Money Game: Course restorations take time and can cost millions, but here’s why most are worth the wait

The reno rollout at Winged Foot happened in two phases: The East course was completed in 2014, the West course in 2017.

Stephen Rabideau, CGCS/Winged Foot Golf Club

A few summers back, golf course architect Bruce Hepner stood in the ballroom at Woodway Country Club, my home course, to describe his plan to restore Willie Park Jr.’s original 1916 design. The bunkers were going to be redone. Tee boxes were going to be brought back into alignment. And trees were coming down, to reveal what Park, who twice won the British Open, had created.

Hepner, who gets credit for building Ballyneal in Colorado (No. 34 on GOLF’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S.) and restoring Piping Rock, a C.B. Macdonald classic on Long Island (No. 56), then fielded questions. A few esoteric architectural inquiries. A few about the timing. But the ones that stood out were the impassioned statements revolving around what would be lost. The back and forth — about trees, specific hole changes — was intense. Hepner is used to it. “It was nothing,” he says. “Change is hard at any club. People are always hanging on to past ideas.”

The golden age of golf architecture, roughly 1910 to World War II, produced some of the greatest golf courses in America, the ones the USGA returns to again and again for national championships: Winged Foot, Oakmont, Shinnecock, Pinehurst.

But many great courses designed by the likes of Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Seth Raynor and others are in need of some TLC. Odd additions have cropped up. Trees have been growing for decades to the detriment of play and maintenance. And members often can’t see the problems.

“No one ever sees that something is wrong with his golf course,” says Dr. Michael Hurdzan, the architect behind 2017 U.S. Open host Erin Hills and private strongholds Calusa Pines in Naples, Fla., and Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, N.J.

Add to that the enormous amount of time and money required to do a proper restoration, and living with what you have is easy enough.

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“When it comes to the top three reasons members oppose a restoration, it’s cost, cost, cost,” says Gil Hanse, who restored Winged Foot ahead of the 2020 U.S. Open. “Then it’s the disruption. You’re taking my course away from me for how long?”

If you’re lucky enough to be a member of a club with an extra 18 holes, the restoration process can be completed in about a year. That was the case with Baltusrol, where Hanse restored the Lower Course — famous for Jack Nicklaus’ 1-iron to the then-tiny (now slightly larger) 18th green in the 1967 U.S. Open. It was closed for 2020.

“Our membership embraced the idea,” says Matt Wirths, club president and chairman of the master plan committee. “They recognized what we needed to do and why we needed to do it.”

Bobby Weed, who built Michael Jordan’s Grove XXIII and renovated Medalist, the pro golfer hangout in Hobe Sound, Fla., and more recently tackled the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club’s Ocean Course (a 7-iron from Sawgrass), says an architect is sometimes better off starting fresh, but that takes even more time. In the case of Ponte Vedra, the owner Gate Petroleum opted to close the Ocean Course — once tapped to host the Ryder Cup — for 18 months, strip it bare and completely rebuild it.

Most courses don’t have the luxury of closing. Hurdzan has been working with the Country Club of Darien (Conn.) since 2006. Some of the most disruptive work — like flipping the nines and building a practice facility that meant changing several holes — was done during the winters over a decade ago. But other work, like remaking the greens to conform to USGA standards, is ongoing. This was what the membership would tolerate, says Bob Green, who led the greens committee during the renovation. With immense pushback when the project was first discussed in 2001, it was either gradual change or none at all.

“I’m one of the few people in the world who’s had to call up Rees Jones and fire him,” Green says. “We couldn’t close down and do it like he wanted.”

If the membership can get past the disruption, it then has to swallow the bill. Hanse says budgets can range from $500,000 to $15 million or more. A big driver of cost is the irrigation system — which can run $2 million alone — and the green complexes.

Baltusrol’s restoration cost $17 million, which the club funded without borrowing or an assessment. Wirths says a quirk of the old irrigation system, which required the 18th hole to be done first, eased members’ anxiety, since it gave them a preview from the clubhouse. Yet for other courses, paying for more modest renovations can be a challenge. At Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, a family club in Owings Mills, Md., that dates to 1892, the board opted to pass the hat.

“We have contributions from a 22-year-old and a pledge from a 90-year-old member,” says Jeanne Aarsand, club president. “We have about 85 percent of our golfers participating.”

The communal funding made sense. It’s what the club did in 1955 when it hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. to redesign the course. And, it seemed fair, since only a third of its members play golf.

Then and now: Winged Foot West’s 7th hole in 1923 and nearly a century later, after Gil Hanse completed a vast — and much-lauded — restoration. From left: Courtesy Winged Foot; LC Lambrecht

Still, to convince members that the time and money will be worth it, there has to be a compelling argument. Hepner says his strategy is to “logic the members to death.” That means focusing on the principles of good design and explaining how a well-intentioned idea from 70 years ago didn’t fit the course.

Paul Stringer, the president of Nicklaus Design, understands the hesitation of some club members but sees with clarity the big-picture advantages of doing the work. “Positive reasons to renovate are obvious,” he says. “Better playing surfaces, member retention and attracting new members, possible increase in green fees — all of this is a long-term return of investment. Most golf courses, I think, wait too long to consider renovating.”

Even what initially seems to be an unwelcome outlay — say, the cost of that new irrigation system — can reflect savings and a higher purpose in the end. “As an example,” Stringer says, “we have Toro come in to conduct a water audit, which can have not only a big impact on annual water costs for the club but a dramatic impact on the environment through water conservation.”

That is where a master plan comes in — and, importantly, a vision for positive and healthy change. Otherwise, Hepner says, “all you need is five new greens committee members” and the bad ideas creep back in.

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