Kirtland Country Club
Green Keeper: Chad Mark
Of all the great Golden Age architects, the body of work by Charles Hugh Alison may well be the least understood and appreciated. There are several primary reasons why this may be the case. First, he built less than thirty-five original designs over a career that spanned nearly fifty years. This a relatively small number of courses, especially by modern standards. Even among those thirty-five, many were under the banner of Colt & Alison, creating confusion as to when Alison alone deserves the credit. Second, his finest designs are so far flung around the world that few have had a chance to see them. From his early days of working with H.S. Colt in England in the 1910s to working in the United States of America in the 1920s to working in Japan and the Netherlands in the 1930s and finally to Johannesburg in South Africa where he died in 1952, he left behind a trail of courses that are considered among the best in each country. And finally, third, a few of his very best designs no longer exist, robbing him of the accolades that he would otherwise receive.
In the United States, Timber Point was his crowning achievement. Situated on a promontory on the south shore of Long Island, the course enjoyed an expansiveness and scale rarely found. According to Daniel Wexler in The Missing Links, With its tremendous challenge, variety, and ambiance, this golf course would unquestionably still hold a position among anyone’s very best.’ The three nines that exist at Timber Point today are a poor substitute for what was once there. Likewise, several other of his most notable designs have fared poorly with time. Bob Jones’s love of Alison’s original holes at Sea Island is well documented though the course has sadly been altered several times since. Burning Tree outside of Washington D.C. is a feature rich design that has also had one too many architects touch it.
As they exist today, the two finest examples remaining of Alison’s work and skill in the United States can be found at Milwaukee Country Club and Kirtland Country Club. Ironically, both have first nines that play across rolling topography while their second nines descend and play along a river valley. Designed in 1921, Kirtland was one of Colt & Alison’s first projects in the United States and preceded Milwaukee Country Club by eight years. Its success was immediate with professionals like Bob Jones and Walter Hagen speaking of it in glowing terms. A generation later found Gardner Dickenson detailing hole by hole the back nine after having last played it thirty years ago. Arnold Palmer too is a fan, having played numerous rounds here while stationed in Cleveland during his Coast Guard years. Native Buckeye Tom Weiskopf (who grew up in Cleveland) considers Kirtland the best in golf rich northern Ohio. Joining a long list of top golf professionals captivated by Kirtland’s challenge is Tim Bennett, who left Oakmont and Bob Ford in 1991 for the sake of becoming the head professional here. What makes Alison’s work so endearing? Few have studied Alison’s work as much as historian Tom MacWood. In fact, his piece entitled Gliding Past -Fuji – C.H. Alison in Japan is a must read (click here do to so) for anyone interested in understanding Alison’s approach to design. As MacWood notes,
Alison has a very interesting design style – quite different from his mentor Colt. In some ways it more closely resembles the style of Macdonald, Raynor and Langford. Steeply elevated pushed-up greens and bold bunkering – bold in both their scale and severity. The combination of these perched up greens steeply falling off and the deep bunkers forces the golfer to carefully consider his tee shot, and what angle of approach is favored. This clearly man-made method to making greens was combined with an inclination for using big natural features. You will often find rivers, streams, wetlands, ravines and other dramatic elevation changes incorporated into Alison’s designs, often in very daring ways. That in my mind is American design approach. The fact that Alison assimilated a heroic American style should not come as a total surprise, after all he spent his early design years in the States (his most productive years as well), at a time when one could argue American design was at its zenith.
Fortunately, unlike most Alison courses, Kirtland has never let lesser architects tinker very much with its course. Regardless, with time comes issues and by the mid 1990s, the board at Kirtland reached out to Forse Design with the desire to improve its bunker drainage. One walk around this property and Ron Forse was another to fall under Kirtland’s charm. The scope of the project grew from drainage to a full restoration of all the bunkers to recapturing fairway width and to reclaiming putting surface out to the edges of Alison’s large green pads. From Forse’s original visit, work didn’t commence in earnest for ten years. Once it did in August, 2007 through April, 2008, a tremendous amount was accomplished with one primary result being that Alison’s fascinating playing angles were brought back to the fore as we see below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 410 yards; The mandate from the club during the construction phase was one of ‘tasteful restraint.’ This worked well with the approach preferred by architect Ron Forse and associate Jim Nagle who appreciate how easy it is for an architect to impose his will on a golf course – and the pitfalls in doing so. According to Forse, Alison never ‘fancied-up’ his designs with clutter but rather relied on the broad scale of his features to tie in well with the natural setting. ‘Quiet elegance’ is the term that comes to Forse’s mind in describing Alison’s work in general and here at Kirtland in particular. At the first, trees were removed on the inside of this slight dogleg left which set the stage for the new left fairway bunker and expanded fairway. Up ahead, a non-Alison left greenside bunker was removed and and well over one thousand square feet of putting surface was recaptured. Nagle is particularly pleased how approach shots played away from the deep right greenside bunker now may seem safe given that the green is larger and the left bunker is gone. However, shots played from the left to this ferociously pitched back left to front right green are treacherous. The overall effect of Forse Design’s work was to clean up the appearance of the first hole while at the same time re-instating Alison’s intended challenge, both of which they handsomely accomplished. Second hole, 465 yards; The job of every architect is to use the natural land contours to maximum advantage. Few were better than Alison at routing holes in every conceivable manner over the land, thus creating highly distinctive holes. Unlike the first which plays through a shallow valley, the second fairway disappears over the crest of the hill before swinging right toward the green. Only the longest drives reach the crest; for most the drives hit into the hillside, negating much run. The resulting approach shot from over 200 yards is frequently blind. Not the most dramatic hole on the course, it may nonetheless be the toughest.
Third hole, 165 yards; Aesthetically, the restoration work dramatically improved this hole as seen below. Fundamentally, the challenge remains the same though which is to hit the green and stay below the day’s hole location on this sharply tilted back to front green.
Seventh hole, 380 yards; A lesson long learned from the study of the Old Course at St. Andrews is the use of out of bounds. Here at the seventh, the golfer needs to drive down the out of bounds side of the hole (aka the right) to be rewarded with the best angle into the green. As the golfer shies away to the left, the green’s left to right tilt becomes increasingly problematic. Even better, eight yards of the back left corner of the green was recaptured by Forse and the only way to access such new hole locations is from the right portion of the fairway. To still provide a challenge, a hole of this modest length needs to have a well defended green, which this one does with a six to eight foot drop off behind and to the right. Indeed, standing on the eighth tee and looking back, the golfer wonders where Alison got the dirt to build up this green pad.
The green expansion work commenced in August, 2007 and concluded in May, 2008. As seen above, it is already difficult to tell where the expansion work was carried out, so well done is the technique that was employed. To understand more about this process, please click here. Eighth hole, 535 yards; Starting with this blind tee ball over the crest of a hill, the golfer is transported into some of the most exhilarating golf country found on any inland course in world golf. One dreads the thought of what most modern architects would do to the hillside off the tee. By leaving it alone, Alison helps the golfer gain a sense of the property’s natural movement. Alison was particularly adept at incorporating the most exciting natural features of a site into his routing. The wilder the land, the more distinctive the holes, as witnessed at Hirono in Japan, Royal Hague in the Netherlands, and here at Kirtland.
Ninth hole, 425 yards; The first nine starts with a green angled from front right to back left that tilts toward the golfer and concludes with a green angled from front left to back right that feeds away from the golfer. In between, holes play through valleys (e.g. the first, fourth, and fifth) and up and over hills (e.g. the second and eighth). The best is saved for last though with this fairway playing along the spine of the hill and a green with mirror image redan playing characteristics.
Tenth hole, 525 yards; As the first nine stays on the high portion of the property, it gives no hint as to what the golfer may expect standing on the tenth tee. Far, far below is the fairway, situated in a river valley in which the golfer stays until the Home hole. To get a good drive away is one that lingers in the golfer’s memory as he watches the ball fall from the sky for what seems to be an eternity. More importantly, a good one brings the green within reach in two, which is especially important given the difficulties of the next two holes. Interestingly enough, the tenth goes from a reachable par five from the blue to a daunting 460 yard two shotter from the white markers. Nonetheless, at 6,435 yards from the middle tees, Kirtland is an absolute joy to play. Though the dramatic views from either tee naturally steal the show, the green itself is a marvel with Alison’s intricate subtle interior contours having befuddled golfers for years.
Eleventh hole, 225 yards; To compare the beauty and playing merit of the eleventh at Kirtland to that of the tenth at Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies speaks as to the captivating setting that Kirtland enjoys. In terms of lending courses maximum variety, most Golden Age architects strived for building one par three that required a wood into the green. Rather than just being a brute, Alison added drama simply by putting the tee boxes on one side of the stream and the green on the other side, 200 plus yards away on the inside of the stream’s elbow. By following nature’s lead and incorporating the stream into the hole in such an ideal manner, Alison created a hole of timeless appeal – and lasting challenge.
Twelfth hole, 450 yards; Considered the finest hole by many members, the twelfth has it all: a great setting, a roaring stream, scale, and superb interior movement found within its green.