MAMARONECK The idea of digging up a prized A.W. Tillinghast design was not well received by the members at Winged Foot when leadership initially proposed a complete East Course restoration.
Bulldozers typically have little regard for history.
“The East Course is truly the members’ favorite,” said John Schneider, who is the president of the private Mamaroneck club. “The West Course, especially for us old-timers, can be such a bear. Over the years, I won’t say the East hasn’t been neglected, but it’s been a second sister to the West, and we really felt it needed a tuneup.”
Both courses rank among the country’s best, so that’s kind of like saying Grace Kelly needed a makeover to be escape the shadow of Audrey Hepburn.
Proposals to remove a single tree often incite a firestorm of debate at Golden Age meccas like Winged Foot, but enthusiasm for the project grew as each detail was explained. The gentle touch of Gil Hanse certainly helped.
The famed architect is well-versed in Tillinghast design and in recent years directed restorations at Quaker Ridge, Fenway and Sleepy Hollow.
“Whenever you’re dealing with a great, old golf course like this one, the challenge is not to mess it up,” Hanse said. “You really are working with a masterpiece. Obviously, the East and the West Courses here include some of the finest green complexes I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Here, we focused on the original intent, the original detail. And that means you don’t sit on an excavator, because back in 1920 they didn’t either.”
Eventually, a vocal majority was on board.
Shovels were in the ground when the leaves and temperatures began to fall in 2013. The physical transformation was aided by the meticulous digging of longtime members, who shared with Hanse any number of documents and photos that showed off the original handiwork of Tillinghast.
Winged Foot opened in 1923.
“Obviously, this is a club that has hosted numerous championships, has a great history and a well-documented history,” Hanse said “The club has done a great job of putting together archives. We worked very closely with members who have been here for a long, long time and their input was invaluable.
“From our standpoint, there was not a lot of our imagination or creativity required. It was really almost an archeological project.”
Every green was rebuilt according to the original Tillinghast design, but to USGA specifications that allow for better drainage and consistency. It’s like putting the body of a classic automobile on a modern chassis.
The ride improves dramatically.
“Maintaining the slopes was the biggest concern,” Schneider said. “We had a company in here that took GPS points every six inches.”
A majority of the final sculpting was done by hand.
“I think the green complexes on the East are more difficult than on the West right now,” Winged Foot head pro Mike Gilmore said. “Everybody wanted to play the East after the restoration, but now a lot of players are three-putting because of the speed and the undulations of the greens, so we’re finding a lot of them are going back over to the West.”
Each bunker was dug out and relined and several were moved downrange to reflect modern distances.
Tees were adjusted, too.
“We had pipes in place from the 1920s so restoring the drainage systems was like 75-percent of the project,” Schneider said. “We are capturing water from around the golf course and returning it to the pond, so there’s a lot going on that makes us a lot more environmentally friendly.
“We can have a heavy downpour now and get people back on the course in 30 to 40 minutes.”
The first phase of the project was completed last spring, and the remaining holes were ready to go this spring. Reviews from members and guests alike have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I can describe the East Course in one word,” said Gene Westmoreland, a member and former MGA director of competitions. “It’s perfect.”
When the speed is up, these greens are capable of inspiring colorful language.
“They can be a little bit interesting at times, and I think there is a lot of local knowledge,” said Winged Foot superintendent Steve Rabideau, who orchestrated much of the restoration. “Once people understand where not to hit the ball, that can help.”
The restoration will be a topic of conversation during the 100th Met Open, which is to be played Aug. 25-27 on the East Course.
Winged Foot is not disclosing the cost of the project, but a typical makeover with extensive drainage improvements can run $3-$5 million.
Wait, there’s more.
“The members are over the moon,” Schneider said. “We came back and said, ‘We’ve done the East and it’s tournament ready, now let’s attack the West.’ Our members are passionate about golf and to get them to agree on anything is close to impossible. Of those who voted, 90 percent accepted and asked us to do the West Course. That’s pretty awesome.”
Hanse and Rabideau will reprise their roles.
“We’re going to host the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball in May, and in fall we’ll tackle the front nine on the West,” Schneider said. “The following year will do the back nine. It’ll be completed by the spring of 2018 and we’ll be ready when the U.S. Open comes back in 2020.”