” he says, “and balls that miss the green will roll all the way to the bottom [of collection areas]. But Ross never intended for that to happen. In his day it wasn’t possible. He was never thinking about tight lies like we do; what he wanted was randomness. He wanted one ball to roll 10 feet or 15 feet or three feet.”

At Fox Chapel, the biggest challenge was also the feature that provided Marzolf and his team with the most satisfaction. “It was a risk on our part to go so extreme with the geometry of Raynor,” he explains, “but it has a character and charm all its own that people find interesting.”

As for the Lower Course at Baltusrol, Hanse could select a number of aspects as his proudest accomplishment, yet he narrows in on the putting surfaces — specifically his team’s success in uncovering the much larger sizes of those original green complexes.

“It’s the green expansions,” he says. “Not just from a surface standpoint and restoring some hole locations, but also restoring some of the slopes that Tillinghast built into the greens and how the greens sit into the landscape. We brought them back up to the high point.”

Ancillary Benefits

Beyond the satisfaction that comes with preserving a classic course for future generations to enjoy, the architects tasked with such restorations also learn tangentially what makes a course great.

“We’ve been involved with some of these clubs for our whole lifetime,” Marzolf says, acknowledging that some of the firm’s restoration efforts have spanned multiple decades. “It absorbs into you. Those classic course attributes mold the way you think.”

In particular, he points to the putting surfaces. “You study these great courses and you ask, ‘Why are they great?’ It’s the green complexes and the design of the greens — the shape of the greens and the hole locations within a putting surface. The key to great golf architecture is hole locations. A shape of a green with lobes or points or projections creates more interest.”

Ron Prichard, an architect best known for his dedication to Donald Ross restorations, has learned a similar lesson across more than two decades spent gradually restoring the Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, N.J. “[Ross] kind of envisioned golf as two games in one: One was the journey from tee to green and then the great game began when you were on the putting surface,” he says.

“From my studying him, I feel Ross was a kindly architect. He didn’t like to see players make mistakes that caused full-stroke penalties, he didn’t want an enormous amount of water in play. If you really study his work, you see he had a match-play mentality: He always liked to keep both opponents in the game. He didn’t want a guy to hit a tee shot and then have to put the ball in his pocket. Even if a player was at a disadvantage, he didn’t want to prevent him from making a brilliant recovery.”

The restoration of classic courses can also lead to epiphanies, specifically as they relate to the criteria used to judge the success of a golf hole. “It reveals the creativity, the strategy, [and it reveals that] less attention was paid to what is fair and what is not fair,” Hanse says of the work that he has completed throughout his career to restore layouts originally built a century ago. “I don’t know if the architects of that era ever even pondered that question.”

As for how such restoration work has impacted his own original designs, Hanse draws a powerful connection between the two.

“There are very few original design ideas out there,” he says. “Most are an interpretation or a melding of an idea into something else. So it can only help any golf course architect to have a really wide source of reference material. You can always draw from those experiences.”

Every now and then, an architect’s efforts to restore a classic layout can even provide validation for that designer’s modern work. “If I see something that I’ve done that a classic architect also did,” Mandell says, “it makes me feel like I’m on the right track.”