August 20, 2016 By: Joe Juliano – Over five decades, the legendary architect Donald Ross designed about 400 golf courses, but he believed that just one – Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square – deserved this lavish praise: “I intended to make this my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize I built better than I knew,” he said.
As it turned out, the Aronimink that you’re accustomed to seeing, the course that hosted the AT&T National hosted by Tiger Woods in 2010 and 2011, is not exactly the one to which Ross was referring.
The recent discovery of photographs, an aerial shot and several from ground level, from 1929 – one year after Aronimink opened at its current location – has unveiled some never-before-seen features of a Ross design that have disappeared over time. As a result, the club’s membership has given approval to returning the course to that vintage look.
Club president Steve Zodtner said that Gil Hanse, the Malvern-based architect who designed the Olympic golf course in Rio, has been awarded the contract to restore all bunkers, return some greens to their original dimensions, and make other fixes. The work, which will be conducted from October to April for the next two years, will be completed in time for the staging of the 2018 BMW Championship, a PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event.
And the club also is looking beyond the 2018 tournament, specifically to a major such as the PGA Championship, which Zodtner said “would be the major that we’re going for.” Aronimink and the PGA of America first met during the playing of the AT&T, and talks between the two have continued.
“Aronimink is a wonderful golf course that most golfers enjoy playing,” Kerry Haigh, chief championship officer for the PGA of America, said in an email response from Rio, where he is officiating at the Olympic golf tournaments. “We have kept in close touch with club officials and continue to discuss potential future opportunities.”
The course restoration is a big step for Aronimink, which received excellent reviews from many Tour players during the AT&T National. The course is considered by many to be the third-best in Pennsylvania, trailing only Merion Golf Club and Oakmont Country Club, which have combined to host 14 U.S. Opens, and is 90th among United States layouts in the 2016 Golf Digest rankings.
Back to the beginning
Zodtner said that about two years ago, a review of the existing master plan for Aronimink, first created in 1995, concluded that the course’s bunkers “had passed their useful life” and needed to be redone. After Hanse was selected for the job, he put together a proposal using a 1929 aerial photograph of the course from the Dallin Aerial Survey Collection at Wilmington’s Hagley Museum, plus some shots at ground level.
Those photos showed that Ross liked to improvise with bunker design and location, rather than follow the original plan on paper.
“Comparing the master plan to the aerial photographs, they realized that the bunker complexes were much different back then as built than they were as they were drawn,” Zodtner said. “We think, and Gil believes, that Ross, when he went out into the field, made kind of game-time decisions about where to place bunkers. He was trying to do things more innovatively. So we’re going to restore it back to its 1929 look.”
The 1995 plan was adopted after experts warned that too much tinkering by other architects at Aronimink had diminished Ross’ design. It was implemented by Ron Prichard, a Lansdale architect who specialized in restoring Ross courses and worked on bunkers and greens for two years, then returned to do some more work before the 2003 Senior PGA Championship.
Hanse, whose Olympic course received mostly excellent reviews, referred to the Aronimink project as a restoration, rather than a renovation, “because we’re really focused on the original design character, the style of the bunkering, the configuration of the bunkering.”
“He generally kind of put together in groups of three or four bunkers, clusters as opposed to singular bunkers,” he said. “That is different for Ross, and I think a really interesting presentation. I think it’ll be really dramatic, which we’re excited about.”
Over the years, most “bunker clusters” originally designed by Ross have been merged into one bunker. According to John Gosselin, Aronimink’s golf course superintendent, 75 bunkers are spread throughout the layout now. The restoration plans call for 173 bunkers.
At the 11th hole, a par-4 that has five bunkers could have as many as 14 in the restoration. Gosselin said outlines of old bunkers, or “ghosts,” that have been removed can be spotted behind the green, and three will be added there.
Hanse said the ghosts will be restored “as long as those bunkers are still relevant to modern distances. In other instances, we may restore the pattern but in a location more fitting to today’s technology.”
In rebuilding every single bunker with a new base and drainage, Hanse said, some of the high shoulders in front of the bunkers will be lowered significantly.
“There will still be depth” to the bunkers, he said, “but it will be defined by the slope of the ground as opposed to [artificially] created slopes.”
Aronimink member Jay Sigel, a five-time U.S. Golf Association champion and an eight-time winner on the PGA Champions Tour, said that the new look will be more attractive, and that it was time to do something about the bunkers.
“They’re just old,” he said. “The drainage is very poor in a number of our bunkers. With us getting national attention with tournaments, and our interest in majors, we needed to fix those. Getting Gil Hanse’s thoughts were certainly timely, and fit perfectly in the scheme.”
‘Integrity of the hole’
The bunkers won’t be the only focus of the restoration. Gosselin said the plan is to “find every last bit of lost green space” as judged from the photographs. A great example is the long par-4 15th, where an additional 25 to 30 feet will be added to the back of the green to restore a “punch bowl” effect at the rear part of the surface.
Another project will be the teeing grounds, which have evolved from the Ross design of free-form to mostly rectangular or “runway-type” tees. The more irregular shapes favored by Ross provided different angles to approach the fairway.
“Looking at the old photographs, they were more free-form in shape as opposed to rectangular,” Hanse said. “I think Ron had always intended to get them more free-form, but the club hadn’t moved in that direction. But now we’re going to go ahead and do that.”
Some length to the course will be added. The par-4 18th, which currently plays at 436 yards from the tip, will be pushed back 30 yards as requested by the PGA Tour. The 15th can stretch to more than 500 yards if needed.
Club member Billy Olson, who handles media relations for Aronimink, said the added length is why the project is called a “sympathetic restoration,” because more yardage does not take away from the hole.
“We’re still maintaining the integrity of the hole,” he said. “We’re adding length, which is really critical, just to pay attention to today’s ball, today’s athlete, today’s equipment.”
He said the new course length would be around 7,300 yards at par-70, and added that a plan has been approved to stretch the course to as long as 7,700 if needed.
Gosselin said fairways will be widened by about 20 percent, from 26 acres to 31. While the width won’t necessarily be what it was in 1929, “we’re grabbing as much space as we can,” he said.
Tree removal for the restoration will be limited to about 70, he said.
Hanse said that if the area enjoys a rather mild season as it did last winter, a vast majority of the restoration work could be done by the restart of the 2017 golf season. If not, it would be finished in the winter of 2017-18.
The fact that Hanse is directing the project has received national attention. Sigel called it “a feather in Aronimink’s cap.” Haigh said the PGA of America was “very excited” about the plans and added, “Gil Hanse is a wonderful golf course architect.”
Haigh did mention, however, that current majors demand “an ever-growing need for space,” and that Aronimink officials are aware of that need as they seek a PGA Championship.
“They have expressed a willingness to look into making possible adjustments to make such an event happen,” he said.
Olson said Aronimink sits on 300 acres, 165 of which take up the golf course. He said the club “has plenty of capability to create more space for hospitality and media because of the amount of land we have” to accommodate the PGA.