It was a curious adventure, last week. The “New England” I saw was in many ways older in spirit than its washed-up-yet-obsessively-modern ancestor across the pond. It all began with The Country Club which, at first, sounds like one of these Pete Dye-esque beats in Ohio, Florida or California (cut from the same cloth as “The Golf Club”, “Double Eagle Club”, etc) – but, as it turns out, it’s the real deal: the original “country club”, named without pretense or a hint of aspirational mimicry. Golf was an afterthought – introduced eleven years after “TCC” was initially formed, in 1882, as a social and equestrian club.
Brookline, to give the club the name it would be known as if it were in Old Blighty, by members and their pals (a la Sandwich, Deal, Pulborough, Brancaster and others), sits south west of Boston central and is positively steeped in history, there on the oak panelled walls for all to see. Members – at least some of them – are as much preoccupied with curling, skeet shooting, tennis, paddle tennis, squash, swimming and fitness as they are with stick and ball. Local lad and caddy, Francis Ouimet, won the 1913 US Open there as an amateur – an heroic feat beating out the titans of the day, Vardon and Ray. Next year of course is the centenary of young Francis’ victory and to mark the occasion the club will be hosting the US Amateur. It’s the talk of the golf town, up here at least.
On arrival at TCC – if one makes it past the notoriously unshakable gate guard – one gets the impression of an old country home that’s evolved over generations, its décor revealing in the manner of rings of a tree trunk different phases in the club’s development. The buildings surrounding the entrance circle are varied: some brick, some wooden. On your left is the grand old clubhouse, quaint and very New England in pale primrose.
I won’t get into the details of the club’s history because it’ll take me all day, but you can read up if you’re so inclined here (or for another write up by the infamous Slambino, read here). The one obvious thing I’ll mention is that TCC was one of the founding five members of the USGA in 1895 and, if you’re visiting, it’s worth having a gander at the accession document just inside the entrance to the men’s locker room (on the left). Other than that, for present purposes at least, it’s the golf that I’m interested in. The course is rather good, you see.
There are three nines – the Clyde, Squirrel and Primrose – the Clyde and Squirrel comprising, for the most part, the tournament layout. Members if they’re playing an average round play the Clyde / Squirrel layout but, depending on the tournament, they bring in holes from the Primrose. The different configurations for US Opens and Amateurs past and future will make you dizzy so I’ll spare you. I will say though that the holes they drop are tremendous fun, each in their own way.
The uniqueness of TCC doesn’t really strike you until the second hole, when you’re essentially asked to play for position from the tee and pitch up hill to a tiny, jealously guarded, rolling postage stamp green. Sixty yards or no sixty yards, it’s a daunting order. It’s also one of those courses where, more often than not, the passable bunker player would prefer to be in the sand than the greenside rough. A good deal of confidence and touch is required to chip effectively from it, particularly coming across the firm, fast, canted surfaces.
The third may be the best hole on the course for my money – and one of the most exhilarating in the US of A. From on high you drive your ball down to a fairway that snakes through a fescue-bordered corridor – if the wind’s behind and the tees forward, the bold may take on the corner, but very possibly at their peril – that winds left and then back to the right. A long, sneaky trap nibbles away at the fairway from the left and catches the tee ball of the higher handicapper (indeed, sometimes of the lower), while it’s very much a case of long stuff all the way up the right. To get a good view of the green you must drive far enough to the left, into the corridor, otherwise you’ll be coming blind over the dune. It may in fact be a case of “ignorance is bliss” from that side because what you see up ahead is far from comforting, very near to unsettling. With a mid to long iron the task of one of threading the needle through a field of bunkers to an alluring green nestled between trees, dunes and a pond (well) behind. Two tremendously fun shots to hit.
The fourth, the second short par four, lacks nothing in the drama stakes, and would perhaps have even more if they returned to the lower teeing ground that Ouimet & co played from in 1913 (they have built the tee up higher and higher over the years, now to some twenty feet above the original). Sadly this hole’s coming out next year for The Amateur – a shame, because as a drivable hole that nonetheless has a capacity to ruin, it’d be a belter of a matchplay hole if prepared correctly (I suspect, however, that if in play it’d likely be played conservatively nine times out of ten, the result then being a case of “who has the best wedge game?”). Short, but “a big hole” with a tiny green.
Seven has a real class about it, a Biarritz par three. Trees that once stood behind the green have now been removed to give the hole a greater sense of space, opening up expansive views to the pond behind three and the woodlands beyond. Wind no doubt plays a greater role these days too. The green while modest in severity by most Biarritz standards – certainly compared to the likes of Yale and Westhampton! – is a belter. With fescue-covered slopes in the foreground and huge bunkers standing guard at the green opening it’s a hole with gravitas – the chocolate drop mounds right of the green adding a playful note and a coherent distinctiveness that appears several times throughout the symphony.
Nine and ten are passable from the tee but bring real delight when it comes to the approach shots. The road to nine green is literally a narrow, tumbling corridor, down which you can bump a mid-iron if the moment so takes you (of course most favour the high route, this being America after all); and on ten you pitch over grassy dune to a sunk green evocative of Prestwick, The Machrie and other great links. But really this is all a warm up for number eleven: one of the great “short” par fives.
Reminiscent of the third, you hit a similar tee shot down to the left through a corridor – or blast over the right dune if you’re long and the conditions just right. The dune, when you look back, is in fact part cliff! From two sixty or so, sharply up hill at the end, you’d need your Sunday Best three wood and a helping hand from the man upstairs, so laying up is the percentage play. While there’s ample room and you’re lulled into, perhaps, feeling a little relaxed about it all, there are very real implications for your next shot depending on where your second ends up. The angles and the elevation that come into play are subtle, but the difference between having a full wedge in your hand and a half one – or a wedge and a seven iron – matters. The surface from down below is as invisible as it appears improbable, and it’s not until you get up there that you realise it falls sharply from back to front and left to right (you’d think your host, or your caddie, would tell you?!). Great, great fun. Visually the hole has the same kind of appeal as the fourth at Bethpage Black – though, depending on the conditions, the drama is felt more on the tee shot than the second shot, rather than vice versa.
Elevation continues to play a leading role in the holes that follow, club selection being of the essence. And because the greens are so small, going just a few yards too long means that you’re invariably in the rough, chipping back down hill from US Open-esque stuff with not a little apprehension in the hands. Brookline in this way is a very playable golf course in the sense that good shots are rewarded (if you’re on the dance floor, you’re rarely far from the music) and errant shots punished. It’s the anti-Kiawah Ocean, in a way, length being of only minor consequence. Granted, a colossal drive on thirteen will take the angles more or less out of play and leave you a straight wedge in – whereas the shorter hitters back there have trees on the right to contend with – and the same at the next hole will give you a shot at reaching the raised green in two blows, but overall it’s a matter of precision rather than one of brutality.
There are ankle tapping features abound – not least the false front on fourteen.
Sixteen and seventeen have a wonderful Kingston Heath quality to them, sans the white sand. A mid-length par three into a wooded corner of the course followed by a short par four that’s almost a mirror image of the great third at “The Heath”, birdie opportunities are there if you’re accurate, bogey opportunities are there if you’re not. Then on eighteen that primrose clubhouse reveals itself once more, sitting shyly in the trees to the right of the home green. Had you not glanced over in its direction on fifteen you might hardly know where you were until that moment, such is the wonder of the routing that ducks and dives over the hills and far away. A perennially interesting walk with the squirrels, chipmunks and (worst of all) Rudovsky, for company. Assistant Pro (until recently, Head Pro at Cape Kidnappers, NZ) Jon Buddenhagen cleared his schedule to join us for the second round on Thursday, providing welcome relief from Rudovsky’s incessant chatter – and something to aspire to in the manner of swinging the club properly.
All said and done, TCC is a classic and one with a character all of its own. It may not be Merion or Pine Valley, where every hole is perfection or very near to it, but there are a sufficient base of showstopping holes and a raft of charming ones that, together, make for a very pleasurable experience indeed. Cliched as it may sound, it’s a course you wouldn’t tire quickly of playing. The history of the place is as rich as you’ll find anywhere here in the US and, though I haven’t gone too much into it here, you’d be missing a trick if you visited and failed to take it all in.
You would also be foolish not to have a famous “Fernando” in the men’s locker room bar, the TCC drink named after the man who makes it for you. He’s been there for decades and his cheerful demeanour is very much part of the furniture. Another sign of a truly great club.
I’ll leave the ghost stories for another time.