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
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"The more you see what they did, the more you fall in love with most of what they did," says O'Rourke. "On the ninth hole they took down a massive amount of trees down the right side. I first saw that in winter and I didn't like it. As the foliage grew back, it showed what a beautiful piece of property we have. The hole is much better now.
"There were a couple of things I wished they wouldn't have changed. I thought the best two holes on the course were the eighth hole and the 12th hole. There were a lot of trees down the right side of number eight that forced your shot to the left, and if you were over on the right you had to learn how to carve a shot around the trees. The 12th was our hardest par 4. The new par 5 will be a good hole, I'm sure. But now we are playing the 15th as a par 4 with a blind second shot. I don't think sacrificing the 12th hole to turn the 15th into a par 4 was good. That's what a few members have said, but we are certainly in the minority. By and large the club is buying into every change."
With the work completed last September, Mike Hegarty, the club president, had a friend over for a round. The man was a 5-handicap at Winged Foot. After playing off a few back tees, which now measure about 6,800 yards with the members' tees at about 6,500 yards, "he said to me, 'This is more golf course from the back than I really want to play right now,'" says Hegarty. Sleepy had awakened.
The course renovation had been part of a long-term plan of capital projects. Members were assessed $10,000 each for capital investment. The golf course renovation cost $2.5 million for 27 holes. You couldn't get Jack Nicklaus on site for that amount of money.
"There is a feeling of tremendous pride," says Sanossian. "Working with Mike Hegarty, who understood what we wanted to accomplish. Working with Tom Leahy, my superintendent, who can be tough to work with but only has the best interests of the club in mind. I saw the brilliance in what Gil was proposing. I saw the restoration of the golf course at Sleepy Hollow to a status where we think we should be. We saw a restoration to a Macdonald look and feel. Gil and George really understood what this was supposed to be like."
Hanse found a symbiosis in working with Sanossian. "George is cautious and very thorough, which is the accountant in him," says Hanse. "Yet when he's convinced something is right, he goes after it, researching it, and he becomes very passionate and engaged with it."
The kind of enthusiasm showed by Sanossian, and mirrored by the board, is vital to any renovation work that clubs might be contemplating. From courses that were crafted in the early part of the twentieth century to those that sprang from the popularity of Arnold Palmer in the '60s to those that arose on the wave crest of the stock market in the 1990s, across the nation clubs are faced with choices. If the membership is concerned about overgrowth, they have to cut. If they are concerned about their green complexes deteriorating, they have to dig. If they are concerned about technology, they have to lengthen.
These decisions don't come easily and certainly not without cost. In almost all clubs the majority of the membership is content with what it has and hesitant to alter a very good thing. But those charged with maintaining the club are also charged with providing for its future. In looking ahead, they might decide that the future lies somewhere in the club's past, just as it did at Sleepy Hollow.
Charles Blair Macdonald walked the land at Sleepy Hollow nearly a century ago, but because of a dispute he had left less than his full imprint on the landscape, and that had become blurred over time. Now his spirit has returned and his imprint has been made by others as devoted as he was. An impassioned past is now the present and the future at Sleepy Hollow.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
Editor's note: Executive editor Gordon Mott is a member of Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
Photographs by Jim Krajicek