Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. – Visit Essex County Club and you’ll quickly notice that tradition easily trumps change.
It starts with the elegant, but certainly not opulent clubhouse and moves to a golf course that looks as if it hasn’t been touched since architect Donald Ross completed his design in 1917. Even the yellow house where Ross resided during his four years as the club’s professional (1909-13) still sits near the second green.
During its 127-year history, the club has had only six superintendents – Eric Richardson came aboard three years ago – and just seven head professionals, including Ross and Joe Lloyd, the 1897 U.S. Open champion. Tom and Jean Waters, who currently share the job, have been at Essex 17 and 18 years, respectively, and are the only husband-wife Class A tandem working together at a U.S. golf facility. Ask them for a business card and they’ll hand you a pen with all their contact information.
That is Essex’s trademark: unique and special.
The club was the sixth – and first after the original quintet – to join the USGA. It has been the host site for two U.S. Women’s Amateurs (1897 and 1912) andthe 1995 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. The Curtis Cup June 11-13 will be the second contested at Essex, the first coming in 1938..
Essex members Harriot and Margaret Curtis, whose father, Greeley, was one of the club’s founders, combined to win four U.S. Women’s Amateur titles, with the latter claiming her third and final title at Essex in 1912.
“People always ask me to describe the member at Essex and the membership here is very passionate,” said Tom Waters. “They are passionate about the game of golf. It’s a beautiful program. Anybody can tee it up when the course opens. If an 11-year-old junior feels that he can get on the tee and listen to the boys of summer, so be it.”
Added Jean Waters: “I think that is something Margaret and Harriot had a big influence on … setting the tone of what happens in the future as far as [club] policy goes. I’ve worked at several private clubs and this is very special where like Tom said, a junior can tee off whenever they want. It’s never an issue. There is ladies day, but women can play any time. That’s very special.”
Another remarkable feature is what is considered to be the oldest continuously used green site in North America. The third green was part of the club’s original nine-hole layout before Ross redesigned the course into an 18-hole facility.
Some might see this as grillroom fodder, but the staff has facts to back up the claim.
“Phil Wogan, who was Skip Wogan’s son and Skip was Donald Ross’ assistant and was here 50-some-odd years, said to us he believed it was the longest continuously used putting surface in North America,” said Tom Waters. “People will argue that older golf courses are out there, , but Essex members believe that green site … has been maintained and continuously used throughout the club’s existence.”
Members refer to the third green as the “bathtub” because of the deep depression in the left-center portion of the 625-yard, par-5 hole. Remarkably, the hole has only been lengthened by eight yards since Ross designed it.
Speaking of length, the course will only play 180 yards longer in 2010 than it did for the 1938 Curtis Cup Match, a testament to Ross’ genius.
Also keep in mind that Ross designed Essex in the pre-mechanized days. Ox and manpower created a layout that has stood the test of time, although Tom Doak and Bruce Hepner of Renaissance Golf Design were hired by the club in 2000 as part of a master plan to bring the course back to the original Ross look.
“Over the years, the greens became smaller because of mowing patterns and tees became smaller because of mowing patterns,” said Val Somers, the Curtis Cup Match co-chairman and a longtime Essex member. “Putting together a master plan … gives you some consistency. We have taken down thousands of trees that had crept in over the years. During World War II, the back nine was closed for several years and trees tended to grow.
“Now you can stand on the second tee and look out to the right at the third fairway, the second fairway [is in front of you] and the 15th fairway is to the left. That’s how Ross tied all those holes together.”
Ross’ fingerprints are everywhere, but especially on and around the green complexes. The downhill 18th hole – where you can see the distant Boston skyline on a clear day from the dramatically elevated tee – features an inverted-saucer green that is reminiscent of his work at Pinehurst No. 2, where Ross spent the last years of his life tinkering and perfecting what some feel is his greatest masterpiece.
“Short game is what is going to separate the winners at this Curtis Cup because the greens are diabolical and they will get them rolling really fast,” said Jean Waters. “There are tough up and downs here.”
Tom Waters pointed out one particular hole of Ross’ design mindset.
“My favorite is the 11th green site,” he said. “From 120 yards and in, there is every shot in golf. If you attack a hole location that is on the right side of the green and you miss it deep and to the right, you are now in a fabulous greenside bunker where the lie is actually a little downhill, and you have a wall about eight feet above you with a green that runs away. If you can even manage to get the ball up onto the green, three-putt becomes a definite option.
“The more you see [Essex] and the more you are around it, the more tricks to the eye that he put in. It’s just the hidden subtleties he put in. The fairways are massive and wide open. But there are specific spots [on the greens] … that you have to put the ball. At Essex, it’s always about the greens.”
That will be something for the Curtis Cup participants to think about during practice rounds. While the modern game centers on power and athleticism, it could be finesse and touch that ultimately decide the Cup winner.
“I think it’s the best match-play course,” said Tom Waters. “Every hole is completely different. There’s risk, there’s reward. The young ladies are going to have a blast playing the golf course.”
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.