Huntsville Golf Club, Pennsylvania

Photo by L. Lambrecht

 

More than any single redesign project in U.S. history, Jones’ work on The Country Club displayed the virtues of turning back the clock to an era of natural looking mounds, swales and flow lines. Rather than imposing himself on the course, Jones allowed the site and its original features to set the tone for his work. Indeed, he was most successful at The Country Club when he literally undid some very clumsy renovation work that had been committed there in the 1960s. No wonder Jones spent tournament week in the press tent giving interviews. The media discovered what course owners had known for years: This was a man who loved his work and who shared that enthusiasm with his clients.

Long before any contracts were signed, Jones made half a dozen trips to Wilkes-Barre to help Maslow and his founding group scout out prime golf ground. After four years of searching, they finally secured 290 acres of rolling farmland and hardwoods adjacent to the campus of Pennsylvania State University’s Wilkes-Barre extension.

A routing was prepared, and after Rees presented his plans, he turned to Maslow and pointed to an adjacent parcel. “I can build a very good golf course with what you’ve given me, Dick. But if you can get hold of this additional piece, I can deliver an outstanding golf course.” Maslow gulped. But the next day, he initiated talks that led to gaining the extra land Rees had asked for—all 184 acres of it. The outcome is a golf course routed the old-fashioned way, with the owner and architect roaming over the land rather than having to shoe-horn holes onto cramped quarters.

This was not, however, a simple construction process, not on land with 147 feet of elevation change. Much of the subsurface is siltstone and sandstone. During construction, 65,000 cubic yards of rock were dynamited. At the practice range, by the way, the raw rock ledge was blasted out to provide a backdrop for the target greens.

All told, some 420,000 cubic yards of earth were moved to make way for the holes. The golf course proper occupies just over 200 acres, with an additional 35 acres designated as protected wetlands. The result is an unusually spacious golf course, the more so because no homes will be developed on site and the only buildings surrounding the golf course are historic barns and farm houses.

Rees Jones is not someone who throws bunkers and lakes in your face and dares you play over them. His craft is of a more subtle variety, with artfully carved fairway bunkers and greenside sand placed on diagonals to offer options and wide streams of play for those who prefer the safe route. He works hard at building flow into his greens, so that instead of harshly shaped decks and swales there is a more natural movement to putting surfaces. And wherever possible when water affects a hole, there’s always an alternative (if longer) path.

These traits of generosity are all in play at Huntsville. There isn’t anything close to a weak hole. How could there be since Jones had complete freedom to build holes anywhere the land looked good? The par-72 layout can stretch to 7,154 yards (135 slope/75.1 rating), but every hole affords five sets of tees. The greens, of Pennlinks creeping bentgrass, average 6,750 square feet and so offer plenty of landing room—more so since at least one side of each entrance has been kept open for low-running shots. The grassing textures—bent grass fairways and tees, bluegrass for the close rough and a hybrid fescue mix for mounds and the secondary rough—enhance the look of each hole by highlighting features and framing each vista.

The front nine is routed through woods and occasionally steep terrain. The back nine, by contrast, has a much more open look and feel to it. Huntsville opens with a gently rising par-5 that looks much tougher than its 518 yards would suggest. Surely that’s because the initial tee shot has to skirt a wetlands to the right. No problem, there’s plenty of fairway to the left. By the second tee, you get a sense of how strong a golf course this is what with all the hang-time on the tee shot. The fairway on this 391-yard dogleg left tumbles nearly 80 feet.From there in, the holes flow easily over land that could not have been simple to work into shape. Trees frame nearly every hole on this side. There’s scarcely a level lie, but no trickery or blind shots. Jones also holds your interest by virtue of his bunker shapes. There’s nothing linear or predictable about them. Nor on such rolling ground is there any need to bulk them up or flash them. Instead, they have been cut in below natural grade, in a style championed decades ago by Charles Blair Macdonald. Especially on the open holes, Jones has given the bunkers large, flowing shapes, in some cases serpentine.

Among the many sound principles that Jones follows is keeping the sand relatively flat, and then simply adjusting the depth of the front edge proportionately to the distance of the shot. The closer to the green, the deeper the bunker. As interestingly shaped as the fairway traps are, there’s a fair chance of advancing a bunkered ball down the fairway rather than having to play out to the side. The four holes that occupy nearly half of that additional 184-acre parcel Jones asked for are far and away the strongest at Huntsville.

The par-four 11th alone takes up 19 acres. Initially, the hole measured 419 yards straightaway, but the drive and approach would each have had to carry over wetlands. An old, gnarled white pine stood to the right of the original landing area, and leading part of the way to it was the ruins of an old stone wall. During the design process it became obvious that these should play more of a role in the hole. The decision was made to create a second fairway for an alternative path—longer, but less risky—edging in from the right side and eliminating the double forced carry. The result is a true option hole of stunning texture and scale. This stretch of holes is enormous in scale. The par-four 13th, for instance, plays down a roller-coaster fairway that opens up long views of farmland to the east. Up toward the green on this hole is a natural spring well surrounded by an ancient stone wall. You get the distinct impression playing Huntsville that the land and the golf course have been here a very long time.

The 502-yard, par-five 14th hole is a brilliant example of risk/reward. Few holes that Jones has ever built offer more exacting options for players. The bold line off the tee leaves a long second shot to an
elevated green fronted by bunkers. The smarter play is well to the left, with the second shot across a ravine to a dogleg fairway that leaves but a short pitch in. In every round there comes a point where you simply must play a good stroke. At Huntsville, that moment comes at the 14th fairway.

At the 15th tee, a bit of sadness sets in as you realize you’re approaching the end of the round. This lengthy par-3 offers enough room for a low-running shot, while those who opt to fly the ball in must avoid an overhanging tree to the right and a greenside bunker to the left. The 16th appears modest for a par-4, unless you drive it left into wetlands. Seventeen, a drop shot par-3 into a green that feeds the ball from right to left, looks lovely but can play deadly. At the 18th tee, fasten your seatbelts for the ride up the fairway to this 456-yard par-4.

Behind the final green extends Huntsville’s modernist clubhouse, a single-story, 15,000-square-foot, steel-frame building with glass walls set onto a base of Vermont slate and Pennsylvania bluestone. The effect is to open up the interior to the outside. This was building architect Peter Bohlin’s first golf clubhouse— although he did go on to design Bill Gates’ $45 million home in Washington State. Among many of the things that consultant Jim McLoughlin did on behalf of Hunstville was to accompany Bohlin on a tour of prominent clubhouses in Westchester County to see what works and doesn’t work in a golf setting.

McLoughlin also conducted the national searches that led to the hirings of golf director Tim Foran, club manager Kandy Krampitz and course superintendent Scott Schukraft. In fact, Schukraft was brought on board six weeks before the first tree was cut down and was involved in everything from permitting and quality control of construction to testing five different sand samples. “It saves money and time in the long run,” says Schukraft, “knowing where the drainage lines are, ensuring that cart paths are properly placed, and seeing that irrigation controls are accessible.”

Besides keeping Hunstville in impeccable shape, Schukraft has been responsible for the club’s participation in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, a joint undertaking of the USGA and Audubon International. The program is designed to encourage golf course wildlife habitats. All that big bluestem, redtop and indian grass not only looks great; it also provides food and cover. That’s also why golfers at Huntsville will spot so many bluebird boxes on the grounds.

Last year alone, 28 bluebirds were born there, according to horticulturist Karen Balchunas.

Two years after opening, Huntsville is now a thriving golf club with a nearly full membership of 300. “I knew we’d make a go of it in town,” says Maslow. “What’s surprised me is the extent of interest from afar. We’re even drawing corporate memberships from New Jersey and New York.”

As a serious golf club, Huntsville draws people who love the game and who understand its refinements. When founding member (and golf chairman) Richard Caputo created the areas only caddie program, he was helping Huntsville develop its reputation as a place where the classical game flourishes.

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