Engineers Country Club

Herbert Strong built unique and memorable golf holes as well as any architect. Pictured is the famous 2 or 20 one shotter with steep drop offs left, right and behind.

How should golf course architects be judged? By how many great courses they build? Or perhaps by how many courses they build (the theory being more courses equals a greater opportunity for more people to enjoy the game)? How many unique and distinctive holes they create? How they further their profession? All the above can be a consideration but the picture clouds when the architect’s work doesn’t stand the test of time.

Certainly for an architect to be considered great, he must build great courses. And by definition, a course can’t be great without possessing great golf holes. Yet, what if the architect built both great holes and great courses only to have their character-filled work undone with time?

Such is the case with Herbert Strong, whose work was once widely regarded as among the best in the United States. Five courses were standouts, namely Ponte Verda Club in Florida, Manoir Richelieu in Canada, Inwood which hosted a PGA Championship and U.S. Open in the early 1920s, Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Ohio and here.

Yet, despite the once impressive resume and being considered among the best architects in the country, Strong’s finest courses all suffered with the passage of time. Consequently, in any discussion of the great architects, Herbert Strong is rarely mentioned.What a great pity because if more appreciated his work, perhaps more of his designs would be restored.

Born in Ramsgate, England in 1879, Herbert Strong started his career in golf as a club maker. The course six kilometres down the road in Sandwich which Laidlaw Purveslaid out in 1887 surely had a huge influence on the young Strong. Purves’ course was even more wild and rugged than the Royal St. George’s course of today and featured plenty of blind shots. Set across massive sand hills, it provided a stern test of ball striking. Its quality was undeniable and it quickly hosted the Amateur Championship in 1892 and became the first English club to host the Open when it did so 1894. It hosted The Open again in 1899 which Harry Vardon won and in 1904.

Strong left for the United States in 1905 and in that same year, Harry Vardon wrote in The Complete Golfer the reasons why ‘I consider the links at Royal St. George’s Club to be the best that are to be found anywhere.’ In his article,Vardon talked about the need for constant good hitting or penalities, sometimes grave, would ensue. He admired how the bunkers were placed to challenge the good shots (as opposed to just trap the foozler). He admired the character found in the greens at St. George’s and how well guarded they were.

With Royal St. George’s firmly in mind, Strong arrived in New York and became the professional at Apawamis Club, a course that featured pronounced land forms and blind shots as well. In 1911, he moved to Inwood Country Club on Long Island and it is here where he got into golf course architecture. His remodelling of Inwood over the next several years wasof such quality that itwas rewarded witha PGA Championship and U.S. Open in the early 1920s.

Strong received the commission to build Engineers in 1918 in Roslyn and it received immediate praise from all quarters to the point where the PGA Championship was contested here in 1919, just one year after the course opened.

The attributes of Engineers were numerous. Firstly, the rolling topography must have thrilled Strong. Similar to Purves’ work at Royal St. George’s, Strong’s routing attacked the hills in every manner conceivable. Take for instance how he dealt with a hill in the middle of the property: his 3rd hole (half of today’s 4th) plays straight up it, his 4th hole (today’s 5th) rides atop the hill before tumbling down to the green below, his 5th hole is played across the hill’s left to right sloping base, and his 6th plays from another hill top back to the this same dominate hill.

Strong’s third hole took the golfer up the hill with his 4th playing back down it at the top right.

Strong must have seen great potential in the open, rolling landscape when he first saw it. Pictured is a view from today’s 5th tee (Strong’s 4th) of the fairway before it tumblesover the hillcrest to a green below.

Tom MacWood’s research has uncovered this quote from Wilfred H. Follett, the Editor of Golf Illustrated and future partner of Devereux Emmet. Follett wrote on the eve of the 1919 PGA,

‘As regards the course of the Engineers’ Club, it is doubtful if any more testing links could have been chosen. It is true the course is a very young one, in fact, it was only opened last year, but even so, the fairways were in astonishing good condition….The course itself is a masterpiece and is the work of those two master craftsmen, Nature and Herbert Strong. Inaccuracy spells instant disaster. To drop the simile, anyone who has played the course a few times realizes that a shot ever so slightly off line, but still on the fairway, is instantly confronted with a seemingly easy second which in reality is almost impossible of perfect execution. The contour of the greens demands that the second shot be played from one angle only if perfect results are to be attained. There may or may not be a trap waiting for the shot which is played from the wrong angle, but there is always an awkward roll or slope which is certain to bring the ball up far from the flag. This is irritating, of course, to the nervous player, but he might bear in mind that if he was playing Garden City, where the traps outnumber those at Roslyn ten to one, all these shots played from the wrong angle would inevitably and promptly drop into a waiting trap, without ever giving the semblance of hope which he can, foolishly perhaps, enjoy at Engineers.’

The day before the PGA they played a fourball event, the low score was a 76 (+6) by Jim Barnes, who was the eventual champion.

The course was 6362 par-70 with only one hole over 500 yards, making it relatively short in comparison to the U.S. Open venue of that season Inverness (6,600 yards) and Amateur site of the prior year Oakmont (6,700). Though Strong himself was very long off the tee, it is ironic that he conceived a course of this length. Still, the course was full of challenge and character and on the eve of the 1920 U.S. Amateur, no amateur had ever broken 75 at Engineers.

As for specific man-made design elements, Strong, like William Langford (another unsung architect of excellence), built a wide variety of bunkers and boldly contoured greens. Some of his bunkers at Engineers were so steep and deep (and cramped!) as to almost defy recovery while others like the one between today’s 9th and 12th greens are a large expanse of sand. The greens featured both pitch and imaginatively bold interior contours.

Strong’s 16th green is one of the wildest greens and best defended green complexes ever built. If replicated today, the green would have to be maintained at no more than a ‘7’ on the stimpmeter if the club wanted to use the more interesting right hole locations.

Note the huge expanse of sand in the middle bottom of the photograph between Strong’s 11th green on the left and Strong’s 8th green on the right. Did any other single architect manufacture sucha sprawling bunker pre-1920? Perhaps not.

And seen at ground level, Strong’s 11th green complex – imaginative bunkering and bold green contours forever characterized his design work.

At Engineers, Strong fulfilled every architect’s desideratum of building eighteen consecutive holes of genuine merit and in two specific cases at the 14th and 16th, two holes worthy of any list of the finest holes ever built.

Holes to Note

First hole, 380 yards; Engineers features a fascinating mix of green complexes ranging from the 2nd, 14th (a), and 16th where only aerial approaches will do to some like here, the 5th, and 15th which are open in front and invite the run up shot. In this case, the green follows the flow of the land which means it slopes from front to back. In addition, there is a small punchbowl in the right center side of the green, presenting all kinds of superb hole locations.

Skirting past the green’s gathering punchbowl on its right side to get to the back hole locations requires an approach of great skill – an altogether unique and wonderful green that functions very well!

Second hole, 405 yards; Strong built tough and challenging courses and it is no surprise that his best courses like Engineers, Inwood and Canterbury hosted so many important events. Take the 2nd for instance where Strong benched the green into a hillside at a height whereby a running shot had little chance, even when its bank is maintained at fairway height. Given the wood shafts of the day and given the fairway’s left to right slope and the uphill nature of the hole, the 2nd was tough just to reach in regulation. However, Strong capped it off with one of the most severely pitched greens ever devised.

The 2nd green drops five feet from high back left to lower front right, creating treacherous hole locations. Note the large landform in the hitting area with which the player must contend.

A view back down the 2nd from the elevated green – the left to right sloping fairway is evident in this view as well.

Fifth hole, 460 yards; Engineers measured under 6,400 yards when it hosted the 1919 PGA Championship and yet the winning score was high. Engineers only had one three shot hole at the time with Strong instead building several lengthy half par two shotters like here and the 14th.

The downhill approach to the 5th green. The bunker in front of the green is a good 20 yards shy from the green’s front edge.

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