Turning back the clocks

Sean Dudley
By Ian Andrew

Numerous times over the last few years I have heard that Stanley Thompson's original design for Allandale Golf Club in Canada was still completely intact. I had serious doubts, there being so few Thompson courses left in their original form, but the prospect of finding and playing on an original work by one of the great golf architects of history overcame such misgivings. Stanley Thompson is without a doubt the greatest architect Canada has ever produced, and his work is cherished to the point that there is a 'Stanley Thompson Society' dedicated to the preservation of his architecture.

Thompson's courses were mostly built from 1920 through to 1939, in the era known as the 'golden age of golf architecture.' Unfortunately, after his death, golf course architecture embraced modernisation. The idea of championship courses emerged and the architects of that era, encouraged by club members, inflicted major changes to 'improve' courses' perceived weaknesses.

Fairways were narrowed, bunkers added, courses lengthened and trees planted to toughen up a course. Maintenance became easier with new machinery, around which the architecture came to be altered rather than in response to the game itself. Many a great pin position was lost due to the turning radius of the new riding greens mower.

On the first fairway at Allandale, I could clearly see that this was a Stanley Thompson course. The room between tree lines was ample, but the fairways were much narrower than expected. The bunkers lined the fairways to create strategy, although many had no sand. The flamboyant mounding around the bunkers was still intact and dried out where the distinctive flashes of sand once were. The green was framed by a back mounding complex and had the distinctive square corners in front, but was now round and far smaller in size.

Over the past 18 years as a golf course architect, I have been involved in restoring dozens of courses with the aim of returning the initial vision as far as possible and to the smallest detail. The only way to assure accuracy is to do the research. There are many sources and methods to sort through them, but the best and most useful source will always be old photographs taken from around the time of the course's origins. They provide us with a three dimensional view of the features of the course, making it possible to stand in the same location as depicted in the photograph and compare the past with the current day. This provides the clearest glimpse possible of what has been lost. We use the photos to understand the style of work and get a sense of scale for key features.

Aerial photographs are also infinitely useful when restoring a course. They help to define the size and shape of the original greens, identify changes to the bunkers and re-establish their old lines.

We can find lost mounding complexes and approximate their size, locate the fairway lines and chipping areas, see the original tree corridors, figure out where a view has been lost, and even locate areas of long grass that have been removed.

Aerial photography's Achilles heel is that it can only ever offer two-dimensional information and thus only a partial picture.

Another source is the architect's original drawings. They can be in the form of field notes, sketches, working drawings or routing plans. Such items provide a window into the strategic intent of the hole and the features that the architect used to create those strategies. However, the danger of such drawings is that they do not necessarily guarantee a representation of what was built in the field. Despite this, many choose to rely exclusively on drawings, but I personally think it is more important to find out what was actually built and restore accordingly. Each research source is valuable to the reconstruction process, but also unavoidably flawed. Hence, the restorations that are most accurate usually involve a combination of photographs, an old aerial and enough original features on the course to paint a fairly clear picture of what was there.

As we got to the sixth green at Allandale, I noticed the remnants of bunkers back in the trees behind the green. It was also clear that the area between the grass bunkers and the current green surface, some 20 feet, was previously part of the green. The current green was very round and small, whereas it used to be very wide in the front and narrowing all the way to the back, with bunkers surrounding the sides and back of the green. Thompson's hole design allowed plenty of room to play a safe, short shot, whilst presenting a risk, reward situation for the more aggressive player. Such a great strategy – lost.

Once I have determined what should be preserved or restored on a course, the remainder of the work is in the details. Green recapturing, the returning of chipping areas and fairway widening usually require the superintendent to slowly take the height of grass back down over a two or three year period. Tree removal is a very sensitive topic for many members, so an education process is usually in order before the trees come down.

The restoration of bunkers or re-creation of mounding requires a more hands-on approach. If you want to create features that mirror the original architecture, you must return to the original construction techniques.

A horse drawn scraper is unnecessary, but you still need to do all the finishing by hand if you want an authentic bunker. Accurate restoration is about getting all the little details right, and often the only way to do this is to hand-cut the bunker edges yourself. With a shovel in hand and a copy of an old course photo with me, I'm quite confident that I can recreate just about anything in the field.

So why do I restore the work of past architects rather than place my own imprint on a course? I feel it is very important that the next generation of architects and golfers have access to as much classic golf architecture as possible. Great, new architecture is built on the foundation of the great work of the past, and there is no finer foundation for future Canadian golf architects than the work of Stanley Thompson.

The course was indeed completely intact, so I went in to see the owner of the course after the round. It was a small public course with a limited budget, but we spent some time talking about how he could restore the course to more closely resemble Thompson's original design with minimum cost. I knew, that with diligence, this course would eventually look the way it did when it was built in 1928.