By James A. Frank
Old Marsh Golf Club
In our business it’s very easy to get excited about new courses. We golf writers love talking to architects and owners about why they did what they did and then passing that information on to you, our audience of avid, savvy golfers.
However, as a few recent course visits reminded me, it’s easy to overlook an aspect of golf architecture that is just as exciting and, in the current economic environment, perhaps more important: Course renovation. It’s been my great pleasure in the last few months to see a handful of wonderful renovations that show how redoing old layouts keeps the game vibrant.
A renovation makes sense for a number of reasons.
First, it’s a lot less expensive to redo an old course than build a new one: The land is already purchased and dedicated to golf, and there’s an existing audience (although that audience might be shrinking, which could help account for the need to renovate). And those courses that install new turf, as many do, usually save money by using grass that needs less water, fewer chemicals, and less maintenance, and is stronger than what was there before.
Second, it’s a chance to bring back a course’s original features after years of neglect, changes, wear and tear, normal growth (notably trees), or any combination of those.
Third, renovation allows us to appreciate and play some of the great architects of the past. If you’ve ever played a great old course and said, “They don’t build them like that anymore,” a renovation often allows them to, and we golfers are better for it.
Fourth, good renovations help create, or recreate, a course appropriate to the moment. They can help make a course fit current skills and equipment; change features that are environmentally unsound or expensive to maintain; and, best of all, make courses more fun.
A few cases in point…
Old Marsh Golf Club, Palm Beach, Gardens, Fla. When I told a friend I was going to play this nearly 30-year-old Pete Dye design, he warned me that it was one of the hardest courses in the area, with every hole squeezed between water and sand. (Tom Doak described it in his Confidential Guide series by writing, “I believe Old Marsh has more water in play than any course I’ve ever played…”; Doak also put it on his lists of “hardest courses” and those requiring “most ammunition.”) But thanks to a recent redo by Dye and his associate Chris Lutzke, the course is much more playable and user-friendly, the fairways are wider (or at least seem that way), and the charms of the quiet, wetland-edged track are easier to enjoy. And playing from the appropriate tees, I didn’t lose a ball.
The Loxahatchee Club, Jupiter, Fla. Just like at Old Marsh, the members are thrilled with this redo by Jack Nicklaus of his 1984 design that was famously difficult not only for water and sand, as above, but the chocolate-drop mounding he was famous for back then. I hadn’t played it before, but going around with three members a few weeks ago—they pointed out every bunker-removal site (of which there were many), flattened mound, and redone green complex—they were ecstatic and I was thrilled. There’s still plenty of challenge, but also much more room to land drives, allowing many different ways to approach the re-contoured greens.
La Gorce Country Club, Miami Beach, Fla. This 90-year-old club has a great history as the former haunt of old pros like Al Besselink and Herman Keiser, as well as Miami swells like Joe DiMaggio and Eddie Arcaro. It also has a cleverly compacted course that Nicklaus’s crew recently redid by taking out trees, improving drainage, moving putting surfaces, rebuilding bunkers, and re-routing a loop of holes on the front side so the progression of play is more logical. Work was done on every hole, but the course remains authentic, merely modernized and opened up for both aesthetic and architectural reasons.
Moraine Country Club, Dayton, Ohio. Keith Foster redid this 1930 Alec “Nipper” Campbell design last year, removing 2,000 trees, replacing and returning bunkers, widening fairways, and revealing a marvelously rolling landscape that plays as a true “inland links.” Foster has done terrific restoration work around the country, especially to Tillinghast courses. By bringing back Moraine—which hosted the 1945 PGA Championship—he uncovered a jewel. Every job he does proves how renovations can give new life to an old track.
There are dozens more renovation stories like this. I expect—and hope—to be hearing and writing about more of them in the years to come.
What are some of your favorite course renovation stories? Let us know in the comments below!