Restoring the Mink

 

Author Jaeger Kovich is a Golf Architect and Shaper for Proper Golf and a Shaper for Hanse Golf Design. Follow Jaeger on Instagram @propergolf or his website

The third leg of the 2018 FedExCup brings the PGA Tour’s best to architecturally-rich Philadelphia. The BMW Championship has moved from its normal home in Chicago to show off one of Donald Ross’ finest Golden Age designs. The Aronimink Golf Club and its brutish championship layout will look drastically different than in years past. After a dramatic restoration, Hanse Golf Design has the course playing back like opening day in 1928. Over the years, the club started the process of getting back to its Ross roots, but with only 74 bunkers the last time the Tour stopped on the Main Line, there was more of Ross’ work to recapture. Hanse Golf Design’s master plan centered on Ross’ original clustered bunker scheme and has brought the total number of bunkers on property to an astounding 174! (The course actually opened with over 190, but in what has been referred to as a ‘sympathetic restoration’, a few of the clusters that only punished the weakest of golfers were left out to keep the course more playable.)

Aronimink's 9th before and after a Gil Hanse Restoration

Ross and his associate, J.B. McGovern, an architect and founding ASGCA member in his own right, both spent considerable time on site sculpting the Pennsylvania farm into one of his very best. Amazingly, there is video footage of Ross on site during construction available on YouTube… you can see an early steam shovel working on the course in the construction video from 1925! 

Thanks to discoveries of footage like this, along with a treasure trove of incredible aerial and ground level photographs from the late 20’s and 30’s, Ross and McGovern’s clustered bunker style has been restored. Aronimink’s restoration is a great example of why photographs of the original course are so important, even more so than plans. Ross’ pre-construction plan and field notes varied greatly from what was actually built and since restored by Hanse and partner Jim Wagner. 

The 6th at Aronimink before and after a Gil Hanse restoration

With so much of the course still intact, the project felt like an archeological dig at times uncovering the lost Golden Age features hidden for decades beneath hundreds of trees. The bulk of the project took place between the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017. Superintendent John Gosselin, who managed the project for the club, will tell you that the bunkers were only part of the process. John oversaw huge green expansions, some ranging up to 30 ft (like the punchbowl 15th hole), and insisted on the restoration of Ross’ freeform tees that sit right at grade. All of these features are clear as day in historic photos from the Dallin Aerial Survey Collection at Wilmington's Hagley Museum in Delaware.

More historic photos from the Dallin Aerial Survey Collection

Ross’ wide fairways and open approaches have also been restored, presenting all sorts of strategic options for golfers to find their way around the heavily bunkered course. 

While the spotlight will shine on the clustered bunkering throughout the property because of its aesthetic and strategic impact, the 11th hole is certain to get a ton of attention. Boasting 20 bunkers and the steepest green on the property, this shortish par-4 playing dramatically uphill on the approach will no doubt be highlighted for its stand-out qualities.

There are a number of exceptional holes, quirky features, and a set of severely contoured greens that are among Ross’ best. The Pringles chip-like shape of the 5th green is something to behold. This shortish par-3 was actually shortened during the restoration to add variety to the one-shot holes. The three intertwining domes reminiscent of a Venn diagram on the 13th green will also cause fits for the game’s best, even if they lay back of the fairway bunkers on this treacherous par-4, the bogies are sure to pile up. 

Aronimink Golf Club was considered by Donald Ross himself to be among his finest work. Golfers are reminded of this as they walk to the first tee, where an inscription reads:

I intended to make this my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize that I built better than I knew.
— Donald Ross

With the BMW Championship ready to start in just a few days, Ross’ masterpiece will begin its new-old coming out party and will show off its restored Golden Age charm. Aside from hosting the top 70 pros this year, Aronimink will also host the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the 109th PGA Championship in 2027.