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