23 The Dodo that Saved Scioto Johnny Weingart

The Dodo that Saved Scioto

One of the most improbable tools in renovation history led to the restoration of a Donald Ross classic

A live dodo has not been spotted since about 1700. Most naturalists believe that’s when the 30- to 50-pound avian species, native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, went extinct. Since then, Raphus cucullatus has been the object of popular speculation and mockery as to its character, apparently as one of the most dimwitted creatures that ever lived. 

But on a certain set of fairways in Columbus, Ohio, the dodo is now a revered figure. In what is one of the more unlikely finds in the history of golf course renovation, a drawing titled As the Dodo-Bird Views the Scene of the National Open Championship—1926 became the map for Andrew Green’s 2021 renovation of Scioto Country Club.

23 The Dodo that Saved Scioto Johnny Weingart

The drawing, created for the 1926 U.S. Open at the club, proved uncannily accurate, providing more-conclusive evidence than all the other available maps, drawings and photographs assembled to determine the evolution of Donald Ross’ original 1916 design. 

Still, many around the club were incredulous when they first heard of the plan. The comments around the 19th hole were some variation of “We’re going to base the restoration of our golf course on a cartoon?”

But from the moment Green confirmed the accuracy of the drawing, he knew he was onto something special. “It was the additional piece of evidence,” he says, “that gave me the confidence we were on the right track.”

That willingness to use all available tools has made Green, 43, a hot commodity for big-name renovations. It was no surprise that Scioto—whose provenance includes a long list of impressive championships, including the 1926 U.S. Open, 1931 Ryder Cup, 1950 PGA Championship, 1968 U.S. Amateur, and U.S. Senior Opens in 1986 and 2016—would tap him. Green spent 14 years as a field supervisor for a major golf course contractor, McDonald and Sons Inc., before hanging out his own shingle as a one-man band in 2014. Since then he’s had a steady succession of hits, with wildly acclaimed restorations of classic-era championship venues like Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio; Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York; Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland; and Wannamoisett Country Club in Providence, Rhode Island.

23 The Dodo that Saved Scioto Johnny Weingart
23 The Dodo that Saved Scioto Johnny Weingart
A cartoon from 1926 sitting in the clubhouse archive eventually became the map for Andrew Green and his team’s restoration.

There’s a reason he’s in demand: His level of preparation in studying the golf course to be restored is akin to the work of a museum curator immersed in the catacombs, mining for precious artifacts. The result is a master-plan portfolio that is part work of art and part exhaustive documentation showing how every feature—putting surface, bunker, mound, tee, swale or creek bed—was originally intended, how it evolved and how it will be accentuated in its revival.

The demand for accuracy and comprehensiveness is all the more acute these days, when renovation costs run deep into the seven figures, active memberships are ever vocal and, beyond them, the always-opinionated golf architecture world is watching on social media and in chat rooms. In the case of Scioto, the stakes were even higher. Among those closely monitoring the situation was none other than arguably the greatest golfer who ever lived: Jack Nicklaus grew up playing there.

Turns out, though, that the Scioto Nicklaus knew as he was learning the game in the 1950s had already evolved from its original design. Back in the early 1920s, Scioto’s golf professional, George Sargent, who also served as president of the PGA of America, tinkered with the course while getting the young layout selected for the 1926 U.S. Open and the 1931 Ryder Cup. Tree plantings popped up. Centerline bunkers got covered. 

Then came some heavy-handed modernization in the early 1960s by Dick Wilson and his two associates, Joe Lee and Robert von Hagge. Going along with the popular fad of the day, they raised all the bunkers and greens 3 to 5 feet above natural grade, transforming a ground-game course into an aerial one. 

A number of renovation projects in the 1980s by the Nicklaus group, which continued on into 2006 under the combined aegis of Nicklaus and Michael Hurdzan, addressed technical aspects of greens and bunker reconstruction, but did not involve a fundamental reassessment of Scioto’s historic character. 

Having done a modest tree-management plan for Scioto in 2000, I was asked back in 2015 and wrote a consulting report on the need to restore the course to its roots. By then, the people in charge, including recently hired superintendent Bob Becker and a number of highly motivated committee folk, did not need much convincing. They were off and running, gathering up documentary material while conducting a national search that led to Green’s hiring.

Green’s draft of a master plan called for a complete return to Scioto’s historical heyday. But which one? With many classic venues, it is not always clear which incarnation of the course should return. It’s a decision every architect doing a restoration must confront: Does one honor the original design on paper, how it was first built, how it stood at its peak historical moment, some version of its evolution, or a combination that takes the early forms and interprets them with enough latitude to adjust to modern play, maintenance and available land?

At Scioto, Green homed in on the 1926 version. He could tell from Ross’ original 1916 drawing that the course was either never fully built to the plan on paper or that it had quickly devolved from it in terms of bunkering and some green shapes. Before Ross hired a civil engineer named Walter Irving Johnson in October 1920, his course plans had a simple quality, without the kind of graphic clarity, scale and detailing of construction depths they were to acquire in the 1920s. Green and the team were stymied in discovering enough available evidence for the 1926 version; what they found was piecemeal, with oblique-angled imagery that showed parts of the golf course, but no overall picture.

 Then the dodo landed. When they unfurled the hand-drawn cartoon from the club archive, the bird’s-eye view created a totality of the picture that Green needed to move ahead with restoration. He calls it “the missing piece in the puzzle.” 

23 The Dodo that Saved Scioto Johnny Weingart
The cartoon’s accuracy, especially with the seven bunkers that surround the ninth green (above), convinced Andrew Green that it should be used as a guide.

For Green and the renovation team, there was every reason to believe that the drawing was accurate. For one, its depiction of certifiably known and documented elements like the seven bunkers around the green at the par-3 ninth hole—especially the placement and shape of the three small bunkers to the rear—is dead on. The artwork shows a proliferation of short cross bunkers as well as mid-fairway bunkers on holes 1, 5, 7, 11, 13 and 18—a playful abundance that would seem to align with Ross at his most imaginative. It also shows many squared-off entrances to greens, something which would make sense only if they’d been built at natural grade. 

The illustrator’s credentials provided more bona fides. Dudley Fisher Jr. (1890–1951) was a Columbus-born cartoonist who had studied at the Ohio State University to be an architect before dropping out to work as a layout artist at The Columbus Dispatch newspaper. There, he worked as an artist and cartoonist—eventually nationally syndicated—until his death. He had served in an aerial-photography unit during World War I before rejoining the Dispatch in 1919. While at the paper, he created the daily color panel Jolly Jingles. In 1937, Fisher authored a one-panel Sunday page of a farm family called Right Around Home that, like Jolly Jingles, was syndicated nationally. King Features Syndicate, the distributor, asked Fisher to do a daily version of Right Around Home in comic-strip form. This became Myrtle, a strip that began in 1942 and continued for the rest of his life.

Fisher’s combined skills as an architecture student, illustrator and aerial photographer would have made him ideal for the task of the dodo drawing. There is circumstantial evidence that he based the cartoon on aerial photographs that he took himself, then transcribed into drawings. The brilliance of the artwork is not only the detail, but the depth and elevation that he captured. Green and his team decided Fisher wasn’t freelancing or simply making things up, and they trusted his rendering.

But as one final test of the drawing’s verisimilitude, Green Photoshopped it into a three-dimensional orthographic image and overlaid it on a contemporary, undistorted aerial of the Scioto grounds. “It fit like a glove in terms of scale,” Green tells me. “That gave us a high degree of confidence in its accuracy and reliability.”

Green says he would get “lost” in the image. “There are so many intricate details that I spent countless hours reviewing,” he says. “I have a framed image of it hanging over my desk in my office now and still find myself getting sidetracked staring at it.”  

Scott Miller, a longtime Scioto member who serves as club historian, says that the dodo image was less a sudden discovery than simply an aha! moment. “We all had seen the cartoon before,” he says. “It had been published in The Columbus Dispatch the week before the 1926 U.S. Open and been reproduced in other sports pages. We had a copy of it in our files. But the full extent of how accurate it was and what that meant for recapturing our own evolution was the big reveal.”

Becker, the superintendent, marvels at the detailing of the cartoon—“everything from the gaslights on the street to the fencing, the timber work on the club’s water tower and which houses were built at the time,” he says. “We compared it with auditor’s maps from Franklin County and found the image precise as to which houses were built by the time of the U.S. Open and which lots were empty.”

Despite the accuracy of those details, exact green contours were still difficult to ascertain. But a set of ground photography of the Scioto greens for the 1931 Ryder Cup program provided enough of a reference point to proceed with restoring the putting surfaces. The intensive work took place in the summer of 2021: The golf course was completely skinned and the grades of bunkers and putting surfaces were lowered considerably, back to natural terrain level.

While that work was ongoing, the initial skepticism of the membership began to ebb. The clubhouse remained open during the renovation, and a colorized version of the cartoon occupied center stage as soon as the first shovels went into the ground. The image went from curiosity to conversation starter to what it is now: a point of pride.

Andrew Green (above, at left) was so impressed with the Scioto cartoon that he has it framed above his desk in his office.

When the renovation was complete and the course reopened in June 2022, folks at Scioto smiled at the new dodo placemats in the grillroom, knowing it was the key to what had unfolded outside. And what’s out there has been greeted by members and guests alike with rave reviews for its boldness.

Since the course’s reopening, Scioto head golf professional Joe Falardeau has been playing it with a number of guests and course raters. “Every rater I’ve played with has told me during or after the round that the course is so much better,” he says. “One told me, ‘These are the best set of renovated greens I’ve ever seen.’”

It’s the kind of quiet minor miracle that gives a classic like Scioto even more character. Nobody could draw up a scenario like that. Or so they thought.

Header photo: A bird’s-eye view of the eighth hole at Scioto Country Club