Tradition, strategy abound at Curtis Cup venue
Monday, June 7, 2010
MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA, Mass. – One of amateur golf’s most prestigious events returns to its ancestral homeland this month. The Curtis Cup sets up shop June 11-13 at the venerable Essex County Club, 30 miles northeast of Boston.
Essex County Club, founded in 1893, was home to Donald Ross from 1910 to 1916, when he served as golf professional, expanded the course to its current routing and walked to work from a house that sits behind the 14th green.
The club, rated No. 63 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic Course list, has a glorious championship history, having served as host of the U.S. Women’s Amateur (1897, 1912) and the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur (1995). Two of the club’s greatest golfers, sisters Harriot and Margaret Curtis, with four Women’s Amateur titles between them, donated the namesake silver cup for the matches that have been held biennially since 1932 – including at Essex in 1938.
The course is an iconic New England landscape. Native fescues abound, small ponds and wetlands dot the site, three brooks come into play, and there’s granite ledge outcrop everywhere.
The front nine has a softer feel, while the back nine laps and then finally plays up and over a 150-foot hill. Stands of deciduous hardwoods have been peeled back to provide room for fairways that average 50 yards across. The occasional specimen tree comes into play or, like the dramatic sentinel oak in view on Nos. 10-12, simply helps give shape to the playing ground.
Ross’ routing has stayed intact over the years, with the exception of the par-3 14th green having recently been moved to the right for safety reasons – to keep wayward shots from escaping club property.
The beauty of this course resides in its intriguing fairway contours and in the variety of green settings. About half of the putting surfaces sit on slightly elevated fill pads; others nestle in at grade level and accommodate running approaches. Shift the hole location from one side to another and the angle of attack can vary. Architect Bruce Hepner, working closely with superintendent Eric Richardson, has created ideally firm and fast conditions and a course that rewards strategic play off the tee.
Practice rounds will be crucial for the 2010 Curtis Cup because there are four blind/semi-blind tee shots. And the wind can be fickle, even when it prevails out of the east from Massachusetts Bay. It swirls around the site thanks to the tree corridors and that big hill in the middle of the back nine.
For the Curtis Cup, the course will play as a 6,326-yard par 70. That’s the men’s back tees on all but one hole – the par-5 third, which has been shortened 75 yards to 548 so that it is reachable in two for long hitters if the normal wind is in place. The green there dates to the original 1893 routing and is the oldest continually played putting surface in the country.
Two holes that could prove crucial involve blind tee shots.
The 422-yard, par-4 eighth offers a split fairway where the advantageous downhill speed slot on the left side leaves a much easier approach but brings out-of-bounds into play.
On the 328-yard, par-4 17th, the hole climbs uphill some 130 feet to a green that seems suspended in the sky. The landing area for the drive is divided by a big knoll. While the left side is more receptive and provides a better line to the green, that line off the tee is awkward and demands stern commitment.
Television coverage of the matches should allow the audience to discover what a few privileged New Englanders have known for decades: Essex is a museum-quality gem.