They Don’t Build Them Like The Country Club Anymore
It has been 34 years since The Country Club last hosted a U.S. Open. Far from forgotten, its classic architecture continues to inspire some of the game’s most notable designers, including one who points to it as a seminal moment in his renowned career.
Long before USA Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw wagged his finger and said, “I have a good feeling about this,” on the eve of his team’s remarkable rally at The Country Club in 1999, Crenshaw visited the course as a 16-year-old competitor in the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. What he experienced sparked an enduring fascination that helped spur Crenshaw and Bill Coore, his course design partner, to the pinnacle of their profession.
“The Country Club made a tremendous impression on me,” said Crenshaw years after that visit, his first to the Northeast region of the country. “I was struck by the variety of the holes… the way the course was molded into the New England landscape. My love affair with golf course architecture began there.”
The course is a product, not just of the rocky terrain on which it sits, but of the era it was constructed, when shovels and pickaxes were the tools of the trade, not backhoes and jackhammers.
“You can’t talk about The Country Club without mentioning the landforms, the ledges and the puddingstone rock,” said Gil Hanse, who has worked with the club since 2008, long before it was awarded this year’s U.S. Open. “It’s a completely different landscape than anyplace I’ve been, and since they couldn’t manipulate it dramatically, they had to utilize the features in their design, which resulted in some of the most unique and interesting holes ever. I’ve never seen another hole like the third hole.”
No. 3 is a 499-yard par 4 that features rock outcroppings – known geologically as Roxbury puddingstone, the state rock of Massachusetts. Players will try to fit their tee shot and their approach shot around – or over – the rock mounds, which in some places are covered with fescue. At its narrowest point, more than 330 yards from the tee, the fairway is 9 yards wide.
Hanse also highlighted the 499-yard, par-4 10th hole of the Open Course, which features a massive outcropping on the right side that requires a carry of more than 300 yards. The approach shot is to a very small, steeply sloped green set on a plateau and surrounded by rough and bunkers. The hole is aptly nicknamed “Himalayas.”
“It’s brilliant what they came up with, given the constraints they had,” said Hanse, who has worked on several other U.S. Open courses, including six-time host Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course and the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club, which will host in 2023. “There’s a real juxtaposition between these massive landforms with fairways weaving through them, but you’re almost always terminating in a tiny green. They’re certainly the smallest greens we’ve worked on. It’s quite interesting, quite different.”
The Country Club was founded in 1882, but golf was not part of the club’s equation in its first decade, as the members’ main pursuits included equine pastimes such as steeplechase, polo and thoroughbred racing. A six-hole golf course was approved in November 1892 and laid out the following spring by TCC founding member Laurence Curtis and others. Curtis was the uncle of Margaret and Harriot Curtis, who went on to win four U.S. Women’s Amateurs between them and lay the groundwork for the Curtis Cup Match. The current par-3 sixth hole of the Open Course routing is the oldest surviving hole.
The course has evolved over the years from that rudimentary layout to nine holes laid out by Willie Campbell, the club’s first golf professional, and to 18 holes by 1900. In the late 1920s, the club acquired 55 acres, and esteemed architect William Flynn designed the third nine, the Primrose, which joined the original Clyde and Squirrel nines. Flynn did some work on the original 18 as well, and Rees Jones also made some alterations ahead of the 1988 U.S. Open.
When Hanse began working with the club, he concentrated on images from the period when the club hosted the 1934 U.S. Amateur.
“It was the earliest ‘quality’ photography that was available,” said Hanse. “The Country Club has undergone a lot of phases, and the original 18 were not Flynn, but he made some alterations to bunker style and presentation. We were also able to get a good record of what the green complexes looked like, in scale and shape. Golf courses are never truly complete, but we felt like the entire property had been brought together.”
Hanse, who opened his firm in 1993 and has worked with partner Jim Wagner since 1995, is careful to call this work a restoration, rather than a renovation of the existing course. For example, several greens have been expanded, but it has been done by reclaiming areas of the putting surfaces that had been lost over time.
“One thing we always stress is that we’re going to take a historic approach,” Hanse said. “We’re going to do the best we can to restore the golf course as opposed to dramatically altering it, which provides a high degree of comfort for clubs. They know we’re not going to try to create the ‘2021 edition’ of the club. We’re trying to restore some of the aspects that might have been lost while updating it for the modern game.”
They also know that the game’s best visit infrequently. “This is first and foremost a members’ course, and the U.S. Open only comes once a generation or so,” Hanse said. “We can’t do something that is only relevant for a championship at the cost of member enjoyment.”
One change made with the members in mind involved the “knitting together” of the fairways on Nos. 3 and 4 of the Open Course, par 4s that run in opposite directions.
“We started talking about, what if we get a really strong wind on No. 4, that some players might not be able to get to the fairway,” Hanse said. “In expanding that fairway back toward the tee, we realized there was an opportunity to do something a bit old-fashioned. You don’t see it very often, but it’s perfectly applicable for a place like The Country Club.”
The fairways of the first and 18th holes at Brookline were once the province of polo players, with their field – or pitch – sitting in the middle of the horse racing oval (see above image). The tee and green for each hole are perched just above what had been the racetrack itself, which wasn’t removed until the 1960s. Hanse restored some of the challenge for the elite player by repositioning and expanding the bunkers on both dogleg-left holes (see Hanse Design sketch of No. 18 above).
“We moved them farther down-range so they’re in play for a championship as well as for longer-hitting members,” said Hanse. “The average golfer, who is going to struggle on those holes anyway, doesn’t have to worry about hitting into a fairway bunker.”
Dave Johnson, the director of grounds at The Country Club, worked with Hanse on restorations of two other Massachusetts courses before coming on board in 2018. He points to another hole influenced by the terrain, the par-4 ninth of the Open Course. It was designed by Flynn and is one of four Primrose holes employed in the routing for the U.S. Open. It features an enormous ridge in the drive landing area that can propel balls toward an adjacent pond.
“I would describe this course as rugged; every time you put a shovel in the ground, you’re hitting rock or ledge,” said Johnson. “I don’t work a lot in the evenings, but when I do, right before the sun goes down, the contours of the fairways just blow your mind when you see them with that certain angle of the sun.”
In June, there will likely be a few competitors who have a similar experience to Crenshaw’s first visit in 1968. As he recalled, “It’s a perfect place to play your first national championship – it was a wondrous week in which golf history, architecture and big-time competition hit me over the head.”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 23, 2022