My last round of golf this year, before the cold and early dark laid hope to rest, was at Pine Brook Country Club in Westin. My friend Evan Falchuk had invited me there, so my friend Barry and I drove in and played 9 holes on a cool, sunny, colorful October afternoon.
Pine Brook is a Wayne Stiles’ design from 1924, a course from the ‘golden age’ of course design. Stiles is not one of the designers whose name rolls off the tongue, like Donald Ross. Still the case can be made that Stiles crafted some of the best designs in the Northeast, including the Taconic, which is regularly named one of the top 100 in the world.
Playing the courses around New England, after the dreams of being the club champion or long drive hero fade, we golfers begin to study a bit of history and architecture. The famous Ross is the first architect off anyone’s lips, known locally for Worcester and Wachusett country clubs. (Worcester was the site of the first Ryder Cup, in 1927). And some of us will also be able to name Tillinghast and MacKenzie, and Robert Trent Jones, whose son, Rhys Jones, designed the magnificent Blackstone National in Sutton.
This study and appreciation of design, to think about and understand the landscape, enhances our experience of time spent outside, doing what we love, being with friends and walking through a masterful landscape design. The well known designers whose work has lasted and has been restored are like artists, working with palettes of hazards and mounds and slopes and blind shots, such that to appreciate golf, even if our game is far from par, is like experiencing poetry, music or painting. Imagine being able to walk through Thomas Cole’s paintings of the Hudson Valley, or Monet’s painting of the secret gardens at Givenry.
Geoff Shackelford’s The Golden Age of Golf Design is an analysis of those years between 1910 and 1937, known as the “golden age of golf design.” The list of architects working during the Golden Age includes Stiles and Van Kleek, MacKenzie, Tillinghast, Crump, and Ross. The layouts they built then — often with only backbone, shovel and pick and horses to do the work — annually make up the majority of today’s Top 100 Courses in America. Pine Brook falls into this era, and it is the type of course that gets us through the solstice, dreaming of playing the great courses again, of being in the hands of an artist.
One of the features that are shared by all the great designers: The fun starts when you get to the green. There’s a story about a young Jack Nicklaus, playing a junior amateur on a Wayne Stiles course in Western Massachusetts – the Taconic – hitting a hole in one. Nicklaus said a hole in one is the best way to handle putting on Stiles’ courses. The subtle colors and ridges, rolls, spines and humps in the green complexes are what makes us feel, sometimes, like we’ve found the end of the rainbow, like we’ve been placed in a master’s hands, even if our touch is only human.
Pine Brook is not long, and the first hole speaks to a generosity, but that is where the easy stuff ends. Like a lot of great courses, any advantage at Pine Brook is knowing where to hit, so you have a look at the green. Forethought and planning are the critical skills. And landing softly on the green because they are so well groomed and maintained and fast, you want to lay the ball in – “like butterflies with sore feet” as Sam Snead said – and let the ball run toward the hole. Though the greens are not punishing. If you manage to catch an edge or come in too hot, the balls don’t run off, so a good shot is rewarded.
And good golf courses value friendship. And it’s good to have friends who know the course, as Evan did. A friend will point out the dangers and the advantages and wish you luck.
We are lucky in New England to be the site of so many masterpieces, in art and science and civic life, and our golf course landscape designs are among them, accessible for at least for half the year.
For golfers in this neck of the woods are all joined by a longing for that moment – this year that came at 5:23 pm Friday, December 21 — when our inner clocks tick: the sun begins to return. Then winter brings the dreaming, of having another go at a great course, of being with friends, of walking through a masterpiece, with nothing to do but keep your eye on the ball.