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