Country Club of Fairfield
Green Keeper: David Koziol
The game of golf in America is in dire straits. As opposed to a relatively inexpensive pursuit that is played in under three hours in the United Kingdom, the game in this country has devolved into an all day affair. Compounding the problem are the private clubs that grossly overspend and mismanage their courses, in turn sticking their members with ever escalating expenses.
There remain a few havens in America where golf as originally conceived in the United Kingdom is alive and well. Country Club of Fairfield is one such spot. Mercifully, in a state where most clubs don’t get it, here is one that understands that the purpose for its course is to provide enjoyment for its members. When faced with decisions regarding the course, a former green chairman would pose the question aloud, ‘What would the shepherds do?’ At the heart of thequestion is the concept of keeping things simple and natural and not to over embellish. This guiding principal has served Fairfield well to where it is now a standout for how a course should be managed.
Before the concept of restoration gained favor at other leading private clubs that possessed Golden Age designs, Fairfield’s membership developed a Master Plan in 1992 which signaled the need for restoration. This eventually led to Renaissance Golf Design and Bruce Hepner being hired in 1999. When first presented with Hepner’s plan, the club actually suggested shortening (a fabulous move that other clubs should consider) the golf course with the addition of two new, shorter tees at the fourteenth and seventeenth holes. While other clubs wrongly focus on stretching their Golden Age design by adding awkward back tees, Fairfield concentrates thought and resources on the white tees where 85% of member play occurs. Yet, as it stands today, Fairfield’s length of just over 6,400 yards remains plenty challenging for 99.99% of golfers, especially given its windy site and that its par is a tight 70. As testimony to this fact, the average score during the 2008 Metropolitan Open that Fairfield hosted was 74.83, nearly five shots (!) over par per round.
A game here embodies the finer virtues that have stood the game in good stead for over a century. First, this low profile Seth Raynor design doesn’t distract the golfer’s eye from the beautiful surrounds. Rather, the golfer is always pleasantly reminded of the seaside environment. Hopefully, a breeze will be up too, helping to promote further the time honored notion of golf as a battle of man versus nature. Second, the course is maintained in the only manner that is appropriate (though few clubs do it): the playing surfaces are keep fast and firm but as one strays into the rough and native areas, a wide variety of lies greet the golfer. Randomness is a key attribute in nature and Fairfield stands apart from the over watered, over maintained courses that promote uniform lies. In a dry summer, the course reflects that fact with baked fairways. In a wet summer (which happens to be when these photographs were taken), the fairways are greener and the holes stretch out a bit as the roll from a tee ball is reduced.Fairfield’s maintenance program as directed by Green Keeper David Koziol allows the course to resist any artificial or over-maintained appearance. Third, the short green to tee walks that are commonplace on all Golden Age designs allow the golfer to enjoy his round here in under three hours. The lengthening practices that have marred many a good walk elsewhere has never been pursued here (remember: what would the shepherds do?).
As spending four plus hours on a golf course continues to become out of reach for many busy people, one appreciates finding a club where they understand the role of golf within one’s life: The game can bring friends and family together but it shouldn’t take more than a few hours as there is plenty else to be done. Fairfield’s charm is found in how man is free to reconnect with nature and do battle, all within a reasonably short amount of time. Given its coastal ambience, it’s no wonder that Fairfield’s fan base is so broad.
As seen in the four photographs below, the bunkering here is more diverse than found on most Raynor courses. Of course, one reason is that A.W. Tillinghast and Robert Trent Jones also had a hand in the evolution of the course but there is far more to the bunker story than just that. When the opportunity existed to go steep and deep (i.e. up on the hillside at the Redan), Raynor was quick to oblige. Below in the flats, that wasn’t an option but Raynor’s creativity made up for it. One thing Raynor didn’t do was to push up the green pads seven to nine feet (which thus lends itself to deep greenside bunkers) ala his work in the Low Country around Charleston, South Carolina. The green pads at Fairfield are lower profile in nature, rarely more than four feet in height, in part because fill was at a premium during construction as it was brought in from barge from Long Island or by dredging Southport Harbor. Indeed, this requirement made Raynor a particularly logical choice to become Fairfield’s architect given his recent involvement in 1917 with the massive (world class) land fill project at Lido.
Holes to Note
Second hole, 405 yards, Long; The world’s shortest Long hole, with that story told in the first photograph below. One of the outstanding attributes of the course is its routing with the front nine running counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the property and the second nine running loosely in a clockwise direction within the loop created by the first nine. Such a routing only matters if the site is windy, which is the case at Fairfield. Like Kennemer in the Netherlands and Muirfield in Scotland, the holes play wildly different depending on the wind. In the case of Fairfield, the wind is generally off the sound which means it blows left to right across the second. When the wind is blowing off-shore, it is right to left here and the hole becomes easier, as tee balls tend to seek the left side of the fairway from where it is ideal to approach the green.
Third hole, 355 yards, Bottle; The fact that this hole exists as Raynor designed it speaks highly as to what a good steward Fairfield has been. For instance, at Yeamans Hall where they have done an outstanding job in all other respects, the one prominent design feature that they have been reluctant to restore is the central Bottle bunkers in the fourth fairway. Since the days of St. Andrews and Woking, central hazards have long been viewed in the United Kingdom as crucial to good golf course architecture. Sadly, this view is not equally shared in America. The state-side version shows a resistance to placing bunkers where they are most in the way and instead bunkers are often times found off to the sides of fairways. Master architects like Stuart Paton at Woking, C.B. Macdonald (and hence Raynor), Walter Travis, and Herbert Fowler all knew better: Placing bunkers in the middle of fairways is the surest way to create strategic dilemmas. In the case of the third, clear sailing is had by playing up the right side of the fairway. However, only those that play down the left and challenge the five fairway bunkers are afforded a good angle past the right greenside bunker.
Fourth hole, 135 yards, Short; After Raynor’s death at the relatively young age of 47 in 1926, the club turned to A.W. Tillinghast to perform work to the course in the 1930s. Tillinghast had made quite a name for himself with numerous parkland courses within one hour’s drive west of Fairfield.Having mentored under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews, Tillinghast must surely have relished the opportunity to provide guidance in this seaside environment. His recommendation on the Short hole was to push Raynor’s green twenty yards to the right flush along the pond. Technically, this move meant it was no longer a true Short hole as it wasn’t surrounded by sand (Raynor had four bunkers nearly ringing his green) but its terrors certainly became more pronounced.
Fifth hole, 360 yards; Lagoon; Initially, Raynor routed the course under the assumption that the clubhouse would be located along the sound (near today’s seventh tee on the southwest portion of the property). Shortly after the initial routing was completed, the decision was made to use a house on Sasco Hill as the clubhouse instead of building at the beach. The sequence of Raynor’s holes was thus altered but the result was not ideal from either a visual or physical orientation to the clubhouse. As late as 1939, Tillinghast also labored under the assumption that the final permanent clubhouse would be beachside. However, after three hurricanes hit the Connecticut shoreline in 1954, the club decided once and for all that a clubhouse location on Sasco Hill would be best. Robert Trent Jones was brought into help reconfigure the holes to allow for the higher, inland clubhouse location. In so doing, Trent Jones created three new holes (the eleventh, seventeenth, and eighteenth) and either reconfigured, rerouted or changed the par at several others including the first, second, fifth, tenth, and twelfth. Here at the fifth,Trent Jones altered Raynor’s straightaway Alps hole to become a dogleg right over the lagoon. As any Raynor course is about playing angles, this hole fits in nicely from a strategic perspective.
Sixth hole, 430 yards, Cape; Raynor put the New England topography to spectacular use at both Yale Golf Club (thirty minutes by car from Fairfield) and Fishers Island (three hours by boat from Fairfield) to the point where both those courses are generally considered his two finest designs. A similar opportunity to create a series of unique holes by incorporating natural land forms didn’t exist at Fairfield given its modest topography. Nonetheless, as we see, Raynor created numerous flat holes of great interest, either through neat bunkering schemes or great green complexes or both. Ultimately though, there is only but so much that the architect can do in such a situation. However, the club’s founders were fortunate that the 150 acre parcel of land that they bought included a nine acre tidal lagoon. Simply for variety’s sake, the course is better for it. Of the three holes that play across it today, Tillinghast deserves credit for bringing it more into play here at the sixth as well as the fourth and Robert Trent Jones did so at the fifth. In the mid-1910s when Raynor begin work here, water enjoyed little favor as a primary hazard in part because golf balls were expensive and the notion of finishing a round with the same ball held sway. In 1939, similar to what he suggested at the Short, Tillinghast had the sixth green pushed well to the right and near the lagoon. Fortunately, Tillinghast was one of the all-time great builders of green complexes and the one here is one of his best. Similar to the Cape Hole at Mid-Ocean where Raynor assisted Macdonald on construction, Tillinghast’s bold Cape green complex at Fairfield is every bit as impressive as its heroic Cape tee shot.