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George Wright Golf Course: A Boston Gem

By: Jeff Shelley


Considering that I'd have to fly from Seattle to California to play the only Donald Ross-designed course on the West Coast - Peninsula Golf & Country Club in San Ramon, it was a thrill to be able to wield the mashie and spoon while in New England visiting family and friends.

My wife Anni and I joined our friend, David Danzig from Medfield, Mass., for a round at George Wright Golf Course, a municipal facility owned by the city of Boston. Before teeing off, I eagerly anticipated playing a course created by one of the game's most influential figures.

Anni and I met Dave there. On our trip into the city from Salem that almost didn't happen as we got screwed up trying to negotiate rush-hour traffic one brisk morning in early October. It turned out there was no need for such hurry and scurry as the course didn't take tee times. It's first-come-first-served at George Wright, with $28 green fees to boot. What a bargain.

The course is situated in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston's Hyde Park section, a generally working-class area of Bean Town. Surprisingly, around the course isn't a bunch of homes, though a few are seen on the front nine. Instead, this urban gem is near what is called the "Four Green Corners," with Forest Hills Cemetery, the Arnold Arboretum, George Wright Golf Course and the Stony Brook Reservation in the immediate vicinity.

History of the Course

Opened in 1938, George Wright was named after an early-day pro ball player who was later elected to the baseball's Hall of Fame. In the 1860s and 1870s, Wright played shortstop for the Cincinnati Red Stockings and later the Boston Red Stockings. In 1869 he hit a whopping .633 with 49 home runs in 57 games. Wright managed Boston teams and led them to a number of championships in the 1880s.

After baseball, he founded Wright & Ditson, a sporting goods equipment manufacturer that was instrumental in making tennis and hockey popular in the U.S. Wright also laid out New England's - and America's - first public golf course, Boston's Franklin Park in 1890. Wright and Ditson imported and sold golf clubs; none other than Francis Ouimet worked at the store while pursuing his amateur career. Wright later donated the 156 acres, the former Grew estate, for Boston's second municipal course.

Course Encounters Rocky Road

The task of building George Wright Golf Course wasn't easy, even by 21st Century standards. The property was unsuitable as it consisted of a massive rocky ledge and swampland. Before it was finished, 60,000 pounds of dynamite were used to excavate the ledge, 72,000 cubic yards of dirt were spread to raise the ground above the swamp level, and 57,000 linear feet of drainage pipe were laid to drain water off the property. During construction, which started in 1931 and was one of the federal government's most prominent Works Progress Administration-built golf courses, over 2,000 trees were removed. The WPA provided the funds - estimated at a then steep $1 million - to build the course. Around 1,000 men worked on the project.

By completion, the property contained an 18-hole golf course as well as a six-foot rock wall that encircled the entire park footprint. In addition, a cavernous Norman-styled clubhouse of impressive proportion was constructed at a cost of $200,000.

Sadly, George Wright GC deserved better. It got off to a rocky start as World War II coalesced and golf slipped from the minds of citizens. After the war, the facility gradually fell into disrepair. Neglect and a lack of funds caused the property to fail and, in the early 1950s, the city considered closing it to golfers. The course continued to deteriorate until its doors were shut in the early 1970s.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of Bill Flynn, the course was revived in the 1980s. General manager Flynn reconditioned the course with limited funds and made George Wright, eventually, a worthy option for golfers. Flynn operated the course prudently through the '80s and into the '90s, pragmatically reinvesting revenues into the restoration of the course. By the mid-'90s George Wright was profitable. Unfortunately, Boston officials saw this as a cash cow to pad the city's coffers, so it put the facility out for lease.

While providing revenues for the city, the lease arrangement was a lousy idea for the course as the new operators shaved costs. Their maintenance efforts consisted of cutting the grass twice a week. Their only improvement was the installation of an irrigation system, and even this was low-balled. During this project the unprepared contractor broke hundreds of feet of the original drainage system, creating ponds on four of the lowland holes.

Back on the Upswing

When their lease ran out the operators were fired. Parks commissioners came to the property and saw first-hand the alarmingly deteriorating conditions. They formulated a new management group and the checkered life of George Wright GC turned over a new leaf.

Many of the original design and construction elements have been restored since the new operators came aboard. The hand-crafted stonework is still here, as are the rock-fortified tee boxes and walkways. Sections of the streams that wind through the property are still girded with the stones excavated over 70 years ago. The intricate steps and walkways from the back of the clubhouse remain incongruously regal for a municipal golf facility.

George Wright's critical infrastructure - not to mention the original Donald Ross design - would be prohibitively expensive to recreate today.

Donald Ross at Work

Featuring all manner of terrain - from flat meadows to channels to hills and dales of sundry height and depth, the land that Ross reshaped boasts considerable variety. And it's a decent test; the par-70 track stretches 6,357 yards from the tips, where it warrants a 69.5 course rating and a 126 slope. Though it's certainly not one of the most highly manicured courses in Boston - let alone Ross's illustrious portfolio, who cares?

The opportunity to play a genuine Donald Ross course - with many of its original nuances intact - suffices. On the day we played, the greens had just been verti-cut, indicating that superintendent Len Curtin - formerly at Lexington Country Club - knows what he's doing. Other prudent maintenance practices were also in evidence.

According to the website for the Donald Ross Society, Ross possessed only three design standards:

Make each golf hole present a different problem.

Arrange the course so that every stroke must be made with a full concentration and attention necessary to good golf.

Build each hole in such a manner that it wastes none of the ground at one's disposal and takes advantage of every possibility.

Missions accomplished at George Wright, as each hole is considerably different from its counterparts; a player's focus is paramount to successfully circumnavigate the challenges; the joy of walking the course results in many pleasant surprises.

We had a blast during our round, rarely encountering other golfers as most fairways are secluded by trees and the stonework. Short traipses from a green to the next tee are the norm. Mature trees, colorful at this time of the year in New England, were vibrantly on display. Birds chattered overhead, while other varmints busily prepared for the winter.

Ensuring Its Future

The city of Boston is catching on to this prized possession. In 2004, a group called the Friends of George Wright was formed to preserve and enhance the course in collaboration with the Mayor and Boston's Parks Department. The organization now has over 100 volunteers who seek to maintain such valuable green spaces - and their historical significance - for future generations.

Furthering the cause George Wright's fans is the Donald Ross Society, which was created to preserve and study the great architect's work. Born in Dornoch, Scotland in 1872, Ross left behind a legacy of 413 golf courses he designed, including such esteemed venues as Seminole, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, and Wannamoisett in Rhode Island. In New England alone he is credited with 87 layouts.

After helping found the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1946 and serving as its first president, Ross died in 1948. Today, thanks to the efforts of a group of true believers, including some modern-day architects who restore his classics to exacting detail, the design heritage of Donald Ross is being studied, honored, and preserved.

Though modest by the standards set by the abovementioned magnificent golf courses, George Wright perseveres, thanks to a caring management company and superintendent, and a group of local citizens who are now very well aware of this rare urban treasure.

For more details or a tee time, call 617/364-2300 or visit www.georgewrightgolfcourse.com.