Essex County Club
Green Keeper: Eric Richardson
No secret why Essex County turned out so well – Donald Ross lived on the course from 1909 through 1913 and worked on it constantly. As a result, the course at Manchester-by-the-Sea features many of Ross’s design traits that are now recognized as distinguishing his finest work. Essex County originally started as a nine hole course, which was typical of Boston’s finest north shore courses. Salem Country Club and Myopia Hunt Club began in a similar manner. Fortuitously, Essex Golf Chairman George Willett was a pupil of a young golf professional named Donald Ross at the Oakley Country Club, where Ross had been since his arrival in the United States in 1898. In 1908, Willett hired Ross to redesign their course. They acquired the necessary land to create an eighteen hole course and Ross slowly went to work. He did several holes every year and throughout the process the course remained open. His work was not completed until 1917.
An aerial view shows that Ross had space considerations but he was quite clever in how he used such limitations to the betterment of the course. For instance, the second and sixth greens border the club boundary and there is no more room to extend the tees backward. The maximum length each hole could play is in the 340 yard range. So what does Ross do? He builds two superlative crowned greens that can be desperately difficult to hold. Thus, he transformed two holes that could easily have been non-descript into two holes with excellent golf qualities. To show such flair early in his design career was a sure sign of things to come from the Scot. Essex County is another instance where he lived up to his own design standard, which he wrote in 1914 was to ‘build each hole in such a manner that it wastes none of the ground at my disposal, and takes advantage of every possibility I can see.’
The variety in the size and presentation of bunkers may well be the best in Ross’s entire portfolio of courses. Four examples include the two mammoth bunkers that break up the long third, the awesome (and penal) pit bunkers beneath the eleventh green, the newly expanded and restored straight faced greenside bunker at the fifteenth, and the sprawling expanse of sand that cuts across the fifteenth and sixteenth holes. Fortunately, unlike other clubs that possess a Ross course, Essex County has always embraced Ross’s varying forms of hazards and has never tried to make all the bunkers similar in appearance. As further proof of the awesome range of hazards that Essex County enjoys, consider some of the bunkers found in holes six through nine.
When coupled with its unique New England terrain, Essex County enjoys a strong sense of being an original – it reminds you of no other course and defies being stereotyped, which are the two hallmarks of all great courses. No wonder that Brad Klein in his July 1999 Feature Interview on this site selected Essex County as one of his favorite hidden gems, praising the use of fescue grasses and how the trees are kept well back from play. Another appeal of Essex is that it is natural golf in the strictest sense. In August, the fairways are a beautiful hue of brown with the native fescue grasses waving in breeze off the Atlantic Ocean, which is only a quarter of a mile away. Furthermore, Essex is over the town’s aquifer and the well house for the town is actually located between the sixth and seventh greens. In 1991 the town issued the club a ‘special permit’ to operate (after 98 years) but the permit limits pesticide and fertilizer usage. Essex is 98% natural organic in fertilizer use, with restrictions on quantity in every area. Plant protectants (pesticides) are limited. This is truly natural golf at its best.
With everything going for it, why isn’t Essex County mentioned in the same breath as Pinehurst No.2 and Seminole when people discuss Ross’s standout courses? Well, this author thinks it should be, especially given the quality of work that has been accomplished here by the club and Renaissance Design’s Bruce Hepner since 2001. According to Hepner:
We have basically pealed back the layers of growth at Essex County to expose Ross’s genius. We first restored the playing surface widths of the greens and fairways. While other local clubs tried to stiffen their designs by narrowing the golf, Essex expanded the surface and made it much more interesting and in turn a little bit harder for the good golfer. The members found that their shots rolled out into positions they had never seen before. The golf design returned to strategic. Then we thinned back the tree lines to allow the design and landscape to breathe again, which had the added benefit of allowing the sea breeze to circulate throughout the property. This also gave a dynamic look to the site with the bold native grass covered contours. In short, Essex County is a stunning natural golf landscape.
Showcasing what Hepner refers to, look below as to how the mounds between the fifteenth, second and third holes have been fully exposed.
We then focused on the golf features. The scale of the site varies so Ross in turn varied the scale of his features. There are huge waste type bunkers next to little pots. Also, the feature mounding range in size from little dolomites complexes to single mounds the size of a bus. There are open core golf parcels (four parallel holes) to tree lined single hole corridors. You get a little bit of every type of golf environment at Essex and Mr. Ross took advantage of it. Green Keeper Eric Richardson has taken the playing surface to levels I’d never imagined possible at Essex. Val Somers (Green Chair) and he have allowed me to do my best work by encouraging and implementing any and all concepts. All in all, I think our work shows off one of Donald Ross’s finest and most eclectic examples of golf architecture.
The timing of the work done couldn’t be better as it will be unveiled to a wide audience when the Curtis Cup is contested here June 11-13, 2010 (www.2010curtiscup.com). As many know, the Curtis sisters actually hailed from here. Essex County hosted the third playing of the Curtis Cup in 1938 and it is interesting to note that the course set-up for 2010 is only 180 yards longer than in 1938. Such is the enduring character of its golf holes, as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 440 yards; The first tee is in the only appropriate spot: directly beneath the clubhouse windows and balcony and has been in continuous use since 1896.
Third hole, 625 yards; When Ross completed his work in 1917, a scorecard shows that this hole (then the twelfth) measured 617 yards – and this in the age of hickory golf! It garnered much press as such a length hole was unheard of at the time. Yet, Ross’s creative bunkering prevents it from feeling like a long slog. At the end of the journey, a wide but not deep green with a famous sunken depression provides a wide range of interesting hole locations.
Fourth hole, 235 yards; Although Essex County measures fewer than 6,400 yards, it is still full of challenge. When 144 of the best amateurs played two rounds of medal play to qualify to match play for the 2007 Massachusetts’s State Amateur, there was a 67, two 69’s and the other 285 rounds were at or above its tight par of 70. Birdies are hard to come by given the presence of only two par fives (and one is the previous monster) and the severity of the greens on the short par fours. In terms of difficulty, Ross delivered quite a one-two punch when he followed the long hole prior with this brute of a one shotter. In the days of hickory golf, many of the club’s best would have hit driver into this green as it plays in the general of the ocean (and hence is often into the wind). Importantly, the fourth now plays as Ross intended. Since Eric Richardson arrived as Green Keeper in 2007, he has enjoyed the full support of the club in terms of firming up the fairways so that all ground game options are readily available to the golfer. Tellingly, he refers to the irrigation system as a ‘water management system.’ The more control he achieves in spot watering, the faster and firmer the course continues to play.
Eighth hole, 420 yards; Everyone heralds the back nine at Essex County but that has a way of inadvertently taken credit away from the quality of the front nine. This hole for instance is one of the very best on the course and features three distinctive design features. First, the tee ball must scale a fifty foot bank seventy yards off the tee, making it one of four blind tee shots on the course. Then, another hundred yards past the crest of the hill, the right third of the fairway drops seven feet to a lower level. This split level fairway makes the effective target off the tee much smaller as the best angle into the eighth green is down the left but the fairway acts to funnel balls right. With out-of-bounds down the entire left side, the eighth calls for perhaps the most precise tee shots of the day but also for a finely judged approach shot as well with a push-up green that shrugs approach shots left into deep bunkers or right onto tightly mown grass.