Some classic courses are steeped in history.The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., is drenched in it. In historical significance, The Country Club takes a back seat to no other.Consider its very name. What could be simpler, yet more reflective of the game’s earliest years in the United States? It was, in fact, the very first “country club” in the U.S., dating to 1882. At the close of 1894, this suburban Boston club was one of the five founding members of the United States Golf Association. In other words, this place is seriously “Old Guard.”
If sheer numbers were the measuring stick, Merion and Oakmont would come out on top—they have played host to more significant championships in the first half of the 20th century—but no event had greater impact than the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline. Two more Opens followed, in 1963 and 1988, plus assorted Walker Cups, National Amateur Championships and National Junior Championships. It was at the 1968 U.S. Junior event at The Country Club where eventual quarter-finalist and current U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw first whet his considerable appetite for golf history and classic architecture.
Oddly, for all of its history and charm, the championship course at The Country Club was considered very good, but hardly great, until architect Rees Jones restored it in 1985. Moreover, there are few tournament tracks anywhere that offer such a huge yardage imbalance from front nine to back. The par-35 outgoing nine measures a mere 3,270 yards, while the par-36 incoming side stretches a hefty 3,740 yards. Finally, the course that will host the Ryder Cup is comprised of a weird concoction of holes plucked from each of the club’s three nines. In one instance, two short holes are combined to form one long one. Individually, these traits describe a patchwork setup. Yet taken together, they add up to a certifiable classic.
First chartered in 1860, The Country Club came to life 22 years later. Horse racing and riding were the primary attractions; other activities included a shooting range, tennis court and croquet court.
Golf arrived in November 1892, with the creation of a six-hole layout by Willie Campbell of Musselburgh, Scotland. Several years later, Campbell added another three holes, giving the club a strong enough nine to allow it to host the 1902 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Even after hosting the national championship, however, golf was only a poor stepsister in the eyes of the club’s horsey set. Unfortunately (though humorously, in a Monty Python sort of way), the club’s horse riders felt that their seniority permitted them to ride unfettered wherever they chose, which led to inevitable conflict. Golfers and riders often clashed in vying for the right-of-way, and hoof prints on the putting greens were not uncommon.
By 1910, the golf course expanded to 18 holes, again the handiwork of Willie Campbell. Incredibly, horse-related activities continued unabated until 1935, incredible because the horse racing track actually ran 25 yards in front of the first green and again right in front of the vast greenside bunker that fronts the 18th green. Eventually, polo, steeplechase and racing gave way to golf, but the clay/dirt track remained in place—and was played as part of the course—until 1969, when it was sodded over.
While “horse-play” may have vanished at The Country Club, the place remains a beehive of sporting activities, befitting its status as one of America’s truly outstanding country clubs. Swimming, boating, indoor and outdoor tennis, squash, paddle tennis, skating and the rarely seen sport of curling are among the choices available to members. No fewer than 41 ice skating national championships have been captured by club members. Easily the most famous winner was Tenley Albright, who also captured the 1956 Olympic Gold Medal.
Nevertheless, it is golf that rules the roost these days at America’s perfect country club, pretty much as it has since the club played host to the 1913 U.S. Open, a tournament that remains etched as the greatest upset in golf history. As is oft-documented, that Open witnessed the dawning of a new era in American golf, when a 20-year-old local lad named Francis Ouimet, who had caddied at the club, tied the reigning superstars of the day, Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, after 72 holes, then beat them in an 18-hole playoff. It showed the world that perhaps there was true talent to be found outside the British Isles and it showed Americans, especially, that it didn’t take blue blood to be able to play and succeed at golf.
For those who cherish tradition, it is worth noting that much looks the same today at The Country Club as it did in 1913. The handsome Colonial/Greek Revival clubhouse, adorned in a shade of yellow called “primrose,” conveys a sense of permanence. In a classic display of Yankee thrift, the lockers in the men’s locker room also appear to be unchanged since 1913.
Members generally post their scores on the same course that was in play for the ’13 Open. Virtually all the holes have maintained the same routing and have kept remarkably similar yardages, with only a couple of exceptions. Certainly the playing value of most of the holes on this par-71, 6,567-yard layout has emerged unchanged.
Though the trees have grown in a century’s time, the course was never really jammed with them, and even today, there’s an open, unconfined feeling to most of the holes, which are draped over moderately rolling countryside. Trees will certainly come into play (most memorably the huge oak that overhangs the right side of the 18th green), but the main hazards are the nearly 100 bunkers, small (sometimes tiny) greens, club-twisting rough and occasional topsy-turvy terrain that is slashed by often-unseen rock outcroppings. At first glance, the visitor cannot help but be impressed by the wonderful mix of exposed rock, open space and specimen trees. If fall foliage peaks a week early, Ryder Cuppers will be treated to some gorgeous Sugar maples, which in a breeze resemble orange, red and gold pinwheels.
The most dramatic alteration to the Brookline landscape occurred in 1927, when architect William Flynn added nine new holes and touched up a couple of others on the existing 18. Flynn is primarily remembered for his superior efforts in the Philadelphia area, but he was an unsung star wherever he worked. Among his classics are New York’s Shinnecock Hills, Colorado’s Cherry Hills and Virginia’s Cascades course at the Homestead. “Primrose” is the name for the Flynn-designed nine, and while it’s on the short side at 3,000 yards, it boasts several marvelous holes.
Stalwart New England architect Geoffrey Cornish revised four holes in the 1960s, but by the 1980s, the course was not quite the architectural marvel of consistency it should have been. Some may point out that the course proved a stern test in the 1963 U.S. Open, because the winning score was a mind-boggling 9-over-par 293. Julius Boros won the event in a playoff with Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit, but the ridiculously high score was due not so much to challenging holes, but rather to abnormally high winds that blew all week and to deplorable course conditions, the result of some bizarre winter and spring weather. After Jay Sigel won the 1982 U.S. Amateur, the club called in Rees Jones to make some sense of it all.
Jones hit a home run. Today, after reworking or restoring a half-dozen U.S. Open courses, he remains most proud of the job he did at The Country Club. “Brookline was perhaps the most exciting because we really did bring that golf course back to Willie Campbell’s original design style,” Jones told LINKS in 1998. “When the golfers came there in 1988 after we restored it, they thought, ‘This is great, this is golf the way it should be.’ We rebuilt and expanded the greens and relocated the bunkers, rebuilt the tees, lengthened the course and incorporated different types of grasses. It was Brookline that reminded people of the fact that you don’t have to have bells and whistles to have a great golf course.”
Indeed, competitors in the 1988 U.S. Open practically gushed in their praise for the merits of the course. Proving that there are horses for courses, the game’s two top thoroughbreds, Curtis Strange and Nick Faldo, crossed the finish line in a dead heat, at a very respectable 6-under-par 278. Strange, of course, captured the playoff, 71 to 75.
Ben Crenshaw has been an unabashed fan of the course since he first saw it as a 16-year-old in 1968. He recently told the Boston Globe that the course is “so distinctive. It made a deep impression on us when we were 16, and to me, it’s always said a lot about New England terrain. It’s very natural. It’s rugged. There are so many shots you have to attempt during a round. It’s the tilting fairways. The little cliffs are just in your brain.”
The course that will host the Ryder Cup employs the same configuration of holes that was used in both the ’63 and ’88 Opens. Fifteen holes are used from the club’s regular course and four holes (Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9) are borrowed from the Primrose nine to make up the Ryder Cup course. The first eight holes of the “Composite” course are lifted from the regular course, with the only aberration being that the second hole, a miniscule 289-yard, slightly uphill par-4 for members, becomes a 185-yard par-3 for the Ryder Cup.
After the eighth, things get interesting. The ninth and 10th from the regular course are dropped, and the 11th becomes the ninth, one of America’s best par-5s. Ryder Cup players will have the potential to reach it in two, but a basket full of obstacles awaits. Normally, the hole plays into the wind, making extra distance off the tee a difficult task. The perfect drive will favor the left side, away from a towering, cliff-like rock ledge, but thick forest will punish the slightly pulled drive. Golfers who catch the rough with their tee ball will have to decide whether they can carry a creek that bisects the fairway 150 yards from the green. Finally, an approach from any distance must find an elusive target. The putting surface is small, elevated and fiercely protected by bunkers and rough. This is terrific risk/reward stuff, perfect for match play.
Crenshaw feels that way about the entire course. “It’s an ideal match-play course,” he says. “There’s a great balance of holes, a change of elevation and the greens are sloping. You have to position the ball on the greens. It’s a thinking man’s golf course.”
Don Callahan, the club’s director of golf emeritus, who is back for his 33rd summer, observes that the risk/reward factor will be exciting on the short par-4s, such as the 338-yard fourth and the 312-yard sixth. The fourth is a dilly of a dogleg left, redesigned by Rees Jones. Greg Norman drove it into a greenside bunker in the ’88 Open, so it’s possible to get home, but the entrance to the green is so narrow that the prudent play is long-iron, sand wedge. Likewise, an iron off the tee is the sensible play at the uphill 312-yard sixth, which plays to an elevated green, but that didn’t stop Davis Love III from driving over the green in ’88—alas, in a practice round.
Getting back to our trip around The Country Club’s Ryder Cup course, we find that the short par-3 12th from the regular course is dropped and that the regular 13th, a muscular 439-yard par-4 with a severe back-to-front sloping green, becomes the 10th, which begins the meat of the course.
The 11th may be the toughest hole on the course and possibly the strangest. At first blush, it’s just a rugged 453-yarder that doglegs slightly left. The approach must carry a pond. In reality, the hole is a combination of two holes on the Primrose nine, the short par-4 first hole and the petite par-3 second. Before big events, they let the green at the first turn into fairway for the “new” hole.
Callahan explains that the idea to combine the two holes came from the wife of Charlie Pearson, a club member and vice-president of the USGA who was a classmate of Bobby Jones at Harvard. First used for the 1957 U.S. Amateur, this monstrous creation has been the source of horror stories ever since. Arnold Palmer made 7 here in the ’63 Open playoff after driving into an old stump. Collectively the field averaged 4.34 for the hole in the ’88 Open. After so-so drives, look for lots of match-play strategy on this hole: “Can I carry the pond, or not?”
If there’s one hole on the tournament course tougher than the 11th, it’s the 12th. Normally, the 12th is the 461-yard, par-5 eighth hole on Primrose. For the Ryder Cup, it plays as a nasty, rolling par-4, uphill to an elevated, blind green. Number 13, a 433-yard par-4, is actually the ninth on the Primrose. After that, holes 14 through 18 are the same on both courses.
Three other par-4s worth noting are the third, 17th and 18th. “Pond” is the name for the 448-yard third, thanks to the lovely water hazard beyond the green. Though unlikely, it can be reached with a brashly played approach. The pond and an adjacent structure called the Pond House serve as hubs for The Country Club’s wintertime activities, including ice skating, paddle tennis and sleigh riding. If you ever get the chance, avail yourself of the Pond House’s hospitality and try the club’s cheddar and ale soup, superb in summer, even better in winter.
You’ll require some sort of fortification—perhaps something stronger than soup—for the seemingly innocuous 381-yard 17th, which has been the graveyard of so many contenders. Seventeen curves gently to the left, culminating in a green guarded by two traps on either side. The green itself was diabolically redesigned by Rees Jones and today is a two-tier affair, with the front half dished out in a concave fashion. Curtis Strange came to this hole with a one-stroke lead in the final round of the ’88 Open, and planted his approach shot a nifty 15 feet from the cup, but above the hole. To his stunned surprise, his first putt slid past by six feet and he missed the comebacker. He and Faldo were now tied.
At least Strange managed to win the Open after losing a duel with 17. Three other men can’t say that. Possibly suffering the most was 43-year-old Harry Vardon, who came to the 17th tee just one stroke back of Francis Ouimet in their epic Open playoff in 1913. Vardon tried to cut off some distance by taking a short cut to the left, but he caught a small trap instead. All he could do was wedge out on his way to bogey 5, and when Ouimet birdied, Vardon’s cause was lost. Today, that bunker has been enlarged and joined a bit further on by a second, smaller bunker, but the original is still called Vardon’s bunker.
In the ’63 Open, both Jacky Cupit and Arnold Palmer blew their chances at the 17th. Cupit enjoyed a two-shot lead with two to play, but at the 17th, he drove horribly, then three-putted for a double-bogey 6. Palmer missed what most remember as a two-foot putt to bogey the hole. Both men were forced to make par at 18 to gain a playoff with Julius Boros, who went on to win.