Old White Course, The Greenbrier

Sean Dudley

Bruce Matson

Thanks to a conscious effort by commentators, architects and players in the last decade, considerable attention has been given to efforts to re-emphasise and restore the architectural elements of ‘classic era’ golf courses.

Rees Jones helped to set a standard by his subtle, but thoughtful work on US Open sites at The Country Club (Brookline, Massachusetts) and Bethpage Black (Long Island, New York). Many other Donald Ross, AW Tillinghast, and Seth Raynor designs received careful attention as modern architects attempted to preserve or recapture strategic design features lost to years of neglect, inadequate maintenance budgets, greens committee tinkering and other ‘modernisation’ efforts.

The rediscovery of classic architecture received a further boost recently when Mike Keiser, the owner of the successful Bandon Dunes resort in Oregon, USA, announed plans to honour Charles Blair Macdonald by constructing a fourth course at the resort, dedicated to the ‘Macdonald school’ of golf course design, calling it the ‘Old Macdonald.’ For Macdonald/Raynor/Banks enthusiasts, there are few specimens to study that are not private courses. In fact, many of these treasured works are among the most private of golfing enclaves. Fortunately, the recent effort by the Greenbrier resort to freshen its 1914 Macdonald course, the Old White, offers resort guests and public golfers a chance to experience the historic and strategic contributions of the man who invented the term ‘golf architect.’ However, such an achievement does not come easy – thoughtful guidance, dedicated research and courageous decisions were necessary before such a result was possible.

Nestled in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia, among the Allegheny Mountains, lies one of America’s most historic resorts. The Greenbrier dates back to the American Revolution when visitors sought rest and convalescence at the sulphur water springs and medicinal baths. Shortly after acquiring the resort in 1910, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad brought Macdonald to West Virginia to design a new 18 hole golf course.

Although the Old White was one of Macdonald’s earlier designs, it featured many of the famous holes (such as the Redan, Alps, Short, Cape and Eden holes) adapted from the best he had found on his trips to Great Britain, holes he would repeat on most subsequent designs. “Unfortunately, over time the distinctiveness of Macdonald’s vision and many of the important features of his famous template holes, as well as his overall design, were largely lost,” says Greenbrier director of golf Robert Harris.

The resort solicited proposals from a number of prominent architects. Originally, Lester George was not among those on the shortlist. After learning of the resort’s desire to restore the course, however, George worked hard to attain an interview. A student of golf architecture, he considered the Old White project a rare opportunity. Equipped with a thorough understanding of Macdonald’s work, but without any assurance of being hired, he undertook an intense examination of the property and original design. When the architect selection process came around, George produced a vision that was more ambitious than the resort’s initial thinking, and had also prepared a detailed hole-by-hole plan for reinvigorating the course, by restoring many of its original features as well as Macdonald’s stylistic elements.

“We knew the Old White needed attention, but originally the Greenbrier management team did not have the vision of implementing what we feel like we ultimately accomplished here,” says Harris. “The restoration process actually focused on more fundamental aspects, particularly improvement to green sites and drainage as well as a tree removal programme. Lester really helped us see what was possible. The resort’s management was won over by Lester’s vision and commitment. Thus, in 2001 we asked him to guide us through a sensitive restoration process, but with an eye on the modern game and the needs of our resort guests.”

“The Greenbrier had a number of objectives and limitations in undertaking the restoration project, not the least of which was that the work would have to be done during the winter, in phases and over several years,” says George. In addition to various problems created by excessive tree growth, the original Macdonald design had been affected by course alterations in 1922, poor attention to maintenance for most of the 1940s when the US government took over the resort for national security use and by miscellaneous and uncoordinated changes introduced over the years following the Second World War.

George gives considerable credit to Harris and Greenbrier marketing director, Jim Searle. “Restoring the design features originally found at the Old White would never have been possible without Robert and Jim’s interest, expertise, and political acumen. They understood how important the project could be and worked hard to see that the project was not compromised.” Throughout the process Harris provided guidance by helping to make critical calls on interpretation and how to reconcile the restoration with the needs of a modern golf resort. “It was courageous for Searle and Harris to convince the management team that our plan of restoration would be the best course of action for the resort,” says George.

The decision to restore the Old White course brought intense focus on the differences between restoration and renovation, and to what extent any restoration can be pure. George explains:

“With any restoration there is always a ‘point of departure’ where decisions must be made to vary from a precise recreation of the original.” He reckons that perhaps Oakhurst (a historic nine hole course just down the road from the Greenbrier) is the only true restoration in the US, and acknowledges that architects, writers and documenters all struggle with definitions when trying to discuss restoration and renovation: “An honest or pure restoration would require the use of older, less effective grasses, greens rolling three or four on the stimpmeter and fairway bunkers placed 190 yards off the teeing ground.”

A good example of the interpretive process undertaken during the Greenbrier project is the addition of a Hell Bunker complex on the twelfth hole of Old White. Harris and George were not able to confirm whether the bunker was on the original course, but knew such a hazard was routinely included in Macdonald’s adaptation of the classic Long Hole, which Macdonald often built. Similarly, the inclusion of a Principal’s Nose bunker complex on the par four tenth hole was an interpretation of Macdonald’s philosophy. George explains, “We had evidence that a strategic bunker had been placed in approximately the same place, but could not verify its precise form. Again, we thought it reasonable to use a style of bunkering common for Macdonald.”

George and Harris’s finest accomplishment is to restore Macdonald’s classic green contours, bunker style and general strategic vision. The Biarritz green at the par three third hole rivals that found at Chicago Golf Club or Piping Rock. Other features that will thrill the student of golf course architecture include the numerous coffin-like, rectangular bunkers (such as the cross bunker in the fourteenth fairway), a natural and authentic punchbowl green on the ninth, an Eden green complex at the par three fifteenth complete with replica Hill and Strath bunkers as well as beach bunkers behind. There is also an interesting adaptation of the Alps hole at the thirteenth hole where the mounding is both more subtle and strategic (offering a route that can avoid an aerial assault of the hazard), and a Short hole (the finishing hole at the Old White) with Macdonald’s famous horseshoe ridge that turns a simple 150-yard hole into a putting nightmare if the tee shot comes to rest on the wrong line to the cup. Few could argue that these features are not only interesting, but also thrilling to the competitor.

The recreation of Macdonald’s Redan hole is striking to the point where it risks quizzical looks, if not criticism from resort players and architecture aficionados. Here, George had three prominent ‘chocolate drops’ or ‘shark’s teeth’ constructed in front of the traditional deep, frontal bunker guarding the green. While many that have seen or played Redan holes at Macdonald, Raynor or Banks courses may not recognise this hazard, George’s careful inspection of old aerial photographs revealed that, at least here at the Old White, Macdonald used such architectural features.

Perhaps George’s best work at the Old White involves the creation of hallmark Macdonald features on two holes that had little to recall their designer’s genius. The old fourteenth hole is called a Cape hole, but the diagonal tee shot and its corresponding shot values have been lost by a dramatic shift in the teeing ground. When it became apparent that the original tee could not be recreated, George took an uninspiring hole and created an exceptional version of the Narrows hole found at NGLA. At the same time, he built a better Cape hole by moving the teeing ground on the sixteenth (originally the Narrows hole) to create the classic ‘risk-reward’ offered by the diagonal hazard (exemplified by the famous fifth hole of Macdonald’s Mid Ocean on Bermuda). This effort clearly diverted from ‘pure’ restoration, but created a better Macdonald experience without forcing features into the property. In fact, the new Cape hole looks like it was lifted right from its famous precursor – the fourteenth at NGLA.

To play a round today over the restored Old White course is an exciting challenge due to the recreation of Macdonald’s strategic vision, but also a tour through a living museum of historic design. The west coast may soon have its ‘Old Macdonald’ (which, if Bandon Dunes’ previous efforts are anything to go by, will be extraordinary), but with the reopening of the Greenbrier’s classic, the East has the Old White, an accessible venue where golfers can experience one of golf ’s most influential architects.

Bruce Matson is general counsel to the Virginia State Golf Association and frequently contributes on golf history and architecture.

This article first appeared in issue 9 of
Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2007.