There’s nothing amateurish about the setting for this year’s Curtis Cup. Fox Chapel Golf Club on Pittsburgh’s north side will host the match play event Aug. 3-4 pitting 12-member teams, one from the United States and the other from Great Britain & Ireland.
The course, which opened in 1926, is the handiwork of a little-known figure in American golf – designer Seth Raynor. Born on Long Island in 1872, Raynor trained as a landscape engineer and was surveyor for the town of Southampton when golf architecture pioneer Charles Blair Macdonald hired him in 1908 to work on the site of National Golf Links of America.
The two got along famously and went on to form an influential design team, with Macdonald concentrating on conceptual work and only a few projects while Raynor devoted himself to design and construction on a wider scale. Raynor continued Macdonald’s penchant for adapting the best of original British golf holes. In fact, versions of the Redan (15th at North Berwick), the Alps (17th at Prestwick) and the Eden Hole (11th at St. Andrews) appear on all of the courses they did collaboratively and separately. Fox Chapel is no exception.
Raynor’s considerable skills in routing and building large-scale, vertically bold courses established a lasting reputation. Before his untimely death in January 1926 at age 51, Raynor completed a remarkably high share of quality courses among the 80 he worked on. Fox Chapel, No. 94 on Golfweek’s America’s Best Classical Courses list, is one of 13 Raynor courses among the top 100. Others include Fishers Island Club (No. 10), Camargo Club (No. 27), Yeaman’s Hall Club (No. 28) and Shoreacres (No. 32).
Raynor was more devoted to course design than to playing. He didn’t pick up a club until working on his fourth course, St. Louis Country Club, in 1914. On the rare occasions he did play, he barely surpassed the level of a hacker. He had no great desire to become a good golfer and preferred not to let his golf compromise his architecture.
“I don’t want to bring my designs down to my game,” he is alleged to have said.
At Fox Chapel, Raynor, assisted by his protégé, Charles Banks, worked on a rolling parkland property with 40 feet of elevation change. By Pittsburgh standards, though, that’s not a lot. Mark Hessler, golf professional at Fox Chapel for 21 years, calls it “the flattest course in western Pennsylvania.”
It doesn’t play flat, thanks to steep bunkers recently restored (and deepened) by architect Brian Silva. He also squared off the tees and expanded Fox Chapel’s greens back to their original average size of 7,000 square feet. The result is a demanding par-71 course that plays 6,706 yards from the back tees (73.9 rating⁄137 slope), though for the Curtis Cup the layout will play to 6,358 yards.
Typically for Raynor, Fox Chapel’s par 3s are especially demanding and memorable.
The sixth hole, “Redan,” is actually a reverse Redan that bends from left to right and will play 178 yards. And No. 17, “Biarritz,” is sure to be vexing, thanks to its 221-yard length and its 70-yard-deep green bisected by a 31⁄2-foot-deep swale.
At least two other holes also are likely to provide fireworks.
The par-4 seventh hole, “Alps,” is only 287 yards but has a green blinded by bunkers fronting the surface. “Home,” the 539-yard, par-5 finishing hole, offers the daunting prospect of a stream on the right side of the tee-shot landing area. The stream then meanders across the fairway in the second-shot landing area 130 yards short of the green.
Like any classic layout, Fox Chapel has pronounced ground features that demand discipline. The winning team must possess a superb bunker game. And all players will need plenty of patience dealing with frustrating bounces from marginally wayward shots that get kicked out and away.