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"