Friday, March 23, 2012

Walking the Golf Courses of Rhode Island- The Misqaumicut Club

There is no better way to experience The Misquamicut Club in Watch Hill, Rhode Island than to walk it.  The course literally unfolds under your feet.  As you step foot on the first tee, which is roughly three long paces from the pro shop door, you look out to a field of wrinkles; highs and lows within a fairway that has a tendency to throw a tee shot any which way.  It is nearly impossible to predict where you will end up.  You will either be perched atop a high roll and have a look at the green cut into the far hillside or your ball will meander down into a deep depression leaving a blind approach shot forcing you to pick a line using the tops of the trees behind the surface as your guide…..Welcome to The Misquamicut Club.

The Club was originally established in 1895 as a summer retreat resting along the Atlantic shoreline just outside the charming hamlet of Watch Hill.  The origins of the original course layout are suspect, but point to several prominent architects.  An original 9 hole layout was devised by Willie Park Jr. in 1895 followed by a second nine by the Clubs first pro Willie Anderson in 1896.  Journeyman architect Tom Bendelow was retained by the Club shortly after 1900 to layout another 9, temporarily giving the Club 27 holes.  In 1913 Seth Raynor was brought in to construct or work on several greens, (the extent of the work is unknown).  Then in 1920, following the the Club's inability to execute a plan developed by Walter Travis in 1917, Donald Ross was engaged to supply a plan for the golf course.  It was following Ross’s work that the classic perched and uneven green complexes evolved and the courses back nine reached out to the ocean.

Misquamicut could be characterized as a tale of two nines. The front capturing the offbeat symmetry of ever flowing creases, hummocks and hollows that constantly play havoc with a players set up, alignment and the roll of the ball; and the back, a 9 hole seaside links (less the bearish uphill par 3 18th) that introduces the push and pull of the shoreline winds, the long vistas down the sands of Misquamicut Beach and tidal ponds around which the holes have been so naturally…so strategically laid out.

One interesting element is the seeming non-descript nature of the bunkering throughout the course.  This is not to say its positioning doesn’t challenge most players, but more so its styling is not memorable….which on this course is ok.

As the course gradually presents itself, many elements of classic design begin to appear.  After completing your journey along the rolls of the strong par 4 1st, the second hole offers a slightly less intimidating tee shot defined simply by a crossing ridge falling off the back of the 5th tee.  Carry this and you’ll gain some much needed distance to play into the somewhat benign green sitting quietly in a far corner of the property framed by a classic New England stone wall. 

The 3rd hole, the first par 3, presents players with a redan style banking approach from left to right.  A safe but challenging line is to carry the short left bunker and use the bank to run up onto the wonderful surface.  The green has a multitude of pin locations that respond to the surrounding contours including pieces hidden keenly behind raised short right bunkering.

 Ruby looking out to the "Redan..ish" par 3 3rd

The 4th might be one of best shortish par 4’s around.  Again, the fairway simply lays on the given topography avoiding any offering of a flat lie.  The landing area is generous, but the impending approach is ominous. A well struck short iron must be dialed in here. The green is perched with bunkering fronting and puzzled into the slope all around falling off sharply at the right and back. 

On the 5th tee the expanse of the property begins to present itself as do the cop bunkers scattered along the right side separating the 5th from the 7th fairway.  To the eye, the landing area seems very wide, but a smallish mitt style bunker cut in just adjacent to the cop row at the right gets your attention and somehow gathers balls.  From old aerials and as evidenced in the field, it looks as though cops have been extended from the green further back toward the prime landing area.  The mid iron approach is offered an opening onto the green, though the hole narrows significantly as you get closer to the surface.  The green is a bit quirky with a large pinnable area in front that then bottlenecks to a spit or peninsula straight back.  Again, the right and back fall away quickly.

Cop Bunkers separating holes 5 and 7

The 6th might be one of the most appealing par 3’s around.  From the tee the player is given an modest out to the short left to avoid the thirty foot deep morass that awaits anything missing the green to the right.  This could be considered a cape green without water.  The surface is dynamic, yet simple, with a variety of pin locations separated by a large roll and ridge passing through the middle of the green.

The 7th, the first three shot hole, gives the player a bit of a breather.    The lay up for most is wide open while the green is well protected with bunkering fronting and flanking.  I’m convinced that Ross said let me give these guys a break before hammering them with the front nine finish on 8 and 9.

The 8th is unforgettable and a golden era classic.  On many Ross designs we find the perched green with a rolling surface falling off on all sides.  The 8th at Misquamicut is this style on steroids.  Falling off nearly forty feet at the front, left and back there is no room for error.  With only a long vista behind the green your eye and club selection can wander resulting in an errant shot that will require a bit of mountain climbing prowess to recover.  The saving grace, maybe realized by Ross when he jammed the stake on top of the hill, is the large green surface giving all a fighting chance.  Pictures do not do the elevation change justice

The perched par 3 8th

Then the 9th, again a wrinkled mess of a fairway with a flat lie not to be found.  From the tee the landing area looks scattered and small, but it is certainly scaled to be fair.  The approach is what gets your attention.  The green is simply carved into a hillside, is smallish and is hanging with a larger belly at the front right then getting skinny as you move to the left.  Anything short will fall into the face of the complex resulting in a difficult recovery.  Anything long will get hung up nestling down in the sharply bent topography The angle of the green is such that it is just off perpendicular to the line of play making it feel very shallow.

As you start the back nine, a little breather is offered after the demanding front nine finish.  The 10th plays from a high perch behind the 9th green and traverses directly downhill to a fairway the splits high and low.  With the continuing folds in the ground a blind shot is not uncommon unless you can urge your ball to a high point.  The green sits down low pitched from back to front with framing bunkers along the left and at the front right.  The fairway meanders in to the front left of the green.  The best angle maybe from the small spit of fairway along a high roll looking down from 80 yards.

Now onto the ocean side links.  Holes 11-17 no longer challenge the player with the inherent strategy of the pocketed, rolling terrain, but rely on the prevailing winds, the introduction of tidal ponds, and the smart strategy of well positioned bunkering and green contouring to test the game.

The 11th is unique in that the tees area scattered across a high outcropping looking out to the ocean.  This scattering presents the hole from very different angles of play.  As you move to the right the tee shot required gathers broader portions of the tidal ponds across Ocean Avenue to carry.  The hole is essentially flat with the green protected precariously by very geometric mounds that could be described as two loaves of bread angled in front of the surface.  These forms are a little mysterious in comparison to the rest of the course.  A bunker has been added to the original design resting along the right side of the hole to add another carry point from the tee.
Looking across Ocean Avenue to the 11th
and the shoreline of the Atlantic

The par 3 12th also has some quirky elements.  The tee backs up the to the ocean with a thin sand dune separating the tee from the water.  The wind is the main factor here, normally helping the players as they look to a blind green hidden behind a constructed berm surrounding a small salt pond.  If there is one hole that could be improved simply based on the incredible ground on which it rests it’s the 12th Nonetheless just standing on the tee with the beat of the lapping ocean waves gives you all the inspiration you need.

The 432 yard 13th runs parallel to the beach stretching to a far corner of the property.  A crossing wind will play havoc with a tee shot playing back over another salt pond.  Keeping it out of the wind is imperative here.  Shoreline pines are scattered along the left side of the hole providing a frame which turns the hole back to the right toward the ocean.  The bunkers on the back nine and evident here are a bit larger and more sweeping, maybe taking inspiration from the adjacent dunes.  The tee shot is pinched slight with a well place bunker at the left.   Another strategic element found on Ross designs is a very subtle rise in the fairway 30-40 yards short of the green creating the illusion that the green is much closer.  This type of element works exceptionally well on the 13th with its long approach.  The large squarish green is well protected with bunkering surrounding the surface.  Sliver bunkering along the right and behind the green frame the surface.

The 14th is special.  This long par 4 is unique to the golf course with its pure strategic strength. At 430+ the player must navigate two ponds strung up the right side of the hole creating a left to right bend in the fairway.  A short crossing bunker looks back at the tee with large yawning bunkers scattered up toward the green.  This hole is easily the strongest hole within the string of holes on the ocean side.  Another “short Ross” bunker is dropped in 60 yards short of the green to create intended deception.

The highlight of the 15th is the bold and broad cross bunker 25 yards short of the green.  From the tee the ground is rising a bit and as you  look to the green it appears that three separate bunkers are crossing the line of play.  Upon approach it becomes one large hazard spanning the entire fairway.  It is likely and apparent from viewing old photos, that this feature was in fact three separate bunkers at the inception of the hole.  The approach must first carry the crossing hazard before finding the perched surface.  The best way to describe the 15th green is as if you are dropping a handkerchief onto a shoebox.  Wonderful bold contours and ridges separating distinct pinning locations.  A pearl necklace of bunker frames the back half of the green.

The short crossing bunker fronting the 15th green

It took me a minute to find the far right tee on the 16th .  Once I found it everything changed.  Though this tee was not part of the original design it add 50 yards transforms the hole into a cape.  As you move from the center tee to the far right tee the hole takes on a whole new alignment bringing into play the large flashing bunker resting just over the expansive wetland area on the right corner.  The green is surrounded by 4 large bunkers opening up ever so slightly from the front right.  Skirting the wetland and bunker, keeping your tee shot along the right edge of the fairway will avail the clearest line into the green.

The par 5 17th now turns away from the ocean and works back toward Ocean Avenue.  Water left and right within scattered wetlands and ponds will cause any player to pucker up a bit on the tee.  The water stretches along the right side leading up to strong greenside bunkering.  A singular fortress bunker set into the left face of the green protects all pins along the left edge and a large sprawling hazard runs the length of the surface along the right side. 

The 18th is quite unique.  From a lower runway tee this par 3 hole traverses directly upslope to a blind green.  This finishing hole packs a lot of muscle.  Depending on the wind, getting up on top of the plateau where the green quietly rests is the biggest challenge.  A giant catcher’s mitt in front and bunkers at the right and back wrap their arms around the green.  The surface is simple in nature as if the say you made it.

There is no way to walk over the fairways of Misquamicut and not feel the naturalness of the layout and the engaging strategy of each hole.  If you have the chance and you are in the Watch Hill area take a peek at this gem.  At the very least take a ride down Ocean Avenue from where you can get a glimpse of the entire back nine.

Robert McNeil
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Walking the Golf Courses of Rhode Island"

What better way to embrace the wonders of the golf courses of a region than to put them under your feet?  As a young boy I would often simply walk golf courses to try and understand what the holes were asking of the players.  Having grown up on the courses of New England, I have always been enamored with the great history and rich traditions of the game and the courses.  In my professional life as a Golf Course Architect, I am afforded the opportunity to study golf courses for a living.  It is a part of what I do almost every this got me thinking.  Why not start an ongoing dialogue with the lovers of golf in the region?  It only made sense to start my journey in Rhode Island, where I have established my office and where I am surrounded by numerous intriguing layouts.  From the stalwarts like Newport CC to the hidden gems at Sakonnet and Triggs to the new layouts at Shelter Harbor and Carnegie Abbey, there's a lot of ground to cover.

My journey will be entitled "Walking the Golf Courses of Rhode Island" and will encompass commentary and discussion about courses following my visit and walk along the holes.  This journey will not be limited to only the better known courses, but will cover all of the golf holes of Rhode Island.  This will not happen overnight, but will take place over the next year.  My intention is not so much to play these courses, but to make their acquaintance.  Inevitably, I will be privileged to meet some of the many personalities that know these courses intimately and bring some of their unique perspectives to my writings.

So, as I embark, I am sending out a warning to all the Clubs of Rhode Island if you get a call or a knock on the door out of the blue on a Friday morning from a guy looking to walk your course, it's probably me....I look forward to meeting.

Let the conversation begin....our walk starts at the Misquamicut Club in Watch Hill.  Watch for our upcoming blog.

Looking to the green #3 at Misquamicut