Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Walking the Golf Course "Newport Country Club"

I know it’s been awhile, but I am happy to say I haven’t posted a walk quite frankly because I have been working straight out on golf projects for the past 12 months.

That said, what better way to get back into the swing that to go back in time.  Last week I had the honor of playing with the members (I am one) of the Rhode Island Golf Course Superintendents Associations at the venerable Newport Country Club.  I had been to Newport CC on several occasions, the 2006 Women’s Open, a past RIGSA meeting in a driving rain and wind storm and as a Bryant College alumni at the Presidents Cup, but had not had the occasion of playing the course on a sunny…really perfect fall day. 

The drive to Newport CC is as dazzling as it gets if you take the long way… rolling down Bellevue past Marble House, The Breakers and Rosecliff among other extraordinary testaments to the gilded age….then along Ocean Ave with the sea crashing into the massive rocky outcrops along the coast.  Further inland as you approach Harrison Avenue you heart beat slows passing the pastoral fields of Surprise Valley Farm or Swiss Village to the locals which houses rare livestock grazing along rock walled hillsides. 

 Dorset Horn Sheep
Dorset Horned Sheep

This all sets the stage for your turn into history.  Along a stretch of Harrison Avenue, you take a quiet turn into Newport Country Club.  The entrance is quite unassuming until you look about a 4 iron ahead.  The restored Beaux Arts style clubhouse in true Newport grandeur spreads with open arms overlooking Brenton Point.  With all its class, history and architectural detail, the experience of visiting the Club remains very unassuming as you literally park on the lawn…though marked with wooden posts as a parking lot for the members….in front of the clubhouse.  This low key philosophy is part of the charm and is carried through the club staff and right to the first tee.

The course dates back to 1893 on what was known as Rocky Farm.  Several wealthy business/sportsman led by Theodore Havemeyer, (yes the first President of the USGA and yes the Havemeyer Trophy earned by the top United States Amateur), developed a 9 hole layout designed by William Davis in 1894.  Newport hosted the first US Open in 1895 won by Horace Rawlins.  The course was then expanded to 18 holes in 1915 by Donald Ross…still not satisfied with the course; A.W. Tillinghast was brought in to remodel the course in 1923.
Clubhouse view from the 18th fairway

It hadn’t rained of any significance in a month, so the course played about as firm and fast as I’d hoped.  The course opens quietly with a shortish 489 yard par 5 with the tee tucked up against the right wing of the clubhouse and the front turnaround.  On the front 9 you push hard against the wind on holes 1 through 4.  On the 4th it has become apparent that your grit and patience will be tested.  The 4th runs parallel to Ocean Avenue (waves crashing to the player’s left) and stretches to 242 yards from the back and is aptly named Graves Point…likely for some old guy, but death comes to mind as the teeth of the wind forces either the big stick or a smarter..though not for me…lay up play off the tee.  Bunkers frame the “grave” on the left and right, if found will certainly lead to double.

The designed forgiveness of Newport is the tight bents and fescues in the fairways and green approaches.  On many occasions it makes perfect sense to bring out the Texas Wedge from well off the green and try and manage the contours to the cup.  A lofted club takes very steady hands and the contours of the greens require deftness of touch.

Hole 3 "Ocean"

When stepping on to the 5th the wind comes off the sea and gives a bit of confidence to swing a little harder.  You’ll need to as the “Polo Shed” sits in the distance over a slight rise at 451 yards.  The wind again is at your back  at 7 then 9 coming in. 

The 9th is a testy, left to right bending par 4 with a corner begging to be challenged.  With bunkers and fingering sliver ditches protecting the corner it makes a lot more sense to play to the broad fairway to the left…this of course will give you the best line into the green which lies almost perfectly upgrade toward the clubhouse.  The short bunkering is masterfully deceptive..maybe a leftover Ross element, with 30 yards of approach hidden over the broad shoulders.

Hole 8 "Willows"

 Your head for home starts again with a very playable and quite enjoyable 572 yard par 5 falling down into a lower meadow of holes (10-13).  The 11th, the quirky…sporty 298 yard short 4 gets you a little jacked up.  Going at it is ill advised as the risk may not warrant the reward.  A large Sahara bunker runs along the right side from 100 plus yards out, into the green.  Some modifications have been made recently that now provide a hallway into the green, but it is still slight and maybe not worth the trouble….sounds like I’m describing all the elements of a great short 4, my favorite type of hole.

Your climb out of the meadow holes ends on the great par 3, 13th.  The first of back to back par threes that you will not forget.   The 13th “Club” at 166 yards is set into the hillside with rock outcrops to right and bunkering short right and left of the green.  The green is pitched strongly from back to front…below the hole is a must.  The 14th “Plateau” is more like a precipice or edge with the world falling away on the left side.  A large gathering of sand sits on the plateau right of the green.  The strategic beauty of the hole is the run on to the green surface from the right.

Hole 14 "Plateau"

The finishing 4 are a little less intense, but challenging nonetheless all leading to the triple tiered green on the home 18th.  From a high rock supported perch the 18th plays down into a low valley then back up to terrace on the right of the clubhouse.  Getting on the right tier is critical, as is finding the green.  Any play from an adjacent lie will force the player to manage the confusing crossing contours.

You cannot help but become immersed in the history of Newport.  Hevemeyer did, Ross did, Tillinghast did….McNeil did.

Robert McNeil, ASGCA
Golf Architect
The Northeast Golf Company