Cover Story – A New Beginning for Colonial

Cover Story – A New Beginning for Colonial

The upcoming renovation at historic Colonial Country Club by architect Gil Hanse will restore the site of the 1941 U.S. Open, 1991 U.S. Women’s Open and current PGA Tour host to its original 1930s grandeur, according to members who voted in favor by a huge margin. All without missing a beat in the annual tournament. 

At least that’s the hope.

“We engaged the best with Gil and we’re entrusting him with our baby,” said longtime Colonial member Chris Stenholm, “and we’re asking him to treat it with the same care.”

While course renovations themselves are not unusual, it’s a fact of life for all courses in North Texas and elsewhere. But the Colonial restoration, which will begin after the 2022 Charles Schwab Invitational concludes, is the exception for the historical nature of the course, as well as the fact they are committed to do the entire work in just 11 months between PGA Tour events … a very aggressive target. 

Colonial CC

“It can only help our future; it’s really a milestone for our club,” said Marty Leonard, whose father Marvin founded Colonial in 1936, and who still remains active in club affairs.

The $21 million price tag is by far the most spent by a local club on renovations lately, and perhaps the most statewide according to those involved. The hefty price comes from the expedited timeframe to complete the job and the complex system which will be installed under all the trademark bentgrass greens.

“I’m confident in myself and my staff that we can get the project done on time,” Hanse told Colonial members. “This is an 18-month project we are compressing into 11.”

For the sake of the 2023 Charles Schwab Challenge, which should be held in its traditional late May time slot, Colonial officials certainly hope so.

“One of Hanse’s main selling points to the club is that he could complete the project in time in order to not to miss a tournament,” said Michael Tothe, the tournament director of the Charles Schwab Challenge. 

Asked if it seems realistic that Hanse and his crew can pull off what they have promised, Tothe replied. “I don’t know; that’s why I’m not an architect. But we don’t have a Plan B for another site because we still have a tournament to run.”

“It will be a dark day if it’s not finished in time, but that’s why we got one of the best,” Stenholm added.

A Long-Term Project

The pairing of Hanse, who is currently finishing up the massive 36-hole PGA Frisco project with Beau Welling, and Colonial is a project four years in the making. The club first contacted Hanse in 2017 for a long-term restoration plan to bring the course back to its original look and shape, as well as to overcome several decades of wear and tear.

Hanse, who first became known as golf’s hottest architect for his work on the 2016 Olympic Golf course in Rio de Janeiro and later successional restorations at Open sites, Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oakland Hills, outside Detroit, and LA North in Los Angeles, produced the plan as required. But then it sat and sat … and sat some more.

There was plenty of discussion on how Colonial would pay for the project, and then former general manager Michael Rushing gave way to current GM Frank Cordeiro. But perhaps the biggest step to make the project a reality was the involvement of longtime Colonial member and PGA Tour player Ryan Palmer and his caddy James Edmonson, a former Colonial club champion.

Pinehurst No. 4

Over the last six months, they walked the par-71 Colonial multiple times with Hanse, who was in town offering ideas on how to make the ambitious plan better and how to sell it to the members.

“In 2017, Gil Hanse came to the table, but in the last six months, it was Ryan Palmer and James Edmonson. And that has been huge, because they have credibility with everybody liking them and believing in them,” said Colonial member and board member Marc Goodman. 

“It took a while, but we finally got it done,” said Leonard.

Despite the Colonial board unanimously approving the project, there was still the matter of the all-member vote. Technically, a 51 percent “yes” vote would seal the deal, but after four years of talking and planning, Colonial members wanted closure and overall club concurrence.

For the final town hall meeting, Leonard rose to speak to the membership about the monumental decision that would greatly impact the club her father founded. 

“I wanted them to know what they were missing out on if we didn’t approve this,” Leonard said. “Gil Hanse is the most sought-after architect in the country, and this is a great opportunity for us.  But if we don’t pass this, we may not have another opportunity.”

“Getting the great Hanse renovation passed was a big hurdle … a big, big hurdle for the club,” added longtime head golf professional Dow Finesterwald, who recently retired from his full-time role. “We’re celebrating our 75th tournament anniversary this year.  If we don’t get it passed, maybe we don’t see the 76th celebration. That’s probably not true, but you don’t know for sure.” 

Palmer, who first came to Colonial 31 years ago, at age 13, when his dad took him to the tournament to see Nick Price and Greg Norman play, said he was honored to be asked to help out with the project that would improve a course and a club he loves so much.

“At first James and I were walking the holes with Gil and seeing what he had to say and what his thoughts were. And then we started adding things. ‘What about this? Or this? Could we take that away or leave that?’

“It was a very cool experience. One thing I told the members in the final meeting is that if we don’t do this with Gil, we’re going to continue to go backwards. This will push us forward as a club.”

With the words of Leonard and Palmer and others ringing in their heads, members voted to approve the plan by an 83 percent margin – an astounding total in any election.

“It’s harder for the older members, because it will interfere with their social schedule, for sure,” said Pat Henggeler. “But it had to be done and done right, and that’s what we are doing with Gil Hanse. The young members are totally for it because they know what it will mean for the future of the club.

“Let’s prepare for the next 75 years. I’m pleased that more than 80 percent of the members voted for this. It just doesn’t happen by accident; it took a lot of hard work and communication,” Goodman added.

Under the agreement voted on by the members, the course will be totally shut down for 11 months, starting immediately after the last putt drops in the 2022 tournament in late May. The tentative reopening date is April 15, 2023, approximately five weeks before the PGA Tour event.

Ohoopee Match Club

“We all know that’s dependent on the weather we get here and how many days we get to work on the course,” said Palmer. “Maybe everything isn’t totally finished by the time we play (in the 2023 tournament), but the fairways are ready and the greens are good, and we can play an event here.”

How to pay for the $21 million dollar project, a large number for any private club, was another long-term point of study and sometimes source of contention.

Unlike Fort Worth’s Shady Oaks Country Club, which recently finished a similar renovation, club bylaws at Colonial don’t allow the club to assess the members for the money spent. Instead, the monthly dues for Colonial members – approximately 800 golf members and 500 social—will slowly rise over the next several months and years, with the goal of totally paying off the project over a seven-year period.

“It’s really not as much as you would think,” said Goodman. “At Shady Oaks, where I’m also a member, we were assessed $14,000 each for the renovation they did there.”

The initiation fee to join Colonial Country Club, currently at $70,000 according to the members, will likely go up for those who want to be a part of the new Colonial layout and club.

“Once the word got out on the new Hanse renovation, we already had people wanting to join a waiting list to get in the club,” said Stenholm. “That is going to happen a lot.”

No Radical Changes

While the first spade of dirt is just nearly a year away from being turned at Colonial, and anything is liable to change, those who have seen and participated in the Hanse plans stressed there is no radical or routing changes in the new layout.

“That’s the first thing (PGA Tour) players told me at Torrey Pines, when I took the Hanse books out there to show them, is don’t change anything; it’s an awesome course. I said we’re not changing things at Colonial, we’re making them better,” Palmer said.

The primary focus of the Colonial course work will be to restore it to the original condition when Perry Maxwell and John Bredemus designed the course in the midst of the Great Depression. All the greens and the bunkers, and some of the fairways, on the course will be lowered.

Many bunkers will be removed, especially in the fairways and trees on the 10th and many other places. 

“This is an exciting time for Colonial,” said Leonard. “Both Colonial and I are 84 years old; we were born in the same year. The first pictures I have here are when I was 7 or 8 years old. I’ve been here a lot and seen a lot, but I think our best years are truly ahead of us.”

One of the things Hanse stressed in his multiple meetings with members is the new course, “will be harder for the professional, but easier for the members.” 

“I didn’t really understand what that means the first time I heard it, but once Gil explained it, it made perfect sense,” Henggeler said.

According to Palmer, that means the many course bunkers – which most amateurs fear but professionals actually aim for – will be removed or shrunken in size.

“Colonial has the best bunkers on the PGA Tour, and we’re aiming for them because they are easier to escape or spin the ball,” said Palmer.

In its place will be grass rough, light enough where most amateurs can advance the ball toward the hole but thick enough during the tournament that PGA Tour players will have a hard time escaping with the proper amount of spin to get the ball on the green.

The biggest changes to the course will be to a pair of par-3s, the eighth and 13th holes. The eighth green will be shifted to the left to take advantage of the creek that runs to the left, with the seventh green moving left to the creek as well.

On the par-3 13th, the party gathering spot during the annual tournament, the green will move several feet to the left and bunkers are scheduled to be placed in front of the putting surface to add to the challenge.

Leonard said the brush and the trees on the par-4 fifth hole, part of the famed Horrible Horseshoe, will be removed to add to the danger of the Trinity River, which runs alongside the right side of the fairway.

“You wouldn’t even know the Trinity River is there if you’re playing the course for the first time,” Leonard said.

“On the back nine, we are changing the banking on No 12, and hopefully we can find some way to get rid of the levee on holes 11-12,” she added. “We are also going to make a more natural area between 17 and 18 instead of that concrete ditch we have now.”

The bentgrass greens, which Marvin Leonard incorporated when he left Riverchase Country Club in Fort Worth to build Colonial, will survive in the Hanse plans.

A unique hydronic water system will be placed underneath all the Colonial greens, which cools or heats the 777 bentgrass greens on a regular basis and tricks the grass to thinking it’s prime October conditions all year long.

“That’s something that was unthinkable when (architect) A.W. Tillinghast was doing work. Nothing like that even was thought of, but it will help maintain the grass all year here,” said architect Keith Foster, who recently finished a similar project at Dallas’ Brook Hollow Country Club. 

Unique Foundation

Whatever the final outcome, the Colonial is, and will continue to be, one of the most unique and traditional stops on the pro golf calendar.

Only the Colonial and the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club are run, organized and overseen by club members, and only those two prestigious events have been in the same location and course every year of their existence.

“It’s a true statement that both us and Augusta are run by the members and have been in the same place since we started. We take great pride in that,” said Stenholm. “It’s passed down from generation to generation.”

“The Colonial still owns the tournament, even though the Tour is also pushing us to turn it over to a 501(c)(3) organization,” said Henggeler. “It’s really hard to do it as a club sometimes, but the members still embrace it and want to improve.”

“It’s a wonderful golf course. All we’re asking Gil to do is not mess it up,” added a third longtime member.

Over the next three years at the storied Fort Worth facility, it will be a real-life golf drama played out for all Lone Star links lovers to see.


Other Notable Gil Hanse Designs, Renovations and Restorations

Original Designs

The Los Angeles Country Club – South Course – CA

Streamsong Resort – Black Course – FL

Ohoopee Match Club – GA

Boston Golf Club – MA

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club – No. 4 and The Cradle Short Course – NC

The Olympic Golf Course – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Renovation Projects

Soule Park Golf Course – CA

Royal Sydney Golf Club – Sydney, Australia

Narin & Portnoo Links – Donegal, Ireland

Restoration Projects

The Olympic Club – CA

The Country Club – MA

Myopia Hunt Club – MA

Oakland Hills Country Club – MI

Baltustrol Golf Club – NJ

Fishers Island Club – NY

Sleepy Hollow Country Club – NY

Winges Foot Golf Club – NY

Southern Hills Country Club – OK