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Toronto GC: When is it a restoration and when is it something else?

Restoration or renovation?: The 11th green at Toronto Golf Club gets a new location

Restoration or renovation?: The 11th green at Toronto Golf Club gets a new location

I think Toronto GC may be the most important golf course in Canada. Not the best. Or the hardest. Just the most important. I can’t say I came to this conclusion on my own — I know several others who put forth this point and I’ve become convinced by their arguments.

So why is the course so important, especially for those who have never set foot on the club’s grounds? Like National Golf Links in Long Island, Toronto GC set the standard for all courses in Canada. Designed by Harry Colt, it came before all the other great courses in Canada — before Hamilton (another Colt design), before Scarboro, and before all the terrific Willie Park and Walter Travis designs. It is likely at Toronto GC that Stanley Thompson met and studied the work of Colt, and it was likely this experience that led him into golf design (alongside Toronto GC pro George Cummings, likely Canada’s most underrated designer).

All of this brings me to Martin Hawtree’s so-called “restoration” of Toronto GC, which is currently going on and the course is shut to members while work is underway. I say restoration because that is the term I keep hearing from the club and from Hawtree’s writing on the subject. After all, Hawtree is a supposed Colt expert — he has connections to Colt through his father. And Martin is a fine designer as far as I can tell. I’m very fond of his work at Tarandowah in Avon, Ont. and I continue to think this is the best value and one of the most enjoyable courses in all of Canada. It keeps me coming back, despite a couple of weak holes (namely 4 and 17).

Hawtree's work at Tarandowah

Hawtree's work at Tarandowah

I started thinking about TGC’s work when an associate sent me the details of a blog by construction company TDI with offices in Canada and the U.S. that is doing the work at the course.  TDI is regarded as one of the better golf construction firms in Canada. The firm bills itself as “classic restorations” (it is right there, under their logo) but I wonder whether TGC is a restoration in any way. Incidently, TDI is also doing the work at Toronto’s Lambton G&CC, but that one can’t be characterized as a restoration. It is a do-over, under the guidance of Rees Jones’ office. For the life of me that one makes little sense, but I digress.

So what is going on at Toronto? There is a new irrigation system planned and plenty of changes mandated by safety — namely moving the first fairway away from the entrance road towards the ravine, a change to #15 and the tees on 6 due to the entrance to the club, and two greens are being rebuilt — the great 11th and the 15th, which might be the best greensite on the property. I have no idea why the second green isn’t being redone — or the 16th — which are both Howard Watson greens, if my understanding of TGC’s history is correct. Also there will be new bunkers aplenty.

Now TDI  are just following Hawtree’s directions. And Hawtree has the reputation of being a Colt “expert.” However, I’ve heard from several designers in the U.S. and abroad that they feel Hawtree is more interpretive than restorative. This has become a topic on Golfclubatlas.com, the foremost architecture site on the Net, where Paul Turner and golf architect Brian Phillips have raised questions about whether there are any restorative elements to the TGC work, or to Hawtree’s work in general.

Certainly Phillips points out that the bunkers at Sunningdale look nothing like those that Colt created at the course. That was reinforced by a photo sent to me by designer Martin Ebert, demonstrating what the bunkers at the New Course at Sunningdale looked like in Colt’s time. Today the work by Hawtree has cleaned up all the rugged edges and many feel the bunkers have far less character.

The green at the terrific 15th is being moved over safety issues.

The green at the terrific 15th is being moved over safety issues.

My biggest question with the whole matter — aside from why TGC bothered in the first place — is how can a plan that moves two original greens be called a “restoration.” Truthfully there’s very little restoration taking place — it is a renovation of one of Canada’s classic courses, one that set the template for those that followed. Sure it is a bit short by modern standards, but no one is talking about hosting a Canadian Open there any time soon. And it has tough holes — like #5, #9, #11, and #17 — all of which make up for anything short on the rest of the property.

Colt's original bunkers at Sunningdale New in 1924. Much more intriguing than the grassed down look Hawtree is using at TGC.

Colt's original bunkers at Sunningdale New in 1924. Much more intriguing than the grassed down look Hawtree is using at TGC.

“Restoration” is a buzzword these days — and a bit of a cliche. Rarely are true “restorations” done — though some will be sympathetic to the original aims of the designer. Is that the case with TGC and Hawtree? I can’t say — but I will state clearly that moving original greens, rerouting holes and making substantial alterations is not restorative.

I hope TGC and Hawtree gets this one right — they are tinkering with a piece of Canadian golf history.
For a tour of TGC, check out their site here.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I totally agree Robert. The line between a true restoration and a sympathetic renovation is often blurred and misrepresented. Below is a recent article from Golf Course Industry Magazine that talks about the work completed at Rolling Green GC outside Philadelphia by Forse Design as a ‘meticulous restoration’ that turns back the clock. Two paragraphs later they start describing the ‘strategic relocation of hazards matches contemporary golf equipment, regaining Flynn’s intended challenges while exuding his elegant simplicity’. Call a spade a spade.

    http://www.golfcourseindustry.com//news/news.asp?ID=5327

  • well done RT – a worthy blog and not one mention of JD.

    interesting that Hawtree (among other euros) seem to be selling this “safety” thing for reno work. Can a course be altered for safety ever be a true restoration? by definition, i think not.

  • I am not sure this debate is even worthy of discussion. Golf courses are pieces of land that continuously change. Trees grow higher and taller and sometimes die or are cut because they interfere with shot lines. Bunkers deteriorate and have to be restored every 5-7 years. Development around golf courses oftern interfere with original design of a golf hole. A restoration? A redesign? Who the heck cares. Augusta National in no way resembles its original design, but everyone considers this golf course to be among the world’s greatest. So what if changes are made. RT, you seem to imply that golf courses should retain their original character? Why? Most of these courses are member owned, and they are there to serve member needs. I don’t care who the architect is, if members want to change things, so what? This isn’t a painting that can be preserved in an environmentally controlled way. That is not possible for a golf course. The course is there to serve member needs, it doesn’t exist for any intrinsic purpose other than that. Get your head out of your ass man.

  • Since I am not playing TGC anytime soon and probably never, I’d like to see TDI cross the road and do some ‘restoration’ on Lakeview GC, especially #12. 🙂

  • Jim: I disagree with your questionable perspective. Augusta National as an example? Gosh, even the players themselves typically say it was more interesting before it became the Michael Jackson of golf courses.

    Let’s address your points:

    Your point: “Trees grow higher and taller and sometimes die or are cut because they interfere with shot lines. Bunkers deteriorate and have to be restored every 5-7 years. Development around golf courses oftern interfere with original design of a golf hole. A restoration? A redesign? Who the heck cares.”

    RT: All of these things are true. But trees can be replanted or (preferably) cut down when they interfere with play. Happening all over the place — just look at Oakmont as the shining example of this.

    “Augusta National in no way resembles its original design, but everyone considers this golf course to be among the world’s greatest.”

    RT: I wouldn’t hold Augusta up as anything other than a multi-faceted vision of multiple club presidents trying to keep up with equipment changes because they hold a PGA Tour event. It isn’t indicative of the issues facing TGC.

    “So what if changes are made. RT, you seem to imply that golf courses should retain their original character? Why? Most of these courses are member owned, and they are there to serve member needs.”

    RT: You are correct — but the architect often sells the membership on those “member needs.” There are plenty of courses that are not significant historically or architecturally and have little character to retain. On the other hand, TGC is architecturally and historically significant, which is why I think it is appropriate to try to retain as many of the original features as is at all possible. And blowing up original greens isn’t necessary, IMHO.

    “I don’t care who the architect is, if members want to change things, so what? This isn’t a painting that can be preserved in an environmentally controlled way. That is not possible for a golf course. The course is there to serve member needs, it doesn’t exist for any intrinsic purpose other than that.”

    RT: Actually I entirely disagree. Golf course are “designed” — in this case by Harry Colt who had strong opinions on what makes a good golf course. There’s no reason that can’t be maintained or preserved. Simply because you say it is the case doesn’t make it so. Please demonstrate your point with an example. And you’re right, the course is there to serve the members’ needs, but how often have members tinkered over and over on their courses only to determine what they had in the first place was best?

    “Get your head out of your ass man.”

    RT: Thanks for strengthening your position was this ever-so-clever closing remark.

  • I can’t comment on the GolfClubAtlas thing (registration shut down) but I’d say adding a bunker at 11 green is by definition not restorative.

    Also, whoever is taking the Contractor to task for the bunker work on the GCA forum is probably baeking up the wrong tree.

  • jim:

    in some ways, you’re right. landscapes and golf courses evolve… but don’t sell us something that its not. “Restoration” v. “Renovation” may be nothing more than semantics and ego…

    and this is where Hawtree has to come clean – or at least be upfront about his process. sympathetic restoration has its place – was this it? not sure. but if its not, don’t pretend it is.

    One thing I do believe in this whole restore/renovate argument is that nostalgia, in all its forms, can be very, very dangerous when considering design and redesign (not just of golf courses).

    “Nostalgia is killer”. Claude Cormier.

  • I totally agree! – recently played tarandowah and WOW what an amazing contrast to golf as we see it and the feudal efforts by many architects to establish “links style” courses.
    I didn’t find 17 a problem but certainly 4 is a little weak. All this is overshadowed by the increasing vistas and pure character as the course evolves. From 8 on this course just continues to amaze. By far the best investment in “pure golf” anyone could make. After this who cares about TGC!

  • I guess Jim wouldn’t mind if the bulldozers turn up at St Andrews.

    Martin Hawtree definitely sold this project as a restoration (or “restauration” according to Hawtree.co.uk, perhaps a Freudian?). He’s not claiming it’s a remodeling, so if he designs features are very different from Colt’s original then criticism is fair.

    Hawtree also has a record of changing classic courses for safety reasons which other architects don’t see: Royal Melbourne East

  • Restoration
    res•to•ra•tion
    Noun

    1. the act of restoring or state of being restored, as to a former or original condition, place, etc.
    2. the replacement or giving back of something lost, stolen, etc.
    3. something restored, replaced, or reconstructed
    ___________

    RT, you have far more experience analyzing golf course design and publishing your opinion than anybody else on this blog. I respect your provocative writing style; indeed, in the case of TGC’s supposed restoration you have certainly inspired a colourful debate.

    But as any writer knows a semantic dispute is not a true dispute. Whether TGC was restored or renovated or rebuilt or redesigned (or re-whatevered) is a debate better moderated by someone with expertise in lexical semantics than by a sports journalist (blogger?). But if the TGC process was a “do-over”, as you so eloquently put it, it would fall under the category of “reconstruction”, which is captured in the 3rd definition of the word “restoration” above.

    More important than the semantics is the course itself. Given the technological improvements in equipment since 1924, certain greens were no longer safe in their original positions. The course needed to make changes for legal reasons. Furthermore, the basic building blocks of the old TGC had been untouched for decades. Over time the grasses and trees around the property grew tired, and the shaping of the fairways and greens became dull in comparison to other courses.

    The legal requirement to reposition certain greens presented an opportunity to undergo a full restoration — which would have been required sooner or later — in a financially efficient manner. The members are happy with the result. There is a stream of young new membership applicants looking to steward TGC into the next generation. Ultimately the members only need to answer to themselves, so disparaging commentary from outsiders will fall on deaf ears.*

    I’ll finish with an analogy. Picture an old dusty ’67 Mustang sitting in your driveway or garage. You know once upon a time it was shiny and new with no shakes or rattles. It was the cream of the crop. But now the paint has faded, there is rust around the wheel wells, one of the doors is dented, and the engine struggles to turn over. The skeleton of the car is sturdy, but the guts and skin have gone stale. So, you rip out the old parts and plug in new ones. You polish and detail every piece of chrome until you can see your reflection in the carburetor. You install new seats and remove a dented door and install one from another Mustang. Would you consider this restoration “tinkering with a piece of… history”? And now what if you decide to turn the Mustang into a convertible… does that represent similar “tinkering”? I liken the changes at TGC to those of this imaginary ’67 Mustang Convertible. I don’t care if it’s been rebuilt, restored, refinished, retooled, or even redesigned… I just can’t wait to get out there and let ‘er rip.

    * For the record I am not a member of TGC, just somebody who thinks the decision to restore the course — green re-builds and all — was totally appropriate. RT, I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the redesign at Lambton.

  • A Golfer — you can find my Lambton review here: http://canadiangolfer.com/g4g/2010/11/18/course-review-lambton-golf-and-country-club/

    As for the question of moving greens, certainly the 15th near the road made sense in that regard given the incoming cars. However, I wonder about the need to move the 11th green. The member I play with has never recalled an issue with tee shots off the 12th tee. That said, I don’t think Hawtree’s green is badly done.

    I’ve come to accept the changes at TGC more the more I’ve played it.

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