PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA | It takes nearly seven hours to drive from my Connecticut home to the Fox Chapel Golf Club in Western Pennsylvania, and I occupied much of my time on that road trip last week thinking about the photographs I had seen the day before. They were color images of the Seth Raynor course that serves as the centerpiece of that nearly century-old retreat – one that Tom Fazio and members of his design firm had recently restored. And I vividly remembered each one.
The shot of the opening hole, for example, a slight dogleg named “Away” with staggered fairway bunkers and a reverse Redan green squared off in the front and guarded by bunkers left and right. I smiled as I envisioned myself standing on the tee there, driver in hand, and hitting a fade off of the farthest bunker on the left.
I considered other holes as I motored down the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There was No. 7, a brilliant rendition of a Leven, with a pair of cross bunkers in the fairway of that drivable 4-par and shaggy “chocolate drops” just to the right of the recessed putting surface. The longish, par-4 ninth, too, with its gaping Lion’s Mouth bunker cut in front of a Punch Bowl-style green. What made the image of that hole so compelling was its back story. Included in Raynor’s original design, the hazard was later filled in. Then Fazio’s team, led by his chief design associate Tom Marzolf, resurrected it.
“We knew from aerial photographs that there had been a Lion’s Mouth at No. 9,” Marzolf said. “And as we were searching for it, we found chards of terra cotta pipe and pieces of coal slag, all of which had been used years ago for drainage. Those things showed us exactly where the bunker had been.”
I found myself frequently breaking 80 – as in 80 miles per hour – as I turned my attention to the images I saw of the back nine. A classic Short at No. 11, with an elevated green that boasts a “thumbprint” in the middle of the putting surface and is ringed almost entirely by a bunker. Also, an inspired revival of a Bottle, a standard on many Raynor courses – and those of his mentor and longtime associate Charles Blair Macdonald. The one at Fox Chapel is a brilliant brute, measuring 421 yards from the tips and playing uphill the entire way. Three angled cross bunkers in the middle of the fairway put a premium on accuracy off the tee, and there is another squared off bunker some 70 yards short of a massive green.
Immediately following that hole is the Biarritz. Modeled after a historic but long-gone par 3 from a course in the southwestern France, this 230-yarder has a well-bunkered green that runs 85 yards from front to back and is bisected by a swale nearly 3-feet deep.
“The land here was ideal for golf, and Raynor did an excellent job with the routing. The flow is first-rate. Every hole is in the best possible location.” – Tom Marzolf, Tom Fazio’s chief design associate
I had never been to Fox Chapel before. But I felt like I had acquired a good feel for the course after poring over those photographs. They not only revealed the overall genius of the design and strategies of each hole but also made the layout look like a true work of art.
I could not wait to play there the following afternoon.
Located some 10 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, the Fox Chapel Golf Club was incorporated in January 1923. Club leaders hired Raynor to design the course shortly thereafter, on sweeping property that had long been farmed by European settlers. Assisting the architect in his work was his protégé, Charles “Steam Shovel” Banks, and they made excellent use of the land’s contours as well as a creek, called Glade Run, that snaked through the grounds. The layout opened for play on June 13, 1925, and as was the case with most of Raynor’s creations, it included a number of so-called template holes inspired by Old World originals.
Sadly, much of his good work was altered in later years. Bunkers disappeared, to be replaced in some instances by trees, while greens shrunk in size. Perhaps the most significant changes were made by A.W. Tillinghast when he visited the club in the 1930s. According to Marzolf, the architect rounded out the sharp, geometric edges of numerous greens and bunkers and added “fingers” in many of the hazards that resembled those he had crafted in some of his better known works, like the East and West Courses at Winged Foot. Tillinghast also eliminated such notable elements as the double-plateau green Raynor had built on No. 13 and the bunkers that split the fairway on the fabled Bottle.
Over time, club leaders came to realize that they needed to restore the Raynor features to their course. At the turn of the 21st Century, they hired architect Brian Silva to begin that process as Fox Chapel prepared to host the 2002 Curtis Cup. Mostly, he focused on revamping the bunkers. Then in 2014, after the club had been the site of the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship for three consecutive years, it brought in Fazio.
“Initially, Fox Chapel wanted us to help them prepare a long-range master plan,” Marzolf explained. “They thought it was time for new sand in the bunkers, and from that it led to ‘what else should we do?’”
The answer was plenty. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
(Click on images below to enlarge and for caption information.)
“The land here was ideal for golf, and Raynor did an excellent job with the routing,” he added. “The flow is first-rate. Every hole is in the best possible location. The four par-3s, for example, all face a different direction, so the wind is different on each one. Seth staked out a lasting layout, a masterpiece, and our job was to put him back on the ground.”
At first blush, the selection of Fazio’s firm seemed an odd one, as it is much better known for its own designs than for its renovations. And it had no real expertise in Raynor’s work. But clearly, the outfit was more than up to the task. Its associates looked closely at photographs that had been taken the year of the club’s opening as well as at aerials that had been shot in the 1930s. Those images and ones from subsequent seasons provided them with a keen sense of what the original layout looked like and how it had evolved.
“We brought back dozens of bunkers, including Spectacles on the second and fourth holes and the fairway bunkers on Bottle,” Marzolf said. “Now, 94 of the 96 bunkers on the golf course are original in design. Some of those are framing bunkers that Raynor used more to trick the eye than anything else. And to accommodate the modern golfer, we slid a number of bunkers farther down the fairways, so they sat in the 285- to 325-yard range as opposed to being just 180 to 225 yards from the tees. That way, golfers really have to think about where and how far they should hit their drives instead of just blowing them over the hazards.”
“On several holes, we also recovered portions of the original greens,” he added. “We cut down a lot of trees, leaving specimen hardwoods standing whenever we could. And we added a dozen forward tees and some back tees as well, all the while ensuring that the course still played the way that Raynor intended it to.”
Fox Chapel president James “Lock” Walrath is quite pleased with how things turned out. “We see what Fazio and Marzolf did as being a very sympathetic restoration as far as history is concerned,” he explained. “But it is also very sympathetic to modern times and the lengths that people hit their golf balls today.”
Tom Marzolf and I were part of the same foursome the day I played Fox Chapel, and I could hardly contain my glee as I stepped onto the first tee and finally saw in person the opening hole I had daydreamed about during my ride down. Just as I had imagined, I faded my drive down the left side of the fairway and then smoothed a 6-iron to the middle of the green. As for the three-putt that followed, well, the less said about that fiasco, the better.
“This is not a Fazio renovation,” Marzolf asserted a few holes later. “Seth Raynor is once and forever the architect of Fox Chapel, and our feeling is that playing this course today is like taking a step back in time. It also may be the best example of Seth Raynor architecture anywhere in the country.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
Top: No. 18, Fox Chapel Golf Club (All photos by Russell Kirk, Golflinksphotography.com)
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