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Stewarding History – Meadow Club’s Sean Tully

As I took a deep breath and savored the crisp, wine-sweet, forest-fragrant air, the October sun’s rays began their last golden stretch across Alister Mackenzie and Robert Hunter’s Meadow Club. Tall trees cast long autumn shadows against the Northern California mountainside, a stark contrast to the burnished amber fescue and verdant fairways. And iridescent fringes of vermillion illuminated Mount Tamalpais in a crown of glory.

It was a moment of grace that every ardent golfer treasures; when golf transcends the scorecard, the traffic of the world vanishes, and the player is left with just the soothing warmth of the course as it embraces him with its Old World charm.

Presented in perfect harmony with its surroundings, the Meadow Club is one of the most eminently natural courses you’ll find anywhere, a mountaintop reverie. There is a timeless feel to the course, a dryad loveliness, and with the right kind of eyes, you can see the coats and ties of the Golden Age players mingling with the Ecco and Puma crowd of today’s era, and every generation between.

Perhaps there’s no more appropriate person to lead Meadow Club into the 21st Century than their head superintendent, Sean Tully. Tully is also a golf historian, and his scholarship is renowned as the sage by the game’s ruling authorities, Tully having written the definitive work on many western courses, including Olympic Club and Valley Club of Montecito. He even sits on the prestigious USGA Architecture Archives Committee, researching and collecting the great historical treasures of the game.

“It’s important to study golf history and architecture because that tells you not only how a course was designed to be played, but maintained. You learn not only how he wanted the course to be defended, but how it should be presented,” Tully declares. “That helps supers, greens committees, and future architects evaluate what ideas should be embraced when changes are being considered to a golf course and what changes should be avoided.”

During his career, Tully has made some profound discoveries, occasionally turning accepted history on its ear. One of his most impressive revelations – a few say “controversial” – was that fabled San Francisco Golf Club may not be the A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece that many scholars make it out to be.

“They claim it’s a Tillinghast, but he was just one of the many brushes that made changes to the design,” Tully expounds intelligently. “The original architects were three members. Then several unknown hands came in, perhaps even Willie Locke who become the head professional from 1918-21.”

Tully further explains that while Tillinghast came in and made changes – most notably to the bunkering – so too did William Bell.

“There are at least three different architects’ style bunkers, maybe more. Plus, the routing was finished before Tillinghast even came in, and that’s the foundation of the entire course – of any course!”

Even Tully’s own family isn’t immune to his fact-checking and historical revision. Indeed, his entire career as a historian may have been triggered by an old family saw he was forced to debunk.

“I grew up in Wisconsin and my father was a fine amateur player who qualified for the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1961. The family used to tell this story about how Dad beat out Jack Nicklaus for the final spot in the tournament, but when I researched that in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, I found out that Nicklaus didn’t have to qualify – he had a sponsor’s invite. The story just wasn’t true. I loved the mythology, but as a historian that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to refute.”

With such an eye towards both accuracy and authenticity, no club could ask for a better steward for its Mackenzie course. Tully fully understands that Mackenzie’s legacy is precious, quintessentially important to American golf, Meadow Club especially so because it was Mackenzie and Hunter’s first collaboration in North America.

The Club needed Tully’s particular historical expertise. The intervening decades had not been kind. Mackenzie and Hunter’s design opened in 1927, but by the 1940s Harold Sampson was already at work adding bunkers. He was followed by, among others, Robert Muir Graves and Forrest Richardson. By the time Tully arrived in 1999, trees loomed ominously over fairways, green sizes dwindled from indifferent mowing patterns, and bunkers had been added like bakers put buttercream frosting flowers on a cake.

“They poured gravy all over the golf course,” Tully sneered acidly, and he’s right.

But in 1999 the club righted the ship and chose minimalist Mike DeVries four others, (including Rees Jones). It was around then that Tully began his 17-year career at the club (thus far), nine years as Assistant Superintendent before ascending to the top spot eight years ago. Tully, his team, and DeVries set to work right away; about 400 trees were removed, opening up wide vista all across the property.

“Meadow Club is a prime example of some Mackenzie’s design theories, and they need to shine. He wanted long views across his golf courses because he liked to tie in features of one hole with those of a hole off in the distance,” he stated.

Some call the concept “the Principle of Natural Harmony,” where a feature on the hole will mimic a feature off in the distance. At Meadow Club, you’ll this when you stand in the fourth fairway. On one side of the fairway the bunkers on that hole line up with the bunkers on the fifth hole. On the other side of the fairway, the bunkers in the fourth fairway line up with bunkers on the 14th hole.

“That’s not by accident. It’s meant to get in your mind by putting the visual in your head,” explains Tully. “Those bunkers are not just eye candy. It also shows why you don’t put trees behind greens.”

Meadow Club is also at the vanguard of two other important sustainability movements in golf – the conservative use of water and the sharing of adjacent fairways with no rough.

“We understand not everything has to be green,” confides Tully. “Drought forced us to use less water, and we made it work. We kept the course a little drier, and the response of the members was, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Our goal is not to get a certain color, but to get a playable, fast and firm conditioning – what shade it is doesn’t matter.”

Moreover, by shaving all the rough between fairways, not only will balls roll into bunkers more easily, but wider fairways translates to more playing angles. In particular, the side-by-side par-5s at 13 and 15 share an Elysian Fields-like double fairway, similar to what you’d find at St. Andrews or Old Town Club. Goofy slices may end up in bunkers on the wrong hole.

But Tully and team’s greatest success is the masterful job of making the course blend seamlessly with its natural setting, downright radiant. just as Mackenzie would have presented it. One of the brightest stars in the Mackenzie constellation, Meadow Club deserves to be spoken of in the conversation of Mackenzie’s greatest courses, along with Cypress Point, Valley Club, and Augusta National.

“What a place for me to do my two favorite things,” Tully beams. “Historical research and managing trees!”

You can follow Sean on Twitter at @tullfescue and @meadow1927

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