An in-depth look at the evolution of the C.B. Macdonald-designed and Gil Hanse retrovated Sleepy Hollow Country Club
“From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow…A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Perhaps there was a time when the public’s consciousness of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor’s work at Sleepy Hollow Country Club fit this description from Irving’s classic tale. With a retrovation of the course led by Gil Hanse now largely complete, players and architecture enthusiasts are fully awake to its greatness. In The Legend, suitors Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones vie for the heart and soul of Katrina Van Tassel, climaxing in a ghostly confrontation at a crossroads in the woods. That story foreshadows the challenge Hanse, consultant George Bahto and the club’s leadership would ultimately have to face. Standing at a crossroads, haunted by ghosts of architects past, which path would they take? By committing to recapturing the heart and soul of Macdonald’s Sleepy Hollow, they laid those ghosts to rest in a fashion that can best be described as legendary.
The Evolution of a Design Philosophy
By all accounts, Charles Blair Macdonald was a man of both feisty temperament and erudition. He was worldly and his wide-ranging interests included commerce, art, sport and architecture. Through his studies, he became aware of the work and writings of Humphry Repton, who was influential in Britain around the turn of the 19th century, coining the term “landscape gardener”. As Macdonald would later be considered the father of American golf course architecture, Repton’s publishing of The Art of Landscape Gardening in 1797 conferred upon him similar patriarchal status in his field. A passage in the book was particularly resonant with Macdonald and would send him down a path of evolution toward his distinct brand of design: “I can only plead that true taste in every art consists more of adapting tried expedients to peculiar circumstances than in the inordinate thirst after novelty, the characteristic of uncultivated minds, which from facility of inventing wild theories, without experience, are apt to suppose that taste is displayed by novelty, genius by innovation, and that every change must necessarily tend to improvements.”
Perhaps a respect for the traditions of the game and its playing fields came from time spent with Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews, but even while pushing the craft forward, Macdonald retained a connection to the unequivocal greatness of the old links. He did not believe that new and different necessarily equated to better in creative pursuits.
George Bahto, wrote the book on C.B. Macdonald, literally. In assembling his compendium of Macdonald’s life and work, The Evangelist of Golf, Bahto and his collaborator Gib Papazian illuminated the progression from a restless dissatisfaction with the quality of America’s courses to the creation of the ideal golf course at National Golf Links of America.
Another writer, Horace Hutchinson, built on the intellectual momentum of Repton when he published articles in Golf Illustrated in 1901 exploring the best and hardest holes of that time. Macdonald was affected by the articles’ premise. “These discussions certainly caught the attention of Charlie Macdonald,” wrote Bahto. “Why shouldn’t America have golf equal to that in the British Isles? In his mind, the content of the article was the definitive listing of those holes reverenced by the world’s greatest players. If America was to have golf that compared to that in Britain, its courses must be based on the same timeless genius as those across the Atlantic.”
From 1902-1906, a series of voyages back across the Atlantic ensued. With an assist from Devereux Emmet, a study was made of the greatest holes of the British Isles with the original intention of replicating them on American soil. “Now why should not one try to absorb that sanctified tradition of each hole by copying its features in another climate where in time tradition might sanctify its existence,” wrote Macdonald “The flowers of transplanted plants in time shed a perfume comparable to that of their indigenous home.” The plan to transplant holes morphed into a distillation of the strategy and features that could be drawn upon to create new courses. Bahto described that shift of focus, “It became clear to Macdonald that his original concept of topographic duplication was not as relevant to the quality of the course as the individual strategic elements.”
The land on which The National was built was optimal for Macdonald’s first experiment with his ideal concepts approach to design. It shared characteristics with traditional linksland—unforested, with topographical movement that was interesting, rather than severe. The project also fortuitously connected Macdonald with Seth Raynor. The combination of the former’s ideas with the latter’s surveying and engineering brilliance, applied to that land, resulted in a masterpiece. But what about more “peculiar circumstances”, as Repton put it? Would the approach hold up on wilder terrain? The duo’s next three projects at Piping Rock, St. Louis Country Club and Sleepy Hollow, which opened for play in 1914, proved that the ideal concepts could be applied to great effect on any site.
The original course explored the slope, the ridge and the valley, with the greater portion on the clubhouse side. Although the routing stayed mostly close to home, there was an adventurous spirit to the manner in which Macdonald and Raynor laid their ideal holes out on the dramatic landforms. Their creation was well received, but it would not take long for the course at Sleepy Hollow to begin evolving away from this starting point.
Calling in the Cleaner
How did a man who was a dry cleaner by trade become the foremost authority on the work of one of the Golden Age masters? Serendipity, or rub-of-the-green, had a strong hand in George Bahto’s story. He took up golf as an adult in New Jersey and found himself drawn to courses with bold features. Curiosity about the who, how and why behind his favorite holes and courses led him to the discovery of Charles Banks. Research on the protege Banks uncovered the mentor Seth Raynor, which subsequently brought him to Charles Blair Macdonald. The men’s creative approach fascinated Bahto, and down the rabbit hole he went, resulting in an avocation as a golf architecture historian.
Bahto connected with Gil Hanse, who got him involved in his first construction project at Stonebridge Golf Links, a course that drew some design inspiration from the philosophy of Raynor. It would not be his last. In writing The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto enlightened the world on the value of C.B. Macdonald’s approach to design. He cleaned up Macdonald’s image, and the thinking of many club Green Committees who had been directly or indirectly degrading his courses for decades. It should therefore come as no surprise that some of those clubs would turn to Bahto for counsel, including Sleepy Hollow, which brought him on as a consultant.
It is worth noting that in all of Bahto’s writing about Charles Blair Macdonald, one word is conspicuously absent. That word is “template”, which has become shorthand when referring to the holes Macdonald, Raynor, Banks and others created using the ideal concepts. Unfortunately, the term carries with it the potential for an intellectually lazy inference that Macdonald and Raynor’s design process was somehow akin to dumping out a bag of cookie cutters and arranging them willy nilly across the landscape. The strength of each of the holes at Sleepy Hollow, with their strategically placed hazards and wondrously varied greens, is evidence that any downgrade to the ideal concepts approach as involving shortcuts is entirely off-base. The application of timeless and proven design elements to a unique landscape is more demanding because the architect is choosing to adhere to a constraint. There is no bailout, and no acceptance of inclusion of weak holes on a course. Bringing the course back up to Macdonald’s higher standard, and his constraints, was the challenge that would occupy Gil Hanse and his team for more than a decade.
By the time that Gil Hanse found himself standing at a design crossroads with George Bahto at Sleepy Hollow, he had already traveled a long road to gain an understanding and appreciation for the architectural roots that gave rise to America’s Golden Age. He followed in Macdonald’s footsteps by taking an extended study trip to the British Isles, returning to initially work for Tom Doak before venturing out on his own. In 2003, as Hanse Golf Design was beginning to gain momentum, Hanse contributed an essay entitled “Stop Making Sense!” to Paul Daley’s Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective in which he shared a point of view that at first glance seems discordant with respect for Macdonald’s philosophy.
“The use of natural landforms to create interesting and creative golf holes should not be held to any formulas,” wrote Hanse. “If a rule must be stated, it should be that no rules apply to the use of a landscape to create playing grounds for golf. The golf course architect should be creative in utilizing natural features to dictate the strategy of the course. Inherent in the unique character of every site are unique golf holes just waiting to be discovered. Is this not the true challenge of golf course architecture, to build fresh and innovative holes that derive their beauty, playability, and interest from their natural surrounds?”
Repton might have raised an eyebrow reading those words. There are certainly times when exercising one’s creative license courageously involves blazing a new trail. Making the choice to honor tradition is not mutually exclusive with creative freedom by default though. As it turned out, Hanse’s focus on working from the ground up, coupled with his reverence for the Golden Age, was exactly the remedy needed to cure Sleepy Hollow’s ills. Over the years since Raynor completed the original eighteen, the course had changed considerably. New holes were created by Tillinghast and others when land was sold and the club expanded to 27 holes.
The expanded 27-hole routing after Tillinghast’s addition
More recently, other architects and green committees without the benefit of Bahto’s knowledge of Macdonald made further modifications that altered hole strategies and aesthetics for the worse. The initial wave of retrovation focused on consistency of style, primarily of the bunkering, prioritizing the Tillinghast holes. Those phase one changes having been well received, Hanse and the club’s leadership decided to fully embrace Macdonald’s ideal concepts. This decision was momentous at two levels. First, they were removing the work of A.W. Tillinghast in the Westchester neighborhood where he reigns supreme. Second, they were choosing to accept Macdonald’s standard for greatness. They were all in.
“Deciding to remove the work of Golden Age architects, especially one as prolific as Tillinghast, is always a difficult choice,” explained Hanse’s associate Ben Hillard, who worked extensively on the Sleepy Hollow retrovation. “If you consider golf architecture in Westchester County, Macdonald & Raynor have one course and Tillinghast has a handful, including a couple of masterpieces. With the bulk of the holes to be restored/renovated being Macdonald & Raynor, a more cohesive course could be made by taking the Tillinghast holes and replacing them with holes like ‘Road’, ‘Knoll’ and ‘Double Plateau’, some of which had been lost when the club sold land to the North side of the property in the late 1920s.”
It would not be enough to simply add those features and holes back into the mix, however. They had to do so in a manner that would fit the land as well as if the Macdonald and Raynor had done it themselves. In being attuned to the landscape at such a high level, Hanse was able to channel the true genius of Macdonald’s ideal concepts. The Leven 1st, Road 8th and others are new, but could easily be mistaken for originals. The remaining holes were brought even further into line with the ideals. The following montage of the Short 16th illustrates the extent of the transformation over time.
The original short – Credit: Simon Haines
Before the retrovation began, with misfit bunkering – Credit: GolfClubAtlas
After phase one of the retrovation with trees removed, bunkering and green partially restored
Excavation of the tee and green surface begins – Credit: Ben Hillard
Restoring the thumbprint – Credit: Ben Hillard
Grassing the newly shaped putting surface – Credit: Ben Hillard
Gil taking in the finished product – Credit: Ben Hillard
Bunker and thumbprint fully retrovated
A place where magical moments happen at Sleepy Hollow
Like Macdonald and Raynor, George Bahto would sadly not be alive to see this current, magnificent iteration of the course that began a century ago. The spirit of all three men and their ideals can be found in the completed work of Hanse and Hillard, and one can safely surmise that generous praise and approval would be forthcoming.
“…there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.”
― Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
The club takes its name from the Pocantico River valley in which it sits. The Dutch name for that river was Slapershaven, or “sleepy harbor”. Although it might have accurately described their maritime activities, “sleepy” is not an adjective that applies to the land the course traverses.
Arriving at the grand front gate, visitors are immediately aware that an awe-inspiring experience awaits. The drive up to the mansion that now serves as the clubhouse provides tantalizing glimpses of golf holes arrayed across the hillside. After a warm welcome from staff and members alike, players walk onto a porch with stunning views of the Hudson River and Palisades of New Jersey beyond. Before striking the first shot of the day, the spirit is already soaring.
The first two holes bring players up the western side of the ridge that serves as the anchor feature in the routing. The 3rd through 15th explore the terrain high and low on the eastern side. The iconic 16th returns players to the top of the ridge, from which the final two holes return home. A loop around Sleepy Hollow has a literary quality that would make Irving proud. The story builds in a broad arc toward climax, interspersed with moments both dramatic and quietly sublime.
The Hanse retrovation unified Sleepy Hollow, and Superintendent Tom Leahy and his team continue to refine and present it beautifully. It is a highly cohesive golf course comprised of eighteen holes, each worthy of study and appreciation. To allow for an examination at depth, the tour that follows includes original sketches by Gil Hanse (@Gil_Hanse), the artwork of Tom Young (@BallparkBlueprints), the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and commentary from Ben Hillard (@Ben.Hillard). Playing the course has a wonderfully transportative effect—we invite you to get similarly carried away as you read on.
HOLE #1 “Leven” – 418 yards – par 4
The 1st is finally a worthy start to this golf course. Gil Hanse knocked down trees and opened better views, and turned a flat, boring green into a wild one. Though it doesn’t get the publicity that some of the other holes do, this is low-key one of the most improved holes on the course. “This hole was not in either of the first two renditions of the golf course and was built at some point in the 1930s,” explained Hillard. “We transformed it into a Leven by introducing a whole new strategy to the hole. Golfers are encouraged to play towards or past a big bunker on the left edge of the fairway to provide the best angle into the green which is protected by a mound short right.”
HOLE #2 “Climbing” – 372 yards – par 4
The short par-4 second is a transition hole—it’s main purpose is simply to take a player from the bottom part of the course to the upper shelf. These kinds of uphill transition holes are usually rather boring, but this is one of the better versions of its kind, thanks to an exciting green sloping hard back-to-front and a deep bunker front right. This is a birdie opportunity, but it’s also a hole that can bite the careless player. We speak from experience when we say that you can be on this green in two, in the front bunker in three and walking off with a triple before you know what happened.
HOLE #3 “Eden” – 172 yards – par 3
The 3rd is the first of Sleepy’s brilliant foursome of par-3s, and maybe the best of the bunch. With a panoramic view of the Hudson at your back, you play over the ravine to a huge, sloping green protected in front by a deep Strath bunker. Hanse’s restoration of this green opened up an infinite number of outstanding hole locations, and it’s not uncommon to have a putt that breaks more than 10 feet.“The green for the third hole originally played as a blind ‘Alps’ from somewhere near the current 5th tee area,” recounted Hillard. “This can be seen in the earliest plans of the course. At some point the hole changed to being the mid-length par-3. Although called an Eden it lacked the proper characteristics. The decision was made to build an entirely new green and bunkers for the hole—only the very deep bunker on the right hand side of the green was original.”
HOLE #4 “Headless Horseman” – 415 yards – par 4
Be sure to take in the view of the famous 16th and the river behind and check the pin location on the blind Punchbowl 15th, then try to avoid the fairway bunker up the right. Long tee shots will clear the ridge and offer a view of the skinny, deep green, which was expanded by Hanse’s crew. The connected complexes and shared bunkers of the 4th and 14th are a personal favorite.
HOLE #5 “Panorama” – 435 yards – par 4
Another strong par-4 on the front side, and a LinksGems favorite. The tee shot over the hill is completely blind, and players need to stay to the right to avoid rolling out into the rough on the left. Cresting the hill in the rolling fairway is one of the great visual reveals in all of golf, and the uphill approach to this infinity green is among the most exciting shots on the course. The putting surface has been significantly expanded to the right and the views from this spot are some of the best on the property.
HOLE #6 “Lookout” – 475 yards – par 5
The first of only two par-5s at Sleepy, the 6th is an eagle opportunity if you can manage to put your drive in the upper fairway—easier said than done. A Principal’s Nose bunker guards the layup zone, and the green itself is canted sharply front to back. If you’re trying to hang a number, you need to make no worse than five here. “One of the coolest Macdonald/Raynor green complexes we’ve ever seen,” gushed Hillard. “George Bahto said that he’d never seen a Macdonald green like it.”
HOLE #7 “Redan” – 221 yards – par 3
The 7th holds the place of LinksGems all-time greatest reverse Redan. It plays steeply downhill to a green sloping HARD away toward the back right. Right-to-left shot shapes can attack the green directly, but a straight or left-to-right tee shots must use the slope. Shots played to the fairway left of the green will tumble all the way down to the right side of the green. Recent tree removal has brought the wind back as one of this hole’s many defenses and the green has been expanded to allow for additional hole locations.
HOLE #8 “Road” – 488 yards – par 4
This monster par-4 is the toughest on the course. Hitting the hog’s back fairway is a must, as players will then need to contend with the treacherous Road Hole bunker guarding this green front left. It looks big and plays bigger than that. Par here is a great score. “We converted this Tillinghast hole to a Macdonald ‘Road’, repurposing the existing hog’s back in the fairway, which adds a layer to the strategy of the hole,” said Hillard.
HOLE #9 “Knoll” – 424 yards – par 4
“The fairway bunkers on the 9th are truly penal, and any shot that misses the green left is in major trouble. The green itself—one of the few cut off from the fairway by a section of rough—can play relatively easy when the pin is up front, but is much tougher when the hole is cut on either of the back tiers. This is one of the most improved holes on the course. “We converted this one to a ‘Knoll’ with rough across the approach, which was a bit of a bold choice but it separates the playing and visual characteristics of the 9th and 11th holes,” Hillard elaborated. “We were particularly excited about how the 8th and 9th turned out, especially when looking down the two holes from the halfway house.”
HOLE #10 “Lake” – 168 yards – par 3
The 10th is a picturesque par-3, and the only hole at Sleepy Hollow with water near a green. “This is an all new green expanded out to the lake edge,” detailed Hillard. “We lowered it to make the green expansion work.” The two sets of tee boxes—one attached to the back side of the 9th green and the other short and left of it—combined with the huge spine installed in this green by Gil Hanse allows the 10th to play like four different holes in 1, depending on the day’s hole location. Putting across the spine is a lot of fun but not very healthy for your score.
HOLE #11 “Ichabod’s Elbow” – 433 yards – par 4
This par-4 favors a left-to-right tee shot, as it’s no fun trying to hit a long iron into this volcano green if the drive doesn’t get far enough up the fairway. It’s really a ‘hit it or else’ proposition—anything short will roll all the way back to the fairway, a miss left or right catches the deep bunkers (if you’re lucky), and if you go long, you might just want to keep walking into the clubhouse.
HOLE #12 “Double Plateau” – 536 yards – par 5
The second of the two par-5s and the first hole substantially changed by Gil Hanse, the 12th used to play as a hard dogleg par-4 to a green along the woods line. Hanse turned the hole into a beautiful par-5 playing through a rocky valley and over a winding creek to a beautifully designed Double Plateau green. “The Tillinghast green is still visible short and 100 yards right up on the hill,” Hillard said. “We also formalized the meandering brook to help with drainage and add strategy to the hole.”
HOLE #13 “Sleepy Hollow” – 408 yards – par 4
The 13th is the LinksGems selection for most underrated hole on the golf course. The ridge in the fairway hides some terrific squared off bunkering up the left side, while the green is guarded by one of the deepest bunkers on the course. As on the 11th, there are few good misses here—the little bunker in the face of the rise helps players more than it hurts them. “Very soft alterations were made to the front of the green to expand the pinnable area closer to the false front,” added Hillard.
HOLE #14 “Spines” – 414 yards – par 4
The par-4 14th marks the beginning of a four hole run from the highest point on the property to the lowest. Staggered cross bunkers make this an exciting tee shot, but the green is where the fun really begins. Formerly an unremarkable complex, Hanse restored two spines running from the back of this green toward the front, effectively chopping the huge putting surface into three smaller ones. “The original Macdonald green was manipulated at some point and significantly reduced in size,” Hillard explained “In looking at some aerials of the golf course from the 1924 aerial, we found a larger squared green with two spines running from the back well beyond the center that were begging to be recreated.” It is now in the realm of possibility to be on this green in regulation and make double.
HOLE #15 “Punchbowl” – 502 yards – par 4
With the exception of the 4th at Fishers Island, this is the LinksGems favorite Punchbowl. Blind from everywhere, the green can be hit directly, but players who aren’t long enough to make the full carry can land approaches 50 yards short up the left side and use the chute to bounce a shot into the bowl. When the hole is cut on the little shelf on the left edge of the bowl it plays a full shot harder. “We made minor edits to the green to introduce more pinnable space,” detailed Hillard, “and completed the punchbowl to ensure all balls that make it over the hill find their way onto the putting surface.”
HOLE #16 “Short” – 149 yards – par 3
One of the most photographed holes in the world (due in no small measure to LinksGems), this par-3 is as memorable as they come. From an elevated tee over a ravine to a square green ringed with sand and featuring a deep thumbprint, with the Hudson River and the Palisades below and beyond, this is like playing golf in a postcard. “Working off of an old photo from the club’s archives as well as what we saw in the ground, we figured that the original green had been manipulated at some point but not completely rebuilt,” said Hillard. “The horseshoe was still there, but the surface either side of it had been filled in. The high point of the horseshoe was identified and then we delicately removed that extra material to expose the original contours—an incredible moment for a shaper.” When the pin is in the middle, you’re thinking of making an Ace, but the real fun is playing to a pin on one of the edges—the green is pinnable to all eight sections outside the thumbprint.
HOLE #17 “Hudson” – 446 yards – par 4
On most courses, this hole would be the signature, but even after the 15th and 16th, the par-4 17th with a bridge and harbor view still impresses. The sharply canted fairway plays games with your head—the line is farther left than you think, and the bunkers down the right catch everything. The large green, which was expanded by Hanse’s team, makes the distance of the approach hard to judge. Trust your caddy, it’s farther than it looks.
HOLE #18 “Woodlea” – 426 yards – par 4
“This hole was built at the same time as the 1st hole in the ‘30s. A new, larger green was built inspired by Macdonald and Raynor, featuring a large false front and much flatter rear tying into the clubhouse steps,” concluded Hillard. “It sits much better on the landscape.” Playing back up to the mansion, this is your classic gut punch par-4 finisher—it will make your earn your match. The large tree on the right is murder on leaking tee shots, and the false front rejects indifferent approaches. The new back right section of this putting surface makes for some tough but fun recoveries, especially when the patio is crowded. A fitting finish for one of the greatest courses in the world.
Stories are often told of the great artists reaching inflection points in their work. Those moments when they can stay in their comfort zones or push forward into new territory. To leave a legacy requires the courage to take the latter path. In embracing the philosophy of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor at Sleepy Hollow, not only did Gil Hanse evolve as an artist, he left a legacy for the membership and the game at Sleepy Hollow. The Legend’s author sums up best the impression left on the fortunate by a visit to this special place.
“If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.”
— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf