Country Club of Fairfield

Seventh hole, 310 yards, Dunes; Several of the best short par fours that either Raynor of Macdonald built were of the Knoll variety (i.e. a fortressed green well elevated from its surrounds). Fine examples are found at Yale and Piping Rock. The exact opposite sort of a short two shotter is found here with the seventh green glued to the ground and on a front to back tilt that runs away from the golfer. Today’s technology makes this hole a real teaser as golfers can drive the ball within twenty to forty yards of the putting surface with favorable wind conditions. However, just as Tiger Woods found when he otherwise annihilated the field at the 2000 Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews, it is such fiddly length shots to greens that run away that prove the most perplexing. Many long time members still puzzle over how best to play this ‘touch of poetry.’ Given its vexing nature, consideration would have to be given to it for inclusion on any eclectic list of Raynor’s eighteen best holes. Hepner considers it his favorite on the course because, as he says, it ‘remains timeless no matter how far you hit the ball. It is all about the approach angle and the delicate touch of that shot. I could sit in the approach area and hit a multitude of shots for hours.’

Nothing dramatic but the seventh is full of great character. The fairway crests five feet above the tee 240 yards out. From there, the long green runs away from the golfer.

Bruce Hepner is a master at restoring features to courses while looking like he was never there. Such is the case with this wonderful long hazard down the left of the seventh fairway.

Eighth hole, 520 yards, Sound; When working on a Golden Age course, the most likely type hole in need of help is going to be the par fives. After all, many such holes were designed in the 470 to 495 yard range and with today’s technology, these holes lose their playing integrity. Such was the case here but in an unusual twist, a ready solution presented itself to Hepner. By creating a new back tee high on the dune wall that overlooks the sound, it now became very difficult to carry the sea brush along the water off the tee. With no short cut available off the tee, the hole was returned to where it now frequently plays as a true three shotter.

Looking back down the long eighth, the challenge is to play down the sound side of the fairway (while avoiding the bunker 100 yards short of the green that is just visible above) and to place one's approach on the same tier as the day's hole location. George Bahto, the leading authority on Raynor, considers this one of Raynor's finest greens.

Ninth hole, 200 yards, Redan; At least six of Seth Raynor’s designs routinely vie for inclusion among the world top one hundred golf courses, making some modern architects sniff that his work garners too much attention/praise. After all, they argue, the man repeated numerous design themes throughout his designs. To them, this is a sign of weakness as perhaps Raynor was running low on original ideas and concepts of his own. Such comments probably are born out of jealousy, primarily at the fact this engineer was afforded the opportunity to work on so many excellent sites. Fairfield is, of course, one such site and indeed, the author looks at Raynor’s appreciation of the Redan as a blessing. Take here at the ninth for instance. Without a preconceived desire for such a right to left falling hole, what architect would have seen that this abrupt hillside presented the perfect opportunity into which to bench a Redan green? Probably not many and one of the world’s three or four great Redans would never have been built. Hepner pronounces the ninth to be ‘as strong a Redan as you will ever find as it features a great angle and no background, plus the most uniquely contoured approach area that I’ve seen.’

A picture perfect Redan: the short bunker, the right to left tilt, and the deep left greenside bunker.

Note the area before the putting surface in this early morning photograph from high right. In particular, the spine of a ridge and the indentation in the ground to its right lead to many interesting - and unpredictable - bounces onto the putting surface.

Twelfth hole, 425 yards; Dogleg; As part of Trent Jones’s work, this hole was shortened some sixty yards and converted into a par four. As opposed to what would be an easy par five today, this hole is now the longest par four on the back nine. While difficult, the hole is full of appeal. Esthetically, it enjoys a rustic flair thanks to the wide variety of grasses and native vegetation promoted by Green Keeper David Koziol. Also, Raynor only moved dirt where it mattered which here was in creating a most attractive greensite. Importantly, the green is open in front, making it well suited to accept shots from well back in the fairway on this converted par four.

Though the twelfth heads away from the sound, it remains visually arresting thanks to its rich texture. Mercifully, Fairfield is far removed from a typical American course where only shades of green tend to greet the eye. Note how the fairway swings out to the right, which helps the hole visually as well as from a golf perspective.

Though the green looks and plays like an extension of the fairway, Raynor needed to build up the green pad by four feet in the back to make it the appealing target that it is today. Importantly, the bunkers in the foreground are forty yards from the front of the green, giving the golfer plenty of room to run a ball onto the putting surface. If the bunkers were flush against the green, it wouldn't function properly as a target for a long par four.

Fourteenth, 180 yards, Eden; How Raynor adopted his favorite classic holes to any given site is always of great interest to any Raynor student. Frequently, stories emerge and such is the case here at the Eden. Several of the usual suspects are found including the Strath bunker on the right and a sharply tilted back to front putting surface. No surprise though that when Raynor historian George Bahto was walking the property, he immediately queried what had happened to the Hill bunker on the left. This is certainly a reasonable observation as every Raynor Eden featured these two prerequisite bunkers. Work commenced by the club to explore where this bunker had been but before they got more than two feet below ground, they struck water! Indeed, the water level was such that the Hill bunker had never been built.

Only one bunker guards this Eden. To the club's credit, the reeds that once framed this green behind have been cut down, giving the golfer fits with depth perception. Macdonald would have approved of this Eden as he hated the fact that the original version could be played tee to green with a putter - not so here!

Fifteenth hole, 420 yards, Plateau; Given all the good work that has been accomplished at Fairfield since implementing a Master Plan with Renaissance Golf and Bruce Hepner in 1999, the single most exciting prospect left is re-capturing the front left plateau of this Double Plateau green. Work is scheduled to commence in the winter of 2009 and when completed, this nearly 9,000 square foot (!) green will be a sight to behold. Double Plateau holes are always among the most fun to play on a Raynor/Macdonald course and this will be no exception. As it stands now, it is a fine, solid hole but lacks the inspiration that Raynor enthused into it.

Sixteenth hole, 400 yards, Burn; Though a burn tracks down the right of the fairway, it is the green itself that provides the hole so much of its character. Indeed, the easiest way to lend flat property playing interest is always at the green site, though one may not know that based on all the insipid tee to green mounds found on so many modern courses. The random interior contours found on this large 7,901 square foot green are rarely more than twelve inches in height and allow the green complex to stay in keeping with its surrounds while at the same time providing good golf.

Seventeenth hole, 190 yards, Cockenoe; Any architect would prefer to start with a clean slate rather than to inherit a routing with which he had to work. However, Robert Trent Jones’s mission statement was curtailed to making the holes flow better once the decision was finalized to keep the clubhouse location on Sasco Hill. His plan was carried out in two phases, one in 1961 and the other in 1970. As part of phase two, two entirely new holes were built so that the course finished up the hill at the base of the new clubhouse. Indeed, if Raynor had worked from this clubhouse location, perhaps this would have been his Eden hole as the backdrop reminds manyof the Eden’s at St. Andrews.

The built-up tee pads at the seventeenth afford the perfect perspective across the pond and out to the sound. The challenge varies wildly here at the penultimate hole: into the wind and the golfer is happy to reach the putting surface. Downwind, the golfer struggles to make sure his tee ball stays below the hole on this steeply pitched green.

Eighteenth, 385 yards, Home; By the end of his career, the name Robert Trent Jones was synonymous with a long difficult par four finishing hole. Ending one’s round at Fairfield on such a dullish note would be disappointing given the fun and inspiring nature of the golf that has gone before. Fortunately, Jones’s creation here is the best of both worlds: tough but requiring finesse. The rub is the green, which falls four feet from back to front, ruthlessly exposing frayed nerves.

This golfer's approach landed seven feet onto the putting surface before spinning back to here from where he had a nervy little pitch. Conversely, the golf ball twenty feet past the hole left that golfer with a very swift downhill putt from where he gladly accepted two putts.

Having just carried his bag and finished eighteen holes in under three hours with his playing partner, the golfer looks back down the eighteenth and across the course and wonders if there is any better environment for a game in the northeast.

If Fairfield sounds like an idyllic spot for a game, that’s because it is. However, it is so because of the intelligent work that has been carried out here in the past decade. Prior to that, several hundred trees dotted the landscape and undermined its trump card of long views in a coastal setting. In addition, no concerted effort had been made to seamlessly tie in the Trent Jones holes with those of Raynor. Working together in a slow and methodical manner, the club and Hepner have successfully addressed these two primary issues. As Hepner puts it, ‘Fairfield has been an interesting project that we are trying to re-Raynorize a mix-match design as there have been several fingers in the pie over the years. I think we have the landscape back to the original sea side design and that was the first and most important step. Now it is just grinding hole by hole to re-create classic interest into the design. I’d say we are half done with the Raynor design features, but the landscape (trees or lack thereof) is especially pretty darn good.’

Trees once hindered the view as seen above in a photograph from 2002.

As seen above in a photograph from 2002, trees once hindered the view and thus diminished the impact of Fairfield's ultimate trump card of its coastal setting.

As Fairfield stands now, the temptation after a round is to sit out on the porch twenty yards behind the eighteenth green with a rum float and enjoy the sweeping views across the course and out to Long Island Sound. However, the greater temptation may well be to head back out for either a few more holes or perhaps another round altogether. This is the greatest compliment that any course can receive. Unlike so many parkland courses in the northeast that wear down the golfer, the player here feels invigorated and is keen to get back out to enjoy the golf challenges as well as all that nature has to offer. Indeed, the golf is so fun that the player may be forgiven for thinking that he is in the United Kingdom, so strong is the spirit of the game here.

The End