Developing a Program for Course Improvements
Sylvania Country Club, home to an original Willie Park Jr. design, retained us to oversee a comprehensive design-reinstatement that will begin in 2015. To say I'm delighted with the opportunity would be a gross understatement - the Club is only ten minutes from from office ! The course is delightful; a layout that I enjoy more than any other in the Toledo area. For example, I really love the way the course is arranged... particularly the front nine sequence of 4,5,3,5,4,3,4,5,3... never a consecutive par type! Park made terrific use of the terrain (rolls and ravines) to create a really dynamic golf experience.
We’re nearly 100 years into the evolution of this golf course, and any such layout will undergo marked change over such a long period of play. But there’s a spectrum of change that can take place on courses like these, from the ‘Golden Age’. At one end, there are courses where the greens, tees and bunkering have been actively modified, moved or replaced with ever-more-modern feature components. At the other end, you have clubs like Sylvania, where nearly all the original features are essentially intact, still recognizable, but have fallen into some level of disuse.
The goals for the project are straightforward but highly nuanced: We intend to recover these original features and bring them back into play in a way that best suits today’s game and diverse range of players. Our plans will be surgical and the implementation practical and phased in such a way that the course will remain in-play for the use of its members.
Our work will reference original planning documents drawn up by Park, nearly 100 years ago, along with aerial photography. The aerials in particular will greatly aid the pending recovery of original design elements, as this vintage imagery will more clearly delineate original bunkering placements and fairway widths as well as how rampant tree growth has warped the architects’ intended strategies.
Those strategies, as devised by Willie Park Jr., are perhaps not so well known today. He was a rough contemporary of his fellow Scot, Donald Ross, and nearly as prolific — on both sides of the Atlantic. Park is responsible for the original course at Olympia Fields in Chicago, the famed No. 2 course at Gullane, in Scotland’s East Lothian region, the Old Course at Sunningdale near London, Maidstone GC on Long Island, and Pine Lake CC outside Detroit, where Rogers has undertaken planning of another history-laden renovation.
Park doesn’t get the attention of Ross, but his work was brilliant. Park’s routing and use of the terrain at Sylvania was amazingly playful. But his design is just part of what makes Sylvania Country Club such a unique place. This was the birthplace of the GCSAA [Golf Course Superintendents Association of America], the place Arnold Palmer won the Ohio Amateur, in 1954 — that tournament, at Sylvania, was where he first met a young Jack Nicklaus.
I think it’s important for older clubs to understand that heritage sells. I mean, Byron Nelson won the 1940 Ohio State Open at Sylvania. If your course is so demonstrably classic, that fact can and should be enhanced through some level of beneficial recovery and leveraged to better attract a certain type of member. Reviving these grand designs can and should add value, if done properly.
Proper restoration of courses built prior to World War II invariably centers on the putting surfaces, many of which grew smaller during the war years, as limitations in labor, equipment and fuel led to mowing reconfigurations. The advent of modern irrigation systems in the 1950’s essentially locked those smaller, rounder green shapes in place.
We envision that nearly every green at Sylvania, for example, will be restored to their original perimeters, which will add new cupping areas while providing larger, more interesting, better integrated targets.
Today, we see edges that extend well outside the maintained green and collar designations – and also outside of where irrigation heads are currently placed. That’s an easy, logical fix, and it dovetails with our goal to establish and further develop greater identity and consistency among all of the holes at Sylvania, to institute greater thematic cohesiveness and design clarity to the overall golf experience.
Many courses from this era have, over the decades, seen sand bunkers completely removed from play. This was not the case at Sylvania, where the course suffered instead from a series of inelegant bunker modifications. Our plans actually call for a modest bunker reduction at Sylvania CC, while providing all remaining bunkers a uniform, rolled-grass-face, flattish-bottomed look more in keeping with a typical, manageable Park style.
I’m all for replacing dull, shallow saucers with more dynamic bunkering that is fitted into the landforms, and there are many examples at Sylvania where bunkers have become detached from greens and fairways. We’ll restore and reattach those bunkers and refine their purposeful positions. However, sometimes modern architects need to recognize the purity and simplicity of what the original architect had clearly intended — and simply get out of the way.
An original Willie Park, Jr. design - 1917
Birthplace of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America - 1926
1940 Ohio State Open - won by Byron Nelson
1954 Ohio Amateur - won by Arnold Palmer