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Playing a Donald Ross Classic in Connecticut for a Very Good Cause
I recently played one of Donald Ross's better layouts (at least that's the opinion of experts on course design) and it was all for a good cause. Three buddies and I took part in the Connecticut State Golf Association's annual Widdy Neale Scholarship Tournament at the Country Club of Waterbury.
Waterbury & Caddies Share Long Tradition
Before I get into describing the course, a bit about the scholarship fund. The CSGA has really been at the forefront of promoting the game among the young and has, since 1954, given out a whopping $2.4 million in scholarships to 524 high school seniors (including about $100,000 in 2013). Although the program was originally organized to benefit caddies, the applicant pool was later expanded for graduating seniors employed at CSGA-member clubs in various capacities (golf shop, caddies, clubhouse workers, grounds staff, etc.) who have worked for at least one golf season and continue to be employed in the current year. Depending on a recipient's academic good standing and financial need, the scholarships may be renewed three additional years.
The CSGA began awarding college scholarships nearly 60 years ago by deriving funds from a one-dollar charge included in the then handicap fee. The CSGA member service fee continues to be the primary source of scholarship funds. CSGA executive director William (Widdy) Neale, and scholarship committee chairman and in 1962-63 CSGA president James Killington, are credited with convincing the CSGA's executive committee to establish the fund, which was incorporated as a not-for-profit, charitable organization in 1985-86 and named for Neale, a Yale graduate, career Yale sports administrator, and CSGA executive director from 1946 to '86. Yep, that's 40 years folks.
Another important source of funding is a "donor recognition" program for individual contributions. The contributing levels include Bronze for $50 to $199, the Silver for $200 to $999, Gold for $1,000 to $4,999, and Platinum for $5,000 and above. All donors have their names published in the CSGA magazine, "The Connecticut Golfer," and receive scholarship bag tags. At the Silver level they receive CSGA Scholarship Fund golf caps; at Gold a scholarship is awarded in their names; and Platinum donors are recognized at the CSGA's Annual Meeting.
The 2013 tournament raised several thousand dollars for the fund and we had a chance to hear from several recent scholarship recipients now in college. I was impressed with the character of the young men who spoke. The game of golf spawns exemplary youth who go on to lead productive and successful lives, whether in the golf profession or another career. It was a pleasure to pay a fee to benefit such a worthy and venerable cause, and we got a chance to play a wonderful private course at the same time. Talk about a win-win situation.
Golf has a long history in Waterbury, Conn., a place that once hummed with dozens of factories but fell on hard times when the wheels of the old-time American industrial complex started to slow down and gather rust. But the city has experienced a renaissance of sorts, which is nice to see.
The earliest known golf matches in the "Brass City" were played in the spring of 1896 at what was known as the West End Golf Links. The nine-hole course was created by Waterbury native Arthur Fenn, who is believed by many to be the first American-born golf professional and course designer, and collaborated on several courses with Ross. Fenn is credited with the design of the Country Club of Farmington, also in Connecticut, The Links at Poland Spring in Maine, and Abenaqui Country Club in New Hampshire. The Waterbury Golf Association was formed in 1899 and, 10 years later, evolved into The Country Club of Waterbury.
Aerial View of Country Club of Waterbury
In 1907, club members began planning for a new course to be located on 200 acres of pasture land and started acquiring the property. Finally, in 1927, Ross was hired to design and develop the present-day, well-manicured 18-hole layout, which opened for play the following year.
I discovered that this is not only one of Ross's best routings it is also one of his most difficult. You look at the scorecard and see that it plays a tad over 6,300 yards from the tips. But the par is 69, which maximizes the yardage, and many of the holes have elevated putting surfaces, some with rather steep inclines that add invisible distances to the holes. The greens are undulating and very difficult to putt when they're running as slick as the superintendent can get them, which, thankfully, wasn't the case when we played. Also adding to the difficulty are plenty of bunkers, most of the holes are tree-lined, and there are several out-of-bounds areas.
One of the best holes, at least visually, hits you right out of the box. The 423-yard opener begins at a dramatically elevated tee near the clubhouse and affords a sumptuous view of the surrounding New England countryside. The hole bends softly to the right and you need a lusty drive to set up a long-iron approach into the green.
One of the Elevated Greens at Waterbury
An example of the difficulty of the par-4s here is nowhere more evident than on the 422-yard fifth. The drive must carry a rise in the fairway or else your ball stops cold and you're facing 200 yards or more for the second, which is to - no surprise -an elevated green. The ability to scramble is a must at Waterbury, as you are hard pressed to hit more than half of the greens in regulation, especially the long par-4s and several of its beefier par-3s.
Ross's talent for changing things up comes at the sixth, which plays only 307 yards from the tips. Piece of cake, right? Well, no. The hole is almost entirely uphill, well-bunkered along the left, with the putting surface hidden from view. You can make birdie here, but you have to avoid the fairway bunkers, not push it right into trees and avoid greenside sand traps, all off a likely uphill lie.
The eighth is probably the prettiest on the course and definitely a sweet little par-3. It plays only about 150 yards (130 for us) and the tee shot is across a ravine to a green protected in front by bunkers.
The only par-5 on the course comes at the ninth, which again starts at a raised tee. The green is reachable in two for big hitters, but the smarter play is a lay-up in front of a pond on this 484-yarder and then a 9-iron or wedge into the green.
Number 13 is the best par-4 on the course in my estimation. It's 365 yards from the tee and you can bite off as much as you can chew on the dogleg-left, but your tee ball has to steer clear of water in front of you.
The course closes out in testy fashion, with maybe Waterbury's most demanding par-4. The 18th stretches 419 yards from the way-backs and you simply must get your tee shot onto the plateau of a fairway rise - or better, beyond the hill - to leave a realistic shot at getting home in two. The green is dramatically pushed up, which my buddy found out when he struck a pure 5-wood only to have the ball hit the very front of the green and trickle back down the hill.
The Country Club of Waterbury stands up to its claim of one of Ross's best designs in that it is challenging, varied, fair and makes superb use of the land it was routed over. The fact that the golf helped out some deserving youngsters only made the day that much more enjoyable.
John Torsiello is an editor/writer living in Connecticut. He has written extensively about all aspects of the golf industry for a number of national and regional publications. He is a regular contributor to "Golf Course Industry," "Lawn and Landscape," "Golfing" and "Fairway Living" magazines as well as various online publications. He has strong, ongoing relationships with industry professionals and has worked closely with course owners, architects, developers, course superintendents and general managers around the country. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including first place from the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association for a piece that appeared in "Golf Course Industry" magazine.