Feature Interview with Anthony Pioppi
December 2006

Anthony Pioppi is a freelance writer/author and a Contributing Editor for Golfdom magazine. From 1985 to 1998 he was a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. In 1998 he left the business and worked on golf course grounds crews in Florida and Connecticut until 2000 when he returned to fulltime writing. Pioppi has also been a grounds crew volunteer at The Open Championship (2000, 2005), the U.S. Open (2002), the Walker Cup (2005), and in 2006 at the U.S. Women’s Open and Curtis Cup. He continues to work part-time on golf courses, most recently at TPC River Highlands. The Executive Director of the Seth Raynor Society, Pioppi lives a less-than-quiet existence in Middletown, Connecticut with his Fender Stratocaster and Ampeg Rocket 2 amplifier. Pioppi is the author of the recently published book To the Nines, which looks at notable and memorable 9-hole golf courses throughout the United States. Sports Media Group is its publisher.

1. Did you see design features at Marion that suggested what was to come for George Thomas?

Marion is a hoot. It’s as if Thomas was trying out every design style he could think of. There are punchbowls and convex greens, stonewalls are used as heroic and penal hazards, the seventh requires a correct drive to open up the green while other holes have no favored side.

If you read Thomas’s book, Golf Architecture in America and his tenents for building a good course, he broke almost every rule at Marion – the tee shots on the three 1-shotters are blind – but it is a great golf course with some wonderful holes. So to answer you question, yes I did.

2. What makes Whitinsville ‘the reigning champion’? Is it that much different from Ross’s other New England gems?

I think it fits in nicely with much of his other work. The second hole is a par-3 with bunkers clawed out of the fill pad just like holes at Wanamoisett or Worcester Country Club or dozens of other places. And like a lot of his other work the emphasis is on the approach shot. The ninth hole, which is played along three plateaus, is one of his best, at least in my opinion. Ben Crenshaw thinks so too.

From what I know “ and I want to make it clear I have not seen all 4,500 or so 9-holers while researching this book “ from tee to green and for 9 holes, there is no other course in the United States that has as strong architecture and requires a player to hit a variety of shots in order to score as Whitinsville.

3. Is the demise of Ocean Links (right beside Newport CC) the one thing you wish could be reversed?

Well that and my continued hair loss.

If you gave me one change to undo, sure, that would be it. But I also wish Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, Penn. would completely restore its original 9 and put back every bunker from the first Ross plans. If the club wanted to fully implement Ross’s revisions from 1947 that would be fantastic as well. If Northwood Golf Course in California ever restored the original Mackenzie bunkering that would be something. It would probably make it a better 9 than Whitinsville, therefore the best in the U.S.

4. Please describe the 7th hole at Ocean Links.

Kooky, weird, uncomfortable, bizarre. It was a 286-yard hole with a 30-foot mound about 180 yards off the tee called, Hill to Carry. On top of that was a ridiculous aiming slot that looks like a giant site at the end of a rifle barrel; tucked up against the far side of the mountain was a large bunker, then fairway, then the green. What the hell were they thinking? Because Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald had to route the course over four small parcels of land they were forced into an inordinate amount of short par 4s to make the course work. It’s as if by the time they reached the 7th they ran out of ideas. We’d kill any architect that built this hole today; that’s why I think it is a must for the proposed Old Macdonald course at Bandon Dunes. The boys designing that course need to hitch up their trousers and be real men, recreating Hill to Carry using the photos of the painting as a guide. There has never been a hole like it, or since.

5. What is another favorite hole from there?

I’m not sure I can say since all I’ve seen are paintings and one aerial. The fifth looks to be a very cool, short Cape Hole with a massive green wrapped in bunker sand. There were some very interesting and large bunkers in the first landing area as well. The second is called Shoreacres and is copy of that course’s first hole. Both opened the same year so it was possible the copy was in play before the original. The ninth was a version of Raynor’s Prized Dogleg. The Redan had Narragansett Bay as backdrop. That must have been some tee shot.

6. A bunker was re-grassed there in 2005 – how did that come to pass as the course has been shut/abandoned for over 70 years?!

The course closed a few years after founder and sole member T. Suffern Tailer died of a heart attack at the Christmas dinner table of his in-laws. Money was left for his son T. Suffern Tailer, Jr., (Tommy) to either keep or use to maintain the course. He chose to let the course go fallow. The land was sold years later after Newport Country Club turned down a chance to buy it. Parts of it became Brenton Point State Park, parts were sold off as house lots. In 2004, Dave Donatelli was walking through a section of his land that was covered in dense brush when he noticed a few ornamental trees and realized the lot had at one time been maintained. He decided to clear the brush away and in doing so stumbled across a perfectly preserved bunker. The only thing missing was the sand. I’ve found a number of bunkers from Ocean Links and not a grain of the sand that was trucked in from the Carolinas is left. Donatelli had no inkling about the existence of Ocean Links but decided to preserve the bunker anyway. Originally it would have sat on the left side of the eighth fairway. Since I wrote the book he purchased another parcel and while clearing that has come across what he thinks is the outline of another bunker, which if I have it figured right, would have been on the second hole. I’m going back out there in a couple weeks to do some more golf course archeology.

7. Please speak as to the cross bunkering that Ross employed at Rolling Rock.

I do not claim to be an expert on Ross but I’ve played and seen a number of his courses. I always thought the weak point of many Ross courses is the drive. I think Salem Country Club is a perfect example. The tee shots are pretty wide open and unlike a Raynor, Macdonald or MacKenzie course, there is no real preferred side from which to attack many of the greens. Ross, at least at Salem, seems to me to put a premium on the approach shot in the sense that hitting it anywhere on the green is not good enough. Depending where the flagstick is located on a particular putting surface determines where the approach should be. At Rolling Rock there were cross-bunkers on virtually every hole that set up how the tee shot and approaches would be played: successfully challenge the hazard and receive an appropriate reward. It’s really something.

8. Please speak as to the interior contours of the greens at Rolling Rock.

All I can say is that I’ve never seen Ross greens like that in my life. I want to stress I have not visited anywhere close to the 400 or so courses he worked on, but I’ve seen layouts from all eras of his career and in many parts of the country and the hole 2 through 8 remind me of nothing I’ve seen. Holes 1 and 9 are a bit mundane but in Ross’s 1947 renovation plans his did intend to spice up the 9th with a shallow, long depression running up the middle of the green.

9. Why aren’t more quality 9 hole courses – like Mike Keiser’s The Dunes “ being built these days?

The human race tends to generalize and we like to confine life into easily understandable concepts that require little or no thinking: there are two kinds of people in this world, those that break everything down into two groups and those that don’t. Listen to talk radio, everything is we  and they, us  and them; there is no room for discourse or gray areas whether it be about politics or sports, or men and women. Somewhere with golf it became, 18 holes good; 9 holes bad.  I have no idea why but it is really a shame.

The only way I see that changing is if the American golfer gets sick of playing five-hour rounds and comes to the realization it will only take him/her two-and-half to play nine, then those courses will see resurgence in popularity and developers would be inclined to build 9-hole courses.

10. What’s your favorite hole at The Dunes – and why?

The sixth can be played from about 135 yards to 185 yards with a tee that is wider than it is long; talk about variation.

11. Located in Yosemite National Forest, you state that Wawona is the only course in a U.S. National Park. How did it come into being?

It was built as part of the Wawona Hotel before that area became a national park. It is one of those courses that truly are a walk in the park. It has a wonderful routing and is truly a tranquil and serene place, just watch out for the bears and the rattlesnakes and the mountain lions.

12. What holes impressed you there?

I love the first hole. It starts off right across the street from the Wawona Hotel in a meadow. The fairway flows along first moving gently up hill, then more abruptly to a wonderful green perched at the end. As you play the first you see the entire second hole “ a very cool downhill par-3 “ as well as the tee and landing zone of the third hole, then the course heads into the forest.

13. How well preserved is MacKenzie’s work at Northwood?

It’s like this: the greens are there except for the third, which was washed away when the Russian River flooded. All the bunkers are there and most, if not all, of the greenside bunkers have sand in them while most of those in the fairway are grown over with grass. The footprints are extremely evident and it makes you crazy when you play the course because you can envision what it would be like if the bunkers were restored. Superintendent Ed Bale is doing his best to convince the consortium of owners to reinstate them and has already recovered a few on his own.

14. What is the single most unusual feature you came upon while researching this book?

I swear, if you look really closely at the 1929 aerial of Ocean Links there is a bunker that looks exactly like George Bahto in profile. Coincidence? I think not.

The real answer is the mound on the seventh hole at Ocean Links. A good part of it remains buried in the underbrush of Brenton Point State Park. I climbed up on top “ shredding my legs and arms on thorns “ and can get a little understanding of how it must have appeared on an open golf course. It is just so odd and contrived.

15. Which one hole do you most lament its passing? Please describe it.

It may not have passed but it sure is in a deep, deep coma.

At Cohasse Country Club, a 1916 Donald Ross in Southbridge, Mass., the second is an astounding risk/reward hole of about 310 yards that originally gave longer players a chance to drive the green perched on a rock knob with a very, very accurate tee shot that if miss-hit guarantees at least a bogey. Unfortunately the club allowed trees to grow up on the left side taking away that option. The only play now is to lay up short of a brook leaving about 130 yards to a putting surface. Everytime I play the hole I want to scream. The members in charge are concerned that too many people will be able to drive the green so the trees are left to stand. I’ve given up trying to convince them it would be better the original way and would make a wonderful match play hole. I had Brad Klein (have you heard of him?) in to talk with the members and he told them the same thing. It didn’t matter. I guess they’re all smarter than Donald Ross.

16. The biggest names in architecture – MacKenzie, Macdonald/Raynor, Ross, Maxwell – built nine hole courses. The same cannot be said today. Wonder why?

Not really. Two years ago I interviewed Jack Nicklaus for a Links magazine piece and he told me he had never built a nine-hole course out of something close to 240 projects; that’s an amazing fact. I don’t think he was ever asked.

There is not an architect alive today who would say to a client, you know, there is some pretty good land out here but not enough for 18, so let’s build a really good 9-hole golf course and I’ll charge you half my fee.  So, unless the client asks, no one is going to initiate the idea.

I’ve heard rumors about the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes evolving into a well-maintained golf course and expanding into the woods to make 18 holes. Why not just leave it where it is and make 9, 10, 12 really good holes; whatever the land on the ocean can accommodate? I don’t see a need for 9 or 18, how about building what fits?

17. What was your single favorite green complex that you encountered during the research for this book?

Since I can only surmise what was going on at Ocean Links I’ll stick with what I saw.

I find the first green at Northwood amazing. It’s the only MacKenzie course I’ve ever been on so I can’t put it in context of his other work, but there is so much going on for a relatively average-size putting surface. The mound coming off the front right bunker kicks balls left, the green drops off left into hollow and there is also a back tier. It was the first green I walked on and I was astounded.

The seventh at Rolling Rock is right up there.

18. Please design your own eclectic nine-hole course, being faithful to the hole numbers of the nine different courses from which you select?

There are over 20 courses in the book and you want just 9 holes?

No. 1 -Cohasse Country Club, Southbridge Mass., Donald Ross 1916: One of those holes that for long hitters has been ruined by technology and which lost some of its teeth due to neglect by a membership with little understanding of architecture. It appears to be a straight-ahead par-4 of 410 yards with a small green benched into the side of a hill. For those going down the left side the hole opens up to give a view of the putting surface. Players short and/or right they are forced to hit a blind second shot. Ross contoured the land, however, to guide precisely stuck balls- that could land 40 yards short of the green – toward the target. I wish the membership would extend the fairway further away from the green so shorter hitters could take advantage of the design.

No. 2 -Wawona Hotel Golf Course: Downhill par-3 that can play anywhere from about 160 to 210. Shallow bunkers left and right with a rushing stream behind. View left is of a meadow and of a nearby peak, right looks down the third fairway and hard right is the first all the way back towards the ninth tee.

No. 3 -Prairie Dunes, (original routing) Hutchinson, Kan., Perry Maxwell, 1937: I just like the way this hole feels. It plays about 390 from the back and is a downhill tee shot to an ample fairway. The hole turns left to a characteristically large green with lots of wild movement and a false front that rejects short shots. I know many of the holes on the course are more heralded but I just love the way this one sets on the land.

No. 4- Fenwick Golf Course, Old Saybook, Conn., various amateur designers circa 1895 with many alterations over the years: The hole can be played as a par-4 or par-5. The back tee is about 100 square feet and hangs out into South Cove making the it some 460 yards. The wind plays a huge role in determining the angle of the tee shot. If it is favorable, hitting out over the water is required to get home in two, which can be done easily with an accurate iron to a small green severely sloped back to front. If the wind is into the player the hole becomes extremely difficult as it narrows the closer it gets to the green, with out of bounds on the right.

No. 5 -Hemlock Ridge Golf Course; Sturbridge, Mass., unknown designer, circa 1960. Just a wonderful hole of 310 yard in the middle of a not very good course. The tee shot is downhill and right to left. Because there is no fairway irrigation, the green can be reached from the tee. For those choosing to lay up the second shot can be bounced or flown on depending on conditions and skill level; anything a little too long ends up amidst the flora and fauna of south central Massachusetts.

No. 6 – Highland Links; Truro, Mass.; unknown designer circa 1920. The slight dogleg right affords a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean off the ride side from tee to green with Highland Light keeping watch on play. The 460-yard hole used to have a sharper angle on the tee shot but the eroding sand cliffs that stand 130 feet above the beech, forced relocation a number of years ago. The fairway falls gently from the tee then rises back up to the green. Fairways are hand watered so the place is firm and fast. With the course located near the tip of Cape Cod it is constantly at the mercy of the winds coming off the ocean and the bay.

(The sixth at Northwood could easily be in the position.)

No. 7- Rolling Rock Club; Ligonier, Penn.; Donald Ross 1915. I’m going to cheat a little on this one. The 1947 Ross renovation, which was never implemented, called for extending this from a par-4 from 400 to 420 yards and turning it from a straight hole to a dogleg left. Ross retained a large tree on the inside of the dogleg about 220 out with a bunker in the right rough. The teeth of the hole is an uphill approach across two bunkers angled from about 70 yards to 20 yards from a green that is inundated with humps and bumps and all sorts of movement.

No. 8 – Wawenock Country Club; Bristol, Maine; Wayne Stiles, 1926: Since Bob Labbance contributed the Maine chapter I let him pick a hole for this composite course. He went with the par-3 eighth of 134 yards that rises gently uphill deceiving golfers so they do not take enough clubs. Short shots often end their flight in a cavernous bunker right front of the green. I can’t wait to play it.

No. 9 – Ocean Links; Newport, R.I.; Seth Raynor/Charles Blair Macdonald 1919 (no longer exists). With a par of four and a bogey of six this version of Raynor’s Prize Dogleg brought Ocean Links to a close with an exclamation. Although the preferred way to play the 460-yard hole would seem to be to take the tee ball down the right side and flirt with hazards and a very large tree, the green opens up to the left, thus making it easier to approach the green from the far side of the turn, especially for shorter hitters. In the 1928 Gold Mashie, the last one ever held, George Von Elm played the hole eight times recording seven pars with a birdie in the final round to shoot 272 besting the field by 21 strokes.

It my math is correct this turns out to be a course of 3,250 yards with a par of 36.

Anthony Pioppi

Anthony Pioppi

19. At the bottom of your posts on GolfClubAtlas.com, you quote the opening line of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Do you have another favorite Dostoevsky quote?

From The Adolescent: I have now reread what I’ve just written, and I see that I am more intelligent than what I’ve written.’

The End