By Tony Leodora
In the last decade of the 20th Century, golf course openings in the United States were taking place at the dizzying rate of almost one per day. The “build it and they will come” mentality had taken over the golf industry.
Twenty years later, almost no new courses are being built. And many more are being closed.
But, luckily, golf course architects are not forced to stand in the soup line. While there are less of them these days – and their staffs are much smaller than during the heyday – they have still found a way to keep busy.
Golf course renovations have hit an all-time high.
Part of this burst of business comes from the fact that so many of the classic golf courses (75 to 100 years old) were neglected for some time and now need major work in order to “keep up with the Joneses.”
In addition, all of those courses that were built during the 1990s now need some tweaking in order to keep up with modern agronomy and technology.
“The golf courses got tired,” explained Stephen Kay, the New Jersey-based golf course architect who has been kept extremely busy with renovation/restoration work. “They got tired with regard to the fact that the fairways got narrower, the greens got smaller and the bunkers needed rebuilding.
“More important, the golf courses got overgrown, especially during the 1960s when Lady Bird Johnson started her Beautify America, Plant a Tree program. There actually were advertisements in Life Magazine encouraging people to plant a tree. With regard to the golf courses, people got carried away.”
A major part of the renovation that now is taking place on golf courses involves tree removal. Oakmont, site of this year’s U. S. Open, is the most dramatic example. Almost every tree on the golf course was removed, restoring it to the original look at the time of design more than 100 years ago.
“Unfortunately, people spent a lot of money planting trees,” said Kay. “And even more unfortunate is the fact that now they are spending even more money to take them down.”
But it is money well-spent.
In no area has the effect of renovation been more of a positive than throughout Eastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Project-after-project over the last 15 years have proved that tired old courses could be salvaged … and great courses could be made even greater.
With that in mind, it was time to give some perspective to the renovation process that has taken place. Here is a list of the Top Ten renovation/restoration projects in the region … and how they have improved golf in an area where the quality of the courses is as good as any region in the country.
Some of them involved major construction, forcing the course to be closed for as much as a year or more during the work. Others were more subtle, with work taking place while the majority of the course was open for play. In all cases the work resulted in major improvement.
In preparation for the 64th Senior PGA Championship in 2003, Aronimink underwent a major renovation. Architect Ron Prichard, a noted Donald Ross design expert, took the course back to more of its original style.
The course was closed for almost one year and the new product was greatly changed from what resulted from the last renovation by Robert Trent Jones, 20 years prior.
Atlantic City CC
After South Jersey’s historic gem was purchased by the Hilton Casino, architect Tom Doak was hired to transform the course. The routing was changed, holes were reconstructed, green areas were completely restored and bunkers were moved.
But the biggest focus of the renovation was improving drainage. Huge amounts of topsoil was brought in and the entire back portion of the golf course was raised a few feet. New tees and greens were constructed in the wetlands, leading into the bay. Tall weeds were cut to provide a view of the Atlantic City skyline. Most importantly, the quality of the turf was improved greatly.
This might be the most dramatic renovation ever completed in the Greater Philadelphia area. At the same time that Prichard renovated Aronimink, he attempted to restore the municipal course west of Norristown that had been in a state of decay for years.
The first step was substantiating the fact that the course actually was another Donald Ross design. In 2003 it was documented as the 400th Ross course in America. Then Prichard went to work and, after a long remodel, Jeffersonville re-opened as one of the best daily fee courses in the area. From worst to first.
There was a long period of rumors that Llanerch CC would be closed and moved from its crowded Delaware County locale to a new site farther west. Finally the members wisely decided to stay put … and restore the old Alexander Findlay gem.
Using the solid foundation that already existed, Kay was brought in to do the renovation. The almost final result – some tweaking still goes on – was a greatly improved golf course that has been hosting a number of top-notch events since re-opening in 2005.
Another Donald Ross design, the LuLu membership turned to the architecture firm of Ron Forse for a total renovation and improvement of the entire golf course. The effort took the major portion of a year.
At the time, Forse conceded that his major goal was to return the true Ross characteristics to the golf course – many of which had been lost over the years. His work, for the most part, resulted in a golf course that was enjoyable for members to play on a daily basis. Some softening of his more controversial design work on one hole was necessary in succeeding years.
Philadelphia Cricket Club
In preparation for this year’s Senior Players Championship, one of the most talked-about renovations in recent years took place. The revered Wissahickon Course at Philly Cricket, designed by native Philadelphian A.W. Tillinghast, was closed for more than six months. A major part of the renovation was tree removal, even though a number of trees had been eliminated in the years leading up to the most current work.
The net result was a course almost completely devoid of trees – much like Oakmont. And the work, done by architect Keith Foster, received almost unanimous rave reviews from the members, guests and visiting golf professionals who played the new layout.
When they started talking about major renovations to the courses on the 54-hole complex that once was owned by Bethlehem Steel, there were more than a few doubters. But renowned architect Tom Fazio took on the task of renovating the Old Course in advance of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open.
His work, especially in creating spectacular green complexes, received national acclaim. As a result, his firm was brought back to do a major renovation and tree removal on Saucon’s Weyhill Course. And now, the Grace Course is receiving the same facelift.
CC of Scranton
The preeminent example of the masterful work of Walter Travis in the region, the Country Club of Scranton underwent one of the longest renovation projects in the region. For the better part of 10 years a number of renovation efforts took place.
A state of the art irrigation system was installed in 2004. A fairway topdressing program was implemented in 2007. All of the greens on the old course were improved with the installment of XGD Drainage Systems in 2009. Turf improvement projects took place in 2010 and the final stages of renovation were completed in July of 2012, including new green complexes and bunkers.
The old Torresdale-Frankford CC, designed by Donald Ross, was in desperate trouble before a merger with the Union League in Philadelphia took place in 2015. The influx of new money allowed for a renovation of the golf course and a major renovation of the clubhouse.
Stephen Kay did the course work, again citing a strong foundation that made his job easier. Again, tree removal was part of the plan but the restoration of the greens and bunkers – plus a softening of a number of the most severe greens – resulted in an excellent course that should serve its new, large membership well.
Architect Bobby Weed was most known for building many of the TPC courses that served the PGA Tour. When his name first surfaced as the architect hired to renovate the 50-year-old William & David Gordon-designed course at White Manor, there was some skepticism.
Weed did a masterful job of rejuvenating the course that sits amidst the beautiful horse country of Chester Valley. First, he removed hundreds of trees, opening vistas to the spectacular surrounding countryside. Then he re-routed some holes, re-designed others and improved all of the green complexes. It re-opened in 2002, resulting in widespread acclaim and a solid membership.