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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

(continued from page 1)

It led to the doorstep of George Sanossian, the greens committee chairman, in 2004. Sanossian, an accountant by profession and thus particular by nature, was charged with assessing the capital needs of the golf course, and those needs would be directly impacted by any decision that would lead to a course renovation. There was a course renovation plan in place, but neither Sanossian nor his committeemen felt that it should be implemented because it "[would have taken] us further away from our classical design heritage, further away from the design concepts of Macdonald," says Sanossian. So they would start from scratch.

"This is a project I didn't campaign for, didn't bark about the need to do it," says Sanossian. "It was a project laid at my feet. Myself and Phil Cuthbertson [a committeeman] said if we were identified with the implementation of that [old] plan, we would have to look for a new place to play golf."

Instead, they looked for a new direction for the golf course. And for that, they looked backwards. Macdonald was the original designer, but the course had been altered in the 1920s when some valuable land containing four of the original holes was sold. While there is no written record, it is believed that local architect Tom Winton may have designed four new holes. In 1930, the club decided to expanded to 27 holes and brought in A. W. Tillinghast, whose reputation was burgeoning after designing such well-regarded championship tracts as Winged Foot and Baltusrol. Tillinghast designed the nine new holes and may have altered some of Macdonald's original holes. To a far lesser extent Robert Trent Jones and subsequently his son Rees did work on the course.

But it was Macdonald's name that rang true, inside the club and out. "It quickly became apparent speaking to outsiders who were able to discern the forest from the trees that our perception of the course as a Macdonald course was correct," says Sanossian. "We were a Macdonald course with a strong Tillinghast influence, but people from the outside said we were a Macdonald course. So we said, Let's follow the Macdonald genre and do things the way Macdonald would have done them."

Sleepy Hollow was going to update itself by backdating itself.

Therein lies the rub. There was no history as to how Macdonald had done things at Sleepy Hollow. There was no written word or course layout or photographic evidence. And part of the club lore was that Macdonald and Rockefeller had a falling outÑaccording to Macdonald, Rockefeller did not want any trees cut down and removed. As a result Macdonald had little to do with the project once he and Raynor had completed the initial routing, instead handing most of the implementation work to his associate. So now what?

Sanossian knew that Macdonald's courses were characterized by features taken from the great courses of Scotland, particularly the Old Course at St Andrews. Macdonald employed penal strategic bunkering with large features, but also provided a way to get around those nasty pits safely. To get a firsthand look at his work, Sanossian, greens committee members and the course superintendent, Tom Leahy, decided to visit the prime examples of Macdonald's work in the New York area. In the fall of 2004, they went to look at National Golf Links in Southampton, New York, considered the first true championship course built in America. The following spring, they visited the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York. And a year later they visited the Yale University course in New Haven, Connecticut, which made a stunning impact. "At Yale, the scale is immense," says Sanossian. "The bunkers are immense, the greens are immense, the property is huge. It's like a golf course on steroids."

At the time, Gil Hanse was under consideration for doing the work at Sleepy Hollow, and before Sanossian and his crew checked out the Yale course, Hanse had provided insights to the group about what attributes of the Yale course he felt merited particular scrutiny. While he didn't carry the cachet of a Tom Fazio, or of the brothers Rees and Robert Trent Jones Jr., or of a Pete Dye, Hanse did have a portfolio of work that was highly regarded, and he enjoyed a reputation as a hands-on architect and an easy person to work with. Although the greens committee met with two other architects, in the end Hanse was the hands-down choice for the job. But Hanse said that he would do the work only if his good friend George Bahto had significant input.

Bahto was a devout student and historian of Macdonald and had written a book about him, The Evangelist of Golf. There wasn't any detail of Macdonald's work that Bahto wasn't intimately familiar with, earning him the nickname Old MacBahto. In writing his book about Macdonald, Bahto had visited Sleepy Hollow on several occasions. "I just knew there wasn't enough of him there," he says.

Despite Bahto's extensive knowledge of Macdonald's work, Sleepy Hollow was initially reticent about hiring him as a consultant on the renovation project. "The members of the club who thought that the appropriate way to go was Macdonald and Raynor realized that George was the foremost expert on those two gentlemen, but his architectural experience might have made it more difficult to convince the membership," says Hanse. "They probably thought they needed to bring in someone who had more of a résumé in architecture. I said because of my friendship with George, I will be happy to be involved as long as George was involved in a big way. We needed George because it was the right thing to do because of his knowledge, and because of our workload [at Hanse Design] we needed someone to shoulder the construction supervision."

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