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Tillinghast's Architectural Genius Shines Again at Brooklawn

By Bradley S. Klein

| Jul 28, 2021

The green on the par-5 11th hole demands an accurate approach to a sloping, well-guarded putting surface. (Russell Kirk/USGA)

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The best part about golf history is the way it animates the present. That will especially be the case for this week’s third U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn.

The major marks the club’s fifth USGA championship, following the 1974 U.S. Junior Amateur (won by David Nevatt), the 1979 U.S. Women’s Open (Jerilyn Britz), the 1987 U.S. Senior Open (Gary Player) and the 2003 U.S. Girls’ Junior (Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff).

That fifth USGA championship places Brooklawn in elite company; only 37 courses across the country have held more. The club’s USGA affiliation, it should be noted, goes back a long way: to January 1896, when Brooklawn became the governing body’s 15th member club.

Brooklawn dates to 1895, when it was a nine-hole layout that was part of an ambitious real estate development called Brooklawn Park, one of the country’s earliest fully planned recreational communities. Back then, the city of Bridgeport, only 3 miles to the east, was a booming commercial and industrial center.

Industry thrived, producing everything from hand tools, ammunition and typewriters to saddles, corsets and pie plates. It was a major port city for Southern New England agriculture and manufacturing and in winter was home to Barnum & Bailey’s Circus as well as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. A trolley line tied the newly established golf club to downtown Bridgeport. The club thrived, eventually expanding to 18 holes through a redesign by the membership, and in 1916 undertook development of a massive, colonial-style clubhouse at the then considerable cost of $60,000. 

Since then, the club has been blessed with an unusual level of continuity. The clubhouse has been expanded but never suffered a fire. Thus its interior charm remains, including oak-paneled main dining rooms and lounges and the kind of green baize wire fronts to the lockers that one might read about in P.G. Wodehouse short stories.

The club had the wisdom to hire A.W. Tillinghast in 1928 to undertake a total redesign of the golf course. The result, opened in 1932, was a major rerouting that included three new holes (1st, 2nd and 16th) plus a stunning set of putting surfaces that have remained untouched. Due to the intervention of the Depression soon after plans were drafted, the club took three years to implement Tillinghast’s plan. All of the greens were built anew, as was the greenside bunkering.

The fairway bunkering took substantially longer, with only the first fairway bearing Tillinghast’s intended imprint of sand. The rest of the holes waited several decades – until a careful restoration by architect Ron Forse that essentially implemented Tillinghast’s vision for the site, though often shifting the position of fairway bunkering to accommodate more contemporary distances. In the interim years and without the planned fairway bunkering, Brooklawn relied upon dense tree planting, to the point that, by the 1970s, the course had lost a lot of its early width and became tightly parkland in character.

Forse, who began his work at Brooklawn in 1998, has taken his time in implementing Tillinghast’s bunker scheme, with the work taking two decades – a testament to the club’s conservatism and fiscal prudence.

Forse is no newcomer to the restoration of championship venues. His considerable resume includes reclamation work at such USGA championships sites as The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club; Newport (R.I.) Country Club; Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa.; and Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass.

Tillinghast’s version of the course has been tended to by only three superintendents since it opened 89 years ago. The current greenkeeper, Peter Bly, has been at the club since 1976 and at the helm since 1980. He marvels at the job Tillinghast did in building putting surfaces that drain so well.

“He built up the greens with native rock, then covered them with soil and sand to form a perfect growing medium,” said Bly. “Since then, all we've had to do is topdress like crazy, to the point where they percolate really well, and they also have plenty of surface drainage.”

Tillinghast’s original watercolor of the design work is on display in the clubhouse. In a nice historical touch, also on display are the replica medals of Gene Sarazen, a former assistant pro at the club. The first man to win the modern professional Grand Slam honed his playing and clubmaking skills at Brooklawn during his late teens (1918-1920). Sarazen’s course record of 63 at Brooklawn, set in 1938, has been matched once but never surpassed.

When 120 leading veteran female competitors tee it up, they’ll be playing a set of intensely contoured greens designed by Tillinghast in 1929 and untouched ever since. They are generous in size, averaging 5,800 square feet, but their narrowness across the waist makes accuracy more than distance control the pre-eminent strategic element of play. The green configurations also bring steep flanking bunkers constantly into play. Most of the greens are perched just above native grade, with something akin to a false front and four high points or shoulders about halfway in, at the widest (i.e., least narrow) part of the putting surface, from which point the back half of the green typically flattens out or even falls away. This leaves golfers who miss even marginally to one side or the other with a maddening, up-and-over recovery shot.

Between its 53 greenside bunkers and 15 fairway bunkers, Brooklawn’s 175,000 square feet (about four acres) of sand comprise a veritable beachfront. It will be possible to escape some of those fairway hazards with long irons and rescue clubs, but the greenside hazards, many of them 4 to 6 feet deep, will expose the slightest weakness with a sand wedge or lob wedge. 

The layout will play to virtually the same length as it did in 1979 for the U.S. Women’s Open. It was par 71, 6,010 yards then, and this time around it will measure 6,011 yards, with a par of 72. Experience works to a player’s advantage, and the 13 players who competed here in 1979 might feel more comfortable than newcomers. However, the green speeds of 10-10.5 on the Stimpmeter will be faster than they played then, and the loss of tree cover and its supplanting by sand will make for a very different sensibility.

With Long Island Sound only 3 miles to the south, wind will be a factor. More substantial, however, will be the intensity of the terrain, as players will face a constantly shifting feel under foot thanks to 120 feet of elevation change across the site.

The effect is most dramatic on the back-to-back par-5 holes. The seventh hole, measuring 536 yards, falls 75 feet from the tee to a green protected by a creek in front that will force most players to lay up with their second shot. The next hole, measuring 394 yards, acquires its par-5 status thanks to a 67-foot ascent along the way. It’s enough of a climb that a 40-yard-long fairway bunker on the right that starts 190 yards from the tee will be a major factor that few of the players will be able to carry.

The smallest, narrowest target out there with the steepest flanking greenside bunkers comes at the shortest hole on the course: the 119-yard, par-3 10th hole. During the 1987 U.S. Senior Open at Brooklawn, Arnold Palmer bogeyed the hole three of the four days, then called it “the shortest par 4 in America.”

That, in essence, is what Brooklawn is all about, and what makes it a perfect venue for the third U.S. Senior Women’s Open. It’s a course that rewards intelligence and self-restraint – precisely the accumulated virtues of the veterans who will gather on one of Tillinghast’s enduring gems.

Bradley S. Klein is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who specializes in golf course architecture and history.

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