Moraine Country Club
United States of America
In the fall of 2016, the golf world is a very exciting place. Exquisite work is being performed around the world to restore gems from the Golden Age of golf design. Coupled with improvements in agronomy, many of the world’s finest courses are the best they have ever been. We are fortunate to exist in these times.
One such brilliant transformation has occurred in Kettering, Ohio and the author can write that from first hand experience. I first saw the course in the fall of 1986 while employed by the United States Golf Association who was conducting a capital campaign. At the time, I helped coordinate and run such events across the country. Prestigious clubs were asked to host luncheons followed by a presentation and golf. Such an event was held at Moraine on a wet October day. After the lunch and presentation, the soggy weather shooed many of the attendees away. Only a few remaining souls battled out onto the course. On that day we were confronted by a rigorous, though straightforward parkland test. Holes were tightly framed by trees and squarely in front of the golfer. I remember the par 5 4th as it twisted uphill, the short one-shot 5th in its own secluded bowl and two very hard holes on the back but that was all.
Roll the clock forward 25 years and something curious began. People were talking about the course and a buzz was generated within the golf community. Trees were being felled and some of the game’s most scintillating inland landforms were being revealed from underneath what had become an arboretum. A renewed appreciation began to emerge about Moraine’s architect as well.
Alex ‘Nipper’ Campbell was a crack golfer (he won the Scottish Open at age 16). When he immigrated to the United States in 1896, his first port of call was Boston where he stayed at The Country Club for twenty years. There, he formed a friendship with Francis Ouimet that lasted a lifetime. Indeed, it was at Campbell’s urging that his pupil Ouimet entered – and won – the famous 1913 U.S. Open. Regaled as a great shot maker, Campbell played in the U.S. Open in four different decades and garnered five top ten finishes. He moved from Brookline to Baltimore in 1916 before coming to the Miami Valley area. He never abandoned his Scottish sensibilities and remained a staunch traditionalist his entire life, hating the advent of steel shafts and refusing to use wooden tees.
He designed several courses in the Miami Valley region but Moraine, where he served as the head professional from 1930 until 1938, was undoubtedly his masterpiece. He thought that the best holes were in his home country and was happy to ‘copy a course.’ By that he meant that he would borrow the best design elements from Troon, Prestwick and St. Andrews. One design tenet he brought over was the belief that hazards should be hazardous. Both along the fairways and greenside, Moraine features some of the deepest, most consistently steep-faced bunkers in the country. Having noted that, it should also be highlighted that Campbell didn’t believe in ‘over-populating’ a course with bunkers either. Today, sixty bunkers dot the property, which is a pittance compared to the 200 plus bunkers found at St. Andrews and Oakmont for instance. Campbell (refreshingly!) advocated that ‘courses should be built specifically for the average club member.’ At Moraine, club members are given plenty of room and short grass to negotiate the well placed hazards.
Campbell spent a decade refining his work but the backbone of the course is the routing that he nailed at the outset when construction began in 1929. His butterfly routing has the front nine tracking clockwise and the back nine loosely counterclockwise from the clubhouse. The last three holes on each nine are side by side as they tumble down from the high end of the property north toward the Mediterranean inspired, tiled roof clubhouse. The seventh and sixteenth are an unusually handsome set of shortish two-shotters; Eight and seventeen are diverse par 5s while nine and eighteen are stout two shotters whose flags are a scant 55 yards or so apart.
Though Campbell’s routing over some dramatic landforms gives the course its inimitable flavor, all that really matters is the golf itself. Let’s pick the story up in September 2006 when Moraine was looking for a new Green Keeper. Among the applicants was Jason Mahl, an Assistant Green Keeper at Pine Valley Golf Club. As Mahl states, he ‘fell in love with the green complexes’ on his initial visit. Clearly Golden Age, the greens and their surrounds were unique; they weren’t quite like those of Ross, Tillinghast, Raynor or any other ones that Mahl had ever seen. The rest of the land felt special too, though just how remarkable remained a mystery due to the forestation of much of the club’s 160 acres.
Upon accepting the position, Mahl sent some pictures to his friend, golf architect Keith Foster, with whom he had successfully worked on a restoration at Louisville Country Club. Foster was intrigued and made the two hour drive from Paris, Kentucky. Famously finicky about accepting projects, Foster considered Moraine to be a dream opportunity in that it ticked two crucial boxes for him: the design was singular and it was so good that it could become ‘epic.’ Also, the low key charm of the club reminded him of the appealing way they go about golf in the United Kingdom. It was primarily the one off nature of the design that resonated with Foster who, for example, eschews Donald Ross projects. ‘Often times prior to visiting a course, I know a good bit about the original Architect and likely the course itself. Moraine in truth was very unexpected and therein lies part of its great charm. The club flies low under the radar which is why I love working here.’
Though this was a distinctive opportunity, Foster didn’t alter how he went about it. As he states, ‘I actually approach all my work the same. I never want to leave a heavy mark, which in the case of a Campbell design could have been dangerously easy. After all, very little is known of Campbell, so why not add to his work? And that is my point! Instead, I hoped to respect the very fine effort that Campbell had originally laid out while striving to softly execute the features and details to the best of my abilities.’
At the time, Moraine’s green committee consisted of one man, Hugh Wall. He fondly recalled the open course that existed when he was a young adult and so was simpatico to Foster’s vision of returning the course’s grand scale. Without interviewing another architect, the club hired Foster to develop a Master Plan in the fall of 2007. On a side note, the Master Plan wasn’t in that year’s budget but the Haley family, whose father was past green chairman and president, gifted the Master Plan to the club in appreciation of what the club had meant to their family.
Tree clearing began in the winter of 2007/2008 in the southwest corner of the property which is occupied by holes fourteen-sixteen. There weren’t many specimen trees but there was startling topography. Mahl recalls one light winter snowfall that in particular helped highlight the ‘awesome landforms’. Jack Proud, club president, and the rest of the board were duly impressed and though the actions taking place on the property were bold and a strong conviction was developing at the board level as to the correctness of the club’s path. Soon, Mahl was instructed to start working on the area left of the seventh green and the forest that occupied the large area between the two par fives, eight and seventeen.
Mahl’s crew worked seven days a week during that busy winter when twelve acres of largely non-indigenous, non-specimen trees were removed. The land could breathe again and holes were freshly exposed to sunshine and wind. Additionally, to help make the surfaces play as fast and firm as the Scot Campbell would like, two miles of sub-surface drainage and five sump pumps were installed near the southern end of the property.
Work continued at a measured pace and in the spring of 2009, new back tees were added to eight and fifteen. In November, 2013 the committee visited Foster’s recently completed renovation at the Philadelphia Criket Club where they were graciously hosted by the General Manager, Head Golf Professional and Green Keeper. A compelling picture emerged of what could be accomplished by going all out and not taking half-measures. Moraine’s president John Haley and Green & Restoration Chairman Ray Lane returned and convinced Moraine’s board to proceed with a complete restoration of the fairways, greens and bunkers. Moraine closed in August 2015, its fairways gassed to kill all Poa seeds and re-opened for play in June, 2016 with 007 on all tees, fairways and approaches. The greens were cored out, rebuilt to USGA standards and grassed with Pure Distinction.
As we head to the first tee, we are wise to heed the advice of Brent Sipe, the Head Golf Professional who has been at Moraine in different capacities for over four decades. His words of wisdom: ‘Never be long. Land the ball near or on the front of the greens and let it release back. Whatever you do, stay below the hole all day long and resist the temptation to fly it to back hole locations. Recovery can be readily had from just short of most of the greens but if you go over, chances for a successful up and in dwindle quickly.’
Holes to Note
First hole, 415 yards; There are many ways that a first hole can appeal. One is for it to be hidden from view, so that mystery and anticipation builds until you arrive on the tee (e.g. Castle Stuart, Royal County Down). Moraine’s is the more common variant where the arriving golfer gains awareness of the hole – and any occupants – as he drives onto the property. An old fashioned two slat rail tracks left of the fairway and the low slung Mediterranean clubhouse to the right create a cozy pocket from which play emanates. As for the hole itself, it is straight and yet not straightforward.
Second hole, 220 yards; When Moraine hosted the Ohio Amateur in 2009, this proved to be the hardest hole with its putting surface that resembled a ski slope. Foster (allegedly!) mellowed the green somewhat by propping up the front end and therefore gaining several more hole locations. Nonetheless, the green’s cant follows the natural flow of the tilted land and two-putting from either the side or above the hole remains one of the round’s toughest propositions, especially on the new Pure Distinction putting surface which Mahl can make as firm and as fast as required.
Fourth hole, 540 yards; This hole enjoys a love-hate relationship with the members signifying that something unusual is going on. In this case, an abrupt fifty-five foot embankment punctuates the fairway some two hundred and twenty yards from the green. Less strong players struggle to mount the hill in two and the sight of a ball cascading back down the fairway is discouraging indeed. Conversely, the tiger might be able to chase a ball onto the open green in two but won’t know his fate until he crests the hill to gain sight of the green. Shots whose outcomes are not readily apparent are more frequently found on links, making it a delight to find one so far inland.
Fifth hole, 155 yards; Situated in its own bowl, this hole stood out when the author visited in 1986 because it wasn’t hemmed-in with trees and because all tightly-defended Short Holes are a treasure. While the hole’s do-or-die proposition remains wholly engaging the author would no longer place it among the course’s six or seven best holes. That is the extent to which so many of the holes were enhanced during the ten year Foster restoration. About the fifth Foster opines, ‘I love the routing at Moraine. It quickly escapes from the elegant clubhouse to find oneself at hole 5 at the very far end of the property and then return home. Moraine has what all great courses possess, an escape from all the cares with the ability to lose yourself within the course. That is a rare gift.’ It is worth noting that Moraine’s Short hole is the one hole on the course whereby the golfer is precluded from bouncing the ball onto the putting surface. Given that Campbell was from Troon, it would be tempting to say that its famed Postage Stamp hole greatly influenced him but there would be one problem with that: Campbell left Scotland in 1896 and the Postage Stamp wasn’t built until 1909. Campbell did periodically return home so one imagines he saw it then but there is no known record of that occurring.