How Restoring Courts From The Golden Age Is Good For Future Designs

By gradually restoring the Mountain Ridge Country Club designed by Donald Ross over two decades, course architect Ron Prichard believes he has a better understanding of Ross’s sense of fairness.

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series devoted to restorations of courses built during the golden age of course architecture.

There is an ongoing debate about the era we live in, at least when it comes to yard design and restoration work. Some people think we are in the golden age of restoring classic courses; others argue that such restoration work has been a common component of course refinements for decades.

Regardless of their respective positions on the subject, all the architects interviewed agree that the restoration work carried out today only reinforces the quality of the design of the original courses which are destined for the future.

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Tools of the trade

Members of the Baltusrol Golf Club who played the lower course before Gil Hanse’s recent restoration will see evidence of the modernity of the 7,135 yard layout everywhere they look: reshaped fairways; spectacular and eye-catching bunkers; expansive greens; and new lines of sight through the removal of around 400 evergreen trees provide ample evidence that what was once is now new. Even first-time guests at the Springfield, NJ club will feel the lower course is surprisingly modern, at least on rainy and rainy days when the course’s new state-of-the-art PrecisionAire system constantly buzzes along the course. is the perimeter of the course.

The fact that such an advanced underground system now exists at Baltusrol is proof of the kind of technology available to course architects, namely laser-guided topographic measurement tools that allow precise mapping of putting surfaces.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago a club like Baltusrol, Winged Foot or Merion never said, ‘Oh yeah, tear our greens. We are confident that you will put them back exactly as they were. Because this technology did not exist ”, explains Hanse.

“Now you not only have the ability to be as precise as possible when you get the right details, but you also have a level of specificity and precision that allows you to put the best possible agronomic conditions below the putting surface, which gives the club the opportunity to better present the course day after day.

In addition, Hanse says digital information treasures, as well as personal electronic devices, such as iPads, are key tools allowing architects now access to all this information and archival photographs from the field. while they work. These tools assure architects not only that they can get the details exactly right, but that they can do it as efficiently as possible.

Yet the most important tools during and after a restoration are sometimes the most archaic.

At Fox Chapel Golf Club outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., Course architect Tom Marzolf and his team have been unwavering in their mission to redesign many of the 6,705 yard greens and bunkers into their authentic geometric shapes with square corners. In Marzolf’s opinion, this was the commitment necessary to complete an honest restoration of a masterpiece by Seth Raynor. Yet, as he explains, it has also forced the club to retrain the ground team on how they should deal with the course on a daily basis.

“You change the way you take care of it because of the rectangular shapes and geometry,” says Marzolf. “You have to be aware of this every day. You have to rake this bunker by hand, and when cutting with a mower you have to protect the corner. It takes a disciplined crew because that could quickly erode.

Richard Mandell of Richard Mandell Golf Architecture emphasizes the need for simple tools, even during the construction process, as these details can make the difference in the overall effectiveness of a restoration.

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“A lot of architects and fabricators are wrong because you can see that some mounds were built by machines,” he says. “To do it right, you have to use smaller machines. It’s going to take you twice as long to do it, but you’re going to get down to the level of detail that you need. Then you’ll need people with rakes, shaving six inches here, or pushing a wheelbarrow of dirt over there. When you restore, you need to use the right equipment to replicate what it looks like. Going out with rakes like it used to be is a strange notion, but they are the tools needed to do it right.

Challenges and rewards

Depending on the course and the architects involved – both the original designer and the specialist responsible for bringing the course back to life – a restoration of a golden age course can offer both unique obstacles and points of pride once. the job finished. As Mandell explains, the challenge he has faced with many Donald Ross course restorations is the blending of strategic elements from the past with expectations about the look and play of a course today. .

“Today we are shaving the edges of the greens to very tight lies,” he says, “and balls that miss the green will roll all the way down. [of collection areas]. But Ross never intended for that to happen. In his day, that was not possible. He never thought of tight lies like we do; what he wanted was chance. He wanted a ball to roll 10 feet or 15 feet or three feet.

At Fox Chapel, the biggest challenge was also the functionality that provided the most satisfaction to Marzolf and his team. “It was a risk on our part to go this far with Raynor’s geometry,” he explains, “but he has a character and charm of his own that people find interesting.”

When it comes to the lower course at Baltusrol, Hanse could select a number of aspects as his proudest achievement, but he is focused on putting surfaces – particularly his team’s success in discovering the much larger sizes. of these original green complexes.

“These are the green expansions,” he says. “Not just in terms of the surface area and the restoration of some hole locations, but also the restoration of some of the slopes that Tillinghast has built into the greens and how the greens fit into the landscape. We brought them back to the top.

Ancillary benefits

Beyond the satisfaction that accompanies the preservation of a classic course for the enjoyment of future generations, the architects responsible for such restorations also learn tangentially what makes a great course.

“We’ve been involved with some of these clubs our entire lives,” said Marzolf, acknowledging that some of the company’s restoration efforts have spanned decades. “It absorbs in you. These classic course attributes shape the way you think.

In particular, it designates the putting surfaces. “You study these great courses and ask yourself, ‘Why are they great? These are the greens complexes and the design of the greens – the shape of the greens and the location of the holes on a putting surface. The key to excellent golf architecture is the location of the holes. A green shape with lobes or dots or projections creates more interest.

Ron Prichard, an architect known for his dedication to Donald Ross restorations, learned a similar lesson during more than two decades of gradually restoring the Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, NJ.[Ross] Golf was kind of seen as two games in one: one was the trip from the tee to the green, and then the big game started when you were on the putting surface, ”he says.

“From my study of him, I think Ross was a benevolent architect. He didn’t like seeing players make mistakes that caused full stroke penalties, he didn’t want a huge amount of water in play. If you really study his work, you see he had a match mentality. play: he always liked to keep the two opponents in the match. He didn’t want a guy to hit a tee shot and then have to put the ball in his pocket. Even though a player was at a disadvantage, he didn’t want to prevent him from making a brilliant recovery.

Restoring classic courses can also lead to revelations, especially with regard to the criteria used to judge the success of a golf hole. “It reveals creativity, strategy, [and it reveals that] less attention has been paid to what is right and what is not, ”says Hanse of the work he has done throughout his career to restore facilities originally built there. a century ago. “I don’t know if the architects of that time even thought about this question.”

As for the impact of this restoration work on his own original designs, Hanse establishes a powerful connection between the two.

“There are very few original design ideas,” he says. “Most are an interpretation or a fusion of one idea into something else. So, it can only help any golf course architect to have a really large source of reference material. You can always benefit from these experiences.

Every now and then, an architect’s efforts to restore a classic layout can even validate that designer’s modern work. “If I see something I’ve done that a classical architect has also done,” Mandell says, “it makes me feel like I’m on the right track.


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