Connecticut is shaped roughly like a rectangle, save for a small panhandle that juts out of the southwest corner of the polygon. At the edge of this geographic anomaly is Greenwich, the wealthiest enclave of the wealthiest state in the country, and consisting of rolling topography that is perfect for farmland (what much of the area used to be), grand estates (what much of it is now) and golf courses (the favored pastime of people who live in estates).
While many of the renowned courses in the town date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were designed by men like Seth Raynor and A.W. Tillinghast, the best of the bunch is a relative newcomer. Dating to 1964, the Stanwich Club was formed by local residents who saw the need for another golf club during the post-World War II boom.
Those ensuing decades between have made all the difference when it comes to the golf. While older Greenwich clubs like Innis Arden, Greenwich Country Club and Round Hill are unique gems that present superb tests for amateurs, they lack the length to suitably challenge world-class players.
Not so Stanwich, which is one of the most difficult courses in the New York metropolitan area, on a par with U.S. Open sites Winged Foot West and Bethpage Black. And that’s after a recent redesign by Tom Fazio and his senior design associate Tom Marzolf that actually softened the course.
Designed by the father and son team of William and David Gordon, the 7,445-yard Stanwich carries one of the pair’s design hallmarks: big, bold, raised greens in the manner of William’s primary influence, Donald Ross.
According to club lore, the elder Gordon visited the site, then presented the founding board with three design options: a $300,000 course that would be fairly rudimentary, a $375,000 design that was more sophisticated, and a $485,000 model that would rival the best courses in the area.
After several minutes, board member Jim Linen, who had recommended the Gordons, broke the silence: “Let’s see how the $485,000 version will look.”
For that money, the club received some of the most confounding greens ever built, which added considerably to the club’s early cachet. But with improvements in conditioning, the greens had become too severe for modern green speeds.
Which is exactly what U.S. Golf Association’s John Morrissett, then the director of competitions, told the club after Stanwich hosted the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. (The event was won by Stanwich member George Zahringer III, who beat another local, Jerry Courville Jr., in the final. No doubt, their familiarity with the greens was a huge advantage.)
Marzolf rebuilt seven putting surfaces and made other changes, including the lengthening of some holes, the addition and redesign of bunkers, and improved drainage in the low-lying holes, the 13th through 15th.
As at any club with a very difficult course, the members were rightly proud of Stanwich’s reputation. The club and course are known informally as “the Witch,” for both a shortened form of the name and the cruelty she inflicts on golfers. The club’s second logo is a witch flying over the moon.
As such, many members were reluctant to make any changes, especially Marzolf’s final recommendation: the removal of hundreds of trees. But in a politically wise move, Tim Cassidy, who was then president of the club, kept members informed and sought their input as much as possible to prevent the kind of rift that resulted from a unilateral decision to remove trees at Oakmont Country Club.
Completed in 2005, the changes, including the arboreal cleansing, have been met with nearly universal approval by the members. Cassidy can’t stifle a chuckle when he contrasts the positive response against the resistance he met during his efforts to win them over. “It’s amazing how many people take credit for the changes now,” he says.
There were several trees that stayed, though. In a walk-through before work began, Marzolf said that he wanted to remove a large oak protecting the right side of the 3rd green.
“You mean Kareem?” asked Cassidy.
“How about we get rid of a tree that doesn’t have a name,” replied Marzolf as he walked to the next hole.
Kareem provides just one of many challenging shots at Stanwich, which has lured many PGA Tour pros into making the 15-minute drive from former tour site Westchester Country Club, just across the New York border. Kareem’s hole, the 376-yard 3rd, is one of the few on the course that offers a true birdie opportunity, provided the drive is positioned correctly.
The big, bold 534-yard 5th is more emblematic of the stern layout. New fairway bunkers on the uphill hole add to the demanding tee shot, which also must avoid a pond to the left that used to be lined by willow trees. Additional bunkers halfway up the hill make the lay-up anything but routine, and the pitch must be judged and executed precisely for a chance at birdie.
As a group, the par 5s may be the strongest set of holes on the course. The 9th stretches 633 yards to a difficult green, while the removal of a stand of trees (replaced by bunkers) that used to guard the dogleg of the 14th now make the 526-yard par 5 a great risk-reward hole. Players who didn’t stand a chance of hitting a drive over the trees now can try to carry the bunkers for an opportunity to hit the pond-guarded green in two.
Finally, the 616-yard 17th is one of the best par 5s in metropolitan New York, right up there with Bethpage Black’s 4th, Baltusrol Lower’s 17th and Winged Foot West’s 12th. Long hitters can try to sling a draw on the right-to-left sloped fairway for a chance to hit the second shot over a tupelo tree and onto the green, but a shot with too much hook will find the water that extends down the left side of the hole.
In addition to the course, much of the club’s appeal and elevated stature in the game owes much to the 37-year tenure of Billy Farrell, the first of just two head professionals in Stanwich’s history. The son of 1928 U.S. Open winner Johnny Farrell, Billy helped give the club an immediate identity as a serious golf club with high standards.
The current head pro, Mike Summa, has inherited the stewardship of a club and a course that began as an instant classic and has only improved since.