Geeked on Golf

BLUE’S GREENS

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A look at the heart of Blue Mound Golf & Country Club, the tremendous set of Seth Raynor designed greens

For a golf course to be great, its different components—land, routing, strategy, hazards, greens—should ideally work together, and have independent strength of their own. Ask a large enough group of golf geeks which of these course elements is the most important, and the answers will likely run the gamut. Such is the varied nature of the game, its playing fields and the opinions of its players. A strong case can be made that the greens are the heart and soul of any golf course. Their orientation, magnitude and contours create a game within the game, and when well-conceived, dictate strategy all the way back to the tee. It is nearly impossible to have a truly great course without a set of high quality greens. Pebble Beach is the exception that proves this rule, and only by virtue of its setting in one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on planet golf.

Seth Raynor, in collaboration with both Charles Blair Macdonald and Charles Banks, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of green builders. The size and boldness of his green complexes is matched with contouring of the putting surfaces that oscillates between wild and sublimely subtle. His greens can take a lifetime to master on the approach and with the flatstick. Among the MacRaynor cognoscenti, the sets at National Golf Links of America, Chicago Golf Club and Camargo often get the nod as the best. Few will put Raynor’s work at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in that rarified company, but perhaps they should. Recent work on expansions, surrounds, bunkering and opening up the property through tree management is placing a spotlight on Raynor’s genius, and placing Blue Mound in the must-see conversation.

Mr. Raynor Goes to Milwaukee

“Very little has actually been written about that course,” said Seth Raynor historian Nigel Islam, “but we do know a few things.” After moving from its original location, the club recruited Raynor, whose reputation as a solo designer had been elevated in the Midwest with the openings at Shoreacres and Camargo, as well as the rework of Chicago Golf Club. Indeed, Macdonald gushed about how his protege had proven himself a prodigy. “He scarcely knew a golf ball from a tennis ball when we first met,” recounted the mentor in Scotland’s Gift – Golf. “…he never became much of an expert in playing golf, yet the facility with which he absorbed the feeling which animates old and enthusiastic golfers to the manor born was truly amazing, eventually qualifying him to discriminate between a really fine hole and an indifferent one.”

On a gentle piece of ground on a plateau above the Menomonee River, Raynor designed the course to be an enjoyable challenge for players of all skill levels. A pamphlet issued by the club in 1924, prior to the opening of the course, described the holes and passed along a message from the architect to the membership. “Mr. Raynor says that any player who can get a carry of about 100 yards will keep out of trouble,” it read. “ It will be an interesting course to the great number of players who score 90 and over, and at the same time, it will tantalize those few golfers who are able to shoot 80 or better.” Raynor intended for players at Blue Mound to have room to chart a suitable route to each green where they would ultimately find abundant interest and challenges on the putting surfaces.

Seth Raynor still greets players with a watchful eye on the 1st tee at Blue Mound

Over the decades, both fairways and greens shrank at Blue Mound. Thankfully, that trend has been reversed. Retrovation work got underway as the highly-regarded Bruce Hepner consulted with former Greenkeeper Steve Houlihan on tree removal, changes to mowing lines and greens expansion. The process has continued, driven by the Greens and Grounds Committee and energetic, new Superintendent Alex Beson-Crone, including reconstruction of the Alps and Short bunkers, and firming up of playing surfaces. The club is eschewing flash, instead honoring the simple elegance of Raynor’s design by focusing on the finer details. “Blue Mound is not trying to be something that it is not,” explained Beson-Crone. “Raynor’s engineered contours produce an effect. Being outdoors on this course is a spiritual experience. It just feels right.” With that level of reverence and enthusiasm, the membership is right to be excited for what lies ahead.

Returning to the greens, Beson-Crone’s appreciation has grown with each passing day. “Sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a green getting lost marveling at what they built,” he said, with a tone of awe in his voice. A sign of their quality reveals itself in the difficulty of choosing either the strongest or the weakest among the set. “I will probably have a new favorite green this year,” laughed Beson-Crone, “and every year.”

Heat maps illuminate the variety of contours possessed by Blue’s greens – Click on gallery to enlarge

Hepner is equally effusive in his praise. “What makes Raynor’s greens so interesting is that they are huge with all these internal contours,” he shared in a presentation to the club. The architect went on to make his case for following through on the expansion work. “The process is to get them out to the precipice, to the edges of these plateaus. Men and horses and mules built these greens and I guarantee that they wanted putting surface on every inch. Otherwise, they wasted a lot of sweat.” With each passing year, the retrovation progresses, reintroducing the variety of hole locations that Raynor intended to keep the course interesting for everyday play.

The Course

The land on which Blue Mound sits is understated, but far from boring. The outward nine loops around the perimeter, culminating with a four hole stretch that interacts with the ridge and slope above the river valley. The inward half meanders around the center, flirting with a tributary creek.

As we take a tour through the course, our focus will be on the greens, which have been captured beautifully by club member and architecture geek Jerry Rossi (IG: @putt4dough24). Special attention has been paid to the one-shotters, which are stellar. Hepner stated his position clearly to the club, “You have the best set of par-3s of any Raynor course that exists.” For those interested in greater tee-to-green detail, Blue Mound produced a series of flyovers featuring architect commentary that have been compiled into a YouTube playlist.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

Raynor comes right out of the gate with strong par-4s back-to-back. The two-shot redan 1st plays into an angled and elevated green with a high right side. The 2nd features an enormous double plateau with transition contours as grand as any he ever built. “Macdonald invented the double plateau at National Golf Links,” explained Hepner. “It gives that ‘floating in the air’ feel and forces you to trust your eye. That’s how modern architects get professionals.”

Macdonald’s inspiration for the most polarizing of his ideal three-pars came from Biarritz in France, and its famed Chasm hole.

Although they did not build one of these long par-3s at The National, subsequent designs at Piping Rock, St. Louis Country Club and Lido Club included prominent renditions.

The Biarritz at Piping Rock – Photo credit: Jon Cavalier

Raynor continued to employ the concept at Fisher’s Island, Shoreacres, Camargo, and on the 3rd at Blue Mound. Although the game has become more aerial in nature, creative shotmakers can still enjoy the fun of the low-running approach that the architect intended.

The next stretch of three par-4s works its way over to the river ridge and includes some of the most famous concepts. The Alps 4th recently had a retrovation of the cross bunker by Hepner that fronts a green which he describes as, “…a semi-punchbowl that is subtle, but on which there is a lot of contour.” The 5th is an uphill Road hole with an infinity green angled front-right to back-left. The 6th, named Strategy, presents players with options to position themselves for an optimal approach into the canted and contoured green. “I think this is one of your coolest holes,” Hepner told the members. “It’s patterned after the 1st at National Golf Links.”

The Short hole concept was brought back by Macdonald from the sleeper-fronted original at Brancaster.

Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Golden Age architects such as Ross and MacKenzie, as well as the Dyes in the modern era, shared the belief with Macdonald that at least once in a round, a player should be required to step up and hit a precise shot with a short iron. No bailout. Do or die. National’s version initially donned the Brancaster look, but the wood sleepers were ultimately removed.

Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Raynor had a knack for locating his Shorts in the most scenic spots on the course. With the Mount Mary campus as a backdrop, his setting at Blue Mound was no exception.

An alteration to the front bunkers over the years caused the 7th to lose some of its MacRaynor feel.

Bruce Hepner and the Blue Mound crew excavated the original footprint and returned the moat look, once again providing that all-or-nothing thrill.

Bunker shaping complete, prior to regrassing

Today’s 7th stirs the soul and quickens the pulse, just as Seth Raynor intended.

The front nine turns for home at the Punchbowl 8th, which because of its uphill orientation, has an Alps quality to it. “It is so strong,” mused Hepner. “It’s the coolest green I think I’ve ever expanded.” The par-4 9th plays past a set of string-of-pearls bunkers to a green that falls away hard to the left.

Lest players fret that Raynor peaked too early with the stellar close to the outward half, the 10th quickly signals more greatness to come. “Raynor poached the best ideas from the 2nd and 3rd place winners in the Country Life Magazine design contest that MacKenzie won,” shared Hepner. His “Prize” hole ends with a green that is among the most interesting and unique that he ever built. At the Cape 11th, the architect plays with Macdonald’s concept by angling the elevated green in opposition to the gentle sweep of the fairway. The drive on the Hog’s Back 12th grabs attention, but making a par four requires overcoming the equal challenge of subtle green contours.

“Take a narrow tableland,” wrote Macdonald of the concept he borrowed from North Berwick, “tilt it from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally, and you have the Redan.” The original was inspired by medieval fortifications…

Photo Credit: North Berwick

…which Macdonald and Raynor morphed to create their first at National Golf Links. In every subsequent design, they made this brilliant three-par a hallmark. It is no mistake that architects continue to follow in their footsteps by building Redans today.

The Redan 4th at NGLA – Photo Credit: Simon Haines

The negative impact of over-treeing is no more acutely evident than in a photo of Blue Mound’s 13th prior to Hepner’s retrovation. The aesthetics and strategy of the hole, suffocating under tree branches, cried out for freedom—a call that the membership and Hepner wisely and mercifully answered.

The Redan 13th now plays as intended. Aerial and ground attacks are both options, but deep bunkers lurk beyond, waiting to ensnare the overzealous.

Every great routing has a rhythm, with ebbs and flows. The stretch from the 14th through the 16th provides a quiet complement between the heart of the course and its closing holes. “14 and the Leven 16th have the opposite strategy,” said Hepner. “They work well together.” In the middle is the par-4 15th, with yet another outstanding green.

The final par-3 takes its name from the Eden estuary that runs behind the green at the original on The Old Course at St. Andrews. The three front bunkers have given players fits for more than a century, including Bobby Jones.

Photo Credit: St. Andrews

Macdonald and Raynor often represented the rear hazard with a long bunker, as was the case with their first rendition at The National.

Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

Raynor took creative liberties with his design of the front bunkers on Blue Mound’s 17th. They serve the same purpose though—present a strong defense of the canted and contoured green.

With one final nod to The Old Course, Raynor concludes Blue Mound with the Long par-5 18th. The finisher requires three well-struck shots to have a good birdie look to close out a round. The green setting delivers a finishing touch of class, as Hepner explains. “Whoever sited the clubhouse did a great job in relation to the 9th and 18th. It is set at an angle, which enhances the view.” The difference between good and great, details.

Indulge me, for a moment, in the construction of a logical question:

If greens are the most important component of a golf course, and Seth Raynor was among the very best green builders in history, and his finest set of par-3s is at Blue Mound, and the strongest greens at Blue Mound are not on the one-shotters, and it is extremely difficult to identify the weakest green on the course, because they are all strong…Then, does it not stand to reason that Blue Mound is highly underrated among the Golden Age greats?

Perhaps my leaps of logic are too broad to accept, but this much is true—the club membership has a newfound zeal for polishing their hidden gem, and they have charged Hepner and Beson-Crone with recapturing all of its upside potential. Wherever one might have rated the course in the past, a return trip to Seth Raynor’s Blue Mound is sure to be cause for serious reconsideration.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf

2 thoughts on “BLUE’S GREENS

  1. Spot on analysis and outstanding commentary on Blue Mound. Thank you for recognizing our hidden gem!

    • Thanks Scott. It’s my privilege to put the spotlight on the course, and the wonderful work that’s being done there. Something tells me that it won’t stay hidden for long.

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