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