The Kittansett Club
Massachusetts, United States of America

Be it the coastal holes like the 2nd or …

… inland ones like the 12th with its intriguing old school bunkering, Kittansett epitomizes the bountiful charms of New England golf.

The Kittansett Club hosted the Walker Cup in 1953, just one indication of how long it has been held in high esteem. Indeed, many consider its stature second to only The Country Club within the golf rich state of Massachusetts. Yet, when the author first played the course in the fall of 1985, such recognition seemed more attributable to its romantic location than holes of character replete with interesting features. True, the celebrated one shot third lived up to its pictures but the others were more conventional than inspiring. That impression has thoroughly changed, thanks to a twenty-year, meticulous restoration project carried out by The Kittansett Club with architect Gil Hanse that has seen William Flynn’s design magic be returned to the course.

The transformation began in 1998 and can be distilled into three vital areas: tree culling, recapturing unique features and green reclamation. Prudent tree removal has seen the club re-establish its seaside connection that black and white photographs showed it once enjoyed. Large pockets of the property, especially the southern third where the peninsula narrows, were allowed to breathe as trees were removed near holes two, four, sixteen, and seventeen.

With the trees and brush removed, Kittansett once again takes full advantage of its dazzling location at the end of a peninsula. William Flynn’s routing keeps the golfer off-guard at this windy site as he set each of the five holes above at a right angle to the prior one.

In the mid-1990s the sixteenth (seen left in the photograph above) was enclosed by a wall of trees down the left that also formed a solid backdrop behind the green. Now, Buzzards Bay is in full view from the tee and the southern point is again open and seaside in nature. The hole’s playing merits have become starkly evident and only a fool would fail to recognize it for what it is: one of New England’s best holes. Not surprisingly, Hanse was proven correct when he told the board early on that, ‘Your golf course is so well designed and so carefully laid out that the removal of trees will only sharpen the focus on the design of the golf course. In so doing, all of the strategies, options, and punishments that exist simply in the layout will be more clearly revealed.’ 

The 16th in the autumn 2019: hard to imagine that it was entirely framed by trees 20 years ago.

Vegetation clearing also produced views of Buzzards Bay from many interior holes (namely five, six, eleven, fourteen, and fifteen) whereas none were afforded in the 1990s. Put another way, the golfer now sees the water from a majority of the course, eleven holes to be precise. Yet, such work is more consequential than ‘just’ enhanced visuals. Wind is more prevalent across all eighteen holes and the turf throughout has benefited from increased air flow and sun. When the holes were forested, the fairways were soft and the golfer was robbed of playing the kind of low running shots that this 1922 design encourages. After new drainage and tree removal, all playing options are again viable. In the members’ eyes, this has been the most dramatic improvement but like so many clubs, tree removal was the most contentious issue and the slowest to be embraced.

As trees came down, distinctive design features were either uncovered or recaptured, including many of Flynn’s novel grassed-over rock formations and cross hazards. Previously, several of the formations were shrouded by trees. No more! According to Hanse, ‘We removed hundreds of trees from the various mounds around the course. These were rock and debris piles from construction that Hood used as features to line many of the holes and as diagonal hazards on others. For the most part they had been swallowed up by the tree lines over the years. We cut back the trees and restored native grasses to the mounds for what is perhaps the most unique feature at Kittansett. When we got there you could barely see the mounds.’ 

Wayne Morrison, Flynn expert and co-author of Flynn’s biography entitled The Nature Faker, shares this on the design and build of Kittansett:

Kittansett is easily discernible as a Flynn design as the strategic use of shot testing, angles, bunkers and wind are very sophisticated and very much a part of his overall design portfolio.  The site is spectacular from an aesthetic and weather impact perspective, but it proved disastrous in terms of the nature of the soil, accounting for the one-off nature of the course.  The vast amount of rocks (see photograph below), many boulder in size, led to the necessary irregular and appealing looking mounding throughout much of the course, necessity being very much the mother of invention.  Little option existed to move the rocks off property so the only answer was to mound them on site.  The strategic use of such mounds was brilliant, as it was both economical and strategic. However, let me add that unlike nearly all of his other projects, Flynn’s construction crew was not involved at Kittansett (therefore, no Toomey-Flynn attribution is possible). Fred Hood deserves the credit for the overseeing the construction of the course and the low profile course that seems so at peace with its environment is due in part to his sensibilities and ingenuity.

Flynn’s imaginative design and Hood’s oversight of implementing Flynn’s ideas into the dirt turned Kittansett’s rocky conditions from being a negative into a positive.

Morrison notes how Flynn’s own drawings were very specific in calling for such mounds. In terms of their actual physical creation, it was Fred Hood (who owned the property and hired Flynn) who was on site and drove the construction process. Kittansett was Hood’s passion and Hood oversaw the presentation of the course for an additional twenty years until his death in 1942. Many of the world’s great courses evolved over several decades (e.g. National Golf Club of America, Oakmont, and Pinehurst No. 2) and Kittansett benefited from Hood’s devotion.

While Kittansett’s greatest natural blessing was its dreamy coastal setting, it didn’t possess roly-poly landforms of the sort that Donald Ross so frequently enjoyed in the northeast. Therefore, it was incumbent upon Flynn to add playing interest. He did so not only with the grassed-over rock formations but also with an elaborate bunkering scheme. Be it large cross hazards (we ignore the definition change of 2018 to ‘penalty area’ and continue to use the time-honored term ‘hazard’) that bisect fairways or small bunkers cut into mounds, Flynn employed hazards in every conceivable manner.

Morrison shares this original plan of the course that, among other things, shows the number of interrupted fairways and Flynn’s elaborate bunkering schemes.

Alas, over time, Flynn’s standout bunkering had lost its original size and rugged appearance, so Hanse and design partner Jim Wagner, working side by side with Green Keeper John Kelly and his crew, reconstructed every bunker to its original shape and size. Fine fescue sod was largely used for the bunker faces and wherever possible they kept patches of native grass, moss, and even rocks to add instant maturity. Three bunkers that had been lost were brought back: one to the left of first fairway in combination with the cross rough, another in the middle of the second fairway, and one to the rear of the fourteenth green. Not surprisingly, two of those three bunkers had been in the direct line of play. Another example comes at the ninth, where Hanse extended the bunker back some forty yards toward the tee. In 1998, the bunker was only greenside.

The elongated, flat bottom bunker at the 9th provides fine contrast with the fescue covered mounds.

Flynn’s sandy waste areas aren’t too problematic from which to recovery and other times like the pit bunker on fourteen, the golfer isn’t guaranteed a full swing. Understanding which hazards can be challenged and which will produce a meek chip out is part of the art form of learning how to play Kittansett properly. Such knowledge isn’t revealed after just one or two rounds but rather with time.

Typical of Flynn, a number of fairways are interrupted by broken ground or sand (e.g. the first, second, ninth, seventeenth, and eighteenth) or cross hazards that sweep in from one side or the other (e.g. the sixth, seventh, tenth, twelfth, fifteenth, and sixteenth).  80% of the non-one shot holes are so configured. Such well-placed hazards make Kittansett – guess what – a placement course. In this day when modern courses feature 60+ yard fairways, it is a delight to find a design like Kittansett that identifies sloppy execution while rewarding tactical golf. Simply put, the golfer needs to find fairways to hit the intermediate size greens.

The reclamation of the green pads was the final piece of course’s metamorphosis to a thinking man’s course. Over 13,500 square feet have been recovered to date and appealing interior contours revealed like the back of the fifteenth green. Still, as things stand now, the greens only average 4,683 square feet in size. Throw in some wind and they indeed become tough targets to find consistently. More green fine-tuning is underway, especially in regards to between the green collars and bunker edges. As false fronts have been restored such as on holes seven, eight, ten and seventeen, an appreciation of the ground game has only mounted. Seeing the ball interact with the ground and slowly roll this way or that is an underpinning to sea-side golf.

As seen from the right of the 15th green, Hanse reclaimed putting surface around the high right and back. This back hole location didn’t exist five years ago. At 6,460 square feet, it is the largest green at Kittansett. To put that in perspective, it might be the smallest green on a well presented Raynor course!

Several of the course’s most vexing hole locations have been returned (back right on eight, back left on fourteen) and more will be unveiled as the work continues. The knob sixteenth green saw the putting surface extended to the very edges of the green pad where its soft shoulders effectively make the green behave as a smaller target!

The culmination of Hanse Design’s work and Kelly’s greenkeeping has reignited an appreciation for Flynn’s distinctive design. Instead of narrow playing corridors through trees, Flynn’s work is once again something much more multi-dimensional, intricate, and exhilarating, as we see below.

Holes to Note

First hole, 450 yards; Opinions as to what constitutes an ideal opener fall at either end of the spectrum. Some prefer ‘a gentle handshake’ to ease into the round. To the author, the problem is that if you mess it up, things could rapidly unravel. Far better to tackle a bit of bruiser, like the first at Kittansett, where even if a bogey is carded, no real harm is done. As is repeated throughout the round, hitting the fairway off the tee provides the foundation for clearing a cross hazard with one’s second. The first normally plays in a left to right crosswind and yet the left third of the fairway is the ideal spot from which to approach the green. Thus, the player who can shape the ball enjoys an acute advantage at Kittansett, which is one of the reasons why the Old Guard love playing here. Suffice to say, the player who hits a low controlled draw down the first is likely to prove a worthy opponent.

This view down the 1st conveys an important fact: Kittansett represents one of the game’s finest strolls as it possesses the ease of walking a heathland course void of hilliness, coupled with the thrill of being in a coastal setting (note the plethora of seagull feathers).

Second hole, 445 yards; The first two holes sum up the construction philosophy for the entire course and highlight what the golfer can expect: low profile tee pads, lay-of-the-land architecture tee to green, any mounds created are invariable within the playing corridor (not haplessly placed on the sides where they don’t influence play), and an intermediate size green built up in part for drainage reasons. Additionally, ground game options dominate throughout. Unlike the first hole, length is not the primary issue at the second as it generally plays downwind. Rather, can the golfer successfully judge how far short of the 4,198 square foot green to land his approach? It is a timeless question that the golfer never tires of solving and to do so, he must fit it between two front greenside bunkers.

Above is a common sight at Kittansett in that the golfer needs to carry broken ground with his approach. Additionally, note the lack of framing around the green, which is located but a few paces from Buzzards Bay. Keen judgement and steely nerves are required to chase after back hole locations.

Third hole, 165 yards; Apart from the obvious, what the author enjoys about this world famous hole is the random treatment that befalls tee balls. The typical summer wind is left to right and many a golfer misjudges its effect, especially early in the round. Hence, the green is frequently missed. One tee ball can land on the beach and gain a perfect lie on a slight upslope where the recovery splash is straightforward and a par the result. Another might land in a heel print on the beach and that player might struggle mightily for a bogey. Such serendipity is as nature would have it and how each man reacts is telling.

It doesn’t get any more coastal than a green pad built … on the coast!

Ironically, the course’s most famous hole uncompromisingly calls for an aerial approach; every other green allows for a run-up. Yet, such is the one-off, compelling nature of the 3rd that it is no wonder why it leaps to mind when thinking of Kittansett.

Seen from the edge of the green back toward the tee on the point, the golfer can only hope that an errant tee ball finds a good lie on the beach.

Fourth hole, 375 yards;  In a manner similar to St. Andrews, the first and last holes emanate and return to the clubhouse across a shared field, some 115 yards wide. That was sufficient for Flynn to place two playing corridors but nowhere near wide enough to have considered returning nines. Therefore, Kittansett enjoys a venerable out and back routing. A knock against such a configuration is that the wind punishes one way while the player rides it in the other. If the holes don’t shift directions, then the golfer can too easily establish a bead on the wind and play his shots with growing confidence. To avoid that, Flynn provided holes that either dogleg or bend sufficiently to require the golfer to make continual adjustments. Indeed, the fourth kicks off a quartet of holes that ‘elbow’ from tee to green. However the wind impacts you on the tee, it is guaranteed to bother your approach shot differently.

High tide for the fourth tee shot. A fade around the inside corner bunker is ideal.

The view from the outside of the dogleg.

This handsome mound was once treed and gives way to a typical Kittansett green: open in front, intermediate in size, and dropping off three feet in the rear.

Fifth hole, 445 yards; Here’s a textbook example of a central hazard adding great interest with a large bunker literally splitting the fifth fairway and being located precisely where the golfer wishes to place his drive. Oddly, while The Old Course at St. Andrews has a multitude of such hazards, modern architects have been reticent to employ them. Beginning in the 1960s with man able to shape the earth in any manner possible, an odd notion took hold that the fairway was meant to be a ‘fair way’ that extended trouble free from tee to green. This appalling break from the Golden Age and the writings of Tom Simpson and others saw hazards placed to the sides and the task merely to drive it straight.  Classically, the central hazard is a quandary, carried in certain winds, layed up to or skirted to the left or right under other conditions. The fifth’s central bunker presents those very appealing and perplexing options. It is another of Kittansett’s charming features that emphasizes that one is playing a Golden Age design.

How refreshing to find an American course where the middle of the fairway is often times not safe.

Sixth hole, 425 yards; During construction and per Flynn’s direction, Hood grassed over several piles of rock and debris to produce a unique diagonal hazard on the inside of this dogleg right. By being in the line of play, such mounds actually dictate strategy. Hanse made the feature relevant again by extending the low profile tee backwards to pick up an additional 30 yards. Such a move was not a mindless attempt to add length for length’s sake (like Riviera’s twelfth hole) but brought a specific feature back into play. Indeed, the new tee actually shortens the green-to-tee walk from the prior hole, so this was a shrewd move on two counts. All told, Kittansett measures 6,935 yards in 2019 as compared to 6,545 yards twenty years earlier.

By pulling the tree line well back from these mounds at the 6th, and restoring the fairway beyond, the golfer now seeks an advantage by carrying them from the tee. In the 1990s, every golfer was forced to play left. This is but one example of how playing angles have been reintroduced.

This aerial captures the extensive tree and brush clearing surrounding the 6th green.

Note the sail boats; just five years ago they would have been hidden behind trees.

Increased sunshine across the main playing surfaces has enhanced the turf quality.

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