Rebirth of a Classic
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ago by the first true American golf course architect, Charles Blair Macdonald, had started to become a bit frayed and outdated in recent years.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?
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."
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.
Some of the new bunkers are blind off the tee, an old-world way to create a hazard. On one hand you could criticize a blind bunker as being unfair, but as Ben Hogan once said, "A blind shot is blind only once."
The steep grass-face style of the new bunkering has a practical maintenance purpose. In heavy rainstorms, bunkers with steep sand flashing tend to wash out, as several did at Sleepy Hollow. A bunker renovation at the Country Club of Birmingham wasn't mindful of the Alabama climate and its propensity for gullywashers. The steep sand faces kept washing out, necessitating another project to rebuild the bunkers with steep grass faces.
While Sleepy's new fairway bunkers were being added, all the greenside bunkers were being recast, most significantly at the second hole, the 13th and the dramatic short 16th. At the second a tabletop extension was added to the front right portion of the green. The bunker that now wraps around that daunting pin position is an abyss. The 13th has two gaping bunkers that appear as the nostrils of an inhospitable beast. At the par-3 16th, with its tee commanding an alluring view of the river, the original moat-style bunker has been restored, making for a dramatic postcard.
"Adding the fairway bunkering has brought the most to the golf course," says Hanse. "Also, getting a consistent style of steep grass faces with flat bottoms. The course now has a very distinct look to it, especially in Westchester County where there are no other Macdonald-Raynor courses."
Because the work was done gradually, play was never disrupted significantly. A few temporary tees had to be used, a few drop areas created, but because the greens and fairways weren't being torn up, play could continue. In the process, members could become acclimated to the joys, and perils, of their sympathetically restored course.
"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