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THE PAST MEETS THE FUTURE AT MOSHOLU

How a new generation is contributing to the revival of public golf in its American birthplace

If Ed Brockner had been alive in 1888, he would have been in the Apple Tree Gang. In the spring of that year, Scotsman John Reid and two of his friends played the first recorded round of golf in a pasture near Reid’s house in Yonkers, NY. The group would take on the ATG moniker when they relocated to a larger playing field that included a tree where they hung their coats. Spend any time with Brockner, and you will feel the depth of his passion for the game and its original pure form. It is not hard to imagine him hanging his coat to complete Reid’s foursome.

Early golfers at play in Yonkers

Brockner attended Yale University where he played on the golf team and then served as a volunteer assistant after graduation. He knew that he wanted to work in the golf business but didn’t yet have a clear path to take. The Golf Course at Yale is a Seth Raynor design that is of historic and architectural significance, attracting a steady stream of designers and aficionados to play and study it. One of those visitors was Gil Hanse, who gave a talk attended by Brockner. Intrigued by architecture and construction, he landed a spot on Hanse’s crew working on projects including the creation of Boston Golf Club. Through that work, he would find his way to a site not far from where the Apple Tree Gang roamed the fields, and an opportunity to help reinvigorate public golf in the place where it was born.

A Game for the Masses

By 1892, John Reid and his pals had moved on from pasture golf to form the private Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, which would become one of the five founding members of the USGA. In Yonkers and the Bronx, they left behind a rapidly growing contingent of players who were organizing into their own groups and jockeying for the scarce open green space to play their infectious new sport. One such lot was the Mosholu Golf Club (aka the Riverdale Group) led by T. McClure Peters, who lobbied the NYC Parks Commission to use part of Van Cortlandt Park to lay out their own course. The Commission agreed that the land could be used for golf, but mandated that it be open to all, resulting in the creation of the first public golf course in America.

Clearing stones to create the golf course at Van Cortlandt Park

Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course began as a nine-holer and was originally laid out by the players. The first eight holes were each under 200 yards—the ninth measured 700+ yards. Van Cortlandt’s routing epitomized golf before enculturated standards. The popularity of the game and lack of structure at the course produced growing pains that the city turned to Tom Bendelow to solve. Known as the “Johnny Appleseed of American Golf” for his cross-country tour to lay out courses sponsored by the Spalding Sporting Goods Company, Bendelow also managed Van Cortlandt and oversaw its expansion to eighteen holes. The volume of public play continued to increase, ultimately necessitating the building of a second course on adjacent land, aptly named Mosholu Golf Course.

Mosholu Reborn

Over the ensuing decades, the city’s Bronx courses had their ups and downs, to say the least. The decision to renovate Mosholu in 2004 was a solid step toward building a brighter future for the game in New York. It seems fitting that a golf renaissance man like Ed Brockner would arrive at that moment in the birthplace of public golf to assist with its rebirth, both reimagining Mosholu and fostering the area’s nascent First Tee chapter.

During his time and travels at Yale and then with Hanse Design, Brockner had seen much of the greatest golf architecture in the country. He had also become convinced of two simple principles that he would apply to Mosholu’s renovation. First, high-quality, interesting design does not have to cost more than the bland, boring alternative. Second, the best way to get beginners excited about the game is to expose them to it on a playing field that is filled with a wide variety of great features and challenges to navigate. Players might not care about the origins or design intent of a redan or biarritz, but they appreciate cool and fun when they see it—especially kids.

Mosholu’s nine holes deliver, at an affordable price, on both of Brockner’s principles. The course is practical to maintain, but packed with interest on rolling land in the midst of a bustling urban setting. A full tee sheet and smiles on players’ faces are proof that refusing to settle for the mundane pays off. Municipalities around the country, take note.

The Bronx biarritz at Mosholu

Building More Than Courses

Since those early days, the First Tee of Metropolitan New York has expanded to five facilities, including the successfully renovated Weequahic in New Jersey. As the organization’s Executive Director, Brockner continues to search the metro area for more opportunities to expand the organization’s reach. “I am a builder,” he said, “and I love the development part of the job.” When it comes to golf courses and architecture, he can geek out with the best of them. It is quite evident, however, that involvement with the First Tee kids touches his heart as powerfully as design stimulates his mind.

For fifteen years, the program has been producing success stories. One of those stories belongs to Olivia Sexton, a bright young student who described her experience in a speech she delivered eloquently at an organization event:

“Whenever I tell anyone that I play golf, I get raised eyebrows. I don’t look like the typical golfer – I am from the Bronx, I’m a girl and I’m black. If it weren’t for the First Tee, I would have never discovered my love for a game that is elusive to people of my socio-economic background…The First Tee has also taught me life skills that will stick with me forever. The program has nine core values that are taught to us and I use these in every aspect of my life. They include honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, and confidence which help me as I grow, handle relationships, problem-solving and whatever else comes my way…More recently, the First Tee has been able to help me prepare for the future. As I am entering my junior year of high school, I have to start preparing for college, and they have been able to help a tremendous amount. Through both donations and offers, we have been able to visit some of the Ivy League Schools including Yale and Princeton…Because of the First Tee, I have a very planned out future. After high school, I plan on going to college (maybe play golf), majoring in Biology or Chemistry, then going to medical school, and eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Once I have my career intact, I also plan on giving back to the First Tee by donating to help with more outreach opportunities, so kids with my socio-economic background can be exposed to such a wonderful sport.”

At his office at Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx, Ed Brockner may be a world away from New Haven or the exclusive fairways of places like Boston Golf Club, but he has clearly found his place. He is building facilities that play an inspirational role in the current community golf revival that is unfolding across this country. But more importantly, he is using the game of golf as a foundation on which to build the lives of young people like Olivia Sexton. Growing the game is great. Changing lives through it—it doesn’t get any better.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

An in-depth look at the collaboration of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell at Crystal Downs C.C.

Crystal Downs is not Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s only Midwest design, but it is certainly his most highly regarded work in the region. The greatness of the course can be linked to the interest and variety inherent in the land, and MacKenzie’s visionary ability to embrace what a site offered. He was fortunate to have as his collaborator Perry Maxwell who expertly translated ideas into reality on the ground, adding his own touches and creative flourishes as he went. For nearly a century, Crystal Downs has been challenging, delighting and inspiring its members, including architects Tom Doak and Mike DeVries. More recently and in spite of its remote location, pilgrims have eagerly followed in the footsteps of a young Ben Crenshaw, making the journey to little Frankfort, Michigan to get a taste of MacKenzie and Maxwell’s genius.

A Connection of Like Minds

It was a pilgrimage of sorts that led to the initial connection between Perry Maxwell and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In his biography The Midwest Associate, author Christopher Clouser chronicles the journey that Maxwell took to his ancestral home in Scotland to explore his family roots. Additionally, he aimed to study the finest links in the home of golf, much as C.B. Macdonald had done before him. Naturally, he made his way to St. Andrews and it was there that he first met MacKenzie, a man who struck Maxwell as a kindred spirit. They had each entered golf course design as a second career. They both drew inspiration from the great courses they saw, most notably The Old Course. They shared a common belief that the best courses were not forcibly made—they were found on suitable land by making use of and accentuating natural features to present players with a series of strategic questions to answer. Upon Maxwell’s departure for the States, they agreed that a design partnership would be desirable were MacKenzie to ever make his way to America.

Although the collaboration of MacKenzie and Maxwell was not as prolific as that which The Good Doctor had with Robert Hunter in California, or Russell and Morcom in Australia, the pair did work together on several courses during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The mutual affinity felt in St. Andrews grew during their time working together, as evidenced by the letter that MacKenzie penned after visiting their first course collaboration, Melrose Country Club outside of Philadelphia. It read in part:

“My Dear Maxwell, When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression. I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work…Few if any golfers will realize that Melrose has been constructed by the hand of man and not nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a golf course architect.”

Crystal Downs Collaboration

Through Robert Hunter, the founders of Crystal Downs were able to convince MacKenzie and Maxwell to take a detour north on their cross-country trip east. Being unfamiliar with the Northern Michigan duneland topography, the architects did not bring high expectations for the project. What they did bring was a proven approach to creating compelling greens and beautiful bunkering, and a desire to find interesting land on which to practice their craft. Upon arriving at Crystal Downs, the men were immediately impressed. The site seemed to manifestation of the sentiment from MacKenzie’s writing found in The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“…there are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a dead flat fairway. The unobservant player never seems to fully realize that one of the chief charms of the best seaside links is the undulating fairways such as those near the clubhouse at Deal, Sandwich, and, most of all, at the The Old Course at St. Andrews, where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot to play twice over. On these fairways one hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of the seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”

The duo set to work laying out the course, and designing the greens and features. MacKenzie spent ten intensive days finalizing his vision and Maxwell worked diligently over the following three years to bring it to life. Stories of the course’s creation have become mythologized: MacKenzie getting intoxicated and only routing eight holes on the front nine; Maxwell having a lady friend in town; which of the two came up with the idea for a particular green site or feature. The veracity of these tales might be questionable, but this much is certain—the final product is a masterpiece of wildly varied strategic design and the collaboration clearly had a synergistic effect.

Although he is firmly in the camp of those who consider Crystal Downs to be an Alister MacKenzie design, Mike DeVries does not minimize Maxwell’s contributions. In the foreward to The Midwest Associate, he wrote:

“Maxwell’s respect for a landscape’s inherent qualities and use of those features in it is one of the great aspects of the golf course at Crystal Downs…he made the course better due to his recognition of the intricacies of the land.”

DeVries has spent decades at The Downs. He grew up playing the course with his grandfather, worked on the grounds crew, and now as a member, continues to study it for inspiration in his own design work. When asked what makes Crystal Downs so special, his answer was a chuckle and a question. “How much time do you have?” He continued, “The rhythm and flow are as good as any course in existence. It has a cadence, like a piece of music or drama.”

Drilling into the dramatic theme, DeVries went on to describe the different acts, each of which brings the player to a climactic high point. The prologue begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 1 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green and the par-3 9th, which runs perilously across a high ridge. Act 2 begins with the 10th and takes the player away from the clubhouse along the dune ridge that separates Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, ending with the long view north from the 14th green. Act 3 is the return journey home with one final thrill at the 17th green. The closing hole is an understated epilogue, giving the player an opportunity to reflect and absorb the entirety of the drama, as well as the holes and shots within it.

DeVries’s romantic language speaks to his love of Crystal Downs, but also to his recognition that it is a true work of art born out of the trust that the artists felt for one another. “Every day I am at The Downs,” concludes DeVries, “I learn something new about architecture.”

The Course Today

The spirit of collaboration continues in the preservation and presentation of Crystal Downs. Tom Doak plays the dual role of happy member and consulting architect, working with long-time Superintendent Michael Morris and his team to present the course such that the greatness of the design and features shine through. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous and the tree management darn near perfect. If MacKenzie and Maxwell came back today, they would approve.

DeVries, Doak and Morris are proof of the gravitational pull of Crystal Downs, which has had the same effect on Head Professional Fred Muller for forty years. Muller wrote the course guide and sums up The Downs:

“Crystal Downs is a thinking person’s golf course, where long is good but not necessary…where the position you leave your ball is critical, and where the wind always blows. Crystal Downs is the coming together of golf’s greatest architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, at the zenith of his career (after designing Cypress Point and just before Augusta National), with a marvelous piece of property.”

The outward half is intimately routed over the rolling duneland below the clubhouse. An argument could be made that it is among the best nines in all of golf.

The inward half shifts gears, taking players on an out-and-back adventure through a wooded area along a dune ridge. The difference in the two nines further adds to the wondrous variety of The Downs.

That tour that follows features the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) as well as a few of my own, complemented by Mr. Muller’s hole descriptions (in quotes). One more time, collaboration revealing just how special Crystal Downs is.

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The opener is no gentle handshake, from the undulating fairway through the severely sloped green, it tells players everything about the holes to come. “Although downhill, this hole plays every bit as long as its 449 yards suggest. It is usually into the wind, and like many holes at Crystal Downs the tee shot lands into a rising fairway. Sneak up on a wildly undulating green with a shot that lands short and pitches on. A miss to the left is a bogie, a miss to the right is a disaster.”

The next three holes are subtly brilliant, working off the side of the hill and requiring both well conceived and executed shots. “Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway on the 2nd and you’ll face a medium iron or fairway wood to the green. Although generally downwind, the green is 25 feet above the tee. Take enough club.  Golfers have putted off every green at Crystal Downs, and the front pin here is one where it happens often. Downhill and into a swirling wind, the 3rd is a most difficult hole for club selection. Remember how much the wind was helping on #2, and that’s how much the wind is hurting here. The green sits on an angle to the tee, one more club to the left side than the right. Fade the drive on the 4th or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up into the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster.”

This set of three four-pars are incredibly creative and could be played on a continuous loop without ever getting remotely boring. Birdie is a real possibility on each, as is double. “The 5th is one of MacKenzie’s great holes and most complicated, and is rated by Golf Magazine as one of the best par fours in the world. Hit the tee shot over the left edge of the giant oak, leaving a hanging lie 7 or 8 iron to a green that slopes dramatically from left to right. Or ‘bite off’ some more of the ridge on your tee shot to leave a pitch. Don’t bite off too much. Always pitch to the left portion of the green or risk rolling into the right hand green side bunkers. The 6th hole is MacKenzie’s idea of a ‘forced carry’. If you make the crest of the hill, the short iron to the largest green on the course is fairly easy. If you fall short on the drive, a blind long iron or wood awaits. The famous ‘Scabs’ are the bunkers to the right off the tee. Don’t even think about that route. On the 7th, a 210 yard tee shot leaves a short iron to a most unusual green—a kidney shaped ‘MacKenzie green’ in a punch bowl. A 230 yard drive leaves a short pitch to the green, but it’s a blind shot. It’s your choice, but be sure to get your second shot on the proper lobe of the kidney.”

This outstanding par-5 is lay-of-the-land architecture and its finest. No need for fairway bunkers when nature has provided such heaving contours. “Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle on the 8th, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron into the green. No problem…except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are at the mercy of the fates. The 150 yard mark is one of the longest in golf, and the green’s not very big either with lots of undulation.”

The next three holes make the turn at the clubhouse hill, and then take the player out to the long dune ridge. Each requires precise judging of distance to avoid punishment. “The green on the 9th is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from back up to the front (yes, it’s an uphill tee). Do not attack this hole. Hit a low shot and bounce the ball onto the front center of the green. Be careful with your putter. A careless shot could send you back for a wedge. The perfect tee ball on the 10th from an elevated tee is something inside the 150 yard mark in the right fairway. This leaves a middle iron shot over a pot bunker and straight up the slope of the green. Hit an extra club to carry the bunker yet avoid going long and left. You’ve heard those wonderful words of wisdom ‘stay below the hole’. Do that on the 11th.  The green is some 20 feet above the tee so it plays long. With that in mind choose a club that will get you to the front level of this three level green. Putt or chip uphill to the pin. Now, change philosophy and get the ball to the hole or you’ll be stepping aside as the ball rolls back past you, and maybe off the green.”

This pair of par-4s illustrates how MacKenzie and Maxwell were comfortable demanding shot-making from players. Fades and draws are optimal to navigate the bends, side-slopes and greens. “The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side of the fairway on the 12th. Your tee shot must be to the right of the tree. The green slopes from front to back, and unless you hit a large drive leaving a short iron, you should hit a low running hook shot that will bounce up and onto the green. A pitch back to the green from behind is no problem. The 13th is the most difficult par at Crystal Downs. Hit a hard fade off the tee that will run with the contour of the fairway. The shot into the green is determined by the pin placement. The green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to a larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch it at the pin if it is in front. Try to hit the ball deep into the green for the rear pin. The greenside bunkers are easy to roll into and difficult to recover from.”

The peace and beauty of being at this point on the property tend to distract from the task at hand—hitting a good shot with a short club to collect a safe par, rather than carding an other. In the vein of other great Golden Age short threes, the 14th adds an important component to the examination of a player’s game. “This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 139 yard shot. The green on the 14th slopes less from back to front than it looks. Enjoy the view of Sleeping Bear from the back of the green and stay out of the sand.”

The next two holes, a short four and long five, turn and head back toward the clubhouse. In keeping with the theme of variety, they present very different challenges. “We call the 15th ‘Little Poison’. The fairway is narrow, the green is tiny and elevated, and the wind is usually in your face. The key to this short par-4 is a long drive. It takes 225 yards to crest a hill that will leave a short pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green. Hit your tee shot hard on the 16th. Hit it hard again. And if the wind is blowing, hit it hard again. This green slopes from back to front; don’t putt it too hard.”

The 17th is the wildest and most polarizing hole on the course and the 18th one of the most benign. The two combine to give players one last set of thrills before making the walk back up the hill to the clubhouse. “The 17th is three hundred and one of the most frightening yards in golf. A 200 yard tee shot leaves a 9 iron or wedge. A 180 yard tee shot leaves an unplayable lie. A 215 yard tee shot leaves a blind, uphill, difficult pitch to the green. Now, if the wind is helping, you could drive the green. The greenside bunkers mean bogey or worse, and you don’t want to putt off the front of this green, because it won’t stop rolling for 50 yards. Drive your tee ball straight on the 18th. Don’t cut the corner, it won’t work. Your target is the 150 yard mark. The beautifully bunkered green is well above the tee shot landing area. On your second shot, hit enough club and keep the shot to the right. Anything to the left will kick into the bunker.”

Crystal Downs cannot be muscled or overpowered. It not only encourages creative shot making, the course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged and who are willing to experiment will be hard pressed to find a more stimulating golf course in America. The Downs has its secrets, and those secrets must be teased out. That is what places it in such high favor, and what makes it a joy to revisit repeatedly. The like minds of MacKenzie and Maxwell, working with exceptional land, created a midwest masterpiece.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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THE WRAP-AROUND AT CANAL SHORES

Part 25 of the Journey Along the Shores series recaps our off-season projects

Much like the modern PGA Tour, the work season at Canal Shores never ends. Long after players have hung up their clubs in Chicagoland, our staff and volunteers keep plugging away on course improvements, deterred only by blizzards, bitter cold or torrential rains. Progress continues all the way through to spring cleanup. Over the past six months, much was accomplished and more projects were added to the never-ending list. Let’s take a spin around the course to see what the crew has been up to.

The theme of recent work has been eradicating neglect. What that means is we are finding places on the course—exposed mud, standing water, overgrowth, fallen trees—and doing whatever it takes to tune them up such that the course is more enjoyable for visitors and so that it visually reflects the level of care that we feel.

Brush Clearing

Clearing of invasives on the greenside bank of the 9th was a major focus. Overgrowth of buckthorn and honey locusts resulted in both playability and safety issues. Another large section of the bank was cleared so that the green and fairway are now visible from the tee. On the 8th, several dead ash trees that were overgrown with invasive vines fell, creating a terrible tangle. The right side was cleared of that mess and buckthorn, opening up a wider and more appealing corridor for play. Buckthorn had also heavily encroached along the left side of the 11th. It was peeled back to make the par-3 more forgiving, as well as to reveal views of the canal. The bank left of the 13th green was cleared, exposing its rugged shape, along with a backdrop view of the Lincoln Street bridge. And finally, two large dead ash trees fell in a heap short of the horseshoe bunker on the 17th. That area was cleared up to the back of the 18th tee and new rough grown in from seed.

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Improvement Projects

Volunteer groups including the Northwestern Men’s Golf Team, the Northwestern Athletic Department, Friends of the Chicago River and Clean-up Evanston came out again this spring to tackle a series of projects. We built a mulch bridge between the 9th and 10th holes to help walkers and carts get through the wet area between wetlands. Fences were cleaned of debris on the 1st, 7th, 13th and 18th holes. Invasives were cleaned out of the tall grass area in front of the 3rd tee.

For the fourth straight year, students from North Shore Country Day School came out to do their senior service project. We shifted gears from golf this year and our volunteers Andrew and Will created a nature loop behind the 11th green. The long-term vision is to build an elevated platform at the far point of their path for bird watching over the canal.

Spring Tune-up

Beyond the clearing and project work, we have gotten into an annual routine to prep the course for peak season play. Paths are freshly mulched. Bunker edges on all eighteen of our bunkers are restored and new sand added. Rough grass on mounds and bunker faces is chopped and thinned, a task which can be a real challenge in wet springs when the grass gets lush. Fairway and puttable area lines on the greens are slowly but surely reestablished and repairs to putting surfaces addressed. The weather hasn’t been remotely cooperative this year, but the course will be in prime shape by the beginning of July thanks to the hustle of Tony and Matt’s team.

Takeaways from the Wrap-Around

Every year, as we progress through the wrap-around season in our efforts to revitalize Canal Shores, I learn lessons and appreciate the opportunity to be involved more. Layers of neglect that are stripped away continue to reveal interesting features and beautiful views. The property is teeming with wildlife that keep me company during moments of solitude. I am struck by how big a difference a group of workers of any size can make. It is nice to have an army of volunteers, but a small, motivated squad is equally impactful. Levels of support and appreciation for our work continue to increase, and every person who stops to say hello or thanks makes a difference—it’s humbling and motivating to be a part of this community.

We aren’t finished yet. Plenty more clearing to do, and projects have been added to the list. Stay tuned for updates on summer and fall improvements, and we hope to see you out along the shores real soon.

For the entire Journey Along the Shores, click here.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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TILLY’S TALE AT SOMERSET HILLS

An in-depth look at the A.W. Tillinghast designed Somerset Hills Country Club

Somerset Hills embodies a rare opportunity for golf architecture aficionados and players alike. For the design enthusiast, it is a course to be studied closely as an integral step in the progression of one of America’s greatest architects, A.W. Tillinghast. This pivotal work remains frozen in time, largely free of alterations that befell his later courses, especially those that host championships. For the avid player, whether duffer or stick, Somerset Hills is a course to be enjoyed for its beauty and wildly varied set of challenges. A single play only begins to unlock the riddles that Tillinghast put in the ground in Bernardsville, N.J., employing equal parts respect for the land, creative flair, and knowledge of design history.

An Afternoon Walk

Step back in time and imagine that you have been invited to spend an afternoon touring the newly opened course at Somerset Hills in 1918. You get your first intriguing glimpse as you travel along Mine Mount Road, making the turn into the unassuming club entrance. Arriving at the clubhouse, you are surprised to find that your guide for the day will be none other than A.W. Tillinghast himself. A well-heeled and well-traveled Philadelphian, Tilly explored the British Isles, including spending time in St. Andrews with Old Tom Morris, undoubtedly absorbing the oral history of the game that was taking hold of his imagination and heart. Before designing courses, Tillinghast was an accomplished player and writer at a time when the golf craze in the U.S. was peaking. You quickly realize that your walkabout will be complemented by stories born of a particular breadth and depth of experience.

Somerset’s Redan 2nd – Credit: Simon Haines

A good storyteller does not immediately begin yelling at you, maintaining that intensity from start to finish. There are ebbs and flows that build toward a climax, all delivered with creative color. It is clear to you that A.W. Tillinghast is a master storyteller as he strolls along telling tales of his sources of inspiration, his design ideas and how they manifested on the site he was given at Somerset Hills. Of course, a great design begins with taking a player on an exploration of the land. You notice the way his holes meander, change direction, and bend, coherently combining to create moments of quiet intimacy contrasted with expansive views. He pauses on many greens to direct your focus backward as a reminder that what lies behind often foreshadows what is to come.

Like Macdonald before him, Tillinghast was entranced by North Berwick’s redan and created his version at the 2nd. Other “ideal hole” elements can be found throughout the course on the 13th, 14th and 16th. He points out the classic quirk of rugged mounds and bunkers cut into humps that were built by man, as well as the contours and creeks provided by nature for hazards. The greens are of such character and quality that you want to stop and spend extended time at each, but your guide will not allow for interruptions to the natural flow. As your tour and the story unfolds, the theme of variety becomes apparent throughout, maintaining the level of engagement even in moments of rest. With the afternoon light fading and Tilly’s cigarette smoke wafting by on the breeze, you find yourself mildly intoxicated by the combination of the journey completed and the stories told. Departing the property with a final glance back, it occurs to you that A.W. Tillinghast shared the story of golf architecture up to 1918, and his course at Somerset Hills embodies that history.

The 10th green, with 17th and 18th behind – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

An Inflection Point

Somerset Hills was not Tillinghast’s first design, but it would come to be known as his first great one. He drew upon the standout courses and holes he had seen in the U.K., as well as home grown offerings like Myopia Hunt Club, Garden City, National Golf Links, Pine Valley and Merion. His experience afforded him a treasure trove of strategic and visual elements into which he dipped liberally, always adding his own creative flair. Somerset was not just important as an homage to the first twenty years of American design though. It was a jumping off point for an incredible run of courses—Quaker Ridge, San Francisco G.C., Philadelphia Cricket Club and Baltusrol, among others—each expressing Tilly’s grasp of the principles of strategic architecture and his commitment to variety, while always staying true to the unique sense of place of each site. His portfolio stands as a testament to his versatility, as well as an inspiration to the architects who followed in his footsteps.

Taking the time to look backward from each green at Somerset Hills provides insight into how the holes on all of his courses remain brilliantly relevant to this day. He had a gift for finding good green sites, and for building wonderful putting surfaces and surrounds on those sites. Working back, the ideal angles into the different sections of the green become apparent. Tilly positioned his tees and routed his fairways over the topography, accented by varied hazards, giving players a chance to work those angles to their advantage. Well conceived and executed shots are rewarded. From the tee forward, the ideal route is often not apparent. Somerset has its fair share of blind, semi-blind and visible-but-intimidating shots. Like many in the Tillinghast portfolio, it is a course that hides its secrets from first-timers, only revealing itself through repeat play.

The Course

A round at Somerset Hills is a tale of two nines. The outward half is routed intimately in a gentle valley below the clubhouse in a space previously occupied by a race track. Tillinghast incorporated remnants of that track into the design. The inward nine makes its way into the woods, past a lake, through wetlands and then takes a final hilly ride back up to the clubhouse. The only meaningful change Tilly’s original is a repositioning of the 10th green to stretch it from a par-4 to a par-5.

Although each nine has a distinct feel, the course retains its cohesion. Interestingly, the front nine is compact but feels more expansive than the back, which works back and forth over a ridge. Throughout the course, Tillinghast alternates between narrowing and widening the player’s focus, creating an enjoyable rhythm. Playing Somerset is truly like taking a journey.

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There is an optimal presentation standard that Superintendent Ryan Tuxhorn and his team nail on the head at Somerset—everything is done, but nothing is overdone. This is an old course and they allow it to exude that classic feel, without any hint of it being tired. Brian Slawnick from Renaissance Golf Design has consulted over the years on fairway lines, green expansions, bunker edges and tree management, but has thankfully not changed the character. Further, Tuxhorn takes what Mother Nature gives and provides the best playing conditions possible. The course is allowed to change with the weather and the seasons, very much in tune with the spirit of variety that Tillinghast intended. The course tour that follows, with photos from Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) is meant to convey Somerset’s gorgeous seasonal range.

The opener is a solid par-4 that bends right through the orchard and then runs downhill to a green that is open in the front. The 2nd is Tilly’s appropriately famous rendition of the redan with forebunkers center and a deep bunker left. The green is severely sloped from high front-right to low back-left and can be used to advantage, or spell disaster. Good shots are required right out of the gate.

The 3rd through 6th are intertwined on the interior of this portion of the property. Creativity abounds with the elevated 3rd green, the dolomites on the 4th and 6th, and the gloriously bold contours of the putting surface on the 5th. At no point does the player feel like they are on a bland march.

The final stretch of the front nine works around the perimeter and back up to the clubhouse. The 7th is a tough par-4 featuring a blind drive to a fairway that slopes all the way down into the front of the large green. The one-shot 8th plays perilously along a rock wall boundary to a green flanked by created bunkering. The 9th is a right-to-left par-5 where Tilly employed his trademark great hazard.

The back nine opens with the only hole that has been altered from Tillinghast’s design. The left-to-right dogleg now plays as a par-5 uphill to a green set on a hillside. The par-4 11th bends right past a lake and over a creek, and features one of the wildest greens on the course. The idyllic setting of the green at the par-3 12th distracts players from the punishment that awaits wayward tee balls.

The next two holes play on top of the ridge and have shades of Macdonald-Raynor influence. The par-4 13th features a left-center principal’s nose and a biarritz green. Quite the creative combination! The 14th turns around and heads back to a large, plateaued green that demands a much more precise approach than its footprint would indicate. A pair of outstanding two-shotters.

The par-4 15th is blind off the tee and requires a left-to-right shape to take advantage of the downhill fairway. The large green is fronted by a creek, creating a picture-perfect scene. The final one-shotter on the course, the 16th has hints of the Eden template, with Tilly’s creative twists of course.

Somerset Hills provides one last rollercoaster ride with its final pair of four pars. The 17th begins with a blind drive over a chasm to a fairway that rolls severely downhill. The 18th plays back uphill into the shadow of the clubhouse to one more boldly contoured green. Two par-4s that are ideal for match play as birdies and doubles are equally likely results.

By the time he arrived at the site that would become Somerset Hills, A.W. Tillinghast had a story to tell. It was a tale of where golf had come from, with hints of where it might be headed. He poured his heart and mind onto this land in the New Jersey countryside. Members and visitors ever since have been the beneficiaries, as they loop around and around, learning Tilly’s tricks and experiencing his tale for themselves.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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FAIR IS A FOUR LETTER WORD AT FRENCH LICK

The second edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series takes a look at The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort

The devilish designer himself greets visitors to The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort. A statue of the creator of nearly one hundred golf courses over a decades-long career stands by the bag drop. He is smiling, a friendly countenance on first impression. Alongside the sculpture is a stone adorned with a quote that ends ”…so why build a fair golf course”. After reading Pete Dye’s words, the smile doesn’t look quite so chummy. More a smirk, perhaps, or a grin that gives way to a chuckle at the travails that are about to ensue. Players have not even put on their shoes and Ol’ Pete is already trying to get in their heads.

Pete and Alice Dye have never been afraid to throw difficulty into their designs. After all, their first nine hole course included thirteen creek crossings. Tour pros have been complaining for years about being tortured by the duo on The Ocean Course to PGA West, and all points in between. However, to conclude that hard golf is what the Dyes design is to miss the point, and the complaints from fairness-loving pros speak to the reason why.

There is an adage from the Golden Age of golf architecture that the best holes appear either easier or harder than they actually are. Throughout their career, the Dyes have adhered to this principle of creating discomfort through deception. They are not simply testing a player’s ability to execute in the face of a straightforward challenge. Holes that only examine physical skills cannot test the best while remaining playable for the rest. Such design might be considered fair, but invariably, it is too easy or hard, depending on level of skill. It is also predictable and boring—two words that have never been used to describes the Dyes or their courses.

Influences of an Influencer

When Pete Dye hung up the insurance salesman suit in 1960 to don his brown work shoes and khakis, he was a far cry from having his own artistic voice. During his military service, he spent a great deal of time at Pinehurst, interacting with Donald Ross and falling in love with the No.2 course. His competitive playing career exposed him to the bold brilliance of Raynor’s Camargo and Langford & Moreau’s work throughout the Midwest. These Golden Age greats were influential, but were also being obscured at the time by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and other post-war practitioners of “heroic” design. Embarking on their architectural journey, the Dyes stood at the crossroads, not knowing exactly which way to go. The first half of the ’60s would be a formative jumping off point for the fifty years of exploration that would culminate on Mount Airie in French Lick.

In 1962, the Dyes were commissioned to build Radrick Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a lengthy engagement with the course finally opening in 1965. During this period, two additional influences ensured that Radrick was the last Dye course to ever have an RTJ feel. The first was University of Michigan’s other course, designed by Alister MacKenzie. The second was Pete Dye’s 1963 trip to Scotland to study the great courses and history in golf’s birthplace. He came back enlightened to quirk, visual contrast and strategic design, and began working out the Dye style at Crooked Stick.

At Harbour Town in 1969, the pair took a contrarian approach with narrow playing corridors and small, angled greens. They exercised their earth moving and engineering muscle by conjuring TPC Sawgrass from the Florida swamp in 1982. By 1991, they were in full blown Dye-abolical mode at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. At this point in their career, a certain expectation had emerged among players and developers for what a “Pete Dye course” should be. Certain courses like Whistling Straits feel like they are in part the result of a compulsion to outdo the last hit offering, rather than further explore and evolve the artform. If a deleterious trend in the Dye’s work was developing at the turn of the century, they thankfully stamped it out by 2009.

Fairways and Greens

Pete Dye was tremendously excited to build this big budget course at the French Lick Resort, and he considered it to be among the best sites he had ever been given. Long-time Dye collaborator Tim Liddy confirmed, “Pete was enthusiastic about French Lick and heavily invested in its creation. It is the last big project to which he gave his maximum personal attention and on-site presence.” The numbers corroborate Liddy’s perspective—150 site visit made by Pete, 30 by Alice and almost 3 million cubic yards of earth moved to create 18 outstanding hilltop holes that can be stretched to 8,100 yards. The Dyes took a special opportunity, brought their expertise and willingness to push dirt, and delivered a magnum opus.

Although the scale and views are jaw-dropping, and the potential for punishment abounds, there is a subtle brilliance to the Pete Dye Course at French Lick that harkens back to Raynor, Langford, Ross and MacKenzie. Taking a look at the fairways and greens provides insight into the depth of the Dye’s design.

“Make their eyes lie to them” is a Dye family mantra, and French Lick is no exception. On many occasions, a player will stand on the tee with their eyes screaming, “There’s nowhere safe to hit it!” Holes feature a combination of fairway undulation and angled orientation that makes confidently choosing a line difficult, especially when one or both sides drop off the massive hillside. To top it off, degrees of blindness are sprinkled in, drawing upon the inspiring Scottish links of the designer’s early years. And yet students of Dye’s work know that they have provided safe landing areas for conservative and aggressive players. The eyes are lying, but those who can block that feedback out can find the fairway, and score.

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The Pinehurst No.2 influence is evident from the first few green complexes. They are small relative to the overall scale of the course, often elevated, angled to the approaches, and shaped to allow for tucking pins. For the player looking to attack, the greens are intimidating and set up to punish reckless aggressiveness. On closer examination though, a high degree of playability is built in as well. The green fronts are open and wider. The slopes and surrounds are varied, including plentiful shortgrass maintained fast and firm by Superintendent Russ Apple and his team. Crafty players can bump-and-run or even putt their way to recovery around most of the course.

A final dose of deception is delivered on the putting surfaces. Although there are some pronounced contours, most are relatively benign. Instead subtle shaping complements the bold tee-to-green features. In this case, subtle does not mean easy though. The Dyes use the visual trick of countering green slopes to the hillsides, making reading break challenging, even on short putts. The green at French Lick confound first-timers, but also leave a desire to come back and try again.

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick is not fair, and players are all the better for it. What it is is the expression of artists who had come full circle and integrated five decades of exploration. It is a destination for players, and it would seem for Pete and Alice as well. To fully understand just how great the Dyes were at their craft, devotees must make the pilgrimage to French Lick. Like the statue with the satisfied smile, it stands as a testament to a lifetime spent climbing the circuitous route to the top of the mountain.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf