Toledo, OH, United States of America
When golf was initially played here in 1903, the course was well removed from Toledo and truly out in the country. Yet, the land with its river valleys, plateaus and unique landforms was so compelling that it made the trolley ride well worth it. Local Bernard Nichols is given credit for the nine holes, though one must presume that Inverness’s first club president, the fascinating S.P. Jermain, had a hand in the design as well. Jermain is one of golf’s great, untold stories. His resume includes the creation of Toledo’s Ottawa Park in 1899, the seventh municipal course in America. In 1907, he condensed and simplified the Royal & Ancient’s rules into the ‘American Code of Golf’, which helped novices on this side of the pond understand the rules that governed play. In the early 1920s, he was vocal in calling for matches between the United States and Great Britain, contests that eventually became known as the Ryder Cup!
What a friend of Inverness and the early game! He helped find today’s site and his clear understanding of its attributes is evident from his description of Inverness in the June 1920 issue of Golf Illustrated:
In this spirit began and continued the development of those dune-like-formations which possessed a soil most favorable for the growth of the bent grasses characteristic of the sea-side links. While now far inland, the waters of that vast ocean which followed the subsidence of the glacial floods had, in those ages long past, here flowed and ebbed, creating the remarkable natural golf conditions which place Inverness in a unique position as an inland course. As a rich legacy of the ages, a sandy loam predominates throughout Inverness region with a clay sub-soil, whereby the moisture is ideally retained.
Bobby Jones famously extolled that there is ‘golf, championship golf and major championship golf.’ His comments were largely about the mental challenges for a competitor but can be applied to clubs and their golf courses. Inverness throughout its illustrious history has hosted major championships and this affinity has shaped not only the culture of the club but also the nature of its golf course. Without this penchant, the 18 holer at Inverness might be just another pleasant, compact, Midwestern retreat. However, the requirements of major championship golf have made it something entirely more elaborate.
The club initially acquired eighty acres and the first nine holes played in and out of the river ravine. They measured 3,115 yards and the nearby corn field was identified for a second nine. According to Inverness’s very readable centenary club history penned by Dave Hackenberg and Mel Fultz, W.J. Rockefeller assisted Nichols in the construction and became the long-standing, influential Green Keeper at Inverness. Rockefeller apparently oversaw the addition of more holes in the mid-1910s but Inverness was still not ready for championship golf. That began to change in 1916 when Ross was invited to submit plans for an eighteen hole course that would be fit to host the best. Work proceeded over the next two years with a big, hands-on assist from Rockefeller. The existing holes were completely re-vamped and the nucleus of today’s course was born. In part because of a clubhouse fire in 1918, it is unclear to this day what existing corridors Ross might have utilized. What is certain is that additional land was secured including that which houses today’s imperial fourth and seventh holes, so those are categorically Ross creations. When Ross finished his work, the two nines started on the west side of the clubhouse and finished to the east. Chris Buie, author of The Early Days of Pinehurst, shares the architect’s sentiments about the merits of returning nines:
One of the desirable shapes for a piece of golf property is that of a fan. It gives you the opportunity to place your clubhouse in the center or handle of the fan and lay out two loops of nine holes each on either side of the handle. The 1st tee, the 9th green, the 10th tee and the 18th green are then all right in front of the handle near the clubhouse. You can play 9 holes without cutting in on other players. When the course is crowded, players can be started on either tee #1 or #10, which greatly relieves congestion. This layout affords another rather pleasant feature, as members can stop after 9 and have refreshments.
Jermain and other founders of the club appreciated what a big event would mean for their hometown and persuaded the United States Golf Association to bestow the 1920 U.S. Open to Inverness. The New York Times reported in 1920 that Ross …‘gave personal supervision to the most minute changes, such as the widening of a trap, the lowering or raising of a bunker and the mowing of long grass.’
History has marked this as a crossroad in golf; great American players like Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen emerged while the English legend Harry Vardon would soon call it a career. Ted Ray won the tightly contested event, in part because of how he dominated Ross’s curling, risk-reward (now defunct) seventh hole. Rather than play safely to the right, Ray, known for his prodigious length, took a short cut, strangling a birdie each round. Though Ross’s seventh was fraught with trouble for those that strayed left, the hole could be had – even in 1920 with hickory golf clubs.
Inverness regularly sought and was granted USGA championships including the open in 1931, 1957 and 1979. For each of these events Inverness strived to improve their golf course so that it would remain a major challenge. On each occasion preeminent designers were employed to enhance the Ross layout. In the late twenties, A W Tillinghast did some bunker and green work ahead of the 1931 national championship. Dick Wilson added and modified a dozen plus bunkers to test the world’s best in 1957. George and Tom Fazio were called in to make ‘minor tweaks’ to the severe slope of the seventeenth green in anticipation of the ’79 championship . Their visit extended much farther after they suggested ways to reduce the congestion near the eighteenth tee where a number of greens and tees converged. After much discussion, the board endorsed the Fazios’ plan to condense Ross’s sixth, seventh and eighth holes into one (today’s eighth) and to build three new holes (current third, fifth and sixth) on additional property at the southern end.
Several points need to be made clear. One, Inverness and its identity is tied to championship golf and alterations to its golf coursse. Two, the Fazios’ gave the club what they wanted. Three, two new par 3s were created that are long, hard and of the sort that one finds at major tournament venues. Four, a principal knock on Inverness, that it had too many straight holes was alleviated by the newly created sweeping doglegs at the fifth and eighth holes. Finally, at the time the Club agreed to the work, there was very little discussion about golf course architecture in general and even less about preservation. The Ross Society had yet to be born, The World Atlas of Golf was only just about to emerge and Golden Age works were not being trumpeted or heralded for what they stood for. Having said all that, the issue remains: How well do the new holes fit within the fourteen Ross originals? Well …. the third with its artificial pond is ‘nails on a chalk board’ to the author. The good news is that Arthur Hill’s recent work and the passage of time have softened the intrusion of the other three holes. Indeed, the author has come to enjoy the eighth hole and the adjustments it has received since his first visit in 1987.
What can be done about the unloved third? That’s simple. Ross’s old eighth was a 210 yard bunker strewn one shotter over modest land of the sort that the third occupies sans pond. Let’s rebuild Ross’s hole where today’s third hole exists, especially since Shawn Smith from Arthur Hills is showing such a flair for building Ross bunkers. After all, this is a Ross course and we want Ross holes!
While the cost would make him gasp, Ross would be thrilled with the results of the Club’s 2013 $2 million renovation, another indication that the club is willing to invest to attract major championship golf. All the tees, fairways and greens were re-grassed with Pure Distinction after greenkeeper Steve Anderson had tested more than a dozen strains of bent. This tight dense turf provides optimally firm conditions for the June through September playing window. That’s crucial for a club like Inverness who desires to host the world’s best every decade or so.
Importantly, while the work was being performed, new fairway lines were established. Either the fairway lines were expanded (as seen above left where the thirteenth fairway now extends to the left bunker) or bunkers were edged into the fairways. As a result of this work and other enhancements, the collection of Ross holes at Inverness surely rank with his best in terms of appearance and playing qualities. After just a year, Anderson regularly achieves firm playing surfaces that were previously possible only with very favorable weather. The mix of shots required – from high soft floaters to low bullets – constantly rotates on the undulating playing fields.
Let’s examine the panoply of pleasurable holes that constitute the Inverness Club. As this is a pedigreed Ross course, only Ross holes are featured.
Holes to Note
First hole, 400/385 yards; The golfer is introduced straightaway to Inverness’s unique topography where the golfer needs to negotiate not one but two valleys. Immediately, the theme is established for driving the ball in the fairway. If you don’t, how and where to lay-up becomes an issue that requires the golfer’s attention much more so than at most courses where a standard punch out would suffice.
Second hole, 385/370 yards; Of the thirteen par fours only this one, its parallel cousin at eleven and the ninth play over flat land from tee to green. Despite their lackluster terrain all three are very fine holes. A distinctive nest of bunkers separates the second and eleventh fairways and it was enlarged by Arthur Hills in 2013. The presence of the handsome, grassed-faced bunkers has been amplified by tree removal, part of Inverness’s ongoing management program. Just a decade ago, Inverness was quite forested, robbing people of an accurate impression of the land’s beautiful rolls.
Fourth hole, 465/430 yards; Is it harder to reach this monster in regulation or to two putt its exuberant green? Regardless, you get the point. Similar to the first a carry over a valley is required on the approach shot but almost certainly with a long club. One can only imagine how few members hit this green in regulation during the days of hickory. As spectacular as it is large, the putting surface features a high point front right with frightening slopes racing away left and rear. Featuring only two par fives and three par threes, Inverness’s reputation hinges on the quality of its two shot holes. By the time he has reached the fifth tee the golfer is cognizant of why that is. Jermain opined, ‘From a mashie niblick to a spoon or brassie the second shot at Inverness is the crucial test.’
Seventh hole, 485/435 yards; An epic hole that in Ross’s day followed the fourth. This pair would constitute the most difficult back-to-back two shotters on any Ross course with which the author is familiar. It would be like following the fourth at Seminole with … the fourth at Seminole! In fact, information exists to suggest that par for each hole was determined daily with the one played into the wind listed as a ‘5.’ The 1931 U.S. Open program accurately summed it up: ‘A remarkable golf hole, picturesque, naturally protected, the hardest par four at Inverness, and recognized by any authority as one of the best on any course in any country.’
Ninth hole, 470/340 yards; Ross courses built in different decades possess charming anachronisms. One such feature is found greenside here where dirt was pushed to create left and right mounds into which Ross cut bunkers. It’s seen at other pre-1920 Ross designs like Wannamoisett but rarely thereafter when he tended to build his green pads taller and cut the bunkers into their bases. The ninth plays along the flat border of the property and the mounds furnish the green complex its visual interest. When played from the back markers, it’s a daunting second shot to one of Inverness’s famous intermediate sized greens. This putting surface is even smaller than the course’s average of 4,360 square foot, in part because Ross built it as a green to defend a reachable par 5. In an example of how the game has evolved, the hole is nearly the same length as it was for the 1920 U.S. Open but it’s now a par 4! Out of bounds is a scant fifteen paces left and behind the none-too-big green.