The restoration movement started at the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness in Ohio, where three new holes clearly didn’t match the original Donald Ross-designed holes. That and other character destroying Ross renovations led to the formation of the Donald Ross Society. Eventually, other Golden Age golf course architects got their own preservation societies. It was also a reaction to decades of modern design, culminating in the money fed, award- and rankings-centered style of the 1980s.

Since then, it’s common for older courses to seek an architect specializing in restoring old courses. The specialized field of golf course architecture, with less 500 practitioners worldwide, has evolved into even more specialized sub-sectors, including restoration.

With restoration being trendy, most architects use that label as a sales pitch, but very loosely when concerning design intent. In building architecture, these terms are better defined, and could be in golf, too:

Restoration – In both golf course and building architecture, this means to use original designs from a particular era of history (Opening day, major changes to host a prominent event, etc.) to recreate the past as authentically as modern materials and construction allow.

Rehabilitation/Reuse – Keeping an old building’s exterior as near its original form as possible, but adapting its interior to a modern use such as offices or shops. In golf renovations, “Rehabilitation” is a better term when improving infrastructure or design to bring back a course’s former image, reputation or conditions, while not preserving its original design.

Remodel/Renovate/Restorvate – Generally, the first two are interchangeable, used where golf course features are totally redesigned, using most of the existing routing as a starting point. Many tout “sympathetic renovations” – sometimes called “restorvations” – which allows more conceptual design latitude, while nominally respecting the original style and intent. However, it involves value judgements based on “Would the architect do this if alive today?” discussions, which are always interesting, but never conclusive. “Latitude” to change becomes “License to change,” quickly turning restorations into total renovations with a restoration label.

Rebuild/Total Blow Up – “Blowing up” is a very literal term for buildings. In golf, it refers to building a new course of any style over an old one on the same site, including major or total re-routing.

Courses wanting a true restoration should select an architect on substance, and not nomenclature, finding one who respects design history and has experience in similar restorations. You might also bring in an independent historian/researcher with expertise in your original architect for additional perspective. You also need strong internal leadership to gain consensus for the concept of restoration.

True restorations are based on historical research, including original plans, early aerials and photos, newspaper articles, and knowledge of the original designer’s philosophies. The goal is to determine the history of every hole, from its original design intent and initial execution, to all changes made later by others, and whether those changes are reversible.

Sometimes, it’s easy.

Changes like new back tees are easily accepted, since they maintain original greens and landing zones while accommodating modern length. In other cases, tricky decisions must be made between keeping the original landing zone hazards and building similar ones further down the fairway, hopefully on similar topography as the original.

Sometimes, it isn’t.

Most courses change substantially over time, making restoration impossible, or impossibly expensive, due to:

  • Property boundary changes, earlier re-routing.
  • Major design changes now embraced by golfers.
  • Agronomic needs (poor water, etc.) require new solutions.
  • Environmental areas and multiple/forward tees must be accommodated.
  • Need for new practice areas not in original design.

Editor’s note:Visit for more on this subject.

It’s generally hard to replicate the feel of older courses: Tractors/bulldozers built features don’t resemble horse/scoop built features. White sand (now preferred) looks modern, not old. Pure swathes of the newest turf replace the mottled mix of older grasses. Trees are hard to remove, but don’t look like sparsely planted early courses. It’s about to get harder. The current and projected difficulties of the golf business will probably force all design to focus less on nostalgic style, and more on the current concerns of environmental and business sustainability. Form, as always, follows function. Sometimes, it’s not the best thing to do. Not all old courses can be restored in all situations. If your course was formerly private, but is now a highly played municipal course, maintenance and operational requirements probably trump historic accuracy, by enlarging original small greens and tees, removing bunkers, etc. Some courses aren’t really worth restoring. Donald Ross designed 400 courses, some only on paper. Are all 400 “classics?” Perhaps the top 5-25 percent that haven’t already seen permanent changes qualify as restoration worthy. Sometimes, it’s not good marketing. Not everyone appreciates history. Many golfers prefer the modern look and playability. “New and improved” makes for strong marketing. The most important thing for a renovation to do is to make the course match its players and stand out in its market, whatever style that takes. Maybe it’s time to move on. Many Golden Age courses have already been restored. There was a 20-year break between design eras due to Depression and WWII, and we may see a 20 year break in restorations. There is little excitement for restoring post-WWII era courses yet, since it’s currently considered a weak design era. Being borne from the “Greatest Generation” should make architecture worthy of restoration all by itself. The break from pre-war design styles was driven by huge changes in golf and maintenance equipment, plus a collective need to forget WWII and embrace an optimistic future. Historically, every design is/was done in the then “modern era.” Most embodied “modernization” as Golden Age architects modernized pre 1900’s design, post-WWII architects modernized Golden Age designs, and we generally keep modernizing today. In fact, many architectural historians believe retro/nostalgia design is merely a placeholder for the next great design era, but not really great design itself. Maybe it’s time to move on completely. Times change, but one eternal strength of golf is our wide variety courses. If we strive to make every course it’s very best — whatever that is — we will achieve that variety and help keep golf strong.