Sleepy Hollow Country Club
New York, United States of America

Eleventh hole, 435 yards, Ichabod’s Elbow; Courses built in the 1910s were rarely replete with interesting playing angles as too often, their playing corridors were straight. That changed in the next decade and of course this hole didn’t originate until 1930. The tee ball at eleven is a fine diagonal one and acts as handsome addition to the course’s overall challenge as it bends around the rocky brow of a hill. Always seeking to enhance (or is that enhanse?!) the strategy wherever possible, Hanse and crew pushed out the back right corner of this green pad in 2017 to create one of the course’s most treacherous hole locations.

The attractive tee ball at the 11th, where a power fade serves the golfer well.

Once bland and void of interest, the greenside bunkers at the 11th are among the deepest on the course and make chasing after this newly reclaimed back right hole location particularly problematic.

Twelfth hole, 535 yards, Double Plateau; Over two hundred yards was added to the course as a part of the 2006 work. Amazingly, the overall green to tee walk was reduced. One way Hanse and Bahto accomplished that feat was here, where they created an entirely new green complex, nearly one hundred yards closer to the next tee than Tillinghast’s configuration. In the re-design, the twelfth became a par five sweeping to the left and replacing Tillinghast’s long, straight par four. Presented with the opportunity to build a new green, Hanse and Bahto constructed one of Macdonald’s favorites, a Double Plateau. Another benefit of converting the par four twelfth into a par five which calls for a finesse approach was that it broke up the series of tough two-shotters at holes eight, nine, eleven, and thirteen. Now, the golfer gets to ‘thrust’ versus ‘joust’ with that sense of give and take being a hallmark of Golden Age designs.

A view up the twisting 12th. Tillinghast’s green was high and to the right, out of this photograph.

The tiger who crosses the stream in two is rewarded with a straightforward uphill pitch.

Give Green Keeper Tom Leahy and his crew enormous credit for maintaining the area between holes nine and eleven to showcase the property’s rugged charm. Shunned as claustrophobic in 2005, this section is now prized by many for its composition of rich textures.

Thirteenth hole, 410 yards, Sleepy Hollow; Bahto wrote, ‘When we began there were few or no fairway strategies on the course, so we used our best estimations of how these men would rebuild this course today into a thinking man’s Macdonald style golf course.’ Of the eighteen fairway bunkers added during the 2006 redesign, none were impaled upon the landscape. Rather, Bahto spent days walking the course, getting to know the subtle rolls and ground permutations. A case in point is the thirteenth, where he cut a long cross hazard into the ridge line. Much to the Club’s credit, they allowed Bahto total access to the property throughout the scope of this project, allowing him to capitalize on the site’s natural attributes. Great clubs do great things and they made Bahto an honorary member two years before he passed. He told me it was one of his greatest honors and richly deserved as no one did more to shed light on Macdonald’s contributions to architecture than Bahto.

A strategic gem thanks to Bahto’s bunkering scheme, the 13th is one of the star holes in the mid-section of the property. Pre-2006, fun at Sleepy Hollow was confined to the holes along the ravine and the great views. Now, the best golf is evenly spread throughout the round.

Fourteenth hole, 415 yards, Spines; It’s a sad day when a hole that measures over 400 yards is considered ‘short’ but that’s the mess we find ourselves in with technology. Nonetheless, this clever placement hole is made by its green. At one point, it was the smallest on the course, measuring a scant 17 paces across and was the only putting surface under 6,000 square feet. An aerial photograph captured just how much it had shrunk since Macdonald’s day. Before he passed away on March 18th, 2014, Bahto had secured a black and white photo whereby the fourteenth green’s distinctive contours were clearly visible; it was the only photograph from which they could glean long gone contours. Therefore, during the 2016/2017 work, Hanse was especially keen to install the visible pair of ‘rails’ that protruded in from the rear of the green. A multitude of interesting hole locations now exist thanks to these novel spines and dictate strategy back to the tee.

Note the two spines that pierce the 14th green. As the putting surface is hidden from view on the tee, be mindful to take a quick peek at the fourteenth after holing out at the nearby fourth green to determine where the hole is located … and therefore, where the drive should go.

Fifteenth hole, 500 yards, Punchbowl; Only a handful of modern architects would build this hole today; more is the pity as it is a fantastic Alps/Punchbowl, right up there with the fourth at Fishers Island for exhilaration. Sometime after World War II, it was converted to a par five of 520 yards with a tee well back up the hill from the fourteenth green. The majority of members were left with a pitch into the vast punchbowl green, a terrible waste as such a shot mutes the fun of using the land’s downward slope to trundle one’s approach shot onto the green. By moving the tee closer to the fourteenth green, not only was another long green to tee walk reduced but the fifteenth was returned to the par Macdonald intended. Once again, the golfer must finely gauge how to use the land on his lengthy approach shot. Such a laudable design attribute is lacking on most heavy clay-based courses but not here.

The short right and long left bunkers sit perfectly upon the sloping land. At over fifty yards in width, the fairway is appropriately one of the widest on the course. Though the approach is blindly aimed at the flag pole, the thrill of…

…scampering to the crest of the hill to see where the ball lies within the punchbowl is undeniable. Once again utilizing the ground contours short of the green are crucial to playing the hole well.

The round builds and builds with the unquestioned highlight being the sight of the Punchbowl and Short greens juxtaposed against the Hudson River. Few inland courses can compete with such unabashed glory.

Sixteenth hole, 150 yards, Short; This Short has been returned to its original preeminence. Taking a poor picture from this tee is impossible, which is fortunate as scores of pictures are taken from it on a weekly basis! Just fifteen years ago, the green was hemmed in by trees and suffered from artificial mounds and small bunkers that were incongruous with the grandeur of this magical setting – the hole looked fussy. Mercifully, Hanse and Bahto’s work compliments the natural wonder. Coupled with the wind and some of the best interior green contours on the course, this is far more than a glamour hole and the 10,500 square foot putting surface elicits more three putts than any other, thanks in part to the classic horseshoe imprint that was restored in the back middle of the green in 2017.

No hype required. The tee and green are located along two ridges, separated by a ravine. Not that it matters for all eyes go beyond.

Pre-restoration this was a cluttered hole whose man-made features distracted the eye from what really mattered.

The shadows on the green show its contours and help explain why this hole location is quite difficult.

As seen from behind, the restored ‘thumb print’ to the Short green shows the club’s commitment toward uniting all 18 putting surfaces with Macdonald attributes.

Seventeenth hole, 445 yards, Hudson; Giving a hole that falls this sharply downhill good golfing qualities is difficult. Hanse and Bahto worked well with what the terrain offered, focusing their attention on the green site and building a long serpentine bunker that works in perfect concert with the fairway’s left to right cant.  The penultimate hole at Gullane No. 1 falls similarly and one wonders if Macdonald paid heed to such during one of his visits to nearby North Berwick? This hole was Macdonald’s Home hole.

Staying left off the 17th tee is of paramount importance on this positional hole. The fairway won’t help as it delights in shunting the ball right.

Eighteenth hole, 425 yards, Woodlea; The Home hole plays nearly forty yards longer than its yardage suggests as both the tee ball and approach are played uphill and get little roll. A monstrous amount of time and effort was spent on the greenside bunkers and site drainage to give golfers more fairway for their second shots in 2006. So good is the work that no one would ever guess that nearly one thousand cubic yards of fill was imported. Just as important, Hanse completely recast the green in 2017, making it bigger and creating a wicked false front by raising the putting surface. It isn’t the best hole on the course but it is emphatically the hardest.

Vanderbilt’s former estate house was known as Woodlea and was designed by Stanford White. It has served as the clubhouse for over eight decades and provides a suitable (!) backdrop to events on the Home hole.

Here is what the author wrote in 2007:

‘Though the above course description may sound perfect, work still remains. The tenth is now out-of-place with its all-water carry to a rock-lined green. Perhaps the tenth at Chicago Golf Club, which also plays over a pond, can serve as a model. C.B. Macdonald first built the hole at Chicago in 1892 and it is one of the few holes that his protege Seth Raynor elected to keep when he re-did the course in 1922. Ben Crenshaw calls it ‘one of the most fun to play’ because its imaginative green contours of two shallow bowls divided by a ridge create so many interesting hole locations. Indeed, such a move by the Club would solve the only other remaining weakness of the course, which is that the interior green contours are presently good without being great. Added character to a few greens such as the tenth in keeping with Macdonald’s style would complete the course’s return to the upper echelon of the small, select family of Macdonald courses.’

Such reservations were completely addressed in 2016 and 2017. The course is now homogeneous to the Macdonald school of design, everything from tee presentation to bunkering schemes to putting surfaces and strategy. True, Tillinghast deserves his fair share of credit for providing seven of today’s playing corridors but there is no doubt that his holes are the most engaging that they have ever been thanks to Hanse’s work. Sleepy Hollow has joined forty or so Golden Age courses around the world that are better today that they have ever been. Its path to get here was anything but simple and required great patience. Golfers, now, are free to appreciate a wonderful variety of holes in a setting devoid of outside interference. Its holes along the ridge line are among the most exhilarating in inland golf and the supporting cast is infinitely stronger than it was just a few years ago.

Of course, one thing the reader might well wonder is how did Sleepy Hollow pull off not one but two highly successful rounds of work to their course over the past dozen years? Most clubs can’t get it right once, let alone twice! A few elements came together. First, Hanse is the master of membership meetings and his calm, polite demeanor instilled confidence in the fall 2005 to the membership that this was a man to whom they could trust their course. Second, starting on the third nine was a low risk maneuver to introduce the members to what was being proposed. Like most memberships, if they like what they see, they can quickly become supportive and embrace the undertaking. From there, the architects enjoy more freedom in the field. That pattern is exactly what happened at Sleepy Hollow, which helps to explain why the work on the main course turned out so well. Third, in Michael Hegarty first as Vice President and then President, and George Sanossian who was Green Chairman the majority of the time, there was continuity of club leadership liaising with the architect. Sanossian states, ‘When we started the work in 2006, we all got along great, there was a lot of positive energy but knowing how construction projects usually go, my concern was that we wouldn’t feel this way about each other when the project was completed and what a shame that would be. Happily, my concerns were merely that – and to the contrary, at the end of the project there was more respect and admiration among the team members than there was at the beginning.’ Many American clubs have a term limit for the green chairman yet most clubs are lucky if a ~ dozen members truly study and appreciate golf course architecture. Thus, quickly cycling through those that are knowledgeable seems like lunacy, especially as it goes hand-in-hand with changing directions and overspending. Ultimately at Sleepy Hollow, a small group of dedicated professionals and members came together to work on something they each regarded as very special, becoming friends and partners in an endeavor that in a slow, methodical manner, teased something remarkable from the landscape. It is patently not an oversimplification to state that when people enjoy the company of those with whom they work, joy can be found in the end product.

The top twenty courses from the Macdonald school of design are a special lot and include many of the author’s very favorite courses worldwide. Collectively, they represent the architect’s original design intent as well as any group of courses. Here’s the thing: when the author first saw Sleepy Hollow in 1985, it wouldn’t have even been on that list. Now, it would be in the top five, and that is after all the other courses have also had top flight work done to them. Talk about a transformation! It highlights the importance of exactly what good stewardship can mean to a club. Though Sleepy Hollow will never be the toughest or the most famous course in Westchester County, traditionalists have every reason to consider it now as inspiring as any course in the area for a game and should head straight there whenever possible.

Hard to imagine there are too many spots a golfer would rather find himself.

GolfClubAtlas very much thanks Jon Cavalier for the use of his wonderful aerials in this profile. Please be sure to follow Jon and his work on Instagram @ linksgems for the best photographs in golf. 

The End