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Golden Age U.S. Open Courses Improve with Age

By: Jay Flemma


With proper care, some things get better with age. A fine wine rounds out its edges and develops interestingly complex flavors. Older cigars are smoother and more balanced, providing a mellow, civilized smoke. The beauty of a woman becomes refined. She turns from being merely comely to elegant, alluring and timeless. The critical ingredient is care. Handled poorly or unwisely, the wine turns to sour grapes, the cigar degenerates to stale leaves, the woman becomes wrinkled and bitter.

A golf course is the same; it is a delicate living ecosystem that is ever-changing and needs constant nurturing to thrive. Weather, new vegetation, erosion, animals and especially time are enemies of a golf course that threaten the fragile balance that keeps it well-conditioned. Moreover, advances in club technology have undermined the strategies of many older designs, making hazards that were once the centerpiece of a hole merely window-dressing.

Many clubs - seeking to emulate major-championship conditions to either attract a pro tournament or simulate the arenas seen on television - have damaged their courses further with pointless lengthening, "beautification campaigns" (tree-planting programs) and by cutting greens and fairways to absurd Stimpmeter readings.

Luckily, two of our most venerable former U.S. Open sites have swung the pendulum back to sanity and wisdom. The members of Inwood Country Club in Queens, N.Y., and Philadelphia Cricket Club have resisted the temptation to turn their courses into bastions of machismo and unbelievable length, or narrow tree-lined corridors where players must walk single file. This sane, wise approach, coupled with Oakmont's now-famous tree-elimination campaign, means that private clubs are avoiding the perils of do-it-yourself course design and letting the original strategies shine through.

Philadelphia Cricket Club - St. Martin's Course

St. Martin's opened in 1895, the same year as the first U.S. Open at Newport Country Club. The course hosted U.S. Opens in 1907 and 1910. Instead of calling some architect to "redesign" or "renovate" the course by adding length, trees or, worse still, difficulty, the course remains the same as it did over a century ago: a grassy time capsule perfectly preserved in all its homespun splendor.

It's a special feeling anytime you walk in the footsteps of history, but there is an even more idyllic feel to PCC than any other course. The blessed feeling of utter solitude, despite being in the center of the city with suburbia all around, is a greatest attribute. Here is a former U.S. Open venue sitting right in the center of a warm, friendly neighborhood. As we teed off on No. 8, there was a middle-aged lady sitting on a bench reading a paperback, her station wagon parked nearby. A street sign bore the name of two cross-streets and families walked their infants in prams while homeowners waved as they trimmed bushes as we passed by.

"Do you smell that?" I asked one of my partners. Normally, I reserve that query for the odor of a Manhattan subway. But this time, my nose wasn't wrinkled by a foul stench, but graced with the warm scent of cedar and berries, a welcome respite from New York City. It was both relaxing and inspiring, inviting me to unwind and forget scores, competition, ratings criteria and any other of a golf writer's tribulations.

While the course could never host a major these days, and while the conditioning was spotty in places, nobody cares. Short par-4s with interesting angles and rolling terrain lead to softly contoured, interestingly bunkered greens. "Pacific" was the word that leaps to mind. A group of friends taking a stroll with their clubs playing in a land time forgot; Philadelphia Cricket Club is the epitome of the way the game was played when Dutch industrialists leapt off the dock, met with their Scottish counterparts and played "out" from the ship to the city center before conducting business. They would then play "in" to the ship and wave warmly before departing and promising to play again upon their return.

It was the same on this day hundreds of years later and hundreds of miles away, yet PCC still inspires the unspoiled spirit of the game, free from commercialism, ubiquitous cart boys, beverage girls and people concerned with top-100 rankings.

Inwood Country Club

"Queeeee - eeeeee - eeeeens?!?" she wailed, improbably turning the one syllable word into three. "But it's dangerous out near JFK!" my Aunt Sally shrieked. "If you make a wrong turn, you may never be seen or heard from again!"

Nevertheless, despite Aunt Sally's protestations, I traveled the 10 miles from Forest Hills to the coastal location of Inwood Country Club, site of the 1921 PGA Championship and 1923 U.S. Open. Those two tournaments were won by Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, respectively, making Inwood one of only two courses in the world to claim both Jones and Hagen as major championship winners.

Can you name the other? No fair using Google! Use your noodle instead. Back already? You're right! It's Royal Liverpool ("Hoylake" to friends), which sadly will be remembered more for Tiger Woods surgical dismantling of it in 2006 than the adventures of Jones and Hagen.

Built in 1901, the course is mere steps from JFK airport but light-years away from the hustle-bustle. The course feels as though it is on the coast near Charleston, not New York. Indeed it's flattish, tidal layout feels as charming and graceful as the low country - and that's a direct result of the wisdom of the members.

Inwood's membership and greenskeepers "get" not only golf, but the true concept of course "restoration." Instead of asking [insert name of big-reputation architect here] to lengthen their course, make it narrower and groom it for a future USGA bid, these caretakers (and I use that word with precision) knew their course was also a historical monument. They chose Tom Doak.

Before we look at the course, let's look at what Inwood's members didn't do. They didn't ask Doak to build "Bandon Dunes East," they didn't ask Doak to ensure a top-100 ranking, and they didn't ask the head of Renaissance Golf Design to change the place from what it was. In short, not only were they realistic, but far-sighted. Doak, eminently sensible, is restoring the course to the layout Jones conquered in 1923 for his first U.S. Open victory. This includes moving the edge of the 18th green to the burn guarding its front where, somehow, five to 10 yards of rough developed over the decades.

Inwood is a composite course derived from a number of designers, some of whom are lost in the mists of history. Interestingly, the course began as a lover's promise to his fiancée. In 1900, tobacco baron Jacob Wertheim was engaged to Emma Stern, a woman who loved golf but had no place to play. Promising to build a course for her, Wetheim rented a potato farm, converted a farmhouse to a clubhouse, and had nine holes laid out on the property. The course expanded to 18 holes in 1906.

Herbert Strong was the most notable of a small cadre of contributors to the design and, in 1916 Inwood hosted sectional qualifying for that year's PGA Championship. The sectionals went swimmingly and the club landed the entire enchilada, hosting the 1921 PGA won by Hagen. Hagen is forever immortalized with "Hagen's Willow," a tree planted mid-tournament on the long par-4 11th hole to keep him from cutting the dogleg by playing up an adjacent fairway. And you thought the famous "Hinkle Tree" planting during the 1979 U.S. Open was one of a kind. Guess again.

Even though further modifications were made in 1926, the first eight holes remain almost identical to the original octet today. Jump nearly 100 years as Doak and the club are polishing Inwood to her former luster. Besides honing the excellent horizontal movement of the fairways through tidal marshes, which provide interesting angles of attack, Doak has reclaimed many bunkers, restoring not only their length and width but depth as well. About 140 trees have been eliminated to restore the links aspects of the back nine and return the fickle winds that make the course play differently not only every day, but from wind change to wind change in a matter of hours.

Inwood features rolling former farmland and several excellent green complexes that make it a standout among its peers. Hogbacks on Nos. 8 and 15, a punchbowl on 14 and terrific diagonal angles on many other holes bring the greens to life. The adventure only continues upon reaching the putting surface, the hallmark of any great golf course.

Best of all, Inwood's routing is unique. Three consecutive par-5s (holes 3-5) are followed by two par-3s simply because this was what the land offered. Instead of a being criticized as unusual and a violation of the tired and useless "doctrine of symmetry" where you must have 36-36=72 and need two par-5s and two par-3s on each side, Inwood simply lets the land dictate what holes lay best. The members should be commended for recognizing this as an attribute and not merely a quirk or violation of a misguided "doctrine" trumpeted by the Fazios and Joneses. At 37-34=71, Inwood is still one of a kind, just as it has been for over a century.

In an age where the game groans under the weight of too much expense, too much blather from TV commentators, too many courses trying to be Augusta National and the pathetically short-sighted doctrines of framing and symmetry, Inwood and PCC show exactly how far-sighted a club can be. The do this by:

• Rejecting imbecilic "beautification and tree-planting campaigns" by unqualified members;
• Rejecting the urge to have their course on television;
• Ignoring the nonsensical mantra of "harder is better."

Quite simply, the "Golden Age" of golf course design in this country was between 1900 and 1950. But thanks to men like Doak and, to an equal extent, architects such as (but not limited to) Brian Silva, Jeff Brauer, Jim Engh and Kelly Blake Moran, we once again have rediscovered what was once a lost secret: that angles and options make a great golf course, not TV exposure and great expense.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.