July 18, 2018 By:Jay Sigel, a longtime Aronimink member who was an amateur standout and then won eight times on the Senior PGA Tour, reflected Monday on the recent Donald Ross restorations performed by Malvern-based architect Gil Hanse.
“I would call [Hanse] an artist,” said Sigel. “To put this together, I think [everyone] will be really happy with what we have here.”
The restorations, which began in 2016 and were completed this spring, feature wider fairways, more than 100 additional bunkers, 18 new tee boxes and larger greens. Hanse’s restorations were based on the original 1928 Ross design.
“You extrapolate it even further, and now the greens are bigger, and players will see hole locations that they wouldn’t have seen back in 2010 and 2011 [at the A T & T National Tournament] but were part of the original Donald Ross golf course. So if you move the hole to the extreme right of the green, it really pays dividends to approach the green from the left side of the fairway.”
Hanse and his staff relied on aerial images of the course from the Hagley Museum taken nearly 90 years ago, plus vintage photographs of Aronmink that were in the clubhouse.
“The aerial photos were our blueprint, but an aerial photograph only provides you with a plan, it doesn’t give you the third dimensional view,” said Hanse. “So we also looked at some of the old photographs of the course on its opening day.”
One of the interesting aspects of the original design that Hanse discovered was that Ross designed clusters of bunkers — three to five in a cluster — which was unusual for his design. Aronimink now has 176 bunkers, a marked increase from the 2010-2011 layout, particularly on No. 11, a 425-yard par 4 (from the black tees) with a severely elevated green.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been involved in a hole with so many bunkers,” said Hanse.
As part of the Ross restoration, three bunkers have been added both to the left, and to the right, of the 11th fairway. Several bunkers were added to the right of the green, and moved back a few yards from greenside, and a trio of bunkers were added to the back of the green.
“The bunkers around the green can show off the elevation changes,” said Hanse. “For the fairway bunkers, we used the patterns of the bunkers in the original design, but sometimes we had to move some of them downrange so they would be in the landing range of today’s golfers.”
For the BMW Championship in September, the course will play to about 7,200 yards. Some of the holes have been lengthened; for example the uphill par 4 18th hole is listed as 463 yards from the black tees — about 25-30 yards longer than it was for the 2010-2011 AT & T National.
“The original Ross tees still exist, they just happen to be the middle tees now,” said Hanse. “We looked at this project as a sympathetic restoration; in other words, we looked at a hole and said, ‘Ross intended this hole to be a long par 4, so what is a long par 4 in 2018?’ And could we stretch the golf course? Because sometimes you just don’t have room. We wanted to maintain the compact connectivity of the course — the last thing we wanted is to build a tee 80 yards further back, and the golfer to come off the [preceding] green and have to walk 80 yards back.”
Along with lengthening of the course, some of the greens were expanded. For example, on No. 15, a par 4 that measures 515 yards from the black tees, the back section of the green was expanded to make it more receptive to a long approach shot.
In the original 1928 Ross design, there were only about a dozen trees on the Aronimink property. While a number of trees have been removed in the past couple of years — for example, between the ninth and 18th holes, several trees were taken out and replaced by bunkers that were in the original design — there still remain more trees on the grounds than there were 90 years ago.
“We did remove some trees, and the course certainly has a much more open feel than it did even 20 years ago,” said Hanse. “The [earlier] Ron Pritchard restoration really helped with the tree removal; we just followed on from that, but I don’t think anyone has any aspirations to go back to the original setting, when there were only eight or nine trees on the property. We’re working to get a nice balance between what the property evolved into, and what it started out as.
It’s not just Aronimink, every golf course changes over time because of current trends and styles. Irrigation was a significant contributor to the early changes to this course. When Ross built these wide fairways, there was no irrigation and there was no way to maintain them. So when irrigation came in, there was maybe only one or two rows [of irrigation], so the fairways got smaller and smaller. So to fill around the fairways, they would put trees in, and the next thing you know, the course had morphed away from what Ross originally designed.
“We needed to irrigate the play corridors, so we had to adjust the irrigation system to the wider fairways. In the out-of-play areas, we incorporated a lot of fescue, and we took the maintenance [needs] out of that area.”
Hanse, who designed the Olympic Course at the 2016 Summer games in Brazil, has worked on restorations/renovations of a trio of courses that will host PGA Tour events for three consecutive weeks later this summer — Ridgewood Country Club (The Northern Trust tournament Aug. 23-26), TPC Boston (Dell Technologies Championships Aug. 31- Sept. 3) and, of course, the BMW Championship Sept. 6-9.
Hanse is also involved in a restoration to the East Course at Merion that should be completed by spring 2019.
“We’re excited about the [Merion] project; it’s a restoration to reflect William Flynn’s and Hugh Wilson’s impact on the course,” said Hanse. “We’re looking at the same collection [of aerial photographs] from the Hagley Museum, and really trying to piece back together the look and feel of the [original] golf course.”
During the past few years, Hanse has enjoyed being part of the U.S. Open coverage team on FOX Sports.
“It’s been fun; I get to pipe in every now and then about the golf course,” said Hanse. “It’s an opportunity for me to study the architecture of each course, and I’ve been told by a lot of people that it’s a nice viewpoint [I bring] that none of the other networks have. I learn, and it’s a ton of fun working with Shane Bacon and Brad Faxon. I loved being at Shinnecock [for this year’s Open]. It’s an amazing golf course, and to see the setting, the expanse, the rolling terrain … Flynn’s design was a masterpiece.”