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Rebirth of a Classic

A renovation at Sleepy Hollow pays homage to its original designer, Charles Blair Macdonald, and brings a storied New York course into the modern era
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

George Sanossian had more than just a round of golf on his mind as he and Greg Hurd prepared to hit their opening tee shots at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Sanossian, the club's greens committee chairman, knew that the grand old Westchester County, New York, layout, designed nearly a century ago by the first true American golf course architect, Charles Blair Macdonald, had started to become a bit frayed and outdated in recent years. And he knew that some of the club's board members had been clamoring for renovations to make the course more challenging in the wake of technological changes that had been sweeping through the sport in recent decades. So Sanossian turned to Hurd, the head pro at the North Hempstead Country Club on Long Island who had once worked at Sleepy Hollow, and solicited his input about the issue.

"I asked him what the impact technology had on the game as we were teeing off on No. 1," says Sanossian. "When he got to his ball, he says, 'I'll give you the impact of technology. I'm 50 years old now. When I was 30 years old I could hit my best drive on this hole and it would have been 30 yards behind where it is today.' We realized technology had shortened Sleepy Hollow and we wanted to restore some teeth."

While the course had long enjoyed its status as player-friendly with its moderate length and abidingly wide fairways, the encroachment of trees and member unhappiness with a bunker project in the early 1990s had begun to give cause for thought to those charged with the club's future. Now, so had the technology issue. While not long at 6,570 yards from the tips at par 70, Sleepy Hollow's strength had always been in its par 4s. But now the 448-yard 8th, the 462-yard 12th and the uphill 405-yard 18th were no longer quite so daunting.

Ultimately, Sanossian was asked to oversee a significant renovation effort. Several years later, the resulting changes have toughened up the course and propelled it into the twenty-first century, while still keeping Sleepy Hollow enjoyable for the majority of players who played from the members' tees. The revisions have also cast the course in the mold of what Macdonald might have originally intended. A course, says Gil Hanse, the architect who directed the project, that has been "sympathetically restored."

Across America grand old clubs are undergoing the sometimes agonizing process of bringing their courses up to date. Shrinking greens, collapsing bunkers, spreading trees and rapidly evolving golf club and ball technology are the most frequently cited reasons that a club undertakes a renovation project. The technology question is often paramount in discussions about what to do with classic courses. A wonderful test of golf designed in the 1920s at 6,600 yards is rendered not much more than a pitch and putt when decent amateur players can drive the ball 275 yards. Blunderbuss drivers and perfect-pitch golf balls are turning a heavyweight 450-yard par 4 into a jab-and-juke welterweight.

A prime example would be the Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia, a longtime host to U.S. Opens and other USGA events. The Merion East Course was only 6,544 yards at par 70 when David Graham won the 1981 Open there with a score of 7-under par. At that time, Graham was hitting a persimmon-headed driver. In the modern era of golf driven by technology, Merion East was driven off the Open rota. But renovation work at the start of the twenty-first century added some 400 yards to the course, and that, along with its small, old-fashioned greens, has convinced the USGA to bring the Open back to Merion in 2013.

Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, is an entirely different animal, one driven by the hunger to challenge the best players in the world. Under the direction of Tom Fazio, the course has been lengthened over the past decade by 600 yards and trees have been planted to squeeze down some driving areas. And Rees Jones has brought change to many old U.S. Open courses such as Oakland Hills, the Black Course at Bethpage State Park and the Country Club of Brookline.

Like these other vaunted courses, Sleepy Hollow appeared ready for a modern makeover. The club dated back to the early twentieth century, when men of great wealth and social stature, led by William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor IV, contemplated a golf club on land overlooking the Hudson River. Rockefeller and an international banker named Frank A. Vanderlip bought an estate of pronounced grandeur in a town made famous by Washington Irving and his short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The estate, purchased in 1910, had been owned by Margaret Louisa Shepard, a granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the widow of Col. Elliott Fitch Shepard, a lawyer who founded the New York State Bar Association. The colonel, who had bought the property in the late nineteenth century, had commissioned iconic architect Stanford White to design his immense manor home, which was surrounded by hundreds of acres that overlooked the river and its magnificent palisades. In the minds of the founders, the manor home would make a grand clubhouse and the grounds a grand golf course.

For most of the twentieth century, the layout delivered by Macdonald and his right-hand man, Seth Raynor, in 1911 (apparently with acrimony and dispute with Mr. Rockefeller), did just that, maintaining its status as one of the most majestic courses in America. But the bunkering and tree concerns, as well as the technology issues that had effectively shortened the course, had become the focus of the board members and committeemen, who felt that a renovation was necessary. And it wasn't only the golf course at Sleepy Hollow that required attention; the clubhouse, tennis courts, pool and shooting facility also needed to be maintained. For Mike Hegarty, the turn of a new century was the appropriate time to consider a wide-ranging plan for capital investment. As a club vice president (he was newly elected as president at the beginning of 2007), Hegarty, along with his peers, felt that the wonderful old golf course wasn't as grand as it once was. "We took the point of view, as trustees of the club we were guardians of the current member experience and also guardians of future member experiences," says Hegarty. "We decided the golf course is the engine that drives the club. It's the primary reason people join the club. We thought we needed to protect the major engine of the club."

But how to do it? What direction to go in? Where would this all lead?

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