Golf course architect Jim Cervone has been working with representatives of the First Tee of Pittsburgh, who have also received plans from Ryan Farrow, to transform the Bob O’Connor golf course at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cervone proposes the existing 18 to be replaced by a par-33 layout and a nine-hole par-three course.
The original nine-hole course was constructed by Mark Ormiston in 1897, when the facility was known as Pittsburgh Golf Club. The club expanded to 18 holes in 1903, and the layout has remained virtually unchanged since. Since the course was built on public park land donated by Mary Schenley in 1889, the city ‘reclaimed’ the facility in 1913, and Pittsburgh staked its claim as having one of the first municipally owned golf courses in the United States.
In 2000, the First Tee of Pittsburgh was created, joining the national First Tee youth development network. The chapter worked with then local councilman Bob O’Connor to install the organisation as the course’s operator, on behalf of the city. O’Connor was later elected mayor, and after he passed, the city renamed the course in his honour.
“First Tee of Pittsburgh is now two years into a new, 30-year contract with the city to operate the facility, and that contract has allowed us to start the transformation of the property and to tear down the old clubhouse and build a new, $5.5-million-dollar, 14,000-square-foot learning centre, which will be named after Arnold Palmer, ” said Eric Amato, president and CEO of the First Tee of Pittsburgh.
The new learning centre is now complete and its opening – delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic – is set for November.
Now the chapter has begun to explore ways to improve the golf course at ‘The Bob,’ and have turned to Cervone and Farrow for assistance.
“The course has been around in its current form since 1903 and is completely dysfunctional in the twenty-first century as it plays across public roads seven times,” said PGA professional Eric Kulinna. “It’s a 4,600-yard par 67 course, and was built for a golf ball used in the early 1900s that only went 210-22 yards at best. With today’s golfers hitting modern balls such long distances, the course can be quite hazardous when shots go awry.
“Right now, we have two par fours – the eighth and seventeenth – playing at approximately 250-260 yards, over a deep valley and a public road [Schenley Drive], where golfers with modern equipment can hammer the clubhouse of Pittsburgh Golf Club that is located right behind those greens.
“We are currently in the process of developing plans with Jim Cervone and Ryan Farrow, which should be submitted later this year, so that we can plan for the future,” continued Kulinna. “They have been instrumental in fleshing out what the next steps would be for the facility, what the golf course would look like, how much it would cost, how we could utilise it, and how we could make it environmentally friendly and sustainable for the next century and beyond.”
“I wanted to design an alternate type facility and build in a lot of flexibility,” said Cervone. “A par-three course with three-hole loops starting and finishing at the clubhouse, including a three-hole loop with two par fours for special events or instruction. Also, new practice tees, a putting course, and a separate short game area in front of the Pittsburgh Golf Club building. This alternate facility, and especially the short game area, will serve Carnegie Mellon University golf team as well as the First Tee.”
The par-33 routing Cervone developed includes four par threes, four par fours and one par five, playing just over 2,300 yards, and offers views of Pittsburgh landmarks.
“In an effort to create more diversity in distance to the whole of the facility I’ve shown fairway ribbons versus individual tees,” said Cervone. “The yardages can be varied by teeing up in unlimited locations along these fairway ribbons to play the hole. This includes both the nine-hole course and the par-three layout.
“Early on, we discussed the issue of tree preservation on the site. The Bob O’Connor golf course is currently a part of the Audubon Sanctuary program. We intend to promote additional environmental qualities including expanded native areas, and new water bodies on site.”
The new plan eliminates all tee shots that cross over roads and there are no holes that have the slice side of the hole adjacent to roads or houses.
Cervone says that if the plan is approved, construction work would be done in two stages to keep some form of play open at all times. “Our first step is to present a plan to the appropriate people,” said Cervone. “I’m confident they will get behind it and we’ll have the support we need to move things forward.”
Kulinna says the chapter has been inspired by Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb’s work at Winter Park in Florida. The design duo’s renovation of the golf course into a highly respected par 35 layout has transformed the fortunes of the municipal facility. Kulinna also mentions the current National Links Trust projects in Washington. “They’ve got help from Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Beau Welling to bring the golf courses back – not to make them championship-level tests – but to make them interesting, engaging, and viable as public golf. Using the best of their history and modernising the courses for the future, that’s what we want to do… to give the people of Pittsburgh the best opportunity to learn and play golf in a limited space.
“Our goal is to make the golf course a world class amenity on land that is very limited, can’t be expanded and has a couple of roads running through it. That’s the puzzle.”
Cervone adds that he sees the project at The Bob as an opportunity to grow the game, with the new plan allowing Kulinna a more effective space (the par-three course) to work with junior and beginner golfers while providing the general public a new, safe, updated, nine holes to play.
“Nothing comes to mind in terms of a major city and a project like this,” said Cervone.