2002: Aronimink’s inspiring rebirth

By Bradley S. Klein

NewtoWn Square, Pa.

Among the many joys of being an itinerant student of architecture is seeing a golf course brought back to proper form. Consider the case of Aronimink Golf Club, 12 miles west of downtown Philadelphia.

The course dates to a very strong design by Donald Ross in 1928. We know he was on site, thanks to a grainy, 41/2-minute, black-and white film that shows the architect on the grounds. He’s strutting about in a three-piece suit while construction crews around him are felling big trees, cutting trenches and laying irrigation pipe. Some years later he declared that “I intended to make this course my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize I built better than I knew.”

It helps having an enormous site. Ross had 250 acres, more than enough to allow for a well-connected, easily walkable course where each hole exists in its own private micro-landscape. A stream lazes through the middle of the property, and there are dense groves of hardwoods as well as generous playing ground for golf and a massive Tudor Revival clubhouse.

Aronimink was regarded highly enough to play host to the 1962 PGA Championship (won by Gary Player) and the 1977 U.S. Amateur (John Fought). In anticipation of the 1993 PGA Championship, the club brought in Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his then-associate, Roger Rulewich, to give the bunkers a thorough makeover and toughen the landing areas. It was bad enough the club eventually lost the tournament because of membership policies, since changed, that were deemed politically incorrect. Unfortunately, the work by Jones and Rulewich effectively jammed up the landing areas without regard for the kind of diagonal strategy and shotmaking options that Ross initially had created.

That, too, has now been corrected, thanks to a bold restoration effort by architect Ron Prichard that was carried out by the construction firm of McDonald & Sons Inc. Along the way, the par-70 course has been extended to 7,152 yards, though it surely will play shorter next year when it hosts the Senior PGA Championship. Even from the middle tees of 6,502 yards, this is a very stern test. The slope rating (122 back/121 middle) is absurdly low and should be re-evaluated.

Aronimink’s restoration effort, phased in over several years and completed in time for the 2002 season, included regrassing of fairways with L-93 bentgrass, tree clearance, complete bunker restoration, squaring of tees and full expansion of the putting surfaces back to their original size and character. The greens also were replanted with L-93.

Perhaps the biggest change was cutting the bunkers deeper into the putting surface and making the turfed faces steeper. This gives better definition to the putting surfaces while effectively elevating them when viewed from the fairways.

“Ross defended par at the green, not off the tee,” said Prichard. “That’s why it’s crucial to play this course firmer and faster. When you do this kind of restoration work, 60 percent of the success is actually based on how it’s maintained.

“Aronimink now has a superintendent (Rick Holanda) and a mindset that will ensure it plays like the classic Long Island courses.”

Kudos also go to green committee member Tom Elliott, who has spearheaded the work and done much of the in-house politicking. This is by far the hardest and least understood part of all restoration. It also is the most important. Clubs looking to recapture classical strategic greatness and undo years of clumsy modernization should consider Aronimink a model of what is possible.

(Each month Golfweek profiles a course that is on Golfweek’s list of America’s Best Courses or might be a candidate for inclusion.)

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