In 2012, hard at work on what would become the one and only, extraordinarily-successful restoration of a Buffalo-Niagara private golf course, Chris Wilczynksi took time to answer nine questions for BuffaloGolfer. 8 years later, Wilczynski and his firm have prepared a restorative plan for one of the area’s lost treasures: a Donald J. Ross, jr. golf course, near the shore of Chautauqua lake. The architects involved with the two courses at the Chautauqua Institute could not be more disparate: Ross is considered by most to be America’s finest architect. In contrast, Xen Hassenplug … is not. Decades after the Ross course opened, a master plan has been presented to the club, to bring its golden-age course back to its roots. We’ll let Chris Wilczynski take it from here, for the second time on BuffaloGolfer.Com.
1. You’re no stranger to this corner of New York state. You completed a critically-acclaimed rehabilitation of Wanakah Country Club a few years back. Does the property at Chautauqua resemble Wanakah at all, or is it a completely unique site?
Other than the age of the courses and the era in which they were constructed, I do not see any resemblances between the properties. So yes, a completely unique site. The course at Wanakah is relatively flat and sits adjacent to Lake Erie. Lake Erie is visible from many holes. Wind is always a factor at Wanakah. The Lake course at Chautauqua sits above Lake Chautauqua on a broad rolling hillside. There are limited views of the lake. There are several uphill and downhill holes.
2. William “Willie” Watson is the architect of record at Wanakah, while Donald J. Ross, jr., signed off on the Lake course. Discuss the similarities and differences of these two, Golden-Age architects?
It is difficult to discuss the similarities and differences between the two as their designs had been altered and changed at both properties. The routings had been modified as well as the bunkering and overall aesthetic character. In addition, 100’s of trees had been planted at both courses since they were developed originally. The one constant would be the greens. Besides the greens becoming smaller, the design and intent has stayed the same (an exception would be #14 at Wanakah). The greens are really what make both courses unique and memorable. The Watson greens at Wanakah have several ridges and swales that run through and across the greens. These features create the interest and challenge from a golfing perspective. Ross’ greens at Chautauqua (we have all of his original plans) were not constructed per his vision. Hole #1 green is very true, but several of the other greens are different than his plans. In addition, there are a few greens from the original 9-hole Dunn layout that exist today at Chautauqua, i.e. hole #5 and #11. The Chautauqua greens are “canted” or sloped with the natural ground so there is more movement from side to side and front to back. Both architects had little to work with in regard to equipment and technology in the 1920’s. So, the extend of manipulation of the existing topography is very minimal. Both architects though designed their holes and greens to be strategic (risk/reward) and based upon angles and width to create options to play the hole. Fyi, the width factor was lost at Wanakah until we removed the trees. This will continue to be an issue at Chautauqua until we remove the trees as outlined on the master plan. Both architects understood the need for variety and interest from one hole (or green) to the next. I have worked at other Ross courses (Grosse Ile G&CC, Michigan) and there is a huge difference between Ross’ work there and at Chautauqua. Ross and Watson did not have the luxury of easy travel so it would have been difficult for them to frequently see and be present on the property during construction. Both architects relied on a “supervisor”, “associate”, etc. to implement the design. So, the net result really depended on who the person was overseeing the work. This in my mind, along with long term care and maintenance, is why you see such vast differences between some of these architects work.
3. Let’s delve into Ross’ work at Chautauqua a bit more. Do we know if he was on site much, or did he do his work from topographical maps, for an on-site manager to execute?
See answer above. We think that Ross was at Chautauqua maybe once or twice. But, we cannot confirm this. It is clear that his plans and vision were not fully implemented. Evidence of that is what you see in the ground today at the Lake Course. It is my feeling that Ross relied on others to implement his plans. But, we do not know who that was. Several of Ross’ bunkers and golf features from his plans do not exist. So, they either ran out of money or whoever was handling the day-to-day implementation decided to do what they wanted, i.e. the rogue architect!
4. What Ross trademark elements have you found at the Lake course, and (how) will these be reincoporated/ restored to the course?
The bunkering first and foremost. Ross employed random bunkering that was set on angles to the ideal line of play. The bunkers defined the strategy and overall character of the course. A lot of the bunkers where either never build or removed/altered over time. Again, hole #1 is the purest version of Ross vision at Chautauqua in my mind. Our plan is to reintroduce this bunkering concept and strategy. We also want to develop Ross looking bunkers, i.e. steep grass faces with flat sand floors. We are not planning to rebuild every bunker or rebuild the bunkers in their original locations as this would not be feasible with regard to budget and todays golfer. Most of the bunkers from Ross’ plans do not relate in location to todays golfers. So, our intent is to employ his philosophy on bunkers and angles but to do so as it relates to golfers of 2020 and beyond.
Also, we are restoring the original routing of holes #14-18 at Chautauqua. Holes #15, #16 and #17 were lost/modified when the Hill course was constructed. We will be reintroducing these holes so that the Lake course routing is true to Ross’ plans.
5. Has anything been lost over the decades, that will be impossible to recover?
I don’t think so as we are planning to convert back to the original layout, i.e. holes #15, #16 and #17. Hole #9 green is not original and we do not plan to renovate the hole back to the original (the original green for #9 is along the edge of the club parking lot that was expanded years ago).
6. Compare/Contrast the manner in which your team will approach this restoration, with Wanakah and other jobs that you have done over the years.
Our approach is to be mindful and sympathetic to the original architects vision but these projects are not true restorations as most of what once existed has been lost or changed. To me, these project are renovations and not restorations. In addition, we have client’s with needs and a budget. And the golfing patrons have a part of this process. What are their needs, where is the game headed? What should be introduced or changed for the future of golf? The work is just as much about the past as today and the future. The work and the vision that we develop will always reflect our clients and their patrons needs with regard to available dollars to complete the work, playability of the course during the work, keeping golf relevant and fun, and creating a product that is financially sustainable. In the end, it is more about who is there today and what their needs are versus doing everything we can to restore an old course back to what is once was. I have always believed that if the original architect came back to his course today that he/she would want to make refinements to improve what exists and adapt it to todays golfer.
7. Ross incorporated 5 long holes, 5 short holes, and 10 medium holes into his scorecard (notice we avoided using the term “par” on purpose!) Does this creativity offer benefits to the golfer, or is it simply a case of taking what the land offered?
In some instances it may be what the land offered, but I believe that this use of long, medium and short holes was a staple of Ross’ design work and his course, i.e. variety. This was definitely employed at Chautauqua. The benefit of variety is that it makes the game interesting and fun. The benefit is that golfers of all abilities can play the course because there is something or everyone. The holes are different and present unique challenges from one to the next because of the variety. And based upon the wind and climate, the holes play different from one day to the next. Ross’ course routings are masterful, i.e. the variety and how the holes lay on the land.
8. Let’s look into the future: What advice will you give to a first-time golfer, on how to play the rejuvenated Lake course?
Well, for starters there is not an immediate plan for the renovation of Chautauqua. That’s the next step…deciding what can be done and when. But, it may be a few years. So, with that being said, the advice that I would give a first-time golfer would be to learn from the green back. Learn the short game and how to putt. Advance back from the green as you master the short shots and the eye-hand coordination needed for the work around and on the green. I also would tell the first time golfer to have fun, enjoy the time spent outdoors and the variety and challenge of the game. Be patient. I would also tell them for Chautauqua specifically that they should use the slope of the natural ground to move the ball, especially around the greens. A golfer can run the ball onto just about every green with the exception of #6 and #11. Use the ground plane to score and execute shots. Also, most of the greens, because of the large landform, run toward Chautauqua Lake!
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you wish we had? Ask it and answer it, please.
Some may wonder what would become of the Hill Course, in the master plan. This is what we concluded.
Essentially, the new holes that were built when the Hill course was developed (Lake #14, #15 and #16) will be converted to the Hill layout. We don’t need to build anything new as the holes exist today. The downside is that we don’t start or end the Hill course at the clubhouse. But, this allows us to restore the original Lake routing and create two different golf courses. The bad thing now is that you play the Lake course and then portal to an open farm field to play holes #14, #15 and #16. These holes do not fit. And vice versa with the Hill layout. Hole #1 on the Hill course used to be hole #17 on the Lake layout. So currently, neither course has great continuity and flow.