Dramatic weather preceded us, but the intrepid members of the Donald Ross Society were not dissuaded. We brought our rain gear and an extra supply of golf balls, and we were rewarded with frequent blue skies and superlative golf courses throughout. Not all of the participants played every single day, but some did; not all of us ate every meal or attended every cocktail opportunity, but some did; and the consensus is that the effort was worth the sore feet, stiff backs and extra calories.
Not only is Massachusetts where Donald Ross first worked in the United States, but more recently, an interest in the restoration of his Boston area golf courses led to the establishment of the Donald Ross Society. We began our journey at the Worcester Country Club, where we were taught to pronounce the name “Wooster”, and Outings Chairman Derek Dobbs attempted to explain to our hosts why the name of their State should be spelled “Massochusetts.”
Designed by Ross and opened in 1914, Worcester boasts 5 par threes, each with its own challenges. In 1927 the very first Ryder Cup matches were played here and subsequently both men’s and women’s US Opens as well. With a shotgun start, our own Past President began his round on the par three 4th hole with a precise drive to birdie range, certainly an improvement over America’s Past President, William Howard Taft, who opened the course with an ugly duck hook of 125 yards. The course was damp but playable with many memorable holes. It was here that we first saw the substantial rocky outcroppings that characterize the Christalline Appalachians, and must have made golf course construction incredibly difficult using only mules and shovels.
° ° °
Friday morning took us to Salem Country Club that boasts a glorious golf course and magnificent clubhouse, surmounted with a weathervane that displays one of golf’s most evocative logos.
Salem Country Club may also be one of Donald Ross’s finest creations, and few have managed to remain so unchanged. Built in 1925, Salem has hosted a US Women’s Amateur, two Women’s Opens and the US Senior’s Open as well. With only a small number of bunkers, many of which are directional guides rather than true hazards, the complexity of the course is in its greens that slope alarmingly to left, right and the rear creating nasty paths for slightly errant approaches, yet promoting good drainage thus enabling us to play despite the week’s heavy rains. Remarkably, just two days after our visit, torrential rains in the Peabody (pronounced “Peeb-iddy”) area severely damaged a bunker on the par three 12th.
At dinner, Golf Week Magazine’s Bradley Klein spoke to us about the significant role that restoration work is now playing in the fight for survival among golf clubs that are threatened by a difficult economy. He has just published an updated version of his biography of Donald Ross that includes a chapter on the recent renovation work at Pinehurst #2, and graciously signed copies for our members.
° ° °
Saturday took us to Essex County Club, 153 School Street, Manchester, MA 01944
The Essex County Club was home for Donald Ross from 1909 until 1913 and he worked on it constantly. Hired by one of his golf students at Oakley to expand the original 9 hole layout, Ross spent almost ten years on the project, which was not completed until 1917.
The Ross home still exists adjacent to the 15th tee and one can think of no better place to pause and take a wee nip from a discreetly carried flask. After the sparse bunkering at Salem, here some of his most dramatic bunker work makes even the shortest holes frighteningly difficult. Not all are short however; the 623 yard third hole (once listed as a par 6) plays to what may be the oldest continuously maintained green in the United States. The Curtis Cup was held here in 2010 and the world had an opportunity to see what a well-conceived restoration project can accomplish. Renaissance Golf opened up the course, brought back the full sized greens and their challenging collection areas and proved that a golf course need not be narrow to be tough.
Many of us felt that this was the finest Ross course we had ever played!
Saturday’s dinner was followed by a delightful reminiscence from Alex Shapiro and his sister Victoria. Alex is the great-grandson of Donald Ross and he shared with us some of the diary notes and stories that his family remembers of their special ancestor. Some of their grandfather’s comments about the political events of his time seemed especially appropriate to our own day as well.
° ° °
Sunday brought us to the Kernwood Country Club, 1 Kernwood Street, Salem, MA
Driving through a gate that resembled an old castle’s stone wall we found a delightful track laid out on the banks of the Danvers River. Kernwood was opened in 1914 with a star-studded exhibition match featuring Walter Hagan and Francis Ouimet. Home of several Massachusetts Opens, the course does not pre-occupy itself with the nearby water and has many striking dry-land holes, nevertheless the 195 yard creek-fronted 12th hole was Ross’s favorite here, and the views of boats and riverside homes are splendid from several of the holes. The clubhouse is built around the remains of a stately home, and despite its 1950-esque modern lines, some remnants of the original stonework had been preserved.
° ° °
Monday was our day at Oak Hill Country Club, 840 Oak Hill Road, Fitchburg, MA 01420. Our contingent had shrunk to just 12 golfers and we shared the golf course with participants in a fundraiser for a local Catholic School, but things moved along smartly, and some of our members were even tempted by the School’s silent auction that offered interesting photographic memorabilia such as Ted Williams’ first at bat, and a cigarette smoking Arnold Palmer.
Oak Hill Country Club had its beginning in 1917, and the golf course was laid out in the spring of 1919 by Wayne E. Stiles. Fortunately, DRS member Kevin Mendik is an authority on Stiles work and provided fascinating commentary. Additional land was secured in 1926, and a second nine holes were added, under the direction of Donald Ross. The new nine holes were formally opened when Tommy Armour and Johnny Farrell gave an exhibition. Farrell, who was the head professional at Quaker Ridge in New York, would win the US Open by one stroke the following year, in a 36 hole playoff against Bobby Jones. It was interesting to compare and contrast the two nines. Stiles clearly had the more interesting land to work with, and his holes are quite dramatic in their presentation, but the more modest and unassuming holes that Ross added on the flatter land on the other side of the entry road proved far more difficult to play with challenging greens that defy simple reads.
The hill, from which the Club takes its name, is a Monadnock (Native American for isolated hill) the solid granite base of a mountain, weathered down through countless ages to its present elevation of 900 feet. The sand hills and the plain on the east slope are probably glacial deposits, and might even trace the course of a glacial river along their ridge.
° ° °
Tuesday took us to Charles River Country Club, 483 Dedham Street, Newton Center, MA 02459.
The Charles River Country Club sits on rolling and wooded land spotted with rock outcroppings that Ross simply grassed over creating some imposing mounds. The 409-yard 8th hole has it all, the mounds to be carried, the elevated green and a reminiscent Ross false front. Two of its par 5 holes (7 & 10) are short enough that they might truly be viewed as par 4s and if so, the course might be rated the most difficult of this rota. It is not surprising that when the 1972 US Amateur was played here, the medal scores at Charles River were higher than the scores posted at the Country Club at Brookline.
This is a course that is fun to play and friendly to the average amateur, but deceptively difficult for the player attempting to post an ambitious score.
° ° °
On Wednesday, our journey would come to its end at the very place where Donald Ross’s journey began, the Oakley Country Club, 410 Belmont Street, Watertown.
Eleven of the holes here are much as he designed them 1-5 and 10-15 along with the greens on 6, 8 and 17 represent his modifications to the course he found in 1899. Certainly, trees have intruded, and his ground would have played much firmer and faster without the modern irrigation system of today, but just as Dornoch is the Mother Church, Oakley is the First Mission.
All in all, one of our Society’s most extensive outings proved to be one of the best. Such success, while certainly made possible by wonderful venues, would never have been achieved without the tireless work of Outings Chairman Derek Dobbs and the behind the scenes record keeping of Society Treasurer, John Stiles. In addition, several local DRS members, fortunate enough to have close connections to the Clubs that we visited, opened doors for us that would otherwise have been locked tight. Steve MacQuarrie, Ed Frackiewicz, Dave Osborne and Jack McGeorge made us feel at home in Massochusetts. Every single one of these courses is well worth repeat visits, and we were left quite envious of those who live within driving distance of Boston common.