Canterbury Golf Club
Green Keeper: Terry Bonar
Most golf course architects, like most artists of any form, are incapable of greatness. Be it a lack of ability or a lack of opportunity or both, their work never achieves an originality that is praiseworthy and that advances their art form. Such is patently not the case with Englishman Herbert Strong.
Though he worked with a range of sites from Florida to Canada, he was never given a raw site with which to work that rivaled some of his peers. For instance, Donald Ross had the sandy soil and duneline at Seminole, Seth Raynor had Fishers Island, Alister Mackenzie had Cypress Point, Harry Colt had Portrush, etc.
Yet, from very good but never quite great sites, Herbert Strong had the uncanny ability to build courses that were considered world class. Tom MacWood’s 1939 course ranking includes three Herbert Strong designs in the world top one hundred, namely the Ponte Vedra Club in Florida, Manoir Richelieu in Canada and the Engineers Club on Long Island. Interestingly enough, Herbert Strong‘s Inwood on Long Island and Canterbury in the golf rich eastern suburbs of Cleveland did not make the list, though they have hosted the most major competitions of any of Herbert Strong courses.
Born in Ramsgate, England in 1879, Herbert Strong started his career in golf as a club maker. The course six kilometres down the road in Sandwich which Laidlaw Purves laid out in 1887 had a huge influence on the young Herbert Strong. Purves’ original course full of blind shots and deep hazards was even more wild and rugged than the Royal St. George’s course of today. With this heroic links firmly in mind, Herbert Strong arrived in New York and became the golf professional at Apawamis Club. As historian Tom MacWood points out,
Herbert Strong was a very fine golfer and as an architect acquired a reputation for making championship venues, and Canterbury fits right into that mold. It began at Apawamis – Herbert Strong‘s first job in the States. It hosted the 1911 US Amateur shortly after Herbert Strong re-designed the course to take better advantage of the site’s pronounced landforms. Following that event, Herbert Strong moved from Apawamis to Inwood, and proceeded to overhaul that course in 1915. Inwood hosted the 1921 PGA and the 1923 US Open. In 1917, he moved to Engineers after being hired to design their new course. Engineers hosted the 1919 PGA, the 1920 US Amateur and the 1924 Metropolitan Open. Herbert Strong designed Lakeview in Toronto in 1920 and it instantly became the championship course of that city. Lakeview hosted the 1923 and 1934 Canadian Open. In 1932, Herbert Strong built the Ponte Vedra Club in Florida, and the 1934 Florida State Amateur and the 1938 Southern Amateur were played over its links. Ponte Vedra was also awarded the 1939 Ryder Cup, unfortunately that event never took place due to the War.
Though little appreciated today, Herbert Strong was without question one of the preeminent golf course architects in 1920. As such, when a group of Cleveland businessmen wished to build a course of the highest calibre in 1921, Herbert Strong was a logical candidate.
No doubt shaped by the boldness of St. George’s in England, Herbert Strong had strong opinions when it came to golf course architecture and he wasn’t afraid to take chances. In the case of Canterbury Golf Club, the back nine opened several months after the front on the first nine on July 1st, 1922 and featured three par threes and a 660 yard par six. At some point in the late 1920s, the head golf professional Jack Way reconfigured the first four holes on the back converting one of the par threes to a par four and reducing the sixteenth to a par five of 610 yards (at this point, remember too that steel was replacing hickory as the preferred material for golf shafts).
Ever since the back nine at Canterbury Golf Club became more ‘conventional’, all the major golf organizations have beat a path to its door to host their biggest events. The first was the Western Open in 1932 which was won by Walter Hagen at even par. At the time, the Western Golf Association was every bit the equal to the United States Golf Association in terms of prestige. The event proved so popular that they quickly returned in 1937. The first of two United States Opens was contested here in 1940 and the PGA Championship was held here in 1973, won by Ohio’s favorite son, Jack Nicklaus.
However, the passage of time has a way of doing cruel things to parkland courses in particular. Trees grow, fairways narrow, fairway bunkers become detached from the fairways they once bordered, and greens shrink. Also, common for a course of Canterbury‘s age, several other architects were allowed to tinker with the course as the decades past. For example, Geoffrey Cornish added fairway bunkers on the second, fifth, sixth and eighteenth holes. Some of the these bunkers were larger and more shallow and tended to be on the outside of doglegs.
Though clearly a Golden Age course, the Club appreciated that there were several competing design styles within the course. So in 1998, they made the wise decision to approach Renaissance Golf Design and Bruce Hepner, who had a long standing relationship with Green Keeper Terry Bonar. Over the past decade, Bruce Hepner working closely with Bonar has seen Canterbury Golf Club return to its peak. Select trees have been felled during the winters, opening up long views that show how Herbert Strong went up and over the hills in all sorts of varying manners. Though Herbert Strong only had 138 acres at his disposal, each hole seems to stand alone either in its own valley like the fifth or as it plays up and down hills like at the ninth.
With the playing corridors widened, Bruce Hepner helped oversee the expansion of fairways back to the fairway bunker edges and the greens pushed back out to the corners of their fill pads. Improved sunlight and air flow has seen Canterbury Golf Club‘s turf regain its famous keeness. In addition, all the bunkers were edged and random grass capes were pulled down their face to give the bunkers a uniform appearance. Especially pleasing to Bruce Hepner and the Club is that all this was done without huge expense, in stark contrast to some Golden Age courses in Ohio like Scioto and Inverness that have spent millions of dollars on their course only to end up with a diluted product.
Holes To Note
First hole, 445 yards; The golfer sees his tee ball finish in the fairway on less than half of the fourteen non-par three holes at Canterbury Golf Club. Why so, you ask? Because the property here in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland is ideally rolling and Herbert Strong‘s routing confronts the undulations in ever manner possible. Here at the first, the fairway disappears over the crest of a hill before swinging right toward the green, which is worthy of great study in and of itself. Its fill pad isn’t nearly as tall or pronounced as what some of Herbert Strong‘s contemporary’s like Tillinghast and Raynor were building. The green hugs the ground more yet still features a fearsome amount of back to front tilt. At only twenty-six yards in depth, the green is the shallowest on the front and it is all too easy to putt off its front.
Second hole, 365 yards; Herbert Strong‘s fairway captures the crumpled ground before climbing higher to the green. This is the most heavily bunkered hole on the course with eleven but the hole’s real defense is the green’s tilt which falls over three feet from back to front.
Third hole, 175 yards; As a sign of how the game has changed, this hole was singled out in a 1921 article as being particularly difficult because it entailed a forced carry over water. The sports writer predicted doom to all that played this hole. The fact that it was 145 yards in 1921 and that the edge of the pond stopped twenty yards from the green didn’t matter; it was still a lost ball for any duffer who topped his tee shot. A recent tree clearing program has helped expose this green more and in doing so, the hole looks less welcoming than before. The general cant of the green from back left to front right causes plenty of problems in this age where Canterbury Golf Club‘s greens are routinely presented at 10.5 on the stimp.
Fourth hole, 490 yards; Canterbury Golf Club now measures over 7,000 yards in part thanks to Bruce Hepner‘s pushing this tee forty yards back to the top of a hill. What this did was to fully restore the challenge of the hole to Herbert Strong‘s day. The tiger in the early 1920s carried a ball with his hickory golf club in the 240 yard range. Today’s professionals carry the ball some forty-five yards past that; hence the increase in distance from Herbert Strong‘s original 415 yard tee to today’s length of 490 preserves the integrity of both the tee ball and approach shot. A tee ball that carries 280 yards hits into the upslope of the fairway by the nest of bunkers and no longer receives a big kick forward. The golfer is left with a semi-blind approach shot of approximately 190 yards, calling for a mashie as in Herbert Strong‘s day. This is Bruce Hepner‘s favorite hole on the course and how it is not better known/appreciated in world golf is hard to fathom.
Fifth hole, 410 yards; Herbert Strong wasn’t afforded an enormous canvas with which to work at Canterbury Golf Club. What is startling to Bruce Hepner and other students of golf course architecture is how well his routing takes advantage of every physical attribute of the property while giving each hole a sense of spaciousness. In this case, the fifth plays within a shallow valley where the golfer feels alone on the property. In reality, the fourth and sixth fairways are nearby.
Sixth hole, 520 yards; When the Senior PGA Championship comes to Canterbury Golf Club in 2009, they are going to play this and the thirteenth as par four holes. Don’t be surprised to see over par as the winning score as Canterbury Golf Club played as a tight par 70 is a daunting test. At 5,300 square feet, this green can accept a long shot. Played in the 490 to 520 yard range, this is a neat risk/reward half par hole where the good golfer feels compelled to try and make something happen. This hole’s integrity is well defended at the green by Herbert Strong‘s greenside bunkers with the out of bounds close on the right giving the bold golfer plenty to think about.
Seventh hole, 200 yards; One reason that Canterbury Golf Club has hosted so many major events is that it has a long tradition of presenting fast and firm playing surfaces. This is not by accident as a Herbert Strong design was always well engineered in so far as his greens and fairways were built to drain quickly and properly. In addition, the importance of Green Keeper’s Terry Bonar presence at Canterbury Golf Club for over forty years (!) cannot be overstated. Jack Nicklaus and others have proclaimed the through the green playing conditions at Canterbury Golf Club to be among the very best they have ever seen world-wide.
Eighth hole, 410 yards; A straight drive is an absolute must on this straight hole as out of bounds left crowds within fourteen paces of the fairway. As is always the case with any sub-400 yard hole that Herbert Strong designed (this hole was 360 yards in Herbert Strong‘s day), the green complex is noteworthy.