Lookout Mountain Golf Club
Georgia, United States of America

Raynor’s stairstep bunkers in a mountain setting

The revival of Lookout Mountain Golf Club is a story very much worth understanding.

Seth Raynor was at the height of his considerable powers when he passed away in 1927 at 50 years of age. He had projects across the United States, literally. From Hawaii to California to Florida, his talent had never been more in demand.

Prior to his death, Raynor produced numerous high profile courses that are highly regarded as classics to this day. Though not a golfer, his engineering background served him well and brought him much deserved recognition. For instance, few architects could have devised a way to pump the bay bottom to allow the construction of Lido GC. Also, the creation of the noted island Biarritz green at The Creek created much mention in technical papers.

So when Garnet Carter and Scott Probasco were interested in creating a golf course as the centerpiece to a 15 story, 300 room hotel located on Lookout Mountain, some 1,800 feet above the city of Chattanooga, they knew whom to call. The Fairyland developement (as it was called then) was to be a great mountaintop destination for the South, and beyond.

Upon seeing the site, Raynor’s immediate enthusiasm for the invigorating climate and sweeping views in all directions was partially tempered by the granite rock on or near the playing surfaces. His engineering skills would be put to good test here! According to historian George Bahto, Raynor routed the course three months before he died but never saw the ground broke. Charles Banks completed much of it but with about 25 other incomplete courses to finish (including Yale and Fishers Island), Fairyland never received the finishing touches such a unique site deserved.

With course construction costs nearing $400,000 (at the time, second only to Yale as the most expensive course built in the United States) and an ill-timed storm where eight holes were washed away after seeding, Raynor’s vision was to go unfullfilled. Starting with the Depression, Fairyland CC endured hard times and slowly fell from the public’s eye.

What a shame it would have been if such a site never realized its full potential! Pictured is the green for the 445 yard downhill opening hole.

So the story could well end, and Lookout Mountain would have joined the same sad fate as happened to so many classic courses in the United States (note: see Daniel Wexler’s recently published Missing Links). Thankfully, such is not the case.

Starting with a phone call that Brett Mullen, the Head Professional, made to Bill Coore in 1993, the Club began to realize that they had something special on their hands. Board members Doug Stein and King Oehmig formed a Raynor Committee in 1995 and, in order to best appreciate the opportunity at hand, they visited as many Raynor courses as possible. With such courses as Shoreacres and Chicago remaining true to Raynor’s work, they acquired a keen sense of their opportunity. As they noted in their Raynor Report to the club membership, ‘We have the spine-tingling privilege of playing golf on a masterwork by one of the ‘Grand Masters’ of American golf. But the reality is that we have an unfinished masterpiece.’

They continued to research the history of any alterations to the course. They interviewed King’s Dad (former Walker Cup captain and Bob Jones award winner Lew Oehmig), former greens chairmen, and even the man who ran the dozer in the early ’50’s when many of the greens were altered as they first converted the greens to bent grass. Importantly, they had Raynor’s original plans of the course on linen and some pictures of the original greens. These plans showed there to be 81 bunkers, covering a massive 266,000 square feet.

The Raynor Committee’s chore was now to find the right architect to sell the project of completing Raynor’s vision to the membership. Eventually it came down to Brian Silva, whose enthusiasm and knowledge of old classics would help convince the membership this was indeed the right path to pursue.

The first stage centered around restoring many of the bunkers on the original Raynor plan. With less than 20 bunkers remaining, and many of them even having been relocated to the wrong spots, the ambitious plans called for almost 50 fairway bunkers to be added that were shown on the Raynor plan but never installed by Banks.

As Brian Silva notes, ‘Given that many of the bunkers are perpendicular to the shot and have very imposing cross bunkering characteristics, it was never going to be an easy sell to the membership.’ Brian appreciated that ‘there are lots of projects where courses re-build all of their bunkers and add a few here and there, but I can’t say that I’ve heard of one where over 50 new fairway bunkers were installed while all the others were deepened/re-orientated in a way to make them play tougher.’

The sincerity with which the Raynor Committee went about gaining support from the senior membership forms nothing short of a ‘how-to’ model for other clubs to follow. In the end, the Long Range Plan was approved and work commenced in 1997. In addition to the bunker work, a number of tees were rebuilt and the imaginative green contours on the Alps and Double Plateau greens were recreated as best as possible from available information. The course re-opened for play in 1998 ahead of schedule and under budget. Stage Two involves restoring many of the greens to their original dimensions. For instance, by reclaiming the front left portion of the ninth green or the front right portion on the fifteenth green, intriguing hole locations will be brought back into play. Again, the original Raynor plan was invaluable in helping them to determine just how far to extend these ‘wings’ of the green.

Also, some of the more subtle interior green contours have been lost to heavy top-dressing and dragging with topsoil, which was the common practice after WWII for several decades. In addition, when the greens were converted to bent, they were done in circles in the center of the green pads, much as happened at Yeamans Hall. As Stein notes, ‘Hopefully, the greens will be fully restored at some point in the not too distant future.’ By doing them to USGA specifications, the greens will retain a firmness even in wet weather that allows for lower shots to be bumped in and chased back to certain hole locations, as Raynor intended.

The back to front pitch of the restored Alps green is similarly terrifying to that at Prestwick.

Further exciting plans exist. The Biarritz green may be brought forward to include the swale, the Short hole may once again become an island green surrounded by sand, and the Sahara bunker will front the Alps green. If those three highly distinctive Raynor holes obtain their full glory, along with recapturing some of his unique interior green contours, then Lookout Mountain will be Raynor’s most dramatic course – and be an unfinished masterpiece no more.

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