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Golf: Course renovation versus restoration

Ronald S. Montesano

After a decade of new builds in Western New York, the development side of the golf architecture industry has quieted. Now, here and across the lower forty-eight states, the industry has retooled to focus not on building new courses, but revamping existing ones—you’ll read or hear about this in terms of “renovation” or “restoration.” In renovation, awkward holes are revisited and rerouted, perhaps to take advantage of unused land or angle, and the result is an improved hole or sequence of holes. In restoration, tired golf courses are deconstructed and reconstructed to honor the architect’s original trace.

In 2004, the Holiday Valley resort in Ellicottville confirmed the hiring of the firm of Albanese and Lutzke to renovate its golf course. Paul Albanese and Holiday Valley developed a three-year plan to enhance features of the entire property, eliminate awkward elements, and create a heightened experience for golfers of all levels. “Our golfers could share in the excitement of the renovation and felt like they were a part of the project,” says Jane Eshbaugh, director of marketing at Holiday Valley. “There are many new features to enjoy, but the course is not more difficult. The end result is a more beautiful course that can handle all levels of players from beginner to advanced.”

For years, Holiday Valley was known for its flat front and hilly back nines. The front served as a nice play-in for the back, which usually exacted vengeance on the golfer. The renovation team decided to bench a new tee in the side of the hill above the existing seventh tee, which created a new angle to the fairway. Other greens were augmented with riveted bunkers, usually found only in the British Isles. On the inward nine, the quirky twelfth and fourteenth holes were memorable, though not always in good ways. Albanese opened up the tee shot on the twelfth (now the eleventh) and freed up the approach over the barranca; two holes later, he took another claustrophobic hole (then the downhill fourteenth) and made the thirteenth into a drop-shot marvel; from the tee, the ball parachutes down to a fairway split into upper and lower terraces. The resulting Double Black Diamond is a golf course faithful to Russ Tryon’s original design, but ushered into a new era by a talented renovation team and a resort with great foresight.

In 1926, Donald J. Ross completed the third course iteration of the Country Club of Buffalo, along Youngs Road in Williamsville. The course was the second in the United States to utilize the topography of a former quarry in its layout. During the 1950s, the notion of what made a successful and challenging golf course changed and many classic courses underwent facelifts, including the Country Club of Buffalo.

But in the early 1990s, an appreciation for the principles espoused by Charles Blair MacDonald, Walter Travis, Alister Mackenzie, Ross, and other Golden Age golf course architects was rekindled and recognition of minimalism and the ground game began a return to the fore. Modern architects like Tom Doak, Bill Coore, and Gil Hanse built fundamentally sound golf courses into the new millennium and architecture aficionados took notice.

Ron Forse, a golf course architect and Ross-restoration specialist based near Pittsburgh, had worked on over thirty-five Ross-designed courses, including Kahkwa in Erie, Pennsylvania and Brook-Lea in Rochester. In 2007, he was retained by the Country Club of Buffalo to develop and oversee its restoration effort. At the time, the club released this statement: “Any restoration then must also include a time factor. What course is to be restored—as designed, as built, some subsequent period or, perhaps, to what it is believed Ross would have designed today? All are different. The decision in our case was to stay true to the 1926 ‘as built’ layout while taking into account technological changes in the sport itself and modern maintenance concerns.”

The plans for the course’s return to an original layout are balanced by the evolution of agronomy and equipment technology. Many tee decks will be lowered, bringing fairway contours into the sightlines of all players. Fore bunkers will be reinstalled, serving principally as guideposts toward preferred landing areas. Most importantly, other bunkering that served a penal purpose will be removed, replaced by the wider fairways and greenside chipping runoffs that Ross preferred. The ground game will return as an option to the fabled course, an inviting approach to the inspired putting surfaces that will return to their 1920s shapes and sizes.

In August, as the 2012 golf season—which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Open played at the Country Club of Buffalo’s second, Bailey Avenue, course—reaches its peak, the restoration work will begin in earnest, and is expected to conclude by Memorial Day 2013. The ultimate goal, as stated by the Country Club of Buffalo, is that the course be “true to its Ross lineage and will be unlike any other course within hundreds of miles. The course sits upon exceptional terrain and the dutiful reinstatement of Ross architectural trademarks, such as seventeen ‘fore’ bunkers, his exceptional bunkering scheme, and the faithful reproduction of some of the finest green complexes he ever designed, will take the contemporary player back in time almost ninety years to enjoy the peace and relaxation of a slower era. We believe it will stand as a continuing gift to our membership, to the Buffalo community, and to all who appreciate the legacy of Donald Ross.”                         

Country Club of Buffalo

Forse Design Incorporated

Holiday Valley Resort

Albanese & Lutzke


Ronald S. Montesano is a teacher at Nichols and the founder of buffalogolfer.com.

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