Golf courses undergo renovations all the time. But a true restoration of an elite, Golden Age golf course is special.
The definition of the word restoration is to bring back into existence or to reestablish. For a restoration there must have been quality in existence already – something to go back to; an innate and organic beauty that is long forgotten but subliminally apparent and silently shouting to be let out of its cage.
For Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, New York, a storied course with a history dating back more than a century, a restoration seemed necessary. The golf course that played host to the first-ever PGA Championship in 1916 had fallen victim to father time and Mother Nature. Too many renovations, two wars and a tree-planting blitz in the mid-1900s led to a crowded and diminished golfing experience. So in 2012, Siwanoy broke ground on a three-year, six-phase, $6.5-million dollar restoration process to bring the course back to its original 1913 Donald Ross design and reintroduce itself to the golf world.
A Long Range Golf Course Improvement Plan was put into place by architect Mike Devries of Devries Designs in 2007, but due to unforeseen circumstances in addition to the economic collapse in 2008, the club didn’t break ground until 2012.
Siwanoy Country Club Superintendent Steve McGlone was hired just after the improvement plan was put in place, and Devries says it was his work ethic and ability to be both an active superintendent and a project manager for the restoration that allowed the process to flow so smoothly. McGlone cites Devries’ commitment to his projects and the working relationship between Devries Designs and McGlone’s maintenance team for the great success of the restoration.
“The restoration was member-driven. The greens committee wanted a change. They realized the potential this course had in its bones and they just needed to find the right guy to bring it out and make the course shine,” McGlone said, “Mike Devries did 80 percent of the work himself. He was building the bunkers, he was building the greens … he’s not one of those guys that gives out a set of drawings and then shows up at the end and says, ‘Okay, everything looks great.’ “
Quite the opposite, really. Devries went beyond the typical call of duty and inundated himself with the course, the members and the entire process.
“He actually lived on the 15th hole with our president. He was pulling 80-hour weeks with me and the whole crew. And that was a three-year deal,” McGlone said.
“You can’t just hand somebody a sketch and expect them to get that, you have to monitor it very closely. When there’s an issue, you’ve got to be able to handle it directly,” Devries said.
Over the course of those three years, the restoration was done in six phases during the shoulder seasons. They worked by complexes beginning in the fall of 2012 with holes 10, 11 and 14 kicking off the restoration. Followed by holes 7, 13 and 18 in the spring of 2013, minor work in the fall of 2013, holes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 in the spring of 2014, then holes 5, 6, 7, 9 and the putting green in the fall of 2014. Finally holes 12, 15, 16 and 17 were the last to be completed in the spring of 2016.
The bulk of the restoration efforts can be seen on and around the greens. Over the span of 100 years, which included two wars that put proper maintenance on the back burner, the greens weren’t the same as the ones Donald Ross had in mind.
“They shrunk over time. Whether the membership wanted them smaller or because of smaller staffs during the wars, things shrunk, bunkers got bulldozed in, whatever the reason was, they got smaller…” McGlone said, “So we expanded them to how they were. We used aerial photographs from the early 1900s to define where the perimeters were.”
McGlone estimates that each green increased an average of 70 to 80 percent in size as a result of the restoration. Not only did the greens get bigger, but the areas immediately surrounding them changed. Large apron areas surround nearly every green on the course, demanding an exact approach from the golfers at Siwanoy.
“We’re trying to get the ball to move away from the green to penalize an errant shot,” McGlone said.
Additionally, the club did extensive bunker work around the greens. With the expansion of the greens, bunkers now hug the perimeters of the putting surface. Before the restoration, a missed shot might not even reach the bunkers.
“Some shots would come and they’d miss the green and they’d be in the rough. Well then what’s the point of the bunker? You want the bunker right off the green. So having a more intimate relationship with green and bunker was key,” McGlone said. Siwanoy added about 20 bunkers around the grounds and the slope and shape of the bunkers have changed as well.
“Before, the bunkers held the ball. Now the ball goes back, real Ross style,” said former greens committee chairman Bill Hackett, who was a driving force in securing the goodwill and funds for the restoration.
“Feedback is incredible, everyone loves it. It’s harder. It’s harder because the greens flow so much better, there’s more movement,” Hackett said.
But with bigger greens, large apron areas and more bunkers comes a spike in what it takes, physically and financially, to maintain the product.
“We’ve done a 180 with maintenance after this restoration. I completely had to reevaluate what we were doing and why we were doing it,” McGlone said. “Manpower has nearly doubled on the greens, combine that with the bunkers’ maintenance expense and maintenance headcount has gone up. We’re more efficient with what we do, but in the end cost did go up.”
McGlone said they used to have one greens roller, now he has three and wants to add a fourth. What used to be three guys mowing greens in the morning has expanded to five. What used to be large rough areas that would get a casual afternoon mow are now apron areas that require intensive hand mowing in the morning. With the subtle ridges and undulations of the aprons, a straight-cutting unit that caused creasing and rutting gave way to a flex-head mower. What it takes to maintain this classic American course is a noticeable difference from five years ago.
But perhaps the biggest difference is what you don’t see – trees. Over 600 trees were removed from Siwanoy Country Club. An entire forest between holes 16 and 17 was clear cut. Aesthetically, the course sightlines opened up. Scenic panoramas now exist where before one felt isolated and surrounded on most holes. You can see roughly 65 percent of the course from the clubhouse; before you couldn’t see much past the first tee and 18th green.
Removing so many trees allowed for the course to broaden its fairways. And while this seems to make the course easier, McGlone believes just the opposite. Before the restoration, a player could dink and dunk his or her way through the rough all the way down the hole while never getting too far off-line with the center of the hole.
“Now, the ball will travel much more off target. It won’t hit a tree and kick down, it’s now continuing to slice, bounce and you’re much farther off target,” McGlone said. This has demanded the better golfers to think about their lines in advance while simultaneously giving the average golfer more fairway to work with. This theme of giving players of all skill levels more opportunity carries through the course to the very end.
The finale at Siwanoy is as picturesque as you’d hope for in a classic track.
The sprawling clubhouse and wraparound veranda sit just behind and above the 18th green, beckoning you to the finish line. Families dine and golfers gather on the patio; a small crowd offering you one last drop of adrenaline as you putt out the round. But those who’ve been playing the course for years can see beyond the beauty of the idyllic finish.
The green complex of No. 18 is something of a culmination of the restoration at Siwanoy. The bunkers hug the green, demanding precision. The apron rolls off the green from almost all sides, creating a grueling approach. The putting surface is fast and firm with undulations galore, requiring mental fortitude until the very last golf ball disappears over the horizon of the cup. The sightlines are expansive and begging to be savored – nearly the entire back nine is visible from here.
It was the bones of the course, the underlying loveliness of a forgotten treasure whose beauty and rigor was alive but barely recognizable, that insisted to be taken back to its roots. These bones, once healthy and championship-caliber, have found new life in its original body. Siwanoy Country Club has been restored.