Fox Chapel Golf Club has recently restored its Seth Raynor-designed golf course.
© russell Kirk

Chartiers Country Club and Fox Chapel Golf Club are separated by less than 20 miles of river-hugging Pittsburgh roads. The route between the clubs includes views of a modern and compact skyline contrasting perceptions outsiders might harbor of the city. Nothing smolders above homes and businesses. The intersection of the rivers brings as many recreational as commerce opportunities.

Longtime members of both clubs spin stories of the days when steel and banking executives left work at noon, completed 18 holes before rush hour and stuck around for a card game … or three. The routine was repeated weekday after weekday.

The golf they played was good. Designed by Scottish pro-turned-architect Willie Park Jr., the 18-hole course at Chartiers debuted in 1925, the same year Fox Chapel unveiled a layout created by Long Island civil engineer-turned-golf course architect Seth Raynor.

Over time, the courses changed. Over time, Pittsburgh changed, too. Good luck — at least in pre-pandemic times — finding middle-aged members who make weekday time for 18 and cards. Health and technology now shape an economy once reliant on manufacturing.

Chartiers and Fox Chapel reside in different parts of town and neither club views the other as a competitor. Allegheny County (population: 1.2 million) is big enough to support 18 private golf courses.

Clubs like Chartiers and Fox Chapel endure because they adapt. During the year of ultimate adaptation, both clubs executed golf course projects inspired by their original architects. The work reunited old friends and injected throwback charm into parts of both golf courses, especially bunkers.

As different individuals enjoy golf courses on weekday afternoons and the region continues distancing itself from steel, iron and coal, pieces of the past can be revived and modernized with determined people guiding decisions. Members of Chartiers and Fox Chapel will play pleasant rounds on enhanced courses in 2021 and beyond.

Digging reunion

Every Golden Age course possesses a course enhancement history. Until the 1980s, Chartiers didn’t possess a glamorous worklog. In short, green chairs and other influencers made decisions on whims. Two holes in particular, Nos. 2 and 3, according to two-term club president Ron Moehler, experienced bunker roulette because of personal preferences.

The club’s proximity to downtown Pittsburgh — just seven miles west of the city’s center — and affable membership ensured the haphazard approach didn’t affect immediate finances or overall operations. A group of forward-thinking members, including Moehler, who has spent nearly 20 years as the club’s green committee chair, wanted to inject formality into course enhancements. The club pursued a master plan created by architect Arthur Hills with Aspen Corporation serving as the contractor. Hills, who was also working at nearby Oakmont Country Club, spent plenty of time at Chartiers and received assistance from a young associate named Steve Forrest. The team Aspen dispatched to Pittsburgh included former Glade Springs (West Virginia) Resort grounds director Ronnie Adkins.

Members approved the master plan in 1991, the club supported abundant golf in the 1990s, and the Hills and Aspen teams continued finding ample work following the project. Chartiers then hired a young superintendent in 2010 who started observing what happens a few decades following a renovation. “Our bunkers had become our weakest link,” Bob Davis says. “Playability out of the bunkers was good my first six or seven years, but then they just started to decline.”

Members peppered Davis with questions about the bunkers during an annual meeting in late 2019. The club opened its Rolodex to find a solution. Davis, who now holds the title of COO/director of golf course operations, called Forrest, now a principal of Hills • Forrest • Smith Golf Course Architects, to create a bunker enhancement plan. Forrest presented a plan to club leaders in January 2020. “I remember asking him, ‘What are some characteristics of Willie Park golf courses?’” Davis says. “And Steve really came up with a concept that blew us away.”

Still, no renovation comes easy. COVID-19 resulted in Pennsylvania closing golf courses until May. Part of the membership displayed initial pandemic-related financial concerns. An experienced leader and friend of golf course maintenance urged anybody willing to listen why Chartiers needed to move the project forward. “Quite frankly,” Davis says, “this project doesn’t happen without Mr. Moehler.”

Chartiers has never faced a dire situation. But anybody who studies the Pittsburgh-area golf scene can easily recite names of private clubs shuttered in the last decade. The region’s successful clubs find ways to repair infrastructure and add amenities.

“I can equate a golf course to a major college football program,” Moehler says. “Football is the revenue driver at a major college athletic department. Golf is the major revenue driver at a club. We can’t underestimate keeping our facilities nice.”

Once Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf permitted courses to reopen, filled tees, fairways and greens became the norm. By mid-June, the membership approved Forrest’s plan, which involved giving 60 bunkers a throwback appearance with steep fescue faces, flat bottoms and angular designs, and modifying multiple greens.

“The primary goal is to give them a strong classic look,” Forrest says. “I can’t say specifically they are true Willie Park bunkers. But it’s like a classic car restoration. You know the features and you take the features and apply them to today’s standards.”

Worked commenced Sept. 8 when a familiar company arrived in Pittsburgh. The course remained open as workers from that company shuffled between holes.

“Everything moves faster today,” says Adkins, now the vice president of Aspen Corporation. “The biggest change has been in equipment. We have power tilts in mini excavators. That just wasn’t available in 1991. You’re moving a lot of materials around the golf course and we’re using flotation tires and flotation equipment today. That wasn’t something that was available then either. The process has become much more efficient. That means we’re on less footprint of the golf course.”

Golf course architecture has also changed in the last 30 years. Names such as Willie Park Jr. didn’t mean much when the Hills and Aspen teams first worked at Chartiers. Now when members gaze toward the 18th from the elegant Tudor-style clubhouse, they see 11 bunkers inspired by a Golden Age architect whose work has become more recognizable. “There’s definitely more of an appreciation for the old style of architecture now,” Forrest says.

Having the same architecture firm, contractor and club leader involved in projects executed 30 years apart rarely happens in golf course construction. Such a confluence seems fitting considering Pittsburgh’s reputation as a place where three rivers meet.

“He was running equipment then,” says Moehler, staring at Adkins during a conversation in one of the club’s renovated grill rooms. “Now he’s in the CEO suite and shows up in $200 Cole Haans! It’s been good circling back and dealing with the same people. It’s been a real fun experience.”

A Raynor ready to roar

Jason Hurwitz started maintaining golf courses in the late 1990s. He received his first hourly position at Sand Ridge Club in Cleveland’s east suburbs before the course opened for play. Fazio Design served as the architect and Tom Marzolf represented the firm in numerous site visits.

Hurwitz landed his first post-college job at Oakmont and ascended to a top assistant superintendent position. Fazio Design tweaked the course in preparation for the 2007 U.S. Open. Marzolf again represented the firm in numerous site visits.

Less than a year before Oakmont was set to host the U.S. Open, Hurwitz received a too-good-to-refuse offer to become the superintendent at nearby Fox Chapel Golf Club. Hurwitz had been eyeing Fox Chapel, so he became acquainted with a few members of the Seth Raynor Society during the group’s 2006 visit to western Pennsylvania.

Fox Chapel was one of Raynor’s final projects before he died in 1926. Hurwitz studied Raynor’s work and Fox Chapel’s history in case the club wanted to return to its Raynor roots. More than a decade later, a formal restoration movement emerged within the club, resulting in Hurwitz spending time with a familiar architect. Marzolf led the anticipated restoration for Fazio Design and he temporarily moved to western Pennsylvania last spring and summer to oversee the project.

The club asked Marzolf to begin concocting a master plan for bunker improvements in 2014. The plan expanded into restoring audacious Raynor features such as the “Lion’s Mouth” bunker protecting the punchbowl-style ninth green and 10 fairway bunkers impacting tee-shot strategy on No. 16.

“Jason had researched a lot of this history already and he helped educate and teach me about the course,” Marzolf says “He would pull out the photos and say, ‘Hey, look at this, look at the way it was, look at what we could have here.’ Jason and I basically did this design together. He deserves a lot of the credit for this golf course, because he studied it, researched it and had a lot of this stuff figured out. He embraced this idea.”

Marzolf received inspiration for what he describes as a “rectangular” and “rigid” bunker style by studying Raynor’s work with C.B. Macdonald at Chicago Golf Club. Marzolf and Hurwitz collaborated on establishing the required fairway and mowing lines to solve the geometric riddle of restoring Raynor. Steep greenside bunkers dot the course, but their severity has been reduced thanks to constructive dialogue between Marzolf and Hurwitz. Prior to the restoration, many bunker faces had slopes approaching and even exceeding 35 degrees. Old photographs and modern maintenance realities influenced the decision to design bunkers with 25 to 28 degrees of slope, Marzolf says.

A desire to improve the functionality, aesthetics and playability of bunkers led to a renovation at Chartiers Country Club.
© steve Forrest

Fox Chapel has 97 bunkers and completing one round of fly mowing before the restoration required 14 employees spending nearly an entire day on the assignment, according to Hurwitz. That volume of labor meant Hurwitz’s team mowed bunker faces just once every two or three weeks. Rotary mowers can now be used to maintain bunker faces.

“It’s a better quality of cut and just a quicker all-around operation,” Hurwitz says. “We are mowing bunker faces once a week, which helps with density. They are tighter, they are healthier and there’s a lot less opportunity for shots to get hung up on faces.”

The restored bunkers experienced significant activity in 2020 as Fox Chapel surpassed 17,000 rounds — average annual rounds had hovered just below 15,000 — despite the late start to the Pennsylvania golf season. Construction started in fall 2019, with work on a pair of holes, Nos. 9 and 10, nearly completed by the end of the year. A crew from NMP Golf Construction returned to western Pennsylvania last March, but COVID-19 stalled work until May. Dry summer weather helped regain lost construction days due to COVID-19, although it forced Hurwitz’s team to hustle to irrigate newly installed sod amid heavy member usage. Disrupting play on the fewest possible number of holes remained a priority throughout the restoration.

Even with the spring delay, NMP Construction completed its work ahead of schedule, Hurwitz says. The frantic stretch ended with an October aerification that Hurwitz considered “a nice change of pace” for his team. As grueling as it all seemed, combining with Marzolf to restore the work of a celebrated architect offered a once-in-a-career opportunity. But perhaps the biggest challenge he faced involved imparting that vision on an exhausted crew.

“I have a desire — and maybe it’s a bad habit — to try to be perfect when I can with the golf course,” Hurwitz says. “Seeing those features that used to be on the ground — and being motivated by how good and how much better the course could be — was motivation enough for me. I’m passionate about construction and restoration. You marry those two and that’s all the motivation I need.

“How do you relay that to your team? You just set a good example. You show up to work excited, explain what you’re doing, what the contractor is doing and why they are doing it, and remain upbeat, and that’s contagious.”