Palo Alto Hills: Pump up the volume

  • Palo Alto Hills
    Marc Howard

    Brian Costello of JMP Golf Design completed the renovation of Palo Alto Hills in California in 2022

  • Palo Alto Hills
    Marc Howard

    Drought tolerant fescues now accent bunker complexes, as seen at the fourth

  • Palo Alto Hills
    Marc Howard

    Greens have been reimagined and enlarged to provide multiple pin locations, as seen on the eleventh

  • Palo Alto Hills
    Marc Howard

    The renovated bunkers and the green complex at the fifteenth

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club in California is entering its first full golfing season since the completion of a renovation by Brian Costello of JMP Golf Design.

With construction work completed over two years to allow the club to keep nine holes in play at all times, the front nine reopened in May 2021 and the back nine followed in June 2022.

“There were multiple layers to the dramatic transformation of Palo Alto Hills, starting with a totally reimagined course presentation that morphed from a parkland, tree-lined character to one that is more rustic, open and in tune with the oak savannah and adjacent nature preserve,” Costello told GCA. “We turned up the volume on the wow factor throughout the entire course. A key component to this effort was the removal of non-native and ornamental trees, to recapture the amazing views of San Francisco to the north, of the bay, and the preserve that wraps around nearly half of the course.”

Costello, who worked closely with the membership, course superintendent Andrew Morgan and others at the club, says there has been a “complete strategic reset” at Palo Alto Hills.

New forward and back tees have been added, and existing tees repositioned for better angles. On the first, tees were shifted away from the clubhouse to allow the club’s staging area to be tripled in size.

Many fairways have been reshaped to provide better sightlines, reduce side slopes, and so landforms blend more seamlessly into the landscape. The project has also seen bunkers reshaped and rebuilt, with all now fitted with CapillaryFlow liner and white sand.

“All the green complexes were reimagined and enlarged to provide multiple target zones and pin locations,” said Costello. “This is a huge difference from the original greens, where pins were often forced into the same flatter areas day after day. The new putting surfaces also feature some very creative perimeter rolls and ridges, and transitional tiers that add tremendous strategic variety and interest. Whether you are hitting your approach shot, a short pitch or chip, or putting, the contours reward well-executed shots.

“A lot of the green complexes were elevated, and many members were hitting lower trajectory shots into these severely sloped ramps which eliminated any chance of a bump-and-run shot. We lowered eight greens between three and six feet to be more receptive.”

Other work at the club includes the installation of new drainage, a new Rain Bird irrigation system, a restyled bunker and chipping area, a new short-game area, a new putting green, and new cart paths.

Sandcapped fairways, approaches and green surrounds allow for quicker drainage during inclement weather, and firm and fast conditions most times of the year.

The selection of more drought-tolerant fescues around bunker complexes and fine fescues transitioning into the native areas has also reduced staff time in these areas.

“Several golf holes were weak links in the original routing for a variety of reasons,” said Costello. “The opening sequence of holes were simply lacking in drama and strategic interest. The first was a very short, blind, dogleg par four lined with Monterey pine trees, leading to the second, a very short downhill par three. We combined these two holes into a longer par four without the sharp dogleg and provided a dramatic view all the way to the green with a sweeping vista. We identified a remnant corner of the property to create a new par three to complete the front nine.

“The par-four tenth was the other obvious weak link with some unusual playability constraints and characteristics. Tee shots would land in a large valley with a perched lake above, leaving a blind shot into the smallest green on the course, guarded by the lake, and buttressed by railroad ties between the cart path and green. By shifting the tees forward and raising the fairway by 12 feet, the landing area is now above the lake level with the lake providing visible strategic value. We also pushed the green complex back about 40 yards, creating a really great starting hole for the back nine.

“On many fronts the course is a much better overall golf experience for the wide spectrum of the membership. The strategic values, playability characteristics, and overall presentation and spectacular views have all greatly improved.”

This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.