In studying the original designs of legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, Keith Foster knew restoring Baltimore Country Club's East Course to its intended look would not be as difficult as some of the jobs he had undertaken at other classic venues.
The first time Foster saw the Timonium course, he didn't want to leave.
He walked it three times in one day.
"I was in a trance the whole day," Foster recalled recently. "Unlike a lot of classic courses, there weren't a lot of things that had been done to the course. It was always beautiful and always seamless, but it was a little tired around the edges. All it had to be is polished and cleaned up a little bit."
Foster, who has worked on such venerable courses as Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., and Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, saw the project of restoring this 80-year old beauty outside Baltimore to its glamorous past as much a history lesson as a study in modern golf architecture.
Mostly, he tried to stay out of the way of good old "Tilly," whom Foster reveres so much that he named his 12-year-old Brittany Spaniel after him.
"The driving element for me to do my work is to do the work in a way that it doesn't look like I've been there," Foster said from his home in Paris, Ky., last week. "That's really important for me, because I don't want to impose what I think should happen or what the look really should be."
The success of the project, which took a little more than three years from the time Foster was first hired, will be up for serious inspection beginning today, when 78 members of the PGA Champions Tour arrive to begin practicing in preparation of the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship.
The tournament - one of five major championships on the 50-and-over Champions Tour and the first major professional event at the club since the 1988 U.S. Women's Open - starts Thursday.
"You're really riding the edge," Foster said of restoring a golf course. "If you do too much, everyone knows, and if you don't do enough, everyone still talks about it."
Club general manager Michael Stott said the principal idea behind the multimillion-dollar restoration, the cost of which was shared by the club and the PGA Tour, was to make the Five Farms course "relevant again" in terms of modern technology. It appears that Foster accomplished that goal.
While most of the players have yet to test their skills on the course, which has a major golf history dating to the 1928 PGA Championship, the early reviews have applauded Foster's work. It has been ranked as highly as the No. 1 course in Maryland by Golfweek, and No. 83 in the country by Golf Magazine.
Longtime member George Frank agreed with the assessment.
"I would say that the rough is a lot tougher than it normally is, but everything is in A-1 condition," Frank said as he pulled his cart off the course one afternoon last week. "The bunkers look good. Every bunker has the same quality of sand in it. Perfect. The tee boxes look good. The greens are in magnificent shape, but they usually are."
Said Foster: "I never really want anyone to focus on the changes I've made, because if anyone can pick up changes, then I've overstepped my bounds."
Foster and his crew rebuilt and set all 97 bunkers to their original style, and moved about 30 percent of them without affecting Tillinghast's intention. They regrassed and redrained every green, softly cut the greens at Nos. 3, 9 and 12 to slow them a touch, and pushed the green at 17 out to the right to give the players a better landing area. They also releveled and realigned every tee box.
In their one concession to modern technology, they added more than 300 yards to a course that now plays a shade longer than 7,000, the longest par-70 on the Champions Tour.
Another longtime member, Lou Manzo, said iron play will be rewarded, as is often the case on Tillinghast courses such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol and San Francisco Golf Club.
"It's tough to make birdies; the course is in magnificent shape, so if you're willing to take the risk and you can hit accurate irons and straight drives, staying out of the rough, you can score very well," Manzo said. "If you don't have accuracy, you will pay the price."
Course superintendent Tim Kenelly, who has worked at major championship courses such as Oakmont outside Pittsburgh and Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, said the balance between making it playable for members and competitive for players on the Champions Tour has been reached.
"The rough - we've been slowly increasing the height with that; I think the members have adjusted to that," Kenelly said one day last week. "We're raising the height of the mowers to slow the greens down; the members will play the greens a lot faster than the pros do."
With the rough at 3 1/4 inches - "Next year they [the PGA Tour] suggested it be 3 inches," Kenelly said with a smile - and the speed of the greens going down from a high of 11 on the Stimpmeter (how many feet a ball will roll off the instrument until it comes to a complete stop), Kenelly doesn't expect the field to put up outrageously low numbers. Or high ones, either.
"We don't want them to kill the golf course; we want them to have a great respect for the golf course," Kenelly said. "But it's so long since the gentlemen have played competitively here, nobody really knows what to expect. We want them to think about how tough it was; we want it to be a good test."
Foster will come for a one-day visit tomorrow before moving on to Wilmington, Del., to work on another project. He will likely visit the Tillinghast Room inside the club that stores some of the designer's original aerial photos and blueprints, which Foster studied intently.
"What's great about Five Farms is that when Tilly designed and built it, he built a really masculine kind of golf course that has tremendous scale," Foster said. "There are some golf courses that feel very small and tight. One of the charms of Five Farms is that it feels very wide and very accommodating. I think the players will love it because it's reminiscent of a classic, old-school golf course."