Few western New York golfers know how close the area was to having a legendary course built in the eastern suburbs. Charles Blair MacDonald and his collaborator, Seth Raynor, created plans for a course east of Transit Road. Trouble is, no one knows exactly where. Details are scant, even among those with historical knowledge. In Pittsburgh, a wonderful Raynor course had new life breathed into over the past season, by Tom Marzolf of Fazio Golf Design. The course will officially debut its revitalized Raynor layout in June of 2021. Tom Marzolf offered insight into the original layout, the development of a restoration and renovation plan, and the work that went into realizing it. Have a read of his nine answers to our nine questions in this installment of our 2021 interview series.
1. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. To begin, what is the history of the Fox Chapel golf club, adjacent to the Pittsburgh Field Club, not far from the Allegheny river?
Seth Raynor built the course in the early 1920s. Unlike other courses, we had evidence of what it looked like immediately after it was built, including great photos from 1925, when it opened, as well as aerial photos from the ‘30s and more. We could see changes that happened over time.
[A.W.] Tillinghast was on property in the ‘30s, as part of the work he did for the PGA of America during The Depression, and evidently there was an attempt to remove some of Raynor’s design. You can see in aerials taken in 1938 Raynor features being eliminated and “Winged Foot-type” fingers going into Raynor’s hard-edged bunkers. Other geometric forms were rounded out, even mowing lines changed. For example, on the par-four, dogleg-right 13th hole, Tilly sharpened the dogleg and moved the green to the right, eliminating a classic Raynor double-plateau surface. The 16th hole was a “Bottle”; then the Bottle design was gone and Winged Foot-type bunkers were added.
Were some of the bolder features too hard to play? We don’t know, but we felt our job was to make members aware of the changes.
2. Distance has been a hot topic in golf over the past two decades. Knowing that the golf ball goes farther than it did in the 1920s, what considerations were anticipated as the project unfolded?
With new equipment, we needed to modernize the course, to address the effects of new clubs and balls. We had to have a course that fits the yardage that the best players hit the ball. So, we took Raynor’s concepts and moved them.
For example, originally bunkers were 185 to 225 yards off the tee: In many cases, we eliminated those bunkers and added new ones in the 285- to 325-yard range from the back tees and on the same side of the fairway. Deleting old bunkers also meant smoothing the grades where they used to be, eliminating any evidence, and reworking all the fairway lines. Building new bunkers meant locating and staking them out, projecting them into the fairways, and making them the focal points that control club selection off the tee.
3. Seth Raynor was a trained engineer. What elements are present in his architecture, that might not be familiar to golfers who have not played his courses?
Geometry, bisecting lines of play, straight mowing lines, bands of the fairway that go right up to a geometrically shaped bunker and then turn. The use of template holes, like his mentor C.B. Macdonald, repeating the size of bunkers. We’re trying to make this the strictest adhering to Raynor principles possible. It is not an interpretation, it’s truly putting Raynor back on the ground.
4. There’s a rumor that this project did not begin as a full-blown restoration. Can you clarify for us?
Our work began in 2014 when we were hired by the club to help them prepare a long-range masterplan. They thought it was time for new sand in the bunkers, and from that it led to “what else should we do?”
5. The club hosted the 2002 Curtis Cup, a biennial amateur competition between lady amateurs from Great Britain and Ireland, and the USA. Did the course receive any attention prior to that event?
Before the 2002 Curtis Cup was here, Brian Silva did a great job sharpening up the bunkers and other Raynor features, restoring some of the boldness that had been rubbed out over time. But the club felt it wasn’t a strict Raynor restoration. This time around, they wanted to hold up the photos and bring back the template designs, really build back a Raynor course.
6. Might you talk a bit about how the course will affect the distinct levels of golfers that find their way to Fox Chapel?
Jason Day was out here and loved what we’ve done so far. His ball kept rolling into the new bunkers, which reinforced what we’re doing. A number of members have played the holes that are open, from all sorts of tees, and they’ve been very pleased. Which is important, because this is a family club, with lots of children. The Head Golf Professional, Alex Childs, has a very successful junior program, so the course needs to fit them as well.
7. Give us an example of a long-lost feature that will impact both play and the esteem in which the course is held.
Number 9 might be the biggest story of the project because we brought back the Lion’s Mouth bunker protecting the green down the center. This was a common Raynor feature but not too many are left. Many were taken out because they were too difficult. The green is beautiful, bent grass wrapping the slopes around a punchbowl. Golfers will quickly learn to take the lion out of play by missing long, not in front.
8. Back in 2004, when this writer played Fox Chapel, the 16th hole was called “Raynor’s Prize Dogleg.” In the 2021 iteration, it is now a “Bottle” hole. Is that a big deal?
On the back, the biggest story is Number 16, where we put back the Bottle, a famous design with bunkers splitting the fairway in the center and others on the right edge, making it challenging to hit. The longer you hit the ball, the more you will want to go left; under about 260 yards, go right where there’s more width. The point is, you have to stand on the tee and pick which side, long left or short right. There are 13 bunkers on this one hole, with 10 in the tee shot landing area, one in the approach short of the green and greenside left and right bunkers. The landing area has 3 bunkers on the left – 3 in the middle bisecting two fairways – and 4 bunkers on the right. Furthermore, the clubhouse dining room looks right out over the landing area, so you can have dinner conversation while watching people try to play the Bottle.
9. We can’t hear too much about these Template holes, the ones that MacDonald identified across Scotland as the epitome of great golf architecture. Can we convince you to reveal just a bit more about others that are found at Fox Chapel?
The 4th hole is a beautiful version of the Road Hole with a Road green. We enlarged the green, adding an upper pin. There’s a Spectacles-type bunker that guards the dogleg with bent grass all the way up to the bunker.
Number 5 is a short par-four Cape hole with bunkers pinching the landing area, bringing the creek—which forms the Cape design—back into play. The green is shaped like a shamrock with two fairways coming up to the green around a center bunker. That’s how it was originally designed. And keeping it firm allows the ball to roll and bounce, finding those bunkers.
On Number 7, an Alps hole, the lines of play were restored, and we squared up the green.
(Editor’s Note: answers provided in this interview are part of a formal press release, prepared in anticipation of the club’s celebration of the restoration of its Seth Raynor golf course. All photo credit to Russell Kirk of GolfLinksPhotography.com)