Review for Sunnehanna

Reviewer Score:


During 1889, a hunting club operated by Andrew Carnegie and friends made alterations to a local dam, weakening its resolve and ultimately causing a massive flood that devastated the city of Johnstown. The separate golf club Carnegie looked to establish above the city was handled more properly on all levels, thank God, and the results of that project shine on today.

Carnegie, of course, made most of his fortune in Pittsburgh, just a few hours West, so it’s little surprise that he may have sought some points of comparison from that city’s classic courses. Although Tillinghast himself expressed disapproval for the geometric tendencies of MacRaynor, it’s worth considering whether input from his wealthy employer may have influenced Tillie in the slightest. Oakmont is the toast of Pittsburgh, of course, and Raynor would have been constructing Fox Chapel at the exact same time as Tillie’s work at Sunnehanna. Understanding the latter’s success is a matter of measuring Tillinghast’s fingerprint on Raynor’s aesthetics.

It would be absurd to suggest the greens play as anything but Tillinghast, with considerable humps and scale to make both putters and pitchers sweat. Your correspondent’s caddie reported a Stimp-score of 13, and our broken dignity tends to agree. The architect was better known for longer templates—i.e. Great Hazards and Reefs—but two of the Par 3s at Sunnehanna are subtle twists on classic ideas. The more dramatic example is No. 5, which is rather square compared to the classic “Redan” green. But the optimal shot will catch the front left and funnel toward the flag at the center, performing rather like a Reverse Redan. It’s unlikely any shot will funnel hard enough to catch the pond on the right, but the thought will linger off the tee. No. 10 is elevated and plays to a traditional “Short” template distance, but only has bunkering at the left and right bunker. Understanding how Tillinghast opposed bunkers fronting his greens, it’s reasonable to consider the deep trench at the fore to be his alternate take on the “Short.”

The logistics of lugging sand uphill may have prevented any true Great Hazard, but there are subtle indications Tillinghast tried his best on Nos. 11 and 15, both of which feature sizable bunkers that cut at least halfway into the fairway from the right. No. 11 features a pit of significant depth, which is invisible until once crests the peak off the uphill tee shot. It will take GIR off the table for those blindly fading right. The biggest hitters at the annual Sunnehanna Amateur could conceivably play too aggressively and drive into the pit, essentially taking a penalty for its depth. After a good tee shot, the approach will not be long, but it will roll downhill into a green that moves from front to back—one of many on the course that behaves this way. It’s an uncomfortable tactic for the average and, when the greens play as quickly as stated, an eagle approach quickly can become par. No. 15 (which fulfills Tillighast’s “Double Dogleg” template) features a “Great-Ish Hazard” of its own, jutting across the fairway with a shape more natural to Tillinghast. Every bunker on this Par 5 deserves credit, however. The tee shot must contend with three at the corner of the dogleg, staggered and rising in altitude with the hill. Finally, the deepest bunker on the course sits at the left of the green, its steep walls bordering on Charles Banks.

Many of the bunkers mentioned across this review, and to great measure on holes such as Nos. 6 and 17, are invisible to the player during the shot. It’s a classic tactic that punishes those who play brashly, and a psychological tool to cast doubt, even upon well-struck shots. It’s a wonderful strategic move, if not a photogenic one. That may be the Sunnehanna’s first sin in a nation where course raters place undue emphasis on prettiness. A second, more legitimate complaint is the disappointing conclusion to the round...a relatively bland Par 4 on a course with very few bland holes.

I heard suggestions for future improvements at Sunnehanna, and for what little your correspondent’s opinion is worth, they sound excellent. Sunnehanna may not quite merit Oakmont and Fox Chapel status, but it does deserve more than “little brother” status. After all, Johnstown’s Conemaugh River floodwaters are not influenced by rainfall in Pittsburgh. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Date: September 09, 2019

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