There’s a segment of art fans who regularly demand the Mona Lisa be cleaned and restored. It’s a touchy debate. If the painting were to be restored, it might better represent what Leonardo da Vinci intended as he created it. But if so much as a line of her smile was damaged during such attempts, a real possibility when dealing with a 500-year-old painting … well, art fans don’t like to consider the loss of even a single stroke of paint on that famous face.

There are similar debates throughout the art world as experts consider what was, what is and what will be for masterpieces of all kinds. Paintings. Classic architecture. Sculpture. The list goes on and on.

Even golf courses.

The early 20th century has been dubbed by many to be the golden age of course design in the United States, as 94 of the top 100 layouts on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list were built in the four decades through the 1930s as cars proliferated and airplanes took off. The 1990s and early 2000s also were boom times, but nothing compared to that previous stretch in which famed designers – artists, really – produced so many masterpieces.

And just like famous paintings, these courses sometimes show their age. Throw in the effects of benign neglect or, even worse, well-intended alterations that abandon key characteristics, and many of the best golf courses have slowly lost much of their original designers’ intentions, even without considering the greater distances that modern golf balls travel.

Greens shrink and their internal contours are often subdued. Bunkers migrate, changing shapes, depths and sizes. Fairway widths are altered. Trees grow to block ideal lines of play. Golf courses are living, breathing creations that are subject to ever-changing budgets, growth patterns and whims of membership committees – nothing remains static.

As with any work that might be done to the Mona Lisa, there are many considerations when tackling the problems of aging golf courses. But Mona Lisa doesn’t live outside in a field, subject to weather and all kinds of dynamic forces. Golf courses do, and they need work to retain their artistry.

Enter the modern golf architect, many of whom have become restoration artists. For most of today’s designers, much of their business since the financial crash of the late 2000s and subsequent drop in new golf course development is less about creating their own namesake layouts as it is restoring, renovating and otherwise touching up existing layouts.

In fact, it’s safe to say that in the past decade we have entered a golden era of restoration and renovation. The top courses on Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses list is full of prime examples, many of which are on full, televised display during major championships. Even the list of top resort courses in the U.S. – which tends to favor more modern layouts – is dotted with significant renovations and restorations.

“There’s been an appreciation building over time going back several decades, and I think what’s been happening is, because of this golden age of restoration, not only is there an appreciation for the name architects – A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, C.B. Macdonald and several others – there’s a greater appreciation for their talents and their golf courses,” said Gil Hanse, whose portfolio of restorations with design partner Jim Wagner continues to grow. “There’s maybe more of an appreciation for those architects now. You can see that across the board for other modern architects and the courses they have touched, too.”

Hanse’s restorations and renovations include but certainly are not limited to Merion’s East, most recently host of the 2013 U.S. Open; Winged Foot’s West, most recently host of the 2020 U.S. Open; The Country Club, next hosting the 2022 U.S. Open, and Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course (in collaboration with author and blogger Geoff Shackelford), next hosting the 2023 U.S. Open.

“It’s a long-winded kind of answer,” Hanse continued, “and there’s been this kind of appreciation for a long time, but now because of all this good restoration work that is happening – of which we are happy to do our part – there’s an even bigger appreciation of the older golf courses and those architects. ‘Wow, we knew these guys were good, but we didn’t know they were this good.’ ”

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Bill Coore – who with design partner Ben Crenshaw has worked on classics such as Pinehurst No. 2, Maidstone, Seminole, Riviera and many others – agrees.

“We do seem to be in an era where there are significant efforts going on to try to restore or, in some cases I guess you could say, address the current playing conditions of some of the classic old courses,” Coore said. “They are all living, breathing things like we are, and they change and evolve.

“In the case of the best courses in the country, they have for the most part evolved in a very positive fashion. But they do change. Sometimes the changes are so incremental that they’re almost unnoticeable until years and years later. Then, you realize they were slightly better the way they were intended. You see a lot of that going on, I think. We’re trying to recapture the original intent and playing characteristics of some of these old courses.”

It can be a daunting task. How exactly does one go about touching up a masterpiece without damaging it? The first step typically involves some definition of intent.

“Part of the process you go through is, what are the goals?” Coore said. “What are you trying to obtain if you’re working at one of those great old courses? Is it purely trying to recapture the character and the aesthetics? Is it trying to recapture the playing characteristics? Is it trying to address issues pertaining to more modern golf? Is it all of the above?”

The terms thrown about can muddle things. What exactly is a restoration? And what is a renovation? Do those terms ever cross, and how many shades of gray are present between them?

“The easiest way for us to describe it, for Jim Wagner and myself, is that a restoration is when the original architect’s thoughts, style and design are the driving force behind every decision on the site,” Hanse said. “A renovation is when we’re interjecting our original design thoughts into an existing golf course, allowing our prejudices, thoughts, skills, etcetera, to influence what we think would make for a better golf course.”

Hanse pointed to his and Wagner’s work at Winged Foot’s West course in New York as a restoration, with the duo trying to reclaim the characteristics instilled by the original designer, Tillinghast. Greens edges had crept in since the course opened in 1923, leaving fewer hole locations. Some bunkers had become irrelevant. Among all the work involved, perhaps key was Hanse and Wagner’s expansion of putting surfaces back to their original sizes and shifting of bunkers to better fit Tillinghast’s intent of challenging players.

At the opposite end of Hanse’s redesign-renovation spectrum is Pinehurst No. 4, a Ross layout at the famed North Carolina resort that had been the subject of numerous subsequent redesigns since its opening as a full 18 in 1919. Defining it as a renovation and not a restoration from the start, Hanse and Wagner built what Hanse called “close to being a whole new golf course” through mostly existing corridors in the pines, and that renovation opened to play in 2018.

Pinehurst is a great example of the different ways to approach a renovation or restoration, as it has been 10 years since Coore and Crenshaw wrapped up what most certainly was a restoration of Pinehurst No. 2, the resort’s flagship course that rests directly next to Hanse’s since-renovated No. 4.

Often cited as among the best of Ross’s designs, No. 2 had changed considerably over the decades following its 1903 opening. The course’s most famous features are its crowned greens, but much of the rest of the course might have been almost unrecognizable to Ross, who lived for years to the side of the third green. Most dramatically, the native sandy areas alongside fairways had been replaced with grass at rough heights, presenting totally different appearances and playing challenges.

No. 2 hosted U.S. Opens in 1999 and 2005, and even between those Opens the course changed, with fairways growing more narrow between ever-expanding fields of rough. After that 2005 Open, the resort’s operators wanted to make drastic changes. Employing Coore and Crenshaw in 2010, they opted to take the course back in time, restoring what once was to replace what it had become.

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“Sometimes we look back at some of the architecture that has happened at Pinehurst, whether it’s golf course architecture or building architecture, and you scratch your head a little bit,” Tom Pashley, now the president of Pinehurst Resort, said at Golfweek’s Architecture Summit in November of 2020. “How did this happen, how did that happen? …

“The decision was made, and it was a risk but it was obviously the right decision, to take No. 2 back. It had become a very manicured golf course, and the standing wire grass areas were only ornamental. It didn’t look like a Sandhills course. … Things had happened over the years, and the courses had evolved and all that, and we just said, look, this land is where Ross laid out the original four courses in Pinehurst, and we need to be true to some sort of aesthetic, the Ross aesthetic.”

So Coore and Crenshaw were tasked with taking the course back, but to what, exactly? And for whom, Tour pros in the U.S. Open or resort guests? And how to do that?

“At least for us, the single biggest priority is to take ourselves out of it,” Coore said. “If we leave signatures that we’ve been there, we failed, quite frankly. The goal is to recapture – at least at places like Pinehurst or Maidstone or wherever – the goal is to try to recapture what made that place so special in the beginning. And all those cases, they were built long before Ben and I were ever on this earth. So we take ourselves out of it, yet we’re so involved in it, trying to study the original intent. What did Donald Ross intend at Pinehurst No. 2? What was the focus? How did the course play and look?”

Coore and Crenshaw got a major boost when local resident Craig Disher presented them with aerial photos of Pinehurst No. 2 taken on Christmas Day in 1943. The design duo received another break when Pinehurst agronomist Bob Farren told them the current irrigation system had been laid in the same trenches as the water pipes installed during Ross’s time, allowing them to figure out the previous center lines of the fairways while projecting their width based on how far water would have been sprinkled.

“I said, ‘Bob, if that’s the case, we have not only a road map, we have the center of the road,’ ” Coore said of the old irrigation system.

Such sleuthing can be crucial to a true restoration. At Pinehurst, those kinds of efforts allowed Coore and Crenshaw, with a fairly high degree of certainty, to present the course as it looked in 1943, with wider fairways surrounded by native grasses and no traditional rough.

The U.S. Open returned to No. 2 in 2014, with Martin Kaymer winning on a firmer, faster and browner layout that looked almost nothing as it had in 1999 and 2005. It was a departure from the typical U.S. Open setup of tall rough, but the work was roundly praised. And with the U.S. Golf Association now slated to establish a second headquarters at Pinehurst, the U.S. Open will return with No. 2 as an anchor site in 2024, 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047.

“We’re very proud of Pinehurst, because the people there are very proud of it,” Coore said. “I know there were people who said, what on earth are they doing, they’re going to destroy the place. But I think given the time since the work – and it’s probably been enough time to begin to assess – that this was a positive move.

“I grew up in North Carolina and I played golf at Pinehurst as a kid, and I remembered it from what it was in the 1960s, and I just knew from my own memory that it had changed dramatically through the years. Ben and I certainly never would have gone there and said you need to change this, you need to restore this. All that influence came from the Pinehurst people, who said we’ve been listening and studying that this course is not the way it used to be. It was a huge leap of faith.”

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While Pinehurst serves as a great model for restorations and renovations, it’s hardly alone in efforts to refine a golf course, even among U.S. Open venues. Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, host to nine Opens, for example famously removed thousands of trees in the 1990s and 2000s to restore playing corridors as intended by original designer Henry Fownes. That certainly would be one of the most visually impactful restorations for any television viewer.

None of this is exactly new. Robert Trent Jones Sr. was known for his work on championship courses, and his son Rees followed in his footsteps. Courses have been the targets of redesign efforts ever since the game developed. Old Tom Morris certainly was known to tinker.

But as courses continue to age, efforts have been stepped up at many private clubs and resorts alike, often with grander goals of revisiting previous work that was more limited in scope. Whereas announcements of course openings filled the news wires in the early 2000s, today’s design news is more typically filled with restorations and renovations – not a week goes by without announcements of such work across the U.S.

It’s all a great opportunity for current architects, but it can be very different than creating a new course. In a sense, great restorations are more of a research endeavor than a design process.

“When you’re in the field, there’s a ton of archaeology,” Hanse said. “You’ll find old bunkers and things. We’re working at Oakland Hills right now, and we’ll be sifting through, and ‘That looks like old bunker sand. Yep, there’s a layer, chase it and find where it goes.’ So there are markers on the ground. Working at Baltusrol, we’ve been sort of peeling away layers of bunker sand buildup along the edges of greens. You have thatch and sort of top dressing, then all the sudden you hit this sort of blackish soil layer. You can chase that soil layer, and that sort of reestablishes where the edge of the bunker was. If you’re paying attention, you can find these things.”

Hanse said the greatest example may have come at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course, a George C. Thomas Jr. original design from 1921 that had been reshaped and diminished through the decades. A skilled contractor on an excavator kept finding all kinds of clues to the original course beneath the sod, especially as to the placement of the second and sixth greens.

“He found the old green surfaces that literally had been covered by dirt – they hadn’t even stripped the grass off it,” Hanse said. “Pulling this away, we even found old cup holes. It was remarkable. We were just able to pull away the dirt and have the old green edges and contours intact. That was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.”

But the fact there are clues in the dirt doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the architects.

“Without question, I think Ben and I would both say that there’s more stress in (restoring a classic course than in building a new one),” said Coore, who along with Crenshaw delivered one of the most-anticipated new courses of 2020, the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. “It’s because you’re not dealing with your product. You’re trying to return the greatest potential of somebody else’s product, a product that has proved to be successful and sometimes even revered around the world for years.

“So it’s way more stressful and intense than creating a new product where, even though the site might have great potential and expectations, the course doesn’t exist yet. On a new course you’re living up to what the potential of the site is, but you’re not living up to what was. You’re not chasing a ghost.”

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Golfweek’s 2021 Ultimate Guide.

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