Monday, October 1, 2012

Walking the Golf Course-"Talking to Cows" - Green Valley Country Club

Traveling along the inner pastures and the shoreline of the Aquidneck Island peninsula measuring a mere 15 miles at its longest point and just over 4 miles at its widest, you will be captured by the historic towns of Newport, Portsmouth and Middletown.  In that short drive you will pass by not less than six golf courses including some with “world renowned” associated with their names.  Wanumetonomy, Montaup, Newport National, Carnegie Abby and Newport Country Club rest just a very short jaunt from the subject of this month’s walk, Green Valley Country Club.
When I arrived at Green Valley I was quickly surrounded by Joe Oliveira, the clubs golf course superintendent, former long time superintendent, Gary Sykes and Club staff ready to talk and walk Green Valley.  The tone of the visit was quickly summed up when I posed the question….who is Manny Raposa? Instantly smiles were cast upon their faces and the stories began to spew.  I knew this was a special man.

Play on the 1st green at Green Valley...on original.
Manny Raposa built Green Valley…literally with his own hands.  After being the victim of an eminent domain taking, Raposa purchased a parcel in the middle of Portsmouth with a vision for something special.  Prior to succumbing to the hand of Raposa, the land produced potatoes and grazed dairy for many years.  In 1957 the original 9 holes at Green Valley were constructed by Raposa with the machines and tools of the era.  An on course museum to the tools of the trade can be found in the shadows of the trees beside the 4th tee. 
Yes, this old scraper was used to level the tees!
When viewing historical photography, the only hole that remains completely intact (possibly with some length added at the tee) from the original layout is the 1st hole.  In 1966 additional land was purchased to the northwest of the then 6th green to construct what has become the back 9 at Green Valley.  This portion of the property was different in character and feel running up and down slopes, traversing through woodlands and streams and ultimately providing some of the more appealing holes on the course, namely the back to back par 3 11th and 12th, the quietly uphill turning par 4 13th, and the trackside 15th.  Raposa was not quite finished as he would expand to the east of the (quite good in its day, 210 yard par 3 2nd hole).  Here a new 2nd and 3rd hole as well as a new 4th tee resulted in a rerouting of the front 9 replacing weak holes with the much stronger 4th through 9th.

The quietly left to right sweeping par 4 13th.  (reroute the cart path and add a bunker complex on the right corner and we'd really have something)...very strong hole to a uniquely domed green with fortress mounding in front.

Raposa was certainly not traditionally trained to design golf courses, but proved to be adept at reading the land.  He was realistic in his abilities and would often reach out to the local golf course superintendents to pick their brain on design and feature construction.  Much was accomplished through trial and error until he got it right.

In listening to the tales of Mr. Oliviera and Mr. Sykes and the long time staff at Green Valley the man takes on a legendary, almost mythical Paul Bunyan type character.  When we got to the 10th green Mr. Sykes, the long time former superintendent at Green Valley that spent many years working with Raposa relayed the story the stopped us all in our tracks and cemented the man’s mythical sense.
While building the holes on the new back 9 cows from neighboring farms would sometimes wander onto the golf course.  You can imagine the damage a 1200 pound heifer could do to a newly seeded green.  Mr. Sykes encountered this exact situation and was making very little headway in attempting to get the cows to move off the property.  Bring in Manny Raposa, who apparently speaks bovine.  As Sykes puts it, "Mr. Raposa calmly spoke to the cows one a time to the point where they were entranced allowing him to rope them and tie them to a nearby tree allowing work to continue." Talking to cows was yet another talent that Mr. Raposa had garnered working on the farm.
The par 3 5th rebuilt by Sykes and Raposa
The course is admittedly a working man’s club.  True to its hands on heritage, the course offers vegetables to its players from small gardens scattered about.  If you plan on a little eggplant parmesan for dinner, just grab a few between 7 and 8 and throw them in your bag.
Take an eggplant for the road!

What surprised me most architecturally were the subtleties in the greens.  Though the bunkering was rather rudimentary, (bunker left bunker right of the green), the surfaces offered plenty of scale and numerous strategic pinning options.  Many of the greens were pushed up with moderate to severe fronting slopes that add great value to the edge of green contours and require precise club selection.
With some time spent on the bunkering, the layouts value would truly be enhanced.  Nonetheless, the conditioning, challenge and character of the property with rebuilt meandering farm walls, some (though more should be created with tree management) long vistas across the pastoral Portsmouth landscape and the Club’s inviting nature, make Manny Raposa’s creation at  Green Valley a wonderful legacy to enjoy.

Hand Stacked Stone Walls between holes 2 and 3






Thursday, September 20, 2012

Walking the Golf Course- "Turning Back Time" at Sakonnet Golf Club

As soon as you roll past Nonquit Pond traveling along Route 77…more quaintly and aptly called Main Street, your eyes lock west and the name changes to West Main Street.  You are now captured by a pastoral landscape that gently unfolds down to the shores of the Sakonnet River.  Past Donavan Marsh you continue due south engulfed in the farmland stretching all around you. A few more miles and you come upon a fork in the road, Warren Point Road to the left, Sakonnet Point Road to the right.  Do you want to explore the sandy shores of Briggs Marsh with its mouth opening to the broad Atlantic or have a go at Sakonnet Golf Club.  Since this is the Linksman….we’re going golfing.

When you pull up to Sakonnet, it might as well be 1957 or somewhere there abouts…just a bit before my time.  The simple charm of the Cape Cod shingle clad clubhouse, the screen doors slamming, and the men’s locker room ...about as big as one of the Real Housewives of NJ’s closets….filled with golf shoe cubbies,  the place bleeds unpretentious. 
Shingle clad clubhouse at Sakonnet
My walk at Sakonnet, as with most of my walks, began with a chat with the guy that knows the most about the place, golf course superintendent and likely director of most everything at Sakonnet, Mr. Kirk Whiting.  Kirk has been at Sakonnet for 30 some odd years and loves the place.  Hard to blame him with the sun setting over the Sakonnet River as you look out his office window.  But I got the distinct feeling that the greensward of Sakonnet was Kirk’s office and perfect conditions on the late summer day of my walk proved that he spent a lot of time in the “office”.  Kirk follows a short list of greenskeeping predecessors in the Clubs long history; four since 1909: Clarence E. Grin-nell, until 1946; Leroy H. Wordell through 1960; his son, William Wordell until 1981, then Mr. Whiting.
The rocky edge of the Sakonnet River
The place is riddled with history.  Kirk quickly pointed out Battery Gray, hidden within the overgrown brush adjacent to the practice area near his shop.  Battery 107, as it was formerly known, built during WWII and completed in 1942, is a reinforced concrete 16 inch coastal gun battery located on the West Reservation of Fort Church. Renamed Battery Gray after Major Quinn Gray.

The course’s architecture is simple, born from the eyes and hands of Donald Ross and his associate Walter Hatch in 1922.  The result of an expansion from previous 6 and 9 hole layouts. Ross’ summer retreat in Little Compton, a mere 10 minutes from Sakonnet gave the master architect full access to his work for long term tinkering purposes. His hand prints are all over the place.

Deep crossing swale in front of the par 3 6th

The design statement can be found right out of the gate as the first 5 holes touch or present broad views of the Sakonnet River.  This setting coupled with Ross’ classic green styling and greenside strategy is enough to get your blood flowing. Historic stone walls…in place long before Ross arrived, remain quietly stacked, framing holes 1 thru 4 as well as scattered all over the course.  Crossing bunkers are also found here and there protecting the “down to the sea” par 3 2nd and the blind par 5 3rd. 

Looking out to the river beyond the horizon of the 1st green

Recent restorative work by Whiting and architect Gil Hanse has recaptured many of the lost corners of the golf course, expanded the greens and reestablished the severe fall offs along the edges of the green pads.  Hanse made a further statement with the stunning “new” 9th hole.  A wonderful “Rossian” par 3 that once again brings players to the edge of the sea.  Walking up the ancient stone steps onto the 17th tee brings the player to new heights and presents a view across a vast marsh to the reachable though devilish green at the short par 4.

The classicly styled par 3 9th

I would highly recommend “Where Stone Walls Meet the Sea”, the 614-page centennial history of Sakonnet Golf Club, by Christopher Rawson, to enjoy the great story of this special golfing corner of the world.
...and as always I would love to hear your comments on and your experiences at..Sakonnet Golf Club.

Special thanks to Kirk Whiting, CGCS, Sakonnet Golf Club.
Reference: "Where Stone Walls Meet the Sea", Christopher Rawson, 1999


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Elegance by the Shore"- Walking the Golf Course...Point Judith Country Club, Narragansett, RI

Elegance by the shore, let’s take a walk along the fairways of Point Judith Country Club in Narragansett, Rhode Island. 

Point Judith is a village and a small cape, on the coast of Narragansett, Rhode Island, on the western side of Narragansett Bay where it opens out onto Rhode Island Sound. It is the location for the principal year-round ferry service that connects Block Island to the mainland and contains the fishing hamlet of Galilee, Rhode Island. 

Point Judith was named in the seventeenth century after Judith Thatcher who was a passenger on a small vessel with her father when it ran aground on the point and was almost wrecked.  Allegedly, Judith rendered great service and as a result the vessel was saved.  In remembrance of this, the crew called the point after her name.

The original Clubhouse at Point Judith Country Club

Golf can be traced back to its earliest days across the Narragansett Bay form Point Judith at the venerable Newport Country Club in 1890…originally known as Brenton Point, a nine hole layout butting up against the crashing Atlantic.  It was there where businessmen of the day began to take up the game and become engrossed in its sporting nature over the natural landscape of Point Judith.  

Using clubs resembling hockey and field hockey sticks and the gutta percha ball golfers established the humble beginnings of the game in the US.  It is funny how the equipment of the day dictated golf course design.  With the best players never being able to hit the ball more than 200 yards, the hazards were placed accordingly.  Today we find these short (sometimes crossing) hazards scattered throughout older courses…and in many cases sadly grassed over for the option of a new bunker set to challenges the far reaches of today’s equipment.

It is not so well documented, but the origins of Point Judith go back to 1894 with a 9 hole layout by William Davis. Davis was the first golf professional to come to the Americas in 1881, serving briefly as greenskeeper at Royal Montreal.  After leaving for a period, he returned to the United States and became golf professional at Newport Country Club laying out a 9 hole members course and 6 hole beginners course….talking about being ahead of your time.  Newport and Point Judith will be forever connected through “Willie” Davis as that same year he laid out its original 9 holes.   In the early 1900’s in response to a growing membership Point Judith CC expanded to 18 holes under the guidance of an able member.  It is not until 1929 when records of a “professional”, presumed by many to be Donald Ross, can be found in connection with improvements to the course.  Later restorative directives by Ron Pritchard have brought a bit of polish back to a storied piece of land.


Architecturally the course is fun, offering great variety and the typical old school strategy like the rock piles in front of the 1st tee, wonderful crossing bunkers at 3 and 18 and the postage stamp par 3 9th with sand nestled up on all sides. The grand saharas running between holes 6, 7 and 8 provide a glimpse into well thought out classic design…the question is were these there historically or was this an added dimension during a previous renovation project….either way they fit the fun and strategy of each of the holes and certainly get your attention.
Grassed rock wall crossing in front of #1 tee
Trio of bunkers breaking the grade crossing #18

Looking into the Sahara bunker along the left side of #6
All of the elements of the classic era can be found on one hole or another…the short par 4 raised 4th green falling away to trouble on all sides…same goes for the 12th, the false front carved across the lead onto the 5th green, the short crossing bunkers on the long par 4 17th deceptively shortening your eye and the front to back fall away 6th green.  Ross or not, the elements seem to be consistent with his work in the 20’s and are certainly a joy to play.  The course was built in an era that embraced strategy rather than length, in fact you could go as far as to say they even disregarded par for the value of the half shot penalty, especially on and around the greens.  Playing areas were generous and the use of the natural flow of the topography was paramount.  All this can be found at Point Judith.
Perched 12th green guarded front left and right
One more element that caught my eye was the absolutely perfect colonial bentgrass tennis courts. Five to be exact, maintained as tight as any approach on the course, with...while I was there, hundreds of kids feet stampeding for another back hand.

 Colonial Bent Tennis Courts

Back on the course, though some polishing is necessary to recapture the true essence of the bunkering, most would be gained by reestablishing the fairway contouring and original green surfaces and surrounds.  This effort would bring a whole new dimension to the strategy, playability and visual engagement the course would offer.
The course is in the very able hands of Brett Johnson and with a little paint and a sharp blade the classic edges of the course can be recaptured.
Special Thanks to Brett Johnson, CGCS, Point Judith Country Club
Reference: "Discovering Donald Ross"- Bradley Klein; "Centennial Book-Point Judith Country Club"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Walking the Golf Course- North Kingstown Golf Ross disciple, Walter Irving Johnson

Walking the Golf Course- North Kingstown Golf Course

Been away for a bit traveling and getting inspired in Montana, Maine and of course on the baseball field with my two boys.  I thought in the heat of summer busy..ness it would be a good time to stay close to home so I made a visit over to North Kingstown Golf Course to play a course I hadn’t played in a while and try to decipher its connection to Ross.

In many ways Donald Ross’ work is scattered well beyond the estimated 400 courses he touched in his illustrious career.  The only way to execute such a large body of work at a time when ships and trains were the main mode of transportation was to have some help.  And Ross had a lot of help.  There is a great section in the book “Discovering Donald Ross”, by Bradley Klein that outlines the many Associates that brought Ross’ work to life overseeing construction and executing Ross’ design directives.  When deciphering an old Ross plan, quite often the hatch marks representing vertical movement are recognizable as are the ubiquitous notations “+1.6 rise from bottom”, “bunker 4’6” deep cut into face of knoll”.  In some cases research will dig up field sketches with hand written notes in script; most plans found are those that have been formalized at the hand of Walter Irving Johnson.

Johnson sketch of Holston Hills (from Discovering Donald Ross)

Johnson, a licensed professional engineer joined Ross in 1920.  Johnson was adept at working with engineered blueprints as well as communicating with detailed perspectives and cross-sections.  As architects and historians the drawings we are most familiar with today are those of Walter Johnson.  His career with Ross spanned until 1934 followed by part time work through 1938.  His solo efforts are very few, but include 9 holes at Potowomut Country Club in East Greenwich and North Kingstown Golf Course in 1944, then its complete renovation in 1966 while the chief engineer at the Quonset Naval Air Station.  His technical skill can be witnessed firsthand on the original construction drawings which hang on the wall in NKGC Pro Shop.

Today, North Kingstown Golf Course shares its name with the town is serves and is a busy place.  The course was expanded from a very rudimentary 9 hole short course to its current layout providing a great variety of holes over subtly rolling terrain nestled up against the still active Quonset Naval Air Station.

The perched and well protected 7th green

The opening holes meander quite comfortably over somewhat flattish terrain well defined by trees, (a few too many) and native areas.  The feeling changes dramatically as you step onto the downhill par 4 13th.  To the right a broad fescue meadow runs the length of the hole terminating at the tarmac of the Naval Station.  Large carriers actively taxi, take off and land with engines echoing over the golf course.  Though loud and ominous to the eye, the distraction is seemingly minimal as you become part of the scene.

The approach to the 13th is the most difficult on the course.  The green surface is tiny when considering the longish approach falling off quickly in the front, right and back and bunkering set in tight on the right. 

Military force in harm’s way of a slight mishit to the right on 13

The finish only gets stronger at 14 where players are faced with a 200+ yard par 3 running parallel with the runway framed by fescues on the left and large sprawling bunkers short and right.  The green is plenty large to accept long irons and hybrids, but a 3 here will require accuracy and putting prowess.

The 15th is the best hole on the course playing from tees set back deep along the shores of Fry’s pond.  The tee shot is up to a plateau fairway with a turn from left to right that is well protected by mature trees.  Missing left will certainly result in a crooked number on the card.  Some of the bunkering remains from the 1944 layout and has been incorporated into the latter design set short of the green.  The surface is pushed against a short back slope with a long bunker at the right set into the native pines.

The wonderful tee shot over Fry’s Pond at the 15th

16-18 are a bit quirky, but fun to play.  The 16th plays hard from right to left with the approach from a high turning fairway to a low set green cut into a far slope.  The green pitches severely from back to front, leaving it below the pin is a must.  The 17th is a fun short par 4 playing through a tight shoot to an open fairway lined by yew trees on the left.  The play is right center to avoid a large tree pinching into the hole from the left just short of the green.  Again, stay below the hole.  The 18th is somewhat non-descript in so much that it finishes the round with a par 3.  The catch is you cannot miss the green left right or long as the ground falls away on the left and back and a grove of trees muscle in from the right.

North Kingstown Golf Course clearly has many of the Ross attributes that certainly Johnson came to know so well over the drafting board; raised greens, false fronting edges and subtle yet well placed bunkering.  The course is very fair for all levels of play and with a little polish could be a shiny gem.

Next stop, Point Judith Country Club…Ross at work again!.

Special thanks to: John Rainone, Golf Course Professional at North Kingstown Golf Course
Bradley Klein: Author, “Discovering Donald Ross”

Robert McNeil, ASGCA
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walking the Golf Course- Richmond Country Club

“In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina…” the lyrics from the sweet song by the great rock/folk artist James Taylor sweep over you as you meander down the aptly named Sandy Pond Road toward Richmond Country Club.  In fact, if the Club was picked up and dropped just a stone’s throw down the road it would be in Carolina…Carolina, Rhode Island that is.  Off the beaten path just a bit in the rural forested expanse of southwestern RI, RCC has many of the elements you’d experience on a trip to Pinehurst…less the trappings of tourism.

Before visiting I would have to admit my knowledge of the Club was essentially nil.  I had never played it or even heard too much about it.  I did know that it was one in the stable of courses owned and operated by the Hendricks family.  The others being Exeter Country Club and the recently reconstructed Meadowbrook Golf Course.  I had played each of these and had the expectation of something very good at RCC. What I found was something very very different than its brethren.

I was greeted at the front door by Golf Course Superintendent Mr. Jim Studley…yeah Studley, when I asked if he went by James or Jim he simply said most people call me “Studley”, so I said ok, we’ll go with that.  The day of my walk could not have been more glorious; not a cloud in the crystal blue sky, temps in the mid 60’s, no humidity…probably should have played this time, but Jim…excuse me Studley, and I set off to the first tee to take a look.

The courses’ history is fairly contemporary being built in 1989-90 and opening in 1991.  Designed by Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva and built by the Hendricks family themselves.  The term Swamp Yankees was bantered around a bit to describe the hard working local ethos of this part of New England as what drove this course to be.  The familiar Cornish elements can be found throughout…soft mounding around the greens, not overly bunkered, hazards set away from the greens and the ubiquitous “tree off the tee” to deal with…more like trees, but we’ll get to that later.

Cornish elements…soft support mounding,
bunker set away from the green at the 16th

It looks as though Mr. Silva got hold of the pencil and maybe the attention of the dozer operator when designing the greens as they are very subtly contoured with many wonderful pinning locations.  Maybe a blend of Cornish’s ere toward playability and Silva’s strategic eye.

What was most refreshing about the walk was listening to the passionate verse of Mr. Studley and his pride in the conditioning of the course and how far it had come under his watch.  For the amount of public play (40-50,000 rounds) the course gets, the turf from tee to green couldn’t have been better…especially due to the fact that the entire course is cut through the pines.  It seems the name of the course could have been more creatively developed using the ever-present evergreens as a base….maybe that’s been overdone…Pine Valley, Pinehurst, Pine Hills, Pine, Pine.

The corridor of pines at the par 4 6th

The holes at RCC are essentially corridors through the pines.  The architecture is built around these pines.   Though the course could stand to lose a thousand plus trees, they are the defining element.  On almost every hole your shot shape off the tee must consider the width of the corridor from tree to tree as well as any overhanging, far reaching branches.  And then there is the infamous, tree off the tee that in many ways is a defining element amongst Cornish designs.  I have had the opportunity to work on a few Cornish designs most recently at Sterling Farms in Stamford CT where a glorious sugar maple stands guard just short left of the 16th green…wasn’t going to touch this one and at Mohegan Sun CC where a huge spruce pinched off the left corner of the long 9th hole taking away most players line to the green…I had the guts to make the call on this one. 

At RCC the Cornish trees come into play on a few holes most prominently back to back on the 9th and 10th.  The 9th is a shortish par 4 playing 315 from the middle tees.  A large pine stands guard at a squirm inducing 185 yards at which point the fairway is squeezed to 15 yards.  To further complicate the tee shot a cluster of three bunkers is bunched up along the left side stretching from 190 to 250 yards.  As a short 4 the Cornish tree works ok here as the player is given a variety of options as to what their game will muster off the tee.

Tree off the tee at the short par 4 9th

 At the longer (441 yard) par 4 10th this is not the case.  Again players are faced with a leftover pine sitting at 200 yards from the back tee resulting in an adjacent fairway cut of about 15 yards.  Beyond the tree is a large bunker framing the right side of the hole.  So if you are able to navigate the pine with your 18 handicapper 25 degree slice you are likely to find yourself building up the courage for a long bunker shot to a green complex that is very skinny to the eye. 

Quoting from the Donald Ross’ “Golf has never failed me, “As beautiful as trees are, and as fond as I am of them, we still must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf.  We must not allow our sentiments to crowd out the real intent of a golf course, that of providing fair playing conditions.  If it in any way interferes with a properly played stroke, I think the tree is an unfair hazard and should not be allowed to stand.” 

Wouldn't that be a great quote to hang on the wall in every clubs board room?

The head scratching strategy of 9 and 10 are more than offset by the flowing comfort of the remaining 4’s and 5’s and your attention is certainly required on the powerful par 3’s.  Early in the round the third wakes up your game sitting at 235 yards from the back tee, then as you push your way home the 15th sends you across the street with your driver in hand to tee it up at 249 yards.

You can feel the southern charm at the par 3 5th

That said, the golf course and the feeling you have when walking and playing is pure enjoyment.  I had a chance to walk with a group along the hard left to right turning par 5 16th hole and the loud adulation following a well struck shot echoed amongst the cathedral of pines.

I look forward to getting back down to Richmond to play the course and test my screaming draw.

Next stop, North Kingstown Golf Course…to uncover some Ross history.

Special thanks to: Jim Studley, Golf Course Superintendent at Richmond Country Club

Robert McNeil, ASGCA
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Walking the Golf Course- Newport National Golf Club

I recently had a chance to sit down with the President of Newport National Golf Club, Matt Adams and talk golf, talk about the challenges of this industry, how to grow and sustain and a bit about this very blog idea and its potential to expose the hidden value of many clubs weaving in history, architecture and people into the story.  All of the above are in place at the very special Newport National Golf Club.  As our last few blogs have been steeped in golf’s Golden Age of Architecture, Newport National opened in 2002 is contemporary by most standards…but wait a minute.  The course was carved out of broad reaching nurseries and orchards that stretched along the high meadows over the confluence of the Sakonnet Passage, Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  The crossing seaside gusts, the running fairways and approaches and the firm subtly contoured greens beget the characteristics of a much older golfing brethren.

Sweeping cupped bunkers leaning hard into the table top par 3 3rd green

The property to be used for the course evolved while the developers secured a variety of parcels to make up the final canvas.  Designed by the team of noted architect Arthur Hills and Drew Rogers, the course takes on a modern day links feel.  Depending on the direction and flow of the ever-present wind, the ground game must be considered.  Having played the course a few times, it becomes quickly apparent that flying the ball at the target is a strategy that will not carry the day.  In fact, the old Texas wedge from the tightly mown green surrounds may be the weapon of choice. 

One of many fall off areas requiring you pick the right stick

In many cases the ground contours within the fairways are intended to propel well placed tee shots forward…we as architects refer to them as speed slots. The right to left sweeping 7th offers a down running grade to help all players get a little closer to the hole.

The history of the course, though brief,  has made headlines locally as the initial development process back in the 2002 was stung by financial challenges.  Though not completely out of the woods..these challenges are not reflected in the experience at NNGC.  It is all about the people, the architecture and the views.  The fact that a traditional clubhouse or paved entrance doesn’t exist may very well have worked to the charm of the place.  I have always found great nostalgia from the sound of tires running along a gravel road.  You have gotten off the beaten path and there is always something interesting off the beaten path.  At the end of the road is a double-wide….yes a double-wide! serving as the pro shop, kitchen, offices, storage and whatever else can be fit into roughly two thousand square feet.

You don’t come to NNGC to sit around and chit chat about golf, you come to play golf.  The architecture is what gets the juices pumping.  Right out of the gate at the 1st hole you need to think about shaping it from right to left to gather some advantage on the mid length par 5.  The green at the 1st is a style that the player will need to contend with throughout the round…slightly perched, protected at the corners, rolling contours and smallish for such a large property. 

Some classic architectural elements are scattered across the course and worthy of note and certainly need to be understood as they directly affect strategy.  At the 2nd and at the 8th mounds and bunker shouldering pinch into the front edge of the green hiding a portion of the green, reminiscent of the Alps concept devised by C.B. McDonald at the National and by Raynor at Yale.  The crossing New England stone wall was likely and element that was on the course and enhanced, but it reminds me of the Pit, 13th at North Berwick.  If you look closely….best when walking… you will find pocketed contours within the fairways that have naturally evolved in many of the seaside greensward corridors in the British Isles. The par 3 3rd is the Ross push up falling off quickly at the left front and back, yet allowing a ball to run onto the surface. 

The 5th is the “Short” found on many classic designs and a hole that is amongst my personal favorites, a player’s gall or maybe intelligence is all that lies between him and the bee line to the green.  The square green 8th,whether intended or not, can be found on many turn of the century designs as due to the simplicity of its maintenance as well as on many Raynor designs from the teens…in fact I am currently working at Gardiner’s Bay GC on Shelter Island in NY restoring this very feature. On the 17th the infamous Sahara bunker found at many seaside courses runs along the left side challenging the tee shot.

The “Short” 317 yard par 4 5th
…great options hole although green is nearly inaccessible from the tee

My understanding is that the original plan for the property was for 36 holes and not necessarily for the open links style course that now exists.  Thankfully the land spoke to the developers and designers and a great golf course was born.

Next stop, Richmond Country Club

Special credit to: Matt Adams, President, Newport National Golf Club

Robert McNeil
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Walking the Golf Course- Pawtucket Country Club

When I set out on this journey to walk golf courses and soak in the true spirit of each property, I knew I was in store to meet some intriguing people along the way.  The golf business is full of them, the golf professional that has been preaching the sometimes uninterpretable geometry of the perfect swing plane, the general manager guiding the club for decades through the challenges of the markets inevitable lulls, the lifelong member spinning yarns that if they were or weren’t true wouldn’t really matter as the edge of your seat is much more exciting than the cushioned center. Not lost in all this “golf experience” is the golf course superintendent, toiling behind the scenes day in and day out to provide a playing field that rises to standards of excellence that the mere golfer has no idea how to achieve yet has no problem expecting.

For me the story at Pawtucket began when I met Golf Course Superintendent, Mike Whitehead at the first tee.  I had met Mike on only one occasion before several years ago and asked how things were going.  His response was a simple, “I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch”.  He proceeded to explain his very recent diagnosis with lymphoma and the start of his battle.  At this I was hesitant to begin our “walk” of the course, but that never really crossed Mike’s mind, so we were off.

As we were walking down the par 4 tenth, Mike gave his take on his health situation.  Remember we are now 10 holes in, no breaks for a rest, just walking right down the middle of each hole, talking architecture, his time at PCC, kids, the business, all that stuff.  Mike then made a heartfelt proclamation, certainly something that he had been thinking about and a way to wrap his arms around his current journey.  His “battle with lymphoma would be seen as an 18 hole round of golf”.  Every few weeks for 18 weeks, Mike is committed to a round of chemotherapy, each treatment would be considered a hole and he was determined to have a great round and move through this “rough patch”.  During our walk he was on the “2nd hole” of treatment.

Mike Whitehead, Golf Course Superintendent looking out at the wonderful par 3 15th
…counting how many more trees to take out?

Pawtucket CC, a private club reaching back to 1902 rests not only in two towns, Pawtucket and Seekonk, but in two states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Like with many of the early courses in the northeast, the drive and “dreams” of the successful industrialists provided the seed.  Pawtucket was at the center of the American Industrial Revolution and is considered by many historians as its actual birthplace.  The brick and mortar textile mills scattered along the Moshassuck, Pawtucket and Blackstone Rivers employed the masses and provided the nation with cotton and fabric products.

In the industrialized cities of the northeast, much success was achieved by visionary business leaders and this success was usually coupled with membership in a “city” club, a gathering place for entrepreneurial chatter and industry talk as well as leisure and sportsmanship.  As was the case the inner city did not provide the opportunity for recreation and these leaders commonly sought a landscape that could be used for the sporting games of the day; hunting, fishing and growing game of golf.  This was the case at Pawtucket CC, when the leading businessmen of the day stepped out of the city to find the quintessential “golf club” property.

As history would have it the land chose for the course was a mere 10 miles from what was considered the inner developed city on a series of farms strung across the rolling hills along the Ten Mile River.  One of the most respected golf architects of the day, Willie Park Jr. credited with many memorable designs was best known for his ability to develop designs for challenging inland sites.  Primarily for this reason he was chosen for Pawtucket.  Park Jr’s Sunningdale and Huntercombe were milestones in golf architectural history.  Close by Park Jr. laid out 9 holes at Agawam Hunt…the other 9 and subsequent renovation by Ross…see if you can find his work during your next visit.  Following several rudimentary 9 and 12 hole layouts in the early part of the century, the 18 hole Park design at Pawtucket was completed in 1923 and was executed by club president Frank Bishop as Park fell ill and died shortly thereafter in 1925.  The design remains essentially intact today.

Pawtucket was also “touched” by the venerable A.W. Tillinghast during his tour of courses working for the PGA in the 1930’s.  There is extensive documentation communicating his comments on the 3rd green which was rebuilt following his recommendation and it is also thought that the relocation and realignment of the 5th tees were part of the Tillinghast report at Pawtucket.

The table top par 3 7th with a narrow smile bunker across the front slope

This wonderful history remains today and can be found throughout the layout including the varying contours on the green surfaces (the 12th and 9th), the use of strategic swales and banks within the landing areas (the 2nd, 9th), plateau greens, none better that the par 3 table top 7th with a crossing bunker fronting the surface.  The course has a comfortable rhythm to it, especially along the back 9 where you are faced with a great rising par 4 10th; the short 4 11th; the long sweeping left to right 12th with its multi-level, though forgiving green; the quiet par 3 13th playing slightly uphill to a very receptive green; the narrow up slope 14th to a green strongly pitched from back to front; the wonderful par 3 15th barricaded with high flashing bunkers; followed by two muscle par 4’s at 16 and 17; and the chance to get one back and win the match at the short, but well protected par 4, 18th. 

My one architectural comment is that there is so much more there to be discovered including green pads that have been lost over the years, more strategic fairway and greenside bunkering styled in the era of the 1920’s and an over abundance of trees, that if carefully thinned and naturalized would present an even more spectacular layout.

Approach into the 18th set in just below the clubhouse

Next stop, Newport National resting along the Sakonnet Passage.

Special credit to: Mike Whitehead, Golf Course Superintendent, “A Centennial History of Pawtucket Country Club, Gary R. Grund, “Architects of Golf”, Geoffery Cornish and Ron Whitten.

Robert McNeil, ASGCA
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Walking the Golf Courses of Rhode Island- Jamestown

The history of a place is the direct result of the commitment, creative integrity and vision of its inhabitants.  It is also crafted in concert with gifts nature has bestowed.  When visiting Jamestown, Rhode Island, established in 1678, your heart beat immediately slows as you breath in the pastoral, maritime air.  A soft right onto Conanicus Avenue, almost as to avoid the rush of visitors and commerce streaking over the Claiborne Pell Bridge to bustling Newport, will put you on a quiet path to the village of Jamestown known to the locals as Conanicut.  Just think, you saved the $4.00 toll (not to mention the $4 to return), which during the week will cover nearly half of your greens fees to walk 9 holes at Jamestown Golf Course. 

Enough said- play away!

 The 9-hole public course has rested along a high bluff overlooking Dutch Harbor to the west since 1901. It is considered by many as one of, if not the oldest 9 hole golf course still in existence.  The course came into existence during a short wave of tourism that swept over the island in the early 1900’s.  In 1903 there were 9 hotels on the island serving a vibrant summer recreation industry.  The new golf course fit in well with the leisurely desires of visitors to Conanicut Island.  The advent of the automobile in the late teens and twenties delivered a severe blow to the tourism industry and eventually all but the Bay Voyage Hotel…a driver, wedge down Conanicus Avenue from the first tee, were forced to close.  The island reverted back to its maritime and agricultural roots which remain its defining character today.

Jamestown Golf Course is owned by the town and has been operated by the Mistowski family for the past twenty plus years.  Pulling into the parking lot in front of the “seldom used” clubhouse you will find a wide variety of player types unloading their bags, pull carts, tying their Foot Joys and following the worn path to the Pro Shop/Bar/Restaurant/….A friendly face can be found behind the bar topping off a Bud draft while taking your $18 greens fee.  The simplicity of the game at its finest.  Make sure you keep your receipt; you’ll need it at the first tee to get your name in the queue on the big board.  After putting around a bit on the very modest putting green take a few short steps to the 1st  tee.

Jamestown begins with a warm, unassuming welcome.  From the tee you are faced with a broad expanse of fairway rolling out to the west, plenty of room to spray it out here, as many do…find it and advance.  The hole is a shortish par 4, dead straight.  Upon approaching the green you immediately realize that the putting green, with its quiet contours, was some sort of mean joke.  The humps and rolls, highs and lows throughout the large surface area allow the hole to be set up in a multitude of ways.  The elongated shape of the green running from northeast to southwest creates deceptive depth perception adding 2 clubs on the green itself.  Along the right a separated short bunker may challenge the long hitter from the tee.  Along the same edge of the green, three smallish mitts protect the right side pin positions.

Soft pocket bunkering pushing into the right of the 1st green

Walking off the first green your eye instantly wanders to the pastoral hillside to the north.  There  the famous Jamestown Windmill has been completely restored.  Built in 1728, the mill was used for grinding corn using the sea breeze for power since there was no source of running water on the island to turn a waterwheel.  Below the windmill cattle roam the hillside grazing on the open fields of fescue and bunch grasses.

With your heart now comfortably slowed to a soft beat the 2nd hole unfolds.  The hole seemingly plays straight away, but the hard angle of the ground from left to right and the pond sitting at the bottom on the right gives cause for pause and a check on your alignment.  Scattered, small trees along the left side gather mishit shots while a well hit drive will roll out along a narrowing fairway.  From here there are no obstacles between you and the green, except for the attention diverting serenity of the Marsh Meadows Wildlife Preserve and little wooden shack known as Zeeks Creek to the locals..I am a local..with fresh lobsters and little necks to be picked up on the way home.  If you can refocus, simply hit all you got to get up close to the green..or on with a little muscle.  On the green is a relative term as like the 1st green, the 2nd stretches itself out adding pin after pin moving away and upslope from a lower hollow at the front right of the green to an upper tier at the back left.

From the 2nd fairway, looking out to the pastoral hillside
 across the Marsh Meadow Preserve

The par 4 3rd plays ever so slightly uphill and again to the eye straight away.  The only danger from the tee is the small grove of trees to the left.  A well placed tee shot down the middle…middle right will open up to the green. Two oblong bunkers are pushed into the front left of the green while a third sits hidden at the back right.  Yet another stretched green surface, though with less contouring.

Walking off the 3rd green to the 4th tee and you are introduced to the quintessential New England cottage community of Shoreby Hills.  Framed by age old hand crafted stone walls and built along a high bluff,  the neighborhood is an architectural joy ranging from simple cape cod shingle cottages to more expansive shore style homes flowing down to the edge of the historic village and the waters of the Conanicus Harbor.

A gate to Shoreby Hill just off the 3rd tee

Play away on the 390 yard 4th.  All downhill from the perched tee with a slight bend to the left.  The long vista from the tee takes in the Mt. Hope Bridge spanning Mount Hope Bay to Bristol. Plenty of room for a leaky tee shot, with little trouble left or right less a flowing meadow of thin kept fescue along the right boundary.  This hole is all about the green.  Old school.  Punchbowlish.  A running shot into the green will catch a bold roll across the front of the green slinging balls down the hill towards the flattish remainder of the surface.  Depending on your nerve you can fly the most severe contours of the green or try your hand at measuring the speed and bend of the precarious protecting contours.

The 5th presents the first par 3.  Shortish at 130 the green is again the defense.  A product of the golden age of architecture a short crossing bunker rests 20 yards in front of the green.  The contours along the ground are flattish with flanking greenside bunkers left and right and a hidden trap at the back left.  The surface is a bit benign in comparison to the greens up to this point, but stretches and climbs from front to back. 

The par 5 6th takes us back upslope toward the village.  As you walk back to the tee from the 5th green your view is framed by the enormity of the Newport Bridge in the foreground and the no so distant Jamestown Verrazano Bridge, which just recently replaced the “Old” Jamestown Bridge.  It wasn’t until 1969 that the vibrant peninsula of Newport was connected to the quiet beauty of Jamestown forcing the Conanicans to endure the rush of “people” through their quiet community.

From the tee, the left side is framed by a wide reaching field of blue stem separating the 6th and 8th fairways.  The landing area from the tee is generous with a well hit shot leaving a chance to go at the green on this short 5.  Again, two crossing bunkers separated slightly from the green define the second landing area prompting a decision to lay short or carry to the green.  The surface of the green lies comfortably within the surrounding contours with bunkers cut into the left and right sides.

The 7th is a wonderful par three. Playing at 160-175 yards the wind plays havoc with the yardage adding or taking away length with a simple gust.  The crossing bunkers short of the surface, though not in play, hide a wide opening in front of the green allowing a run on shot.  Again the typical flanking bunkers nestle up to either side of the green.  This hole is all about placement on the green.  A prominent spine bisects the surface with upper pinning areas on the right, protected to the right greenside bunker and more accessible lower left pins. 

 Note the classic crossing bunkers short of the 7th green

The round strengthens along the turn to the clubhouse at 8 and 9.  The 8th, at 405 can be challenged along the left corner, but anything mishit too far left will be lost in the gnarly long grass and brush, not quite long enough and the turning bunker will grab it.  Playing it out to the right will avail the best angle into the green.  The green is open at the right with bunkers at the front left and the back right.  The pronounced “Barranca” swale cutting through the green is the defining element on the hole.  Find your way to the right level and you’ll have a chance at birdie.

The 9th sitting quietly in the shadows of the Newport Bridge

Finally the 9th brings us full circle to the shadow of the Newport Bridge.  In fact, from the tee players can dial in their trajectory with the ominous iron pillars of the bridge.  A short fairway bunker, likely leftover from years past, lies flat along the right side.  The hole gains interest as you approach the green with an abandoned bunker, now soft mound feature in the middle of the hole 70 yards short of the green and yet another set of short crossing bunkers protecting the approach.  The green pitches severely from left to right  requiring a shot to be left below the cup.

Jamestown Golf Course is a joy.  The architectural subtleties within the greens are its strength along with the unassuming beauty of its surroundings and the people that you meet on the links.

Next stop, Pawtucket Country Club and a meeting with Willie Park, Jr.

Robert McNeil
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company