Sleepy Hollow Country Club
New York, United States of America

Green Keeper: Thomas Leahy

Charles Blair Macdonald’s work dominates the golf landscape as evidenced by the Punchbowl green in the foreground and the Short hole in back.

In 1911 when Sleepy Hollow was formed, golf course design in America was in its infancy. Neither Pine Valley nor Alister Mackenzie’s work existed. Oakmont, Merion and Pinehurst No. 2 had yet to evolve into the design masterpieces that we admire today. The standard bearers included The Country Club, Myopia Hunt, and Ewkanok. Indeed, Charles Blair Macdonald’s own recently opened National Golf Links of America staked its claim as the best in the country and that was soon followed by Piping Rock. Therefore, it was no surprise that a who’s-who group of businessmen headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor and William Rockefeller called on Macdonald to build them the course.

What a setting they had too as it was located on a former Vanderbilt estate. Located an hour northeast of Manhattan, its 340 acres climbed up and over an embankment that afforded one-off views of the Hudson River where it widens to over three miles just north of the Tappan Zee bridge. Hook Mountain and the Palisades provide the leafy, rugged backdrop on the far west side but it is the historic, cobalt blue river that dazzles. Vessels today cruise up and down for commerce just like they have for over four hundred years. It is an integral part of American history and on its east side, Macdonald set about exposing the American golfer to classic United Kingdom features including a Redan (in this case, a reverse one) and a Punchbowl green.

Construction was slow due to the rocky environs and the course opened in 1914. Though it proved successful, hardly a decade has gone by where the golf wasn’t altered in some meaningful manner. In the 1920s, Tom Winton, a local architect, performed work when land that housed four of Macdonald’s holes was sold off. In 1930, A.W. Tillinghast increased the number of holes to twenty-seven when he created the first, eighth through twelfth and eighteenth holes and knitted them into Macdonald’s course.

Both Macdonald and Tillinghast were giants in the Golden Age of golf course architecture. In fact, much of Tillinghast’s reputation for building superb parkland courses is based on his work here in Westchester County. Unfortunately for future Club boards, Sleepy Hollow had a mixture of holes from both titans. Even worse, the best work may well have been done by Winton as neither Macdonald or Tillinghast’s efforts were their finest. Macdonald’s contentious relationship with Rockefeller over tree removal soured him early-on with the project and Raynor was still learning his way under Macdonald, this being but their third project together. George Bahto, the legendary Macdonald expert and historian, summed it up: ‘In all, the course Macdonald and Raynor left the club with was moderate at best.’  Tillinghast helped when he pushed holes into the wooded portion at the high southeastern end but his holes lacked defining qualities. Aerials from the late 1920s and 1930s didn’t offer a hopeful road map. Thus, the conundrum the board faced was how to act as a custodian when it wasn’t certain what it was trying to preserve.

With no clear way forward, a green committee in the early 1990s hired a ‘name’ architect, and trusted his judgment. The end result was a ‘modernized’ course with mounds and small, sculpted bunkers. Within a decade, another architect was engaged to prepare a Master Plan in an effort to restore a sense of consistency to a course cursed with several competing design styles. Close inspection of this architect’s plan by the new green committee chairman, George Sanossian, and his committee developed concerns in several areas including maintainability and suitability. Ironically, some of the architect’s own references were critical of his work. After additional due diligence, the committee pivoted, shelving the Master Plan and posed the question of who could better guide them.

Of the several architects that were interviewed, the decision came down to Gil Hanse partnering with George Bahto or Ron Forse. Both architects recommended that the club proceed with unifying all eighteen holes in the manner of Macdonald as opposed to Tillinghast. After all, Macdonald’s courses found at N.G.L.A., Mid-Ocean, Piping Rock and Saint Louis Country Club are at similarly dated and prestigious clubs to Sleepy Hollow. Plus, it was deemed foolhardy to try to establish Tillinghast as the prevalent design style when a) it never was and b) four of his best original designs (both courses at Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, and Fenway) are in close proximity to the Club.

Eventually, the green committee proposed the team of Hanse and Bahto, which the Club board approved. Undoubtedly, Bahto’s seminal book on Macdonald entitled  The Evangelist of Golf provided comfort to the committee that they were getting the desired Macdonald expertise. The task then fell to Hanse and Bahto to implement the vision for the property that they had shared with the green committee during the interview process. This was by no means a restoration: Macdonald had not even built seven of the holes and those that he did were not feature rich (many lacked fairway bunkers for instance). Rather, this undertaking was to be a renovation of all twenty-seven holes utilizing the design principles and features employed by Macdonald at his best courses. Starting with the third nine, Hanse and Bahto demonstrated the bunkering style and scale that they wanted to re-establish on the main course. The results were enthusiastically received and they were given greater creative latitude when their work commenced on the main course in 2006.

Sleepy Hollow, Charles Blair Macdonald, George Bahto, Gil Hanse

An example of the work that occurred in 2006/2007 is found in how much more open the course became, with longer interior views afforded throughout. Above from left to right is the 14th green, the 13th in the far distance and the 4th green. Compare this 2007 view …

Sleepy Hollow, Charles Blair Macdonald, George Bahto, Gil Hanse

… to this one of the 4th in the fall 2005.

Much to the credit of everyone associated with the project, the work performed at Sleepy Hollow from the summer of 2006 through the fall of 2007 represented one of the great transformations from tee to green in the history of golf course architecture. From a lifeless course that people were indifferent to play, a ‘new old’ one rife with character emerged. Sleepy Hollow became a cherished invite as its one-off joys aren’t replicated elsewhere.

The Club didn’t stop there. By 2012, a small cadre of green committee and board members came to the conclusion that collectively, the eighteen putting surfaces remained a weakness. It wasn’t glaring – the big picture stuff was so compelling – but members including Michael Hegarty, George Sanossian, and Corey Miller started to agitate for going the final step and re-doing all eighteen greens, sympathetic to the Macdonald/Raynor school. When Sanossian approached Hanse about it, he was genuinely surprised and impressed. Back in 2005, Bahto had called for the greens to be done but he and Gil ultimately backed away as it would have been too much for the club to accept. Gridlock would have resulted. Now, after all the accolades and the members having enjoyed the uninterrupted use of their course for five years, the time seemed opportune to finish what they had started. As Hanse states, ‘In the first phase of the project, George Bahto and I pushed for a renovation of the Tillinghast holes (their routing was great but the feature work was uninspiring and repetitive with greens sloping from back to front, bunkers to both sides, and no fairway bunkers on all of the holes) towards holes inspired by Macdonald and Raynor. With the success of the first phase, the club leadership asked us to put together a plan of what a “complete” Macdonald/Raynor course might look like and our plan turned out to be one of the last things that George worked on before his passing.’

Macdonald theme features dominate the view in Jon Cavalier’s aerial. Traces of work by other past architects have been eradicated.

Hanse made several visits and everyone was in agreement to push for Macdonald features wherever possible. Ultimately nine greens (e.g. 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14) would be done in the fall of 2016 and the remainder the following year. All told, the greens went from being 135,460 to 145,200 square feet, an increase of over 7%. That isn’t the story. The biggest changes came to six greens  (1, 8, 9, 10, 14, and 18), five of which were Tillinghast’s. Those greens account for over 85% of the green expansion but it is what they became that matters.

Take the first as an example. Typical of Tillinghast’s greens, it had evolved into one that was long and narrow with sides that had built up over time. Such a green can have merit but it was repeated too often across the course. Plus, it didn’t ‘fit’ any of the Macdonald templates. With Sanossian’s encouragement, Hanse ultimately settled on a 7,950 square foot Leven green complex. The much broader putting surface is rife with small undulations and puffs and surely possesses a dozen plus really fine hole locations while the old green had but three. Honestly, the new expansive first green is a thing of beauty, nowhere near as fiendish as the all-world first green at Winged Foot West but just as capable of making one pause and appreciate its creation.

So it went. The Tillinghast greens that didn’t engender Macdonald elements were transformed into ones that did. Two of the most dramatic changes were to the eighth which became a full-on Road Hole green complex and the tenth, the worst green on the course, was enlarged by 33% . Though the going was tough due to rocky surrounds, the tenth green now enjoys the scale to belong on a Macdonald course.

The 10th green was immeasurably improved in the fall of 2016.

It is worth noting that eight of the greens (2, 6, 7, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 17) were already at the edge of their fill pads and weren’t expanded. Green committee member Corey Miller marvels at what Hanse accomplished: ‘Usually when work occurs to greens at classic designs, one of the mandates is to provide more “pinnable” areas. In that pursuit, interest and slopes are sacrificed. Meanwhile, Gil succeeded here in increasing green space and pinnable locations while also making the individual greens more compelling with more – not less – contour embedded into them. We couldn’t be more fortunate.’ 

The newly created Road green at the 8th is followed by the Knoll green at the 9th.

When play resumed in the summer of 2018, a journey that started in the last century had come full course. With the greens as good as the rest of the course, Sleepy Hollow now has no known design weaknesses, as we see below.

Holes to Note

First hole, 420 yards, Leven; Macdonald’s course neither started nor finished at the clubhouse, which happens to be a house that Vanderbilt built for one of his daughters (note: his daughter didn’t like it, proving that it’s not always easy to be a Vanderbilt!). Tillinghast added the first and eighteenth holes, though the playing corridor for the two holes is not quite wide enough, given the slope of the land. Today’s first tee complex at the base of the mansion with the sight of the Hudson River in the distance makes any golfer itch to play.

Completely re-built, the 1st green is now a Leven and it is the first of many Macdonald features that the golfer encounters in a round at Sleepy Hollow.

Second hole, 370 yards, Climbing; The most difficult part of the property is the two hundred and fifty yard hill over which today’s second and seventeenth holes are routed. It is an abrupt, broad slope that had to be traversed to reach the best land. Since interest off the tee is modest; the key is to make the approach shot so compelling that the golfer is glad that he hiked up the hill. To do so, Hanse raised the right side of the green in 2006 and then protected it by creating an old fashion eight foot deep bunker around the front and right. The net effect is the short iron approach to the right hole locations is now one of the day’s nervier shots.

Up the players go at the 2nd.

As seen from well behind, this wraparound bunker dominates the approach to the 2nd.

Third hole, 170 yards, Eden; Macdonald’s one complaint of the original version of the Eden at St. Andrews was that a golfer could play it with just his putter. He avoided that here as the third plays across a forty foot deep (!) ravine. Macdonald again uses a par three hole (the sixteenth) to traverse the chasm on the inward journey.

The required bridge from the 3rd tee to green is an indication of the site’s rambunctious topography.

One of the more startling transformations from the 2016/2017 work was the emergence of this Eden green. It increased in size by over 10%, expanding both to the left and right. The golfer above has his hands full trying to recover from the aptly named Hill bunker.

Fifth hole, 435 yards, Panorama; As a private club, Sleepy Hollow enjoys limited play. Thus, Hanse/Bahto were free to re-create Macdonald’s interesting diagonal tee shot from a tee in close proximity to the fourth green. After the uphill tee ball, the view from the crest takes one’s breath away as expansive views of the Hudson River and its verdant valley are now afforded thanks to the tree clearing beyond the green. One of Sleepy Hollow’s great attributes is that it resists being categorized. Most consider it to be a parkland course but what parkland course affords such long views?! Macdonald deserves the credit for the greens (e.g. 2, 3, 5, 15, and 16) and tees (e.g. 4, 6, 16, 17) that unveil such moments, as Bahto wrote, of ‘pronounced grandeur.’

Tree removal highlights the stunning skyline nature of the 5th green.

This drone shot highlights how Macdonald brilliantly placed five green sites in a compressed area along both sides of a ravine. Going around the clock, there is the 16th, 15th, 5th in the foreground, 3rd and 2nd greens.

Sixth hole, 475 yards, Lookout; One of the more perplexing elements in the Macdonald/Raynor adaptation of classic design features is where they elect to place the Principal’s Nose bunker complex. As is well known, the original is found at the sixteenth on The Old Course at St. Andrews and its position influences the golfer’s thinking on the tee. Does he dare fit a driver between the Principal’s Nose in the left center of the fairway and the out of bounds right? Should he lay back or perhaps go long left? Stuart Paton replicated this dilemma perfectly in 1901 when he added his famous bunkers to the fourth fairway at Woking Golf Club in England. Curiously, Macdonald never did the same. Starting at the eleventh at National Golf Links of America, he frequently placed the Principal’s Nose fifty to eighty yards from the green of long par fours. Raynor in turn copied him at such holes as the first at Yeamans Hall and the sixth at Chicago Golf Club. The author truly doesn’t understand the thinking behind such placement. A far preferable implementation is here on this reachable par five hole where Hanse/Bahto handsomely constructed the Principal’s Nose complex sixty yards from the green. As such, golfers that don’t go for the green in two are left with a real conundrum as to where to place their lay-up.

A wonderful addition, the placement of this Principal Nose is thoroughly original to Hanse and Bahto and creates indecision for those that lay-up.

Seventh hole, 220 yards, Redan; Downhill reverse Redans rarely work well. Downhill means the tee ball is coming in at too steep an angle to properly release and follow the land’s contour. Additionally, a properly played fade doesn’t release as well as the draw that a Redan calls for. However, Macdonald brilliantly saw a unique opportunity to get past both drawbacks, given the pronounced left to right slope of the hill where the seventh cascades.

Given the steepness of the slope that feeds onto the green from the left, the Reverse Redan at Sleepy Hollow functions better than any other the author has seen.

This view from back right highlights how the fairway can be used to kick tee balls onto the putting surface. At 8,600 square feet, it is among the course’s biggest greens.

Eighth hole, 490 yards, Road; After holing out at the seventh, golfers in Macdonald’s day progressed to today’s thirteenth tee as Macdonald didn’t route holes on the section of property where today’s eighth through twelfth holes reside. Tillinghast built these five holes in 1930/31 in part because greenkeeping practices had sufficiently progressed over the prior two decades to address the drainage concerns that held back Macdonald. By 2005, tree growth had narrowed the eighth, making it appreciated only for its sheer difficulty as opposed to more important playing merits. In Stage One, Hanse opened up the playing corridor and captured a marvelous hump within the fairway that sends balls scuttling in every direction. In Stage Two, he cleared even more and introduced the Road Hole green complex. To the author, the work done here best summarizes the huge strides made in Stage Two as 1) the Macdonald thesis was expanded upon with strategic options flowing from the green back to the tee, 2) the approach was made immeasurably more engaging, 3) on the off chance that you should miss (!) the green, the short game interest was wildly improved, and finally 4) the additional clearing continued the process of improving/firming the turf while opening up yet another gorgeous interior view. All of a sudden, the golfer doesn’t mind being removed from the dominant ridge line and ravine.

Sleepy Hollow, Charles Blair Macdonald, George Bahto, Gil Hanse

The right half of the hump in the foreground was under tree branches in 2005, making the 8th a dreadfully dull exercise in straight hitting. With the exposed land form now kicking balls every which way, the hole was re-invigorated despite the limited interest held by the green.

That changed in the fall of 2016 when the 8th green was expanded from 6,100 to 8,400 square feet and …

… became the very definition of a Road Hole green complex. Hanse took considerable time to float in and massage the interior contours so that they would properly feed a drawn approach to this left hole location.

Ninth hole, 425 yards, Knoll; Sleepy Hollow features both violent (as Bahto termed it) land movement as well as more demure moments, such as found in the previous fairway and this one where ~ seven foot, human scale land forms effect play down the center-line. A tee added by Hanse fifty yards back provides intrigue on the approach shot, which is now frequently blind from the base of a hill.

Tillinghast was wise to push into this part of the property as it afforded some fine, graceful fairway movement. The newly created Knoll green is swathed in morning sunlight.

Sleepy Hollow, Charles Blair Macdonald, George Bahto, Gil Hanse

As seen in the fall of 2005, the green complex was dull and lifeless and featured a Tillinghast green that offered a limited number of central hole locations.

Today’s Knoll green features more interesting perimeter hole locations, paired well with the tension created from deep, flat bottom Macdonald-esque greenside bunkers. Green Keeper Leahy came up with the shrewd idea to present the front bank as rough, which makes the Knoll aspect more pronounced.

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