2005: America’s best architecture

Some club histories are better than others. Some are a whole lot worse. The genre is easy to dismiss as amateurish. But that’s only if amateurs undertake the project. In the right hands, with adequate time, planning and budget, a club history can be an ideal way to commemorate a club’s past while helping to forge its identity for the future.

The key is to focus on the golf course and to structure the text, layout and photography accordingly. Club histories that spend their pages detailing paddleball champions from the 1930s or the history of those post-World War II pool additions are bound to bore readers to tears and deservedly will be relegated to the dustbin.

Some clubs make odd or revealing choices about what they emphasize. “From Little Acorns,” a 1977in-house book about Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y., glorifies the trees, the clubhouse and the club’s great players but makes not a single reference to course designer Donald Ross or to his 36-hole layout from 1926. There’s only one photo of a golf hole (from 1965) and a single sentence devoted to a 1976 renovation of the grounds. With a historical sensibility like that, it’s no wonder that over the years, club leaders managed to over-plant the grounds and destroy the integrity of the original layout.

Consider two exemplary club histories, both at courses that carefully have tended and preserved their classic Ross layouts. If there were an award for best club history, I’d bestow the gold medal to “Where Stone Walls Meet the Sea: Sakonnet Golf Club, 1899-1999.” Longtime member Chris Rawson has a wonderful story (614 pages) to tell about this Rhode Island hidden gem, and he tells it lovingly, including lively detail about the club’s four greenkeepers, its quirky coastal golf course and how the grounds have evolved. And he illustrates it densely with detailed maps, oil paintings and historic black-and-white and contemporary color photos.

The silver medal would go to “History of the Essex County Club, 1893-1993,” George C. Caner Jr.’s exquisitely researched tome (374 pages) on another Ross gem in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. OK, it doesn’t have color, just black and white, but the maps are great, the detail is stunning and it conveys a memorable historic sensibility.

Why even do a club history?

Here’s four quick reasons: 1) to tell a good story; 2) to preserve historic memories before they die off; 3) to capture and define a club’s architectural heritage and identity; and 4) to quietly promote the cachet value of membership in a club without having to engage in conspicuous marketing.

A decent-sized book (circa 200 pages, with full-color imagery throughout and styled like a small coffee-table volume) will cost about $90,000-$120,000 to do properly for 3,000 hardbound copies. That sounds like a lot of money, but if priced at $30-$40 per copy for members and guests, about half that total can be recouped through direct sales. Have the books shrink-wrapped in plastic so they can sit in the pro shop basement until the supply is depleted. Make them part of a guest’s gift package.

A book makes for a great tee prize at a member-guest and is a lot more memorable than yet another golf shirt or a dozen golf balls. If a handful of new memberships result from the volume, then the project will have paid for itself.

A member committee definitely should be involved, but only to oversee and manage the undertaking, not to write or research the book. Members tend to be protective of certain stories and personalities and likely will want to include photos of all members rather than offending some by leaving a few out. That can clutter the book as well as the narrative.

Better to hire an experienced researcher/writer, as well as a photographer and a book designer. The book designer need not have done a golf book before – in fact, someone with a resume filled with nature books or museum art can bring a fresh perspective to the project. The club committee’s job, meanwhile, should be strictly limited – to paying bills, fact checking and allowing the book team to take the time to get it right. From beginning to end, including printing and shipping, it will take nearly two years to do a proper volume.

Document the past. Search through libraries and regional archives for imagery of the area long before the golf course came into being. If the course is of classic vintage, include old maps and drawings. If it’s a modern course, recruit the architect and include detailed design sketches and drawings, juxtaposed against impressive color imagery of the finished product. Search out former greenkeepers and include their story.

It’s fine to refer to past winners of various club championships simply by listing them, rather than documenting their exploits ad nauseam. The focus of the book, after all, should be on the main asset of the club: the design, development and evolution of the golf course.

In the process of producing a book, a club just might discover who, and what, it really is.

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