Sleepy Hollow Country Club
Green Keeper: Thomas Leahy
In 1911 when Sleepy Hollow opened, golf course design in America was still in its early stages. Neither Pine Valley nor Alister Mackenzie’s work existed. Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2 had yet to evolve into the masterpieces that we now know. Northeast courses like Myopia Hunt, Ewkanok, The Country Club and Charles Blair Macdonald‘s newly opened National Golf Links of America were the standard bearers.
Built for a who’s-who group of businessmen headed by WilliamRockefeller, Charles Blair Macdonald‘s design at Sleepy Hollow brought time proven design concepts from the Scottish links that he cherished to an inland setting one hour northeast of New York City. Central bunkering, a Redan (in this case, a reverse one) and a punchbowl green are examples of traditional features to which Charles Blair Macdonald was keen to expose to the American golfer, and he did so here.
Neither Charles Blair Macdonald nor Rockefeller were known for their shrinking egos and the two had a falling out before the course opened. Nonetheless, Sleepy Hollow proved highly successful and by the late 1920s, A.W. Tillinghast was brought in to increase the number of holes to twenty-seven. In so doing, Tillinghast created the first, eighth through twelfth and eighteenth holes and then knitted them into Charles Blair Macdonald‘s course.
Both Charles Blair Macdonald and Tillinghast were giants during the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Charles Blair Macdonald had just completed his masterpiece on Long Island when he was brought in for Sleepy Hollow. Meanwhile, much of Tillinghast’s reputation for building superb parkland courses is based on his work within Westchester County. Unfortunately for future Club boards, Sleepy Hollow had a mixture of holes from two men, making it both a Charles Blair Macdonald and a Tillinghast course. Thus, the conundrum the board faced was how to act as a custodian when it wasn’t certain what it was trying to preserve.
With no clear way forward, its green committee in the early 1990s hired a ‘name’ architect and then trusted his judgment. The end result was a ‘modernized’ course with mounds and small bunkers. Within a decade, another ‘name’ architect was engaged to prepare a Master Plan in an effort to restore a sense of consistency to a course that now had several competing design styles.
Upon closer inspection of this architect’s work by the new green committee chairman George Sanossian and his committee, concerns developed in several areas including maintainability and suitability. Indeed, some of the architect’s own references were critical of his work. So, while performing further due diligence, the committee decided to shelve his master plan and at the same time took up the question of “who do we turn to now”?
Of the several architects that were interviewed, the decision came down to Gil Hanse partnering with George Bahto or Ron Forse. Both architects recommended that the club proceed with unifying all eighteen holes in the manner of Charles Blair Macdonald as opposed to Tillinghast. First, Charles Blair Macdonald‘s courses such as those found at NGLA, Mid-Ocean, Piping Rock and Saint Louis Country Club are at similarly prestigious clubs as Sleepy Hollow. Second, it was deemed pointless to try to establish Tillinghast as the prevalent design style when four of his very best original designs (both courses at Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, and Fenway) are in such close proximity to the Club and all are situated on property that is very different from that of Sleepy Hollow‘s.
Eventually, the green committee put forward the team of Gil Hanse and George Bahto, which the Club board approved. Undoubtedly, George Bahto‘s seminal book on Charles Blair Macdonald entitled The Evangelist of Golf provided comfort to the committee that they were indeed getting Charles Blair Macdonald expertise. The task then fell to Gil Hanse and George Bahto to implement the vision for the property that they had shared with the green committee during the interview process. This wasn’t a strict restoration as Charles Blair Macdonald had not even built seven of the holes but rather it was to be a renovation of all twenty-seven holes utilizing the design principles and features frequently employed by Charles Blair Macdonald. Starting with the third nine, Gil Hanse and George Bahto demonstrated the bunkering style and scale that they wanted to re-establish on the main course. The results were enthusiastically received and they were given even greater creative latitude when their work commenced on the main course.
Much to everyone’s credit associated with the project, the work performed at Sleepy Hollow from the summer of 2006 through the fall of 2007 represents one of the great transformations in the history of golf course architecture. From a lifeless course that had lost its soul, a ‘new old’ one full of character was born, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 415 yards; Charles Blair Macdonald‘s course neither started nor finished at the clubhouse, which happens to be a house that Vanderbilt built for one of his daughters (side note: his daughter didn’t like it, proving that it’s not always easy to be a Vanderbilt!). Tillinghast added the first and eighteenth holes, though in truth the playing corridor for the two holes is not quite wide enough, given the slope of the land. However, unlike few first tees, the sight from this one of the fairway below with the Hudson River in the distance makes all golfers itch to play.
Second hole, 330 yards; The hardest part of the property for any architect to deal with is the two hundred yard hill over which today’s second and seventeenth holes are located as it is an abrupt broad slope. Nonetheless, a hole had to be routed up and over it to get to the most appealing part of the property. There is little way to give such a drive much interest; the key is to make the approach shot so compelling that the golfer is glad that he hiked up the hill. To do so, Gil Hanse and George Bahto raised up the right side of the green and then protected it by creating an old fashion eight foot deep Charles Blair Macdonald bunker around the front and right. The net effect is the wedge to the right hole locations is now one of the most interesting shots on the course.
Third hole, 160 yards; One of Sleepy Hollow‘s great attributes is that it resists being easily categorized. Most would say it is a parkland course but what parkland course has such long views as afforded here from several of its holes? In addition, the property has great movement, far more than the nearby Tillinghast courses for instance. The par three third was Charles Blair Macdonald‘s Eden hole. His one complaint of the original version at St. Andrews was that a golfer could play the hole with just his putter. He got around that here as the third plays across a forty foot deep gorge. Later on the inward journey home, Charles Blair Macdonald again uses a par three hole (the sixteenth) to get the golfer back across the gorge.
Fourth hole, 415 yards; Many of the fairways at Sleepy Hollow pre-2005 were devoid of fairway bunkering. In addition, trees had narrowed the playing corridors, thus limiting angles of play. Gil Hanse and George Bahto changed all this and greatly increased the strategic interest from the tee. Here at the fourth, for instance, they added a bunker at the crest of the hill that guards the best angle into the green.
Fifth hole, 435 yards; As a private club, Sleepy Hollow enjoys limited play. Thus, Gil Hanse and George Bahto were free to create an interesting diagonal tee shot that plays slightly across the fourth green. After the uphill tee ball, the view from the crest of the hill takes one’s breath away, thanks to the tree clearing that has opened up thrilling views of the Hudson River. It is quite a nice feature of the routing that the golfer is returned to this spectacular spot mid-way through the front nine. The new angle off the tee combined with the enticing prospect of judging one’s approach just right to this skyline green has some members suggesting that this is the most improved hole on the course.
Sixth hole, 470 yards; One of the most perplexing elements in the Charles Blair Macdonald/Raynor adaptation of classic design features is where they elect to place the Principal’s Nose bunker. As is well known, the original such bunker complex is found at the sixteenth on The Old Course at St. Andrews and its position influences the golfer’s thinking off the tee. Does he dare fit a driver between the Principal’s Nose in the left center of the fairway and the out of bounds down the right? Or should he lay back or perhaps go long left? Stuart Paton replicated this dilemma perfectly in 1901 when he added his famous bunkers to the fourth fairway at Woking Golf Club in England. Curiously, Charles Blair Macdonald never did the same. Starting at the eleventh at National Golf Links of America, he frequently placed the Principal’s Nose in the fifty to eighty yard range from the green of long par fours. Raynor in turn copied him at such holes as the first at Yeamans Hall and the sixth at Chicago Golf Club. The author truly doesn’t understand the thinking behind such placement. A far better idea is found here on this reachable par five hole where Gil Hanse and George Bahto handsomely constructed the Principal’s Nose complex sixty yards from the green. In this manner, golfers that don’t go for the green in two are left with real decisions as to where to place their lay-up shot.
Seventh hole, 210 yards; Downhill reverse Redans rarely work well for two reasons. First, the downhill nature means the tee ball is coming in at too steep an angle to properly release and follow the land’s contour. Second, if properly played with a fade, such a shaped shot doesn’t release as well asthe draw that a Redan calls for. However, Charles Blair Macdonald brilliantly saw this unique opportunity to get past both these drawbacks, given the pronounced left to right slope of the hill that the seventh plays down.
Eighth hole, 455 yards; Charles Blair Macdonald opted not to route holes on the section of propertywhere today’s eighth through twelfth holes now reside, primarily due to drainage concerns that greenkeeping couldn’t resolve in 1910. Tillinghast built these five holes in 1930/31 but over time, tree growth narrowed the eighth, making it appreciated only for its difficulty as opposed to other playing merits. Gil Hanse and George Bahto changed that with a new bunker scheme and by felling trees along the right, thus re-introducing a marvelous landform in the driving area.
Ninth hole, 420 yards; A new tee added fifty yards back has once again provided intrigue on the approach shot, which is now frequently blind from the base of a hill. Given Sleepy Hollow‘s land movement, it would be nonsensical for there not to be the odd blind shot here and there. As it now plays, the hole beautifully reflects the movement in the property.