Essex County Club
Tenth hole, 365 yards; As we will see, the diversity of the holes on the back nine is astonishing, ranging from holes in a field to holes that change more than seventy feet in elevation. Yet, they all tie in wonderfully well with each other based on Ross’s inspired routing and how he used the natural features. As a harbinger of exciting things to come, the back starts with a tee ball across the shoulder of a hill that captures the essence of New England’s rugged landscape.
Eleventh hole, 175 yards; A superlative uphill one shotter and an obvious for inclusion in Michael Fay’s eclectic Ross eighteen hole course in his book Golf, As It Was Meant to be Played. It is hard to build uphill par threes that are fun to play. The fifteenth at Kingston Heath comes to mind but few if any are in this class. In fact, of the approximately one thousand (!) one shotters that Ross designed after this hole, none are clearly better.
Twelfth hole, 415 yards; This hole plays equally well for all players despite being over rugged ground. From the back markers, a tee ball of 180 yards carries Sheep Hill and safely reaches the tumbling fairway below. This is Ross’s tee and it lends the hole a sense of adventure when playing from there. However, since such a carry is beyond some, a new set of tees a full 120 yards away, this time to the left of the eleventh green, were built in the 1980s. From there, it is a straightforward shot that any player can successfully tackle. The two tee shots meet in roughly the same area in the fairway, despite being hit from tees on opposite sides of the prior hole’s green.
Thirteenth hole, 375 yards; A perfect golf hole. Though set through dense trees on both sides, the corridor is plenty wide and the golfer soaks in the view from the tee. The green has perhaps the finest interior contours on the course (which is saying something) as the putting surface falls away from the golfer in the middle and the sides. The approach needs to get beyond certain front hole locations, for only in such a manner does the golfer obtain a favorable uphill putt.
Fifteenth hole, 350 yards; The fifteenth returns the golfer into the open section of the property and shares nearly nine acres with the second, third and sixteenth holes. Not wanting the golfer to feel any sense of a letdown, Ross built the hazards at fifteen on a grand scale. First, the tee ball must clear the largest expanse of sand on the course while in turn the pitch approach is over the largest greenside bunker. Successfully avoiding such imposing hazards gives every golfer a sense of accomplishment and helps the fifteenth hold its head high with the other holes.
Sixteenth hole, 410 yards; This hole also is a clear indication of what Ross thought of trees on a golf course: keep them out of play. A hole originally ran in this general direction and the fairway was bordered by trees immediately on the left. Ross accepted the basic hole routing but quickly cut the trees. This starts a thrilling finish with it hard to conceive of three more diverse par fours in a row: here, the open sixteenth green accepts running approach shots while the seventeenth plays sharply uphill and requires at least a club or two more for one’s approach than the yardage indicates. Finally, the heroic eighteenth seemingly falls from the sky, tumbling downhill past thrilling, one-of-a-kind landforms.
Seventeenth hole, 330 yards; Essex County is a private club so not but so many people get the pleasure of playing it. For many, their idea of Ross as a designer is limited to their perception of his work around Pinehurst where his courses are open to the public. The landforms in the sand hills of North Carolina are nowhere near as dramatic as the ones found here and thus the courses are more straightforward in nature. Hence, Ross as a designer sometimes isn’t given his proper due for building exciting golf holes. Having the vision and courage to route this hole up the 200 foot (!) plus steep hill tells you something about his willingness to take chances for the sake of creating bold, memorable golf.
Eighteenth hole, 410 yards; The perfect closing hole for such a unique course, and yet, interestingly enough, Ross always had this as the fourth hole (his routing went hole one, sixteen, seventeen, then here). Not until his departure was the sequencing altered to how the course plays today. Though the tee ball is dramatic, the approach shot offers its own subtle difficulties. The fairway is uneven and the approach is often from an awkward lie, usually slightly downhill. The stream that meanders ten yards in front of the green is the logical resting place for a golf ball from a poorly struck iron.
The club has been such a good steward to this gem of a design. Even better, they are now sharing it with the rest of the world when they host the Curtis Cup in 2010, adding another chapter to its storied past. Speaking of which, there was one regrettable moment in the past few years. A litigious neighbor complained about balls coming into his yard and the club ultimately decided to shift the green thirty yards to the right of Ross’s one. Yet, such is the quality of the work done by Renaissance Design that few if any visitors would realize that today’s fourteenth green isn’t a Ross original. In fact, during the Curtis Cup, one of the day’s hole location will likely be on the new green’s back ledge and you can judge for yourself just how happy Ross would be with this fair but devilish hole location.
Beyond that one unfortunate neighbor, what would Ross think of the evolution of this supremely natural design? Of seeing the fairways brown and the course buffeted by the wind from the nearby ocean? He would be delighted, of course. In fact, time has been kinder to this course than almost all his others and one can only imagine that he would head here first for a game before many of his more famous courses that have been bastardized for the sake of hosting championship events. Unlike all but a very few courses in the world, Essex County obtains the perfect balance between fun and challenge. As such, it stands as one of the ultimate benchmarks as to how any course should be judged.
For more information and tickets on the 2010 Curtis Cup, please visit www.2010curtiscup.com