Restoration of old golf courses is an art. The art is in recreating the original course well after the original Architect has left the scene. The replication of the original ground is assisted by the exploration of the original plans, field notes and other historical evidence. Sometimes there is a good deal of historical information and the restoration is more easily facilitated. The more information the more the restoration Architect can feel assured that he is on the right track in reaching the goal. Other times the restoration Architect finds himself with little or no original material with which to accomplish the task. This is made even more difficult if a number of other Architects have toiled on the property; changing the features, recontouring the greens, rerouting the venue all make the charge to restore more difficult.
Such is the case at Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem, NC. After part of this course was built in 1912 by the great A. W. Tillinghast, and completed in the early 1920’s by Donald Ross, Forsyth attempted to modernize the course on numerous occasions. The club employed many architects to change features, re-route holes to allow for property redeployment, and to better the course at the time. As it is said, too many cooks spoil the soup and by 2004 Forsyth Country Club had a playable but inferior links. The theme had been lost, the features had been compromised and the course looked and played like an architectural step-child. There was no continuity and as a result little memorability. Forsyth had lost a great deal of it’s’ luster and had a crisis. The course was still attracting new members but was diminishing in the minds of golf enthusiasts as a classic course.
This did not sit well with the membership. After all, Forsyth had always exuded a strong feeling of superiority, as represented in the surrounding neighborhood, which is one of the oldest and most prominent in Winston-Salem. The course needed to return to its’ original identity and once again regain its’ position as one of the greats in north central North Carolina. Dunlop White III, then the President of the Donald Ross Society, golf historian, and champion player, helped promote the restoration. Dunlop grew up at Forsyth in the 70’s and 80’s and had a strong affinity for the design. Dunlop had published a number of cogent articles on classic restoration, including timeless pieces called "Beneath the Trees" and "Shady Trees and Heated Club Politics", both which can be found on the Donald Ross Society web site. Dunlop aided in creating a list of tasks to be completed to restore the course. Thereafter, current green chairman, Rob Fowler led the charge. Fowler did a search for a Restoration Architect, which ended with the hiring of Kris Spence of Greensboro, who had displayed his talent in restoring Mimosa Hills and The Grove Park Inn.
Spence took his appointment to heart. He saw great potential in the ground at Forsyth but knew there were many difficult decisions to be made. Until Dunlop uncovered a photo of the course from the 1920’s, there was literally no historical information to rely on. Spence spent a good deal of time studying the photo and made note of the shape and size of the greens and the positions of the tees and the bunkering. He found that many changes had been made over the years. The first hole had been rerouted and would once again need to be routed to accommodate a parking area. The third green had been changed, not once but three times finally resting well above its’ original height. The green complexes throughout the course had been redesigned and their original square shapes had morphed into small circles. Bunkers had been moved, removed and reshaped.
Even the routing had changed, a long four (#8) had been turned into a five and the finish had gone from a four to a three. Spence submitted a Master Plan, it was approved and then the hard work began. Spence built a new first hole, moving the tee to a point nearest the pro shop and dog-legging to the original green site. He excavated the third green finally finding the original cinders and porcelain drainage vents some six feet below the existing level.
Spence built eighteen new greens, using both Dunlop’s aerial and a Victor Dallin overhead survey, to approximate their shape and size. He rebuilt all of the tees and the bunkers to create a sense of continuity of style. In doing so, he paid his respects to the bunkers of Ross and even created a small tribute to Tillie. He eschewed the modern day limitations of 1-2 percent grade on the greens, adding some definite toughness to the rolling surfaces. He added yardage where it was possible stretching the course to nearly 6,800 yards from the 6,500 it was. Close inspection shows that there was no more yardage to be had. One of the best features Spence created was the hornets’ nest, a devilish bunker complex on the new par four eighteenth hole. The hornets’ nest may be Ross, more likely Tillinghast but certainly a hazard to be respected by all players.
Tree removal was a big part of the process. Over the years all different species of trees began to encroach the tees, fairways and greens. There was little vision of the spectrum of the playing field. There was even a certain feeling of claustrophobia in certain places. Hundreds of trees were removed and with them the incumbent undergrowth. In many cases fescue grasses filled the void created by the tree removal. Now the course is much more open. The sun shines on the necessary grassed areas and the air flows better than before. The course is much more a park than the maze it had become.
Superintendent Chris Devane is also devoted his resources toward preserving and protecting the restoration. When questioned about the trees, Devane and Fowler said that further tree removal was planned; as a matter of fact they believe that the upcoming tree work is the end of the plan. After that Fowler said: "We’ll cut the grass for 25 years and let another generation refine when needed".
Congratulations to Rob Fowler, Kris Spence, Dunlop White, Chris Devane and the members of Forsyth Country Club. Their efforts have produced a very nice Donald Ross example.