When golf course architect Kris Spence met with the long-time players at Rock Hill Country Club late last year he asked them how much the course had changed over time.
Not much, they said.
Spence then showed them black-and-white aerial photographs of a golf course. The long-time players liked what they saw. Could we play this course, they asked.
Spence then pointed to the front nine holes of the country club. The aerial shot was the Rock Hill Country Club circa 1941, seven years after it had opened and before the trees had grown.
The photos convinced the long-time players and other club members that their course was something special, something that needed to be saved. They decided to invest about $1 million to renovate it.
On Saturday, about six months after the work started, Rock Hill Country Club members will assemble at 8:30 a.m. for the first of two shotgun tournaments on the revamped course. Each tournament will have 96 golfers and both sessions are full.
The golfers will find new greens with new grass. Like many clubs in the area, Rock Hill County Club had Bermuda grass. Alternating bouts of hot sun and cloudburst of intense rain had overwhelmed the greens. The Bermuda grass has been replaced with a more heat resistant Mini Verda hybrid.
The golfers will also find better drainage on greens. Before, after intense rains, head golf pro John Hughes didnt even have to leave the pro shop to know whether the course was playable. All he had to do was look out the window to the 17th green. If the water was ponding on the green, the rest of the course was in as bad, if not worse, shape. His only choice was to close the course for the day.
Most of all, the golfers will find a new course.
The greens are at least one-third bigger than they were.
There are more bunkers, from 78 instead of 35. Fifty-one of the bunkers are tucked around the larger greens, up from 33 before renovations.
There are fewer trees, less shade and, in some cases, better sight lines.
Three holes, the sixth, 16th and 17th, have been completely changed. The sixth is shorter and tee boxes for the 16th and 17th have moved.
Golfers skills will be challenged in ways they have never been on the previous course. What was once predictable a long drive that would roll up the fairway, a slight chip to the green and then putt for par is now no longer predictable. It has become a course where thinking starts at the tees, and carries through on every shot.
Club members are anxious for Saturday. The renovations started in February and were delayed by the spring and summer rains. The course stayed open with temporary tees on the fairways, but it was a stop-gap solution.
There is still some work to be done, but the greens are ready and so are the golfers.
I cant wait, said club member Whitey Adams. I suspect with the new greens there are going to be more longer putts, more three putts.
Club member Chris Corn recently took a few practice putts on the new 18th green. Mini Verda can be a fast surface, but so far the green speeds are reasonable, he said. Just hit it to the hole, the ball shouldnt run away, yet.
Most of all the golfers are getting a chance to go back in time. The renovations faithfully recreated what A.W. Tillinghast designed in 1934 a golf course that challenges and teaches at the same time. A course where every golf club can come into play and one where trouble can come easily.
Icon of a golden age
Albert Warren Tillinghast was one of the major icons of the game from from 1900 to the 1930s, what some call of the Golden Age of golf..
He was a good golfer, competing in the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open tournaments. He and his fellow golfers may have been the first to coin the term birdie when shooting a stroke under par.
He was a respected golf writer.
He was a founding member of PGA of America.
He was one of the best, if not the best, golf course designers of his time. He designed more than 250 courses, and several continue to host golfs major tournaments, including Bethpage in Farmingdale, N.Y.; Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaraneck, N.Y.; and Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J.
In 1934 he designed the nine-hole Rock Hill golf course. Crews from the Works Progress Administration, part of President Franklin Roosevelts plan to put people back to during the Depression, built the course. WPA crews usually built roads or public buildings, but they also worked to give communities swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses,
The aerial photos obtained from the National Archives show the trademarks of a Tillinghast course large greens protected by bunkers and economical use of space.
When Spence walked the front nine, he saw hints of what had once been. He did some golf archaeology, probing the fairways and the areas around the greens. The shapes in the pictures started coming out. They found bunker sand, laid in the 1930s, hidden underneath grass. I was excited, Spence said.
We found the cool stuff, said Gordon Bell, past president of the club. We found the original bunker locations, the sand.
On the second hole, four fairway bunkers and one bunker near the green was restored. Four green bunkers were restored on the fourth hole, as well as nine fairway bunkers on the seventh hole. All had been removed over time.
Thirty-three bunkers were restored on the front nine.
On the back nine, Spence tried to create the feel of a Tillinghast course, adding 10 more bunkers. The back nine, designed by Arthur Hamm, was added in 1953.
Effect on golfers
The renovated course puts a premium on players who study each hole, Spence said. You have to understand the best angles to attack, what looks inviting from one side, looks different from another view, he said.
A bunker, Spence said, may show the preferred side of the course. You have to sort out the puzzle. Do you play left to right, right to left, high to low, and how much spin do you put on the ball?
It also helps to remember that Tillinghast designed the course when golf clubs were made with hickory shafts and players walked the course.
Hughes, the course pro, said not all the bunkers are designed to come into play. Some are there just to mess with a golfers mind. Others, such as the one about 100 yards out on the third hole, are to direct play to the left. When the course opened, there were no trees, and Tillinghast used bunkers to protect others golfers on the course, Hughes said.
The bunkers and tree removal have also changed how the fourth hole will be played, said Kevin Hart, the clubs general manager. Over time, trees had made the hole a dogleg to the left. Now its back to a straighter hole, he said.
The larger greens will also make the course tougher. Before renovations on some holes, Hughes had three or four locations to place the pin. Now he has up to 20 possible pin placements.
The pin locations will allow Hughes to vary the difficulty from hole to hole.
This is a totally different course from the one in February when we started the work, he said. There is definitely the wow factor now. Its gone from the Rock Hill County Club to THE Rock Hill Country Club.
The change, he said, should play out off the course as well. Thinking will start at the tees and end at the 19th hole, where players gather afterwards to discuss what went right or wrong.
Most of all, they will play golf as Tillinghast envisioned it.
As he once wrote, I think that I will adhere to my old theory that a controlled shot to a closely-guarded green is the surest test of any mans golf.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066