Geeked on Golf

A WALK IN A PARK AT MAIDSTONE

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A in-depth look at the Coore & Crenshaw retrovation of the Willie Park Jr designed Maidstone Club

Hindsight in the retrovation era is making clear how delicate a proposition it is for an architect to attempt to blend a course restoration with the appropriate updates to ensure a high level of quality and sustainability by modern standards. Thankfully, the modernization trend, in which a “name” designer would swoop in with their plans for improvements that were likely at odds with the original intent, seems to have died out. Today’s retrovation practitioners bring a combination of respect for the Golden Age greats, and the talent to realize their vision for changes in the dirt. 

In a very few instances, a course can and should be truly restored. If the work of the original architect was unequivocally great, and all of the features are still intact, then it makes sense to simply turn back the clock. But what about courses that don’t meet that high standard for greatness? The masters themselves were often dissatisfied with their work. Macdonald sent Raynor back to Chicago Golf Club to blow up his own course. Ross incessantly tinkered with Pinehurst #2. Those architects who practiced for long periods evolved in their craft, often improving with practice. Would they want a substandard design element reintroduced merely for the sake of historical accuracy? Of course not.

This was the core of the question faced by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw as they walked through the retrovation of the Willie Park Jr. designed course at Maidstone Club. In terms of heritage, a beautiful site and a devoted membership, Maidstone possessed strong fundamentals, but its course was not in the same league as some of its neighbors on Eastern Long Island, in spite of being created by a man who is considered to be among the greatest architects of his era.

 

 

The Other First Family of Golf

The Morrises may have been golf royalty in St. Andrews, but they were not the only noteworthy family in the game during its formative years in Scotland. The Parks of Musselburgh would play an equally impactful role, contesting the high-profile challenge matches of the day, and also in the export of golf architecture as a profession to America.

Willie Park Jr., whose father Willie Sr. and Uncle Mungo were champion golfers, wore almost every hat imaginable in the game at the turn of the century. He was a professional, claiming the Open Championship in 1887 and 1889, as well as a clubmaker, greenkeeper, and author of two books on golf, The Game of Golf and The Art of Putting. He made exploratory trips to The States in the mid-1890s, but golf had not quite taken hold to the point that warranted a relocation yet. 

In 1901, with the opening of Sunningdale Old and Huntercombe in the London heathlands, he firmly planted his flag among the early practitioners of golf course design, and is considered by some to be the first true genius of the craft. Given his expertise in the use of the flatstick, which was a more varied game within the game at the time, it is no surprise that big, bold greens were the hallmarks of Park’s courses. Park would ultimately be credited with more than 70 courses throughout the U.S., Canada and the U.K., including gems like Olympia Fields and Maidstone.

The Retrovation

Although Maidstone has always been a darling among Long Islanders and the well-travelled golf cognoscenti, its standings in the national rankings had begun to slip by the time that Bill Coore arrived in 2012. The choice to push the course forward by looking back was an obvious one, but it was not without its challenges. It was originally laid out by William Tucker, then redesigned by club member C. Wheaton Vaugh, and redone again by Willie Park Jr. It continued to evolve over the decades that followed at the hands of tinkering members, as well as Mother Nature. Coore & Crenshaw associate Jeff Bradley shared his first impression before the work began: “We had a feeling that there were a lot of people who had dabbled with the course. It did not have a cohesive feel.” 

 

The course in 1939 – Photo Credit: Simon Haines (@Hainesy76)

 

Further complicating the issue were the clubhouse fires that had burned up a fair bit of the historical materials that could have guided the retrovation. Adopting a collaborative approach that took input from General Manager Ken Koch, Superintendent John Genovesi, Head Pro Eden Foster, Green Chair Robert Macdonald, and shapers Jeff Bradley and Quinn Thompson, the team settled on a two-phase strategy. First, trees and vegetation would be removed to give the course a more expansive feel and open it to the wind that should naturally whip across the seaside site. Next, the grass lines and bunkers would be addressed. There was no need to make material changes to Park’s brilliant greens, but they were in need of expansion. Fairways and long rough were also pushed outward allowing more room for the ball to bounce and run. Coore laid out a new bunker scheme that included a mix of rehab, relocation and a few key additions. He then turned his shapers loose to unify the look of the course across its various zones of play. 

Bradley and Thompson were chomping at the bit. They knew just how big an impact their facelift could make. “It was clear that you could make the coursemore vivid by getting the bunker faces up and marrying it to the coastal landscape,” recalled Bradley. The old, established turf allowed Genovesi to make quick progress by simply mowing. Dave Zinkand, who continues to make tweaks at the club on behalf of Coore & Crenshaw, described the effect: “The new mow lines make the greens pop and allow the ball to do things that it couldn’t do before.”

 

Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

 

There is a special magic about Maidstone that captures the hearts of players fortunate enough to experience it. That feeling is shared by those who worked on its retrovation. “Maidstone was laying there. All we had to do was uncover it,” Bradley mused, with a clear tone of affection for the place and the people. “It is one of the projects I’m most proud of. I remember driving by the 18th after the work was done and seeing the course disappear into the ocean beyond. I thought to myself, ‘this is it’.” Prior to the team’s outstanding work, anyone who dubbed Maidstone their favorite on Long Island might be met with a raised eyebrow. Now, with the changes matured and Genovesi’s terrific firm and natural presentation, devotees who place the course on par with higher ranked neighbors like National Golf Links and Shinnecock are no longer unabashed homers, but rather quite reasonable connoisseurs.

The Course

Some courses, like Sand Hills and Prairie Dunes, are built on land that possesses a consistent feel. Others, such as Essex County Club, work their way through different zones of play, delivering an extra dimension of adventurous interest. Maidstone fits into the latter category as it moves from the clubhouse lawn, to the neighborhood, around the shores of Hook Pond, out to the Atlantic linksland, and then back again.

 

Map by Kevin Jackson (@outandingolf)

 

Beyond the diversity of its topography, Maidstone changes with the weather and the seasons. In the tour that follows, Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) shows us the wide array of beautiful looks shown by the course throughout the years since the retrovation. Enjoy!

Click on any gallery image to enlarge

A round at Maidstone begins by stepping off the putting green directly on to the 1st tee. This par-4 plays down the front lawn of the clubhouse to a wide fairway connected to the opener on the East Course. The first of Park’s bold, pushed up greens is flanked by expanded bunkers.

 

 

If the drive into the club did not alert players to just how embedded in its neighborhood Maidstone is, the walk across the road to the 2nd tee is certainly a wake-up call. This straightaway par-5 has been made more interesting and strategic by the repositioning of bunkers such that they cut into the fairway. Precision is required on the drive, lay-up and approach into the green, which is set at an angle and flanked by more large bunkers.

 

 

The par-4 3rd connects the neighborhood to the shores of Hook Pond. A large, restored bunker on the right can be challenged for a better angle on the second. The green’s false front grabs attention and rejects weak approaches, and internal ripples on the putting surface await to challenge the flatstick.

 

 

The first of Maidstone’s one-shotters takes players, via a heroic carry over water, into a new zone. Any shelter from the coastal wind is gone on the 4th, where an elevated green surrounded by bunkers and short grass run-offs signals more of what’s to come across the pond.

 

 

Expanded sandy wastes and more prominent bunkering delivers a hearty taste of Maidstone’s duneland setting to this hole that runs along the shore of Hook Pond. The horizon look of the 5th’s low-profile green makes judging approach distance difficult, even with a short club in hand.

 

 

Clearing of vegetation left of the 6th created a dramatic vista across the course. A centerline bunker now demands confident decision-making and execution. The green, with its pronounced shoulders and huge bunker left makes an impression on approach that is only outdone by the severity of the cant and contours of the putting surface. An all-world flat ground four par.

 

 

The third straight two-shotter is one of the better known on the course. The 7th is Maidstone’s Cape concept, swinging left to right around the pond with the restored dune left. Depending on the wind, every option from a safe mid-iron to having a go at the green with the driver is available. The putting surface, which is narrow and deep, is packed with interest.

 

 

The par-3 8th is the first of the outstanding stretch of holes in the Atlantic linksland zone, and what an introduction it is. In a nod to modern expectations, the dune fronting the green was shifted slightly to give a hint of visibility. The hole still plays as intended though—with only a partial look, players must muster a solid tee ball to find the safety of the green, which floats above a sea of sand and scrub.

 

 

The 9th is considered by many to be among the greatest holes in America. No arguments to the contrary here. Players ascend to the elevated tee and after taking in the view and a deep breath of the ocean air, turn to face a shot to a fairway that looks impossibly narrow as it snakes through the dunes. There is no let up on the second either as the green has a wicked false front, a deep bunker left, and a newly created steep runoff right. No praise is too high for this golf hole.

 

 

The par-4 10th turns back and runs alongside the same dune that is left of 9. Although the yardage is shorter on the card, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a lesser challenge. Park pushed up a green so high that a butterfly with sore feet would have a tough time making a safe landing. Each duneland hole has its own unique character.

 

 

The course next turns to head inland at the 11th. Bunkers are positioned at the inside and outside corners of this dogleg left, placing a premium on driving accuracy. More sand flanks the expanded green, which sits at a much lower profile than its two predecessors.

 

 

In modern architecture, forebunkers fell out of favor for a time. The team’s rework of this Park rendition at the one-shot 12th illustrates well their purpose when properly utilized. It provides an intimidating look while concurrently confounding the players’ depth perception. A classic, natural par-3.

 

 

Players are next treated to a final trip out to the ocean via the par-5 13th. Tree clearing and fairway expansion on this soft dogleg left have given the hole a much more expansive feel. Bunkers left guard the short route to the elevated, angled green which is beautifully nestled in the dunes.

 

 

The final of Maidstone’s outstanding and varied one-shotters is as naturally sited a hole as can be found anywhere in America. The green at the 14th sits among dunes that were restored to their native state, with bunkers and runoffs that melt seamlessly into their surrounds. Depending on the wind, the same distance can play multiple clubs differently.

 

 

The arrow straight 15th travels from the linksland zone back to Hook Pond. The tee shot plays through a sand shoot to a fairway that is wider than it appears. The crafty player tacks like a sailor, first left off the tee and then back right flirting with the long bunker, to get the ideal approach angle.

 

 

Back-to-back par-5s were not a routing quirk that concerned Willie Park Jr. He was after the best sequence of strong holes, and the 16th provides a terrific contrast to the hole before. The tee shot plays back over the pond, where a bunker complex dividing the fairway from the adjacent 3rd lurks to catch balls on an overly conservative line. The at-grade green features some of the most subtly brilliant contours on the course.

 

 

The course says farewell to the shores of the pond with the tee ball on the 17th. A fairway expansion short left now allows the bombers to have a go at the well-defended green, set snugly in the neighborhood at the corner of Dunemere Lane and Highway Behind the Pond. The false front on the putting surface gets plenty of work as the miniscule target works on players’ hearts and minds as they approach.

 

 

It’s tough to imagine a classier closer than Maidstone’s. The par-4 18th plays up over a rise to a horizon green in a gorgeous setting with the clubhouse left and a small hillside right. Good shots and solid putting strokes are required to finish the round on a note high enough to match the view.

 

 

When pressed to explain in more detail how Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and their associates make decisions in their retrovations, Jeff Bradley said simply, “We tried to make it look like it should.” And therein lies the brilliance of their team. Like the Golden Age masters whose work they are revitalizing, the superstar designers of today blend talent and experience with a reverence for the past. This mixture gives them an intuitive sense of how to proceed. They just know. At a magnificently retrovated course like Maidstone, the results speak for themselves.

 

 

 

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

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