August 14, 2007

In Search Of Higher Ground

With unmatched grit and grace, a community salvages the historic, flood-ravaged Shawnee Inn -- again

An idyllic setting for the historic course turns nasty when the Delaware River floods.

An idyllic setting for the historic course turns nasty when the Delaware River floods.

When you hear the stories and you see the almost-eerie flood photographs of the nearly century-old Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, the first thing you wonder is why the people of this place continue to stay. History and natural majesty, of course, are for the most part permanent -- floods cannot really wash them away. But people, let's face it, break down. People, after a time, cut their losses.

The people at Shawnee, home to the first golf course designed by A.W. Tillinghast, are not typical, however. Their troubled slice of the planet has been the host venue to national championships, a major championship and, by many accounts, initiated the idea of a PGA of America. But today Shawnee is trying to overcome its recent, nearly unbelievably unfortunate history. Its people, unbreakable, remain undeterred by photographs that show a golf course as a roaring river, a new practice facility as a lake, a vintage resort hotel like so many lower decks on the Titanic.

"Why am I still here?" Lance Heil, Shawnee's superintendent who has worked under longtime superintendent and now director of golf Steve Taggart through more mess than anybody could imagine, laughs gently at the illogic of it all. Then he answers in terms that aren't about business or a job or calculated risk. He answers with the only words that make sense in the wake of three floods in 22 months, in the wake of reconstructing 65 bunkers three times in that span, in the wake of trying to grow grass after a raging river has left behind silt piled a foot-and-a-half thick across entire fairways and greens. "Why?" says Heil. "I love this place."

Love seems to be keeping Shawnee alive these days, love and muddy shoes and sandbags and a belief in what the place is. It's really the love of a family, both literally and figuratively, and what makes it all so exceptionally compelling is that this isn't any old golf course beside the edge of a river that has run into some bad weather. It is a faded photograph of the history of American golf, and these people are keeping it from being washed away.

The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort was once called the golf capital of America. Set on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border on the edge of the Delaware Water Gap, it was conceived by wealthy industrialist Charles C. Worthington at the turn of the 20th century as an escape from New York for family and friends. Climbing over a hill in 1909 while surveying the property with a friend, he discovered an island in the middle of the river. The island would be the site for the golf course, and the friend would be the designer. That friend, Tillinghast, was so moved by the land that he wrote poetry about it.

Tillinghast's 18 holes would be the showpiece for Worthington's famed Buckwood Inn (the name was changed to Shawnee Inn later), and the annual Shawnee Open drew the biggest names in golf, including Harry Vardon, Ted Ray, Freddie McLeod, Alex Smith and Johnny McDermott. At the 1913 tournament Worthington proposed in a letter to the participants that the professional golfers of the day ought to get together and organize their numbers. While Rodman Wanamaker gets credit for the establishment of the PGA of America, an excerpt from the program for the 1938 PGA Championship (held at Shawnee, as well, and won by Paul Runyan in a memorable thrashing of Sam Snead) makes it clear: "It was the thought expressed in that letter that gave the boys the idea of forming a professional association." Shawnee also was host site for a U.S. Women's Amateur in 1919 (won by three-time champion Alexa Stirling) and an NCAA Championship in 1967, won by another legend, Hale Irwin.

Worthington's Inn was built of a unique substance for the times -- concrete -- and the walls were a foot thick in places. (The material would turn out to be, unfortunately, an especially prescient choice.) The resort's purchase by entertainer Fred Waring in 1943 turned the spot into a celebrity hangout for the next four decades and included a controversial-to-this-day expansion and reworking of the course to include 27 holes.

Waring and his group, the Pennsylvanians, would do their radio show from the resort and stars such as Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Lucille Ball, Ed Sullivan and Perry Como would make regular appearances on the premises. Gleason learned the game at Shawnee, as a matter of fact. Arnold Palmer met his late wife Winnie at Shawnee, and President Eisenhower spent time at the resort, too.

As impressive as that historical timeline is, recent developments at Shawnee are more stunning than any collection of marquee talent. In the last 11 years the Shawnee Inn has been caught in the wrath of the flooding Delaware River five times. Not idle events, this sort of flooding has been record-setting. In 1996 the island golf course was overcome and the first floor of the resort, its boilers, air-conditioning and all mechanical systems were destroyed, literally weeks after a multimillion dollar renovation project had begun. It would be a pattern Taggart and his staff unfortunately would get used to. A decade later Taggart would be digging out from his third devastating flood in less than two years.

"It was just heart-wrenching," Taggart says today, proud not only that he has come through the other side but that the resort is turning a corner. In June 2006 lingering thundershowers dumped eight inches on the region and the island golf course, the first floor of the resort, the recently renovated teaching academy and short course were under water again. Again, the devastation came after renovations and repairs from previous flooding had totaled $2 million.

That's right, previous flooding. In September 2004 the remnants of Hurricane Ivan produced the third-worst flood in the region since 1900. The following April another flood supplanted the Ivan mess as the surging Delaware, which flows normally at a brisk 30,000 cubic feet per second, grew to a devastating pace more than seven times that number. Darin Bevard, an agronomist with the USGA Green Section, visited Shawnee within days. He says it took him an hour just to come to grips with what he was staring at.

Shawnee Golf Resort

"I've made more than a thousand site visits in my time, and it was the most overwhelming feeling I'd ever had," he says, noting that nearly three-fourths of the bunkers were washed away down to the drainage pipes. "What I saw there was unlike anything I had ever seen. They literally had front-end loaders with box blades trying to clear the silt off the fairways. The amazing thing, though, was how quickly they were able to reopen."

Of course, just as Shawnee was recovering, the June 2006 flood came and surpassed its predecessors, becoming the new third-worst flood in more than a century. The Delaware crested at some 32 feet, more than 11 feet above flood stage.

The staff at Shawnee was ready, though. In addition to evacuating resort guests well in advance of the rising waters, every able-bodied grounds worker helped move every piece of equipment to the highest point on the golf course, and then every staff member moved everything -- furniture, computers and every single sweater, golf ball and mahogany cabinet out of the golf shop -- before the waters arrived. For the third time in less than two years, the course and resort lost more than a month trying to recover from high waters.

Unbelievably, it nearly flooded again this past April, but waters crested just half a foot below flood stage. Only the collapsible bridge, which has served as the sole connection between the shore and the golf course for nearly a century, was pushed aside, only to be retrieved and reset in place.

In a way that bridge is like the place itself. Bending, not breaking, re-establishing itself once again. Weaker souls might have left. But Shawnee, despite the battering and the bruises, is not a place of weakness. Indeed, like the bald eagle that nests near the seventh hole, it is rebuilding again, thriving even in the wake of near extinction. New deluxe cottages will open this fall, and a state-of-the-art spa made its debut in June.

More than 90 weddings were scheduled for the resort this year, and the rooms at the main hotel have been upgraded with creature comforts such as high-thread-count sheets and vintage-style beds and furniture. The main restaurant will update its menu to feature local fare, and there are even plans for a microbrewery.

That vigor, that ambition gets its source from the old man at the helm who never seems to wilt. Charlie Kirkwood's bio lists his age as 72, but he is of sturdier stuff, spry, light on his feet and an even quicker thinker. A man who when he wants something done has little patience for it not being done, such as the tree he had restored after it was struck down in a windstorm, even though it meant hauling a crane out to the middle of the golf course, mind you across an arm of the Delaware River.

He purchased the resort in 1977, and he and his sons Jon and Peter live in houses today less than a mile from the front entrance, just down the road from the Shawnee General Store. At the other end of the street is the Shawnee Playhouse, a C.C. Worthington original that Charlie's wife, Ginny, has lovingly restored and reinvigorated after it was burned to the ground by an arsonist a few years after the family purchased it as part of the resort.

Kirkwood literally came home when he purchased Shawnee, and it's a large part of why he won't let it go, why he won't give up on it. "I caddied here as a boy," he says. "My parents were so intimidated by the place that they wouldn't go past the front gate. They'd drop me off at the entrance. When you think of that, there's no way I could walk away from here. They'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

"This is not a business. It's part of my life."

As Kirkwood likes to say, Shawnee has gotten "too damn good at recovering from floods." And he's not convinced it's entirely a case of really bad luck. Kirkwood and others believe management of the development along the Delaware River has not been as careful as it could have been. Even moreso, a failed plan to build a dam up river has left the region vulnerable. Compounding the issue are upstream reservoirs that have been kept at near-capacity levels for the last decade to serve New York City's water needs in case of a disaster. It's a change from the previous 50 years, says Peter Kirkwood, who under brother Jon's guidance looks to plan the resort's future and preserve its present. "Better policy could help solve a lot of these problems," he says. "I know that every gallon that flows out of those reservoirs is a gallon that ends up in my basement."

While Taggart and his team have saved the golf course repeatedly through the water events of the last three years -- even enhanced it -- they know they could do more if the river would leave them alone. They have added irrigation (put in by their own hands) and are working at developing bent-grass fairways. No question, the course has suffered both physically and in reputation, but walk it today and you have to search closely to find any vestiges of flood damage. Still, the big idea on the table is to restore the layout to its original 18-hole Tillinghast roots. It would not be an easy decision as the golf course's 27 holes get plenty of business (about 20,000 rounds a year), keeping the Inn busy, paying the bills. To go back to Tillinghast would mean losing nine of those holes, perhaps closing the facility for a year or more and undoubtedly spending a lot more money. All that with at least one eye on the river.

Looking from the outside, of course, it's an easy decision. Tom Doak's Renaissance Golf Design team helped conceive the nifty nine-hole short course that echoes Tillinghast (a course Taggart and his team have had to revive after it was submerged just days after opening last June), and they are on the short list of suitors looking to take the course back to its history. Don Placek, lead associate at Renaissance Golf Design, remembers the day Charlie Kirkwood, who vacations in Michigan, walked into Doak's Traverse City office unannounced. The course at Shawnee would present a rare opportunity.

"The bones are still there, no question about it," says Placek. "When you think of an architect's real vision and style, quite often it's there in that first work. It's there where his passion was at its height."

Another looking in from the outside is architect Ian Scott-Taylor. In a brief conversation his voice cracks several times. Shawnee brings out that sort of pride in certain people, and for Scott-Taylor it has taken on the aura of a crusade. "Courses like this are part of the heritage of golf in this country, and they should be preserved regardless of the cost," says the native Welshman, who when he first came to America had Shawnee at the top of his list of courses he had to see. "This is a seminal piece of American golf course architecture, and when you see it the first time, it really gets in your soul. You worry that it's getting lost."

Charlie Kirkwood is campaigning for a big event to come back to Shawnee, and it is hard not to believe him when he pitches you. He knows the history, knows it is there as long as he and his family keep it alive. Son Jon has the vision and vigor of his father, too. His favorite phrase is "Out with the old, and in with the older."

"This isn't about a checkbook," Jon says. "It's about a conviction."

It is a quiet evening in June, and Taggart is pretty sure he does not hear the Delaware River. He is thankful for that. He takes a deep breath and remembers when it was all around him. He shows you the rusted watermark two-thirds of the way up the side of the old ice-rink building that now serves as the cart storage barn. Yes, he confirms, the water got that high, more than once. Taggart still looks like he could play football the way he did a couple of decades ago. But you know he's been in a fight of another kind, blindsided as it were three times over. It would be easy to say it's not fair. It would be easy to take another job. But Taggart isn't taking the easy way. This place is his, and its people have become his family. It was Charlie Kirkwood, after all, who helped find doctors for Taggart's wife when she needed brain surgery. There's history here at Shawnee.

"When do you leave?" he says, and you can hear the out-riding-fences tired in his voice. "Do you leave when the water's rising for the third time? Or do you wait until the water goes down, when you start seeing things you'd like to do? But how do you do that to a guy whose first question to you every time he sees you is, 'How's your family?'

"You don't stay here because it's a job. You stay here because it's part of your life."