Small Greens

One of the great things about The Country Club is the smallness of the greens and the difficulty of the long grass around the greens,” says Bill Spence, the club’s superintendent from 1985 until 2018. “Creating a shot out of that cabbage onto those little putting surfaces is an extreme challenge.”

The Country Club’s greens are second only to Pebble Beach’s among the most petite in Major-championship golf. When Spence began his tenure, they averaged just 3,200 square feet, though they were not consistent. Spence worked with architect Rees Jones before the 1988 US Open to return the greens to something close to their original dimensions based on photos from the 1940s and the recollections of a mechanic who had been at The Country Club for more than 40 years. 

“Through a series of scientific and artistic endeavours we were able to come up with a restoration plan,” Spence says, “though in today’s world it was absolutely a prehistoric process.”

Jones and Spence slightly enlarged 10 greens and reduced the size and shape of three others (the first, fourth and 17th) that Geoffrey Cornish had modernised after the 1963 US Open. In preparation for this year’s US Open, Gil Hanse expanded the area of the greens again by roughly 20 percent, adding one or two perimeter hole locations on each. Though still miniscule, they now average just less than 4,400 square feet (Pebble Beach’s average about 3,900 square feet). Although some tilt back to front, the majority possess cross-slope movements, sliding forward with various degrees of left or right break. If the weather is dry and the greens are firm, they will be The Country Club’s most demanding component – saving par after missing them in the wrong place, above the hole or pin-high in the rough, will require judgement and execution – and maybe luck. If the wind blows at all, the scores will be high.

Antique Character

The name of The Country Club is apt: it was the first “country club” in the United States, an out-of-town base camp where the Boston elite retreated for recreation. As much as anything it was an equestrian club, with paddocks, a polo field and racetrack on the flattest section of land to the south-east of the clubhouse. The out-and-back first and 18th holes played mostly within the racetrack with the backstretch and homestretch bordering the right edges of each fairway and the dirt turns cutting in front of each green. The track was abandoned decades ago, but the depression in front of the first green is still evident, and as late as the 1960s the raised outer bank hid portions of the putting surface.

The most significant alterations Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner encouraged were the removal of hundreds of trees, particularly the fast-growing, non-deciduous white pines that shadowed greens and crowded holes to the point the course looked, as Hanse says, “tired.” Viewers who haven’t seen The Country Club since the 1999 Ryder Cup will notice more open playing spaces with vistas connecting the holes, particularly on the first nine. Peeling back the trees also highlights another antique feature: clusters of hillocks and chocolate-drop mounds, like those right of the sixth and 10th greens, beyond and to the right of the 14th green and in the left rough past the inside fairway bunkers on the 17th that can snare players trying to cut the corner. Covered in traditional rough or clumpy fescue, the mounds serve the purpose of placing the architecture in the early-American period and fostering awkward and unpredictable recoveries.

The tree clearing achieved agronomic and aesthetic goals, but it also brings into play the fescue boundary areas. During recent US Opens at Winged Foot and Torrey Pines, drives blasted offline usually found maintained rough, often trampled and not much of a bother to players as strong and long as Bryson DeChambeau and defending champion Jon Rahm. Deep, wayward drives at The Country Club are likely to end up in wispy fescue or stubborn bluestem grasses, perhaps on a sidehill or downhill lie, making hitting precision shots into the diminutive greens a hit-and-hope proposition. Welcome back
to old-time golf.

Blind Shots

Potential blind shots like that at the 14th are common at The Country Club. Although course-mapping technology, rangefinders and precise distance control now take much of the guesswork out of blind shots, courses that relentlessly hide the targets from players are rare and can exact a cumulative psychological toll. 

Discomfort over blind shots was one of the reasons – along with blustery winds – that the scores in the 1963 US Open were the highest they had been in 28 years – nine-over par made it into a playoff. Tony Lema, who lost by two shots after closing with a pair of bogeys, quipped in his book Golfers Gold that “The Country Club… will always be memorable. We’ll probably have nightmares about it for the rest of our lives.

“Occasionally a glimpse of the flag itself is visible, flapping like a yellow handkerchief in the strong breeze,” he wrote, “but there were at least 12 holes that could be called blind or partially blind. This meant that when you tee off, or when you hit your approach shot, you could not be exactly sure where you should be hitting the ball.”

Of note was the second shot at the par-4 third, where the fairway pinches down between outcroppings to a wasp-waist gap of just 10 paces. “It was very hard… to drive your ball anywhere except directly behind this mound, and so you were firing your second shot at blue sky, not an actual target,” Lema remembered.

 The drive at the par-4 fourth hole, off the high embankment next to the third, is entirely blind, as is the par-4 15th. Only the top of the flag will be visible after most drives are hit at the short, uphill, par-4 fifth and the 10th, and the same is true for the par-4 seventh unless players can carry drives almost 270 metres to the upper rise of the fairway. There are still at least 12 holes on which players cannot see their drives or approaches land.