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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 2)

After Hanse's renovation plans were approved by the greens committee and then by the Sleepy Hollow board, the board members felt it was important to gauge the feelings of the membership. Two club meetings were organized, Hanse's plans were presented, and there would be debate. But there wouldn't be a vote. "I think if the membership had blown back with such ferociousness that it was clear that the board and the green[s] committee were not seeing what the membership saw, I think it would have been reconsidered," says Sanossian. "The board had a mind-set that [the] plan should be approved, but we wanted member buy-in."

There were many questions, but nothing approaching a revolt. Tom Wright, a member for 20 years, was, like his peers, concerned about the tree removal plan. "My fundamental concern had to do with the pragmatic view that it takes 75 years to replace a tree of the size and character that we had at Sleepy Hollow," says Wright. "Each tree had to be taken very seriously."

But that wasn't the only thing that concerned Wright. "This notion of returning it to its C. B. Macdonald roots is somewhat troubling to me because it's impossible to know what Mr. Macdonald intended," notes Wright. "Did he not think trees would grow over 50 years when he thought about Sleepy Hollow as opposed to his property at the National Golf Links? That always concerned me, putting yourself in the head of C. B. Macdonald."

And as for making the course more challenging, Wright wasn't all that sure. "The course is very broadly viewed as fun to play," he says. "You could debate how challenging it is for the best golfers. I don't hear any debate on how challenging it is for the average golfer."

For Brendan O'Rourke, another 20-year member, large-scale change didn't seem at all necessary. "I personally didn't understand the mandate for a drastic change," says O'Rourke. "I felt if we lengthened some tees and fixed some traps, we had a spectacular course."

The plan didn't call for lengthening the course by much and was always mindful of the average player. Hanse's directive was that the toughening of the course would impact the better players who chose to play from the back tees while keeping it enjoyable for the majority of players who played from the members' tees. The major strategic element proposed by Hanse and Bahto was the introduction of severe fairway bunkering in the style of Macdonald and Raynor. Sleepy Hollow had a few fairway bunkers, but players could bomb away off the tees without regard to placement as long as the shots weren't wild enough to end up in the trees. And there would be a new hole, a par-5 12th replacing a long, difficult par 4. In creating a new par 5, the old par-5 15th would be shortened and reduced to a par 4, which is actually how Macdonald had designed the original hole.

"One of the things we thought was that our closing holes should be strong, and 15 was weak as a par 5," says Sanossian. "Macdonald, when he designed punch bowl greens, they were at the end of par 4s, two-shot holes. We wanted to align the 14th green with the 15th tee so you didn't walk 75 yards back up the hill to the 15th tee."

Without any significant member objections, the project got under way in the summer of 2006. Sleepy Hollow is divided into two courses, the 18-hole Upper and the nine-hole Lower. Work had begun on the Lower Course in the spring of 2006, which allowed the membership to see a model of what was to come on the Upper Course. Using a local contractor, Hawkshaw Golf Course Construction, that Hanse had worked with before, construction proceeded on couples of holes at a time. That had a twofold benefit. One, it meant that play was not disrupted substantially, and two, the members could see what would be happening, on a larger scale, on the Upper Course. "If we had given it to them all at once, it would have been too much to handle," says Bahto. "By doing the Lower first, it allowed the members to get used to the style, to make comments on it, and that made it easier to do what we wanted to do with the Upper."

What they would do to the Upper was to follow the strategies that Macdonald employed, the strategies he took directly from his visits to Scotland. "What Macdonald was saying is that if you challenge my hazard successfully off the tee, there will be a reward," says Bahto. "Or you can go around it, but it will be a longer hole with a more difficult approach. At Sleepy there were no strategies off the tee and probably never were. Lacking those Macdonald strategies off [the tee], the course was schizophrenic and lacked identity."

The introduction of significant, severe and identifiable fairway bunkering was crucial. These were sand pits with steep grass faces that would put a penalty on a drive, that would make a good player think about the consequences of a mediocre shot. One of the new bunkers thrusts itself into play on the left side of the par-4 second, another menaces the right side of the par-4 fourth, another pops out from the left on the 13th and still others come from both the left and right on the 14th.


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