Led by course architect Andrew Green, the site of this week's Solheim Cup has not only been restored to its previous glory, but serves as a reminder for clubs looking to do the same
This week’s Solheim Cup is being played on a historic golf course that looks and feels the part of a gnarly veteran. That’s because this par-71 layout, stretching to as much as 6,700 yards for the three days of matches, manages to combine Old World charm and intrigue with high-tech agronomy and presentation. An ambitious course restoration undertaken in 2017-2018 has brought the club back to new life, one appropriate to its vintage character and one that repudiates completely the awkward modernization it endured in the 1970s.
Golf industry observers looking in on the Solheim Cup can learn a lot from the background story, one that is applicable to other courses looking to undertake a renovation – or in this case, a dramatic return to their heyday.
Inverness Club, six miles west of downtown Toledo, Ohio, began life in 1903 as a sporty nine-hole course designed by Bernard Nichols. It was soon expanded to 18 holes, then Donald Ross came upon the scene and transformed the club with an ingenious routing that made use of the club’s rolling terrain through a glacially-carved ravine and drainage swale that provided ideal terrain. You could travel up and down Dorr Street in either direction for miles and not find comparable ground, ideally suited for golf.
It was good enough for U.S. Opens in 1920, 1931 and 1957, with minor tweaks along the way by A.W. Tillinghast and Dick Wilson. When it came time for another U.S. Open in 1979, club officials, following advice by the U.S. Golf Association, felt the need to unpack some congested areas of the routing and update the course.
Inverness Club is run by its board, not by the members as a whole through elections or referenda. The decision was made to bring in George and Tom Fazio. What started as way of unpacking the cramped setting for the short, par-13th hole morphed into a more ambitious, partial rerouting in 1977 that led to abandonment of three short holes and creation of entirely new holes on adjoining ground. As was common practice back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no effort at a restoration. The club was moving “forward.”
LESSONS FROM INVERNESS CLUB'S RESTORATION
1.: Never sell ancillary, unused land; it might prove invaluable in the future.
2.: In selecting an architect, choose the one who will maximize the unique, site-specific identity of your golf course.
3.: A successful renovation project requires strong, bold leadership from club leaders.
4.: When doing a restoration, pick a date from the heyday of the club’s history and focus on recapturing those design elements.
5.: Make sure the superintendent, golf staff and club manager are in synch on communications, providing members with playing options, and being realistic about reopening dates.
6.: Know that even after completion of the project, additional tweaking will likely be needed.
Unfortunately, the work stood out as stark and incompatible with the rest of the course. During the 1979 U.S. Open, native Ohioan Tom Weiskopf, who knew the old course well, decried the changes and said, “someone ought to create a society honoring the work of Donald Ross so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen.”
Member reaction was not kinder. For years afterward, the club put up with the changes. Modest efforts by architect Arthur Hills, who was a member of the club and locally based, managed to soften some of the worst aspects of the new holes. But they still embodied elements at odds with the rest of the ground: long green-to-tee walks, a blind lateral creek on a long par-4, a Florida-style pond, and putting surfaces that repelled approach shots.
An experiment with fine fescue faces on the bunkers in 2015-2016 was not working out and led to unmanageable turf conditions. Considerable rework was needed, at which time the club put out a call to architects for proposals. Among the applicants was a former construction coordinator for Macdonald and Sons, Andrew Green, who had recently hung out his shingle as a solo-practitioner course designer. He had a modest portfolio but an intense interest in history, and when he walked the Inverness site to develop proposed plans it became clear both to him and the committee that his vision was an intriguing one very different from that of the other applicants.
Many older clubs over the years have sold off ancillary land. Not Inverness, which had held on to more than 100 acres on the south side of the grounds that had been used during championships for parking and event infrastructure and that were now being leased out as cornfield. When Green saw that neighboring plot he began to formulate a plan to undue the awkward 1970s holes while recapturing the look and feel of the old course -- on an expanded canvas.
Most golfers, even most architecture buffs, imagine fixing things in place but come up short when it comes to envisioning a (partial) re-routing. This is where some architects really earn their fees. Green’s plan ultimately entailed replacing the “new” holes (two par 3s and a long par 4) with holes of equivalent par, but in such a way as to shorten the green-to-tee walks and weave in their styling with the original Ross holes -- all of which would get treated to greens expansion, bunker renovation, expanded fairways and more diverse teeing grounds, both longer and shorter.
By the spring of 2017, Inverness also got a new superintendent. Actually a veteran, John Zimmers, fresh from Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club where his nearly two decades there included extensive renovation work and preparing for two U.S. Opens, a U.S. Women’s Open and a U.S. Amateur.
At Inverness, as at Oakmont previously, the plan was to undertake the restoration/renovation without interrupting member play — or at least without shutting it down completely. It helped at Inverness that some of the work took place on entirely new ground; also that the club could convert a short-game practice area into a 19th-hole-style par 3 if and when one of the regular holes was taken out of play. Zimmers acknowledges that member play took some steering to keep on track without endangering either golfers or the shapers from Macdonald and Sons..
As explained by then-club president Gerald Lemieux, the intermingling of play and construction had an unintended benefit. “Golfers could watch the new holes take shape and see the bunker work and get excited. It created a positive sense that helped build member support even before we officially reopened the entire restored course.” That support was crucial, since the $3.6 million in course work was being offset by member assessment, $1,000 per annum over eight years.
The rerouting entailed a much lengthened par-second hole, a new par-3 3rd hole that replicated aspects of the old, abandoned par-3 8th hole hole, a new long par-4 that essentially reversed directions of the clumsy Fazio par-4 5th hole, a medium-length, par-3 5th hole that is meant to evoke the old lost par-3 13th, and reorienting the green of the Fazio-designed par-5 8th hole to better fit in with the rest of the (original) greens.
In doing so, Green drew upon historic imagery to recapture features that had been lost over time. The new fourth green was inspired by an older green, an abandoned par-4 7th. Inverness’ most famous hole, the long uphill, unbunkered par-4 7th, now sports mounds back right of the putting surface that Green spotted from archives.
Inverness’ clubhouse hallways are something of a museum-quality archive in their own right. Yet Green, combing through old magazines and USGA files, found images from the interwar glory days of the club that even informed members had never before seen.
The first thing Green asked the club, according to Lemieux, is what year did we want to go back to. “They decided on the period between our first two U.S. Opens, 1920-1931. “At no time did he say, ‘I want to do this.’ Instead it was ‘I found this in an archive, what do you think of this?’ That’s how we got to restore that mounding behind the seventh green.”
Not everyone this week at the Solheim Cup will perceive all of these elements. What they will sense is the unitary vision of a golf course, one that again exudes a classical sensibility. The modern touches and blemishes are gone — including the famed Hinkle tree, the one the USGA put up by the eighth tee after the first round of the 1979 U.S. Open to prevent players from following Lon Hinkle’s short cut down the 17th fairway. The forlorn black spruce managed to survive the tree management program of Green’s restoration but came down in a storm after the 2019 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. It was the last piece remaining from Inverness’ awkward days.
The course is back, as the entire golf world will see this week. “If you haven’t played Inverness in 15 or 20 years,” says Lemieux, then you really haven’t played Inverness.”