In 1911 when Sleepy Hollow opened, golf course design in America was still in its early stages. Neither Pine Valley nor Alister Mackenzie’s work existed. Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2 had yet to evolve into the masterpieces that we now know. Northeast courses like Myopia Hunt, Ewkanok, The Country Club and C.B. Macdonald’s newly opened National Golf Links of America were the standard bearers.
Built for a who’s-who group of businessmen headed by William Rockefeller, Macdonald’s design at Sleepy Hollow brought time proven design concepts from the Scottish links that he cherished to an inland setting one hour northeast of New York City. Central bunkering, a Redan (in this case, a reverse one) and a punchbowl green are examples of traditional features to which Macdonald was keen to expose to the American golfer, and he did so here.
Neither Macdonald nor Rockefeller were known for their shrinking egos and the two had a falling out before the course opened. Nonetheless, Sleepy Hollow proved highly successful and by the late 1920s, A.W. Tillinghast was brought in to increase the number of holes to twenty-seven. In so doing, Tillinghast created the first, eighth through twelfth and eighteenth holes and then knitted them into Macdonald’s course.
Both Macdonald and Tillinghast were giants during the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Macdonald had just completed his masterpiece on Long Island when he was brought in for Sleepy Hollow. Meanwhile, much of Tillinghast’s reputation for building superb parkland courses is based on his work within Westchester County. Unfortunately for future Club boards, Sleepy Hollow had a mixture of holes from two men, making it both a Macdonald and a Tillinghast course. Thus, the conundrum the board faced was how to act as a custodian when it wasn’t certain what it was trying to preserve.
With no clear way forward, its green committee in the early 1990s hired a ‘name’ architect and then trusted his judgment. The end result was a ‘modernized’ course with mounds and small bunkers. Within a decade, another ‘name’ architect was engaged to prepare a Master Plan in an effort to restore a sense of consistency to a course that now had several competing design styles.
Upon closer inspection of this architect’s work by the Club's Board of Directors , concerns developed in several areas including maintainability and suitability. Indeed, some of the architect’s own references were critical of his work. So, while performing further due diligence, the committee decided to shelve his master plan and at the same time took up the question of “who do we turn to now”?
Of the several architects that were interviewed, the decision came down to Gil Hanse partnering with George Bahto or Ron Forse. Both architects recommended that the club proceed with unifying all eighteen holes in the manner of Macdonald as opposed to Tillinghast. First, Macdonald’s courses such as those found at NGLA, Mid-Ocean, Piping Rock and Saint Louis Country Club are at similarly prestigious clubs as Sleepy Hollow. Second, it was deemed pointless to try to establish Tillinghast as the prevalent design style when four of his very best original designs (both courses at Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, and Fenway) are in such close proximity to the Club and all are situated on property that is very different from that of Sleepy Hollow’s.
Eventually, the green committee put forward the team of Hanse and Bahto, which the Club board approved. Undoubtedly, Bahto’s seminal book on Macdonald entitled The Evangelist of Golf provided comfort to the committee that they were indeed getting Macdonald expertise. The task then fell to Hanse and Bahto to implement the vision for the property that they had shared with the green committee during the interview process. This wasn’t a strict restoration as Macdonald had not even built seven of the holes but rather it was to be a renovation of all twenty-seven holes utilizing the design principles and features frequently employed by Macdonald. Starting with the third nine, Hanse and Bahto demonstrated the bunkering style and scale that they wanted to re-establish on the main course. The results were enthusiastically received and they were given even greater creative latitude when their work commenced on the main course.
Much to everyone’s credit associated with the project, the work performed at Sleepy Hollow from the summer of 2006 through the fall of 2007 represents one of the great transformations in the history of golf course architecture.