July 9, 2018 By: Neil Geoghegan — NEWTOWN — Aronimink Golf Club may not be a regular stop on the PGA Tour, but the venerable Main Line venue is now becoming a frequent host of big-time professional events across nearly every spectrum.
In less than two months, the newly renovated Donald Ross design will test the top 70 PGA players at the BMW Championship. The 72-hole tournament boasts $9 million in prize money and is the third leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. It will take place on Sept. 6-9.
In 2020, Aronimink has signed on to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and then in 2027, the PGA Championship returns following a 65-year hiatus. In a couple years, Aronimink will become the first course to stage each of the PGA’s three rotating major championships (the Senior PGA was previously held there in 2003).
“It’s definitely a major championship venue, and the field will reflect that,” the tournament’s defending champion, Marc Leishman, said Monday via Skype.
“It’s how I would picture a PGA Tour event to be — or how I did picture it to be — before I came over here to America,” added the 34-year-old Australian, who went wire-to-wire in 2017 at Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Ill.
The BMW Championship Media Day festivities drew an impressive array of local golf icons on Monday, including Berwyn’s Jay Sigel and Villanova’s Buddy Marucci. But you can add golf course architect Gil Hanse to that exclusive list.
Based in Malvern, Hanse and his company oversaw a complete restoration to Aronimink that was completed this spring and will give the world’s best players a different look than they last saw the course during its two-year run hosting the PGA’s AT&T National in 2010-11.
“(They) will find a course that looks and plays differently than it did for the AT&T,” Aronimink President Joe Fabrizio said. “It’s a course that has been transformed back to its 1928 Donald Ross design and build.”
Thanks to aerial images of the course from the Hagley Museum taken nearly 90 years ago, Hanse and his crew had some powerful visual aids, and were given the OK to begin the process following a vote of club members in 2016. Aronimink will still play to Par 70 and at about 7,200 yards, but the pros will be greeted with wider fairways, more than 100 additional bunkers, 18 new tee boxes and larger greens that will bring more hole locations into the fold.
“I looked at it with a slanted eye at the beginning (of the restoration), only because I’ve been here so darn long,” said Sigel, a longtime Aronimink member who was an amateur standout and then won eight times on the Senior PGA Tour.
“How could you make Donald Ross better, which had been viewed and reviewed a number of times by so called experts? But we were very lucky to have Gil (Hanse) on this. The earlier redoes, in retrospect, weren’t as good as they could have been.
“But I’m very pleased. To go from 70 to 170-some bunkers seems amusing, but they are far more playable, which makes it more fun for the player.”
For the record, it’s a total of 176 bunkers, and they are set in clusters, which was a bit atypical for Donald Ross. Hanse is also involved in an ongoing, but less publicized, restoration to the East Course at Merion.
“There is a certain badge of honor and pride to do the type of work that they asked us to do here, so close to home,” said Hanse, who founded Hanse Golf Course Design in 1993. “To be entrusted with masterpieces like (Aronimink and Merion), and know that you could run into these members at a Wawa or at the movies, that’s a level of trust they’ve extended to us that we appreciate.”
To get an accurate idea just how prestigious the BMW Championship is, you only need look at the recent past winners that include two-time champs Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson, and single winners Jason Day and Rory McElroy. In addition, the BMW started as the Western Open in 1899, and is making its first return to Pennsylvania in more than a half century.
“Walking up the last (hole at Conway Farms) knowing that I had probably won it — yeah, that was nice,” Leishman recalled. “It’s one of my best memories in golf, to be honest. You know, it was a huge honor to lift up such an important trophy and such a historic one.
“I’ve seen so many great players win the BMW Championship and the Western Open, and to be one of those is a massive honor.”
Leishman will be one of what is expected to be a lengthy list of PGA players who will be returning after competing in the AT&T National at Aronimink seven and/or eight years ago. But he is well aware that the restoration will add a new wrinkle.
“Luckily I played there a few years ago when they had the AT&T,” he said. “It’s a great golf course. It’s probably going to be 20 or 30 guys that have played the course. But having been so long since we have played it, it’s going to be almost like learning a new golf course again.”
The BMW is the third of the four-event FedEx Cup playoff series. According to Leishman, “it’s almost like winning three or four events with the amount of points you get.” The top 30 in FedEx Cup points after Aronimink will advance to the Tour Championship the following week.
Tournament organizers estimate that 120,000 spectators will attend the four-round, no-cut event, which will take place the week after Labor Day Weekend. There are expected to be more than 2,400 volunteers. And since 2007, the BMW Championship has raised $26 million to benefit the Evans Scholar Foundation, which funds hundreds of caddie scholarships across the country.
Hanse says he is very interested to see how the PGA Tour elite tackle new-look Aronimink. In 2010, Justin Rose prevailed in the AT&T National with a winning score of 10-under-par. A year later, Nick Watney grabbed the title at 13-under.
“Our satisfaction is, mainly, with restoring (Donald) Ross,” Hanse said. “It’s not our vision, but his vision.”
“The greatest point of satisfaction for us comes from the members who supported us in the earlier days and kind of pushed this thing over across the goal line to get it done.”