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Restorative Powers: Are We in a Golden Age of Course Restorations?

Of greater importance is how contemporary course architects are tackling those projects, the lessons that revered layouts can teach, and what today’s celebration of classic course restoration means for the future of original course design.
By adhering to A.W. Tillinghast's original design in restoring Baltusrol Golf Club's Lower Course, course architect Gil Hanse made the course significantly more difficult.

By adhering to A.W. Tillinghast's original design in restoring Baltusrol Golf Club's Lower Course, course architect Gil Hanse made the course significantly more difficult.

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

On a Tuesday afternoon in late June, Gil Hanse stood in the grill room at Baltusrol Golf Club, located about 20 miles west of New York City in Springfield, N.J., and he shared with a select group of media and club members his insight and perspective on the almost two-year-long restoration project that his team conducted on the Lower Course. The project’s intent was to transform the layout back into the championship venue that A.W. Tillinghast first envisioned and constructed almost a century ago.

As Hanse explained, it’s always his goal during a restoration project to focus solely on the original architect’s work. He never expects — nor wants — his name to appear anywhere on the updated course’s scorecard. But he also views the overall process as a collaboration, and in the early days of the Lower Course’s restoration, he made a point to share with the membership committee his initial plans for how those 18 holes would change.

“The members in this room will know this golf course better than I’ll ever get to know it,” he said during his opening remarks at the course’s media unveiling this summer. “And for us not to take their thoughts and opinions and their understanding of the property into context borders on malpractice. It’s an important part of what we do to understand what the membership ultimately wants and needs from their golf course and to inform us as to how we can best prepare it.”

Related: Seven Restored Golden Age Courses You Can Play

Three weeks earlier, Tom Marzolf, a senior design associate at Fazio Design, stood in an analogous room at Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh and similarly spoke about the recently completed restoration that he oversaw of the club’s Seth Raynor-designed championship layout.

“The flow of this golf course over the land — the routing plan that Raynor staked out on the ground — is very well done. Each hole is in the best location. The routing allows for the best course, the best next hole that you could get out of this site,” Marzolf said. “Seth Raynor staked a lasting layout, a routing plan worthy of restoration. Our work here was simply to restore a Seth Raynor masterpiece.”

The restoration projects at Baltusrol and Fox Chapel, in addition to similar efforts conducted 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’ve entered a Golden Age of classic course restoration. In other words, this era is defined by the restorative efforts being applied to courses built during the second and third decades of the 20th century.

While many prominent contemporary golf architects would agree, others politely argue that restoration efforts have permeated the game of golf and the industry of course design for decades. In their opinion, course restoration is more popular now only because golf writers and other media have chosen to focus on those projects.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. Yes, more attention is being paid to course restorations, but that is partly due to the fact that fewer new courses are being built. Additionally, it’s the prestige of the courses being restored that makes a difference. “Competition between premiere clubs across America has created the need to continually advance and improve those facilities,” Marzolf says. “There are a lot of clubs that have hosted major events in the past and would like to continue do so in the future, so they feel like they must restore and keep it fresh to have the opportunity to host an event again.”

Tom Marzolf, a senior design associate at Fazio Design, says the restoration of Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh, Pa., was just a matter of bringing the layout up to date. 

Tom Marzolf, a senior design associate at Fazio Design, says the restoration of Fox Chapel Golf Club in Pittsburgh, Pa., was just a matter of bringing the layout up to date. 

Regardless of their stance on the era in which we now live, 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.

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Approaches to Restoration

When it comes to restoring a classic design, research is the name of the game, no matter which architect is leading the restoration. Yet, how contemporary designers implement that research — and the particular information that they choose to focus on — can vary wildly from one project to the next.

“I read everything that an architect ever wrote in his life,” Marzolf says. As way of example, he points to the Country Club of Scranton, a Walter Travis design, circa 1925, that Marzolf restored a decade ago. For that project, Marzolf met with a representative from the Walter J. Travis Society, who provided him with copies of every piece of golf writing that Travis had ever penned. “I read it all,” he says. “It’s an important step to help you restore the work of the designer. Your own biases will get in the way if you don’t.”

Richard Mandell, who has restored more than a half dozen Donald Ross courses across the country, always references the book Golf Has Never Failed Me. It’s a collection of articles and essays that Ross wrote about course design throughout his career. “That’s my bible,’ Mandell says. “I’m looking for precedent there.”

Like Mandell and Marzolf, Hanse makes good use of his library card, reading as much (ideally everything) that a particular architect wrote about the craft. And while he also reflects on the overall life and times of a given architect whose work he’s restoring, he takes a keen interest on where the architect was in the arc of his career as he was designing the specific course that Hanse is set to restore. Was the architect established? Was he trying to make a name for himself? Was he at the pinnacle of his career? Or was this the course project that the architect believed would establish him as a serious designer? Those are the questions that Hanse seeks to answer.

As Hanse discovered, Tillinghast wasn’t at the height of his powers when he broke ground on the Lower Course at Baltusrol during the early 1920s, but the late architect viewed the course as a significant bullet point on his résumé.

“It shows that he wasn’t lacking in confidence or tenacity to come in and say, ‘Yeah, you’ve hosted five national championships, but I’m going to come in and make something better,’” Hanse says. “He wasn’t lacking in confidence. That was something that was a trait of his all throughout his career.”

As restorations go, Hanse’s work at Baltusrol transformed the Lower Course into an 18-hole layout that was both recognizable to the club’s members but also remarkably foreign to them. As the decades passed after Tillinghast completed the course — and as the club prepared to host a combination of U.S. Opens, U.S. Women’s Opens, PGA Championships and U.S. Amateurs from 1954 to 2016 — course renovations led first by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and later by his son, Rees, prepped those holes for the highest level of competitive play. 

In the process, however, those tweaks altered the course as Tillinghast had intended. As such, when the course reopened for play on May 18, the longstanding members quickly realized that their years of prior playing experience could no longer help them. The restored Lower Course, which adhered to Tillinghast’s original design, now played three to four strokes harder, and it remained that way even following an entire season of play.

On paper, the Lower Course in 2021 isn’t a carbon copy of the drafted layout that Tillinghast sketched 99 years ago. Although the vast majority of the course was reborn exactly as Tillinghast had designed it, back tees were lengthened and some fairway bunkers were moved, but only to keep them relevant and in play given how modern equipment has changed the way even average amateurs can drive the ball.

As such, the work that Hanse and his team executed is what Mandell calls a “sympathetic restoration,” and it’s the kind of job that he, himself, has often executed. On the 8th hole of Bacon Park Golf Course in Savannah, Ga. (a Donald Ross design, circa 1926), for example, Mandell extended the fairway beyond a bunker on the right side of the hole.

“I took artistic license to convert barren rough into fairway beyond one of the bunkers because I thought it would be a more compelling hole,” he says. “If Donald Ross was only about penalty I might not have done that because I was creating more strategy. But we know that Ross was about strategy by his own writings. He talked about strategy a lot. So I took artistic license but kept it within the realm of what Ross believed in.”

Ultimately, when today’s golf course architects take on a restoration project — regardless of who sketched the original design — they must bring to the table a tremendous amount of faith. 

“To make a course playable for everybody yet challenging for the best players in the world, that’s the magic sauce for golf architects,” Hanse says. “Hopefully in our own design work we get that balance right. But when we focus on these types of restorations, at the end of the day that’s not our primary focus. Our primary focus is that original architect. It’s trust that Tillinghast figured that out; that he was able to strike that balance.”