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Restoration. Renovation. Retrovation. Call it what you will, but the work done by Gil Hanse and his team over more than a decade at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, N.Y., has returned the course to the architectural prominence it enjoyed a century ago. All of it will be on display in September when the club hosts the 42nd U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
With a design pedigree that began with the partnership of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor, followed in later years by A.W. Tillinghast and Robert Trent Jones Sr., among others, at first glance it’s a wonder the course had lost any of its luster over time. But time, and too many cooks in the kitchen, had taken a toll. When Hanse was selected to forge a more coherent look and theme, he opted to put a modern spin on Macdonald’s original vision, and Raynor’s execution of that plan, as first laid out over nine holes in 1911.
Hanse said recently that in some ways the result exceeded the project’s original goals. “We were joined by golf historian George Bahto [who later died in 2014] in preparing the master plan for the course,” he said. “At that point, we hoped to do a more modest restoration. But we were able to build on the success of that original Tillinghast restoration and ultimately transition those holes to be more in scale and temperament with the classic templates of Macdonald and Raynor.”
The work energized the club so much that hosting a national championship, something it hadn’t done since the 2002 U.S. Women’s Amateur, became a goal once again. “They wanted to get back in the ballgame,” said Bill McCarthy, U.S. Mid-Amateur championship director for the USGA since 2010. “When they reached out, we were incredibly excited because we knew where Gil would take the course. It just knocked my socks off, as it does with everyone who sets foot on the property.”
Sleepy Hollow will share stroke-play duties with co-host Fenway Golf Club in nearby Scarsdale, N.Y., a beloved Tillinghast design that also underwent a restoration at the hands of Hanse.
“In my 27 years with the USGA, I don’t think we’ve had a better combination of courses for a championship,” said McCarthy. “From a conditioning standpoint, other than maybe some firmness and rough height, we could put the tees in the ground and play right away. That just added to their attraction.”
Neither course is particularly long, with each expected to play around 6,800 yards during the championship. “The green complexes are so good that both are really approach-shot courses,” said McCarthy. “You want a full shot, or a specific yardage, into these greens. You’ve got to be very thoughtful.”
Nowhere is this truer than on Sleepy Hollow’s greens. The twin spines that define the 14th green. A punchbowl on 15. The oft-photographed thumbprint on 16. All demand extreme precision.
“The greens are the biggest defense on the course,” said Bob Mayer, vice chairman of the 2023 U.S. Mid-Amateur and a former club president. “If you have a good day putting, you will come out way ahead.”
Hanse takes it one step further. “These greens are some of the finest in the world from a design standpoint and will test even the best putters with their significant slopes,” he said.
It all points back to Macdonald’s emphasis. “Putting greens to a golf course are what the face is to a portrait,” he once wrote. “The clothes the subject wears, the background, whether scenery or draperies – are simply accessories; the face tells the story and determines the character and quality – whether it is good or bad. So it is in golf.”
Sleepy Hollow’s quality helped produce PGA Tour star Cameron Young, who grew up here as the son of the club’s recently retired longtime head pro, David Young, and his wife, Barbara.
The thorough test begins sternly on the first, where Hanse and team created an elegant, Leven-style par 4. The dead-uphill second hole precedes the stunning par-3 third, where the green appears to be floating in the distance.
“If you can take advantage of good tee shots on the first four holes, you can get off to a really good start,” said Mayer. “You want that because as you get into 7 through 11, those are some really tough holes. You do not want to be making up ground at that time.”
Nor can golfers allow themselves to be distracted on the final five holes, three of which (15, 16 and 17) include mesmerizing vistas of the Hudson River in the distance.
Referring to the 14th and its double-spine green, McCarthy said, “It really starts the roll home. That’s one of those holes where you stand on the teeing ground and must be thinking of the hole location. You can’t attack certain hole locations from the wrong side of the fairway.”
A birdie might lose to an eagle thanks to the punchbowl green on the par-5 15th, while the short par-3 16th can be both mesmerizing and lethal, especially when changeable winds flow up and down the Hudson. The par-4 18th is a stellar closer, moving uphill to a green that sits in the shadow of the massive 75-room clubhouse, built in 1895 as the country home for a New York attorney named Elliott Fitch Shepard.
“There are only a few places in the country that have this aura when you are on-site, and Sleepy is one of them,” said McCarthy. “Sometimes you get engrossed in the golf and you don’t take the time to look around. The setting at Sleepy Hollow is all-world. When you’re looking across the Hudson to the Palisades, south down toward the bridge, and then north toward West Point, it’s simply remarkable.”
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Golf Journal and on USGA websites.