6,555 yards, 135 slope from the Blues
In Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, Essex County Club resides in quiet dignity. The road in leads past the tennis courts and then, standing almost at attention, the courtly clubhouse. There was a stoic regality that took hold as soon as I drove in yet never felt inaccessible or intimidating. It simply presented itself and the golfer immediately understands he walks on sacred ground.
The club itself formed in 1893, it built the first nine holes of golf in New England and is the first club invited by the founding members of the USGA (whom are Shinnecock Hills, Chicago Golf Club, the Country Club at Brookline, Newport and St. Andrews Golf Club) to join. Donald Ross first visited the property in 1908 to see about re-designing the course. It started as nine holes in the late 1800’s and went through several iterations, then expanding to eighteen holes as the club acquired additional land, but the course was proving insufficient with how it was set on the land as well as the increases in how far the ball could travel with the advent of the Haskell ball. Ross ultimately became the golf professional in 1910 with the re-design taking several years. He resided here as the professional for a few years and with the exception of Pinehurst, is where he spent the most time revising and cultivating as the full eighteen holes opened and evolved. The green at the Third is considered the oldest green in the country. Indeed, the history here is impressive and its ability to preserve that aura even more so.
“Discovering Donald Ross” by Bradley Klein is a must read for anyone interested in learning about Ross and much of the history below on Essex is taken from it.
Ross worked with a civil engineer by the name of Charles Fritz to develop significantly detailed topographic maps of the property, on which Ross carefully re-routed the course, as well as fairway and green positioning. Ross only kept two holes from his re-design, the Thirteenth and Sixteenth. Yet another example of a classic course far from minimalist, the labor crew blasted through layers of rock and hauled larger boulders away. In fact, the work at Essex led to a dispatch in the London Evening News titled, “Nature Altered to Suit Golf: the Man who is Blowing up America.” This dispatch includes, “Here at Essex. . . Mr. Ross is superintending all the operations of course. He thinks out his construction schemes in a Napoleonic way, and he is going about America blowing hundreds of acres of it up in the air, and planting smooth courses on the leveled remains.”
While the planning and work was meticulous and transformative, Ross relied on the craggy terrain for its character and routed among it accordingly. Blind shots abound and present themselves in thrilling fashion. Elevation changes range from gradual to abrupt in limitless traversing throughout the round. Indeed, the rocky hills provide an impressively accommodating site for distinction as the polish of the course contrasts well with its natural jaggedness. Strategy is fraught within the contours and ground based playing structure. Fantastically naturalistic, those fairways and greens on the hills were blended into the inclines and contours instead of terracing into awkward levels. Angles were certainly incorporated into this process with each shot, as the contours and terrain dictate.
The course was finally completed in 1917. Today, it remains very well preserved, the only changes being the relocation of the Seventeenth green and shifting of a number of tees. The sequencing of the holes have also changed to consist of two nine hole loops returning to the clubhouse, instead of the original out and back links style ordering. As Kline writes in “Discovering Donald Ross,” “. . . the shape of the holes for all intents and purposes [is] identical, thereby making Essex County one of the few pure Ross gems to be found in all of golf.”
Essex, as well as nearby Oakley Country Club, were the beginning for Ross in the U.S. Making his mark, Pinehurst awaited, as he would eventually travel to and fro throughout the years, a trail of legend in his wake.
Essex has been at the very top of my list for a while and after Pinehurst, it became imperative to visit. The entire trip to New England was predicated on the fortunate circumstances that allowed me to play the course that morning. The exquisite history, involvement, craft and preservation of Ross with his early travails into course design here, I regarded it as a personal pilgrimage. I loved it, for entirely different reasons than Pinehurst 2, which further emboldened my respect and admiration for Mr. Ross.
The range seemed reverentially quiet as we all went through our paces to ready for the day. Morning dew and a warm sunrise signified it would be a hot, clear vivid day. The fog of yesterday all of a sudden seemed distant and remote, possibly something I made up. Gathering around the First tee and then finally settling into our foursomes, it would be a a full day of Ross. They talk of mindfulness, consciousness and the ilk. These are the days I finally get what that means. Every shot and step was as clear then as it is now. So it shall be with the written word.
The First is a 440 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Sitting above the fairway and able to survey the course before us a bit, the right side runs rigidly straight along while the left juts out to create a lot of width for the tee shot. Sawmill Brook sits before the fairway, mainly as nice scenery as we walk out to our second shots. The fairway narrows before the green, then widens again at the entry point. A sprawling bunker is on the right of the green, below it. Hills of rocks and trees loom high above off to the left. We will see them much closer later on.
The Second is a 335 yard par 4. Heading in the same direction as the First, the fairway is wide while mounding frames things on either side. A trench bunker is cut into the fairway. It should be carried from the tee but is lone presence in the fairway makes it more conspicuous than it normally would be. A bunker off to the right past it is of more concern and is reason enough to focus on the left side, even if that means the approach will be a longer one. The green is tucked off to the right, its entry point front left. It’s raised and with bunkers on both sides of the entry point and at the rear, there are plenty of ways to attack it while avoiding the defenses.
The Third is a 623 yard par 5. The first three holes reside within this rather large corridor on the property that is characterized with mounds and bunkering, allowing the golfer to properly get his swing in order while instilling enough challenge and strategy to maintain intrigue. This continues here but the tree line on the left starts to press just a bit. It has always been a longer par 5. The fairway is wide off the tee yet the mounding on the right creates some mystique beyond it. A well hit tee shot still leaves a lot to go. A small rise and larger bunker to the right are in view but the rest of the hole remains unseen on the other side. After the rise, there is still a ways to go and more larger bunkers on the right side construct the fairway short of the green. Smaller bunkers are almost hidden at the front corners and back right of one of the larger greens on the course. As mentioned, this is the first green built in the U.S. Large, rolling contours are within it and those who need to traverse its entirety will be in for quite the ride.
The Fourth is a 233 yard par 3. The challenge of the round now comes to a head. Sawmill Brook ponds along the left side with the fairway running across us at an angle to the green. The green is not straight out, but off to the left after the longest carry of water. It is not an easy to shot. In fact, even deciding any alternative approach is tough going. The green seems to shout out to the golfer to hit a draw into it and many will end up in the bunker straight out trying to do so. The line seems to be left of that bunker, which cuts off the carry of the water as well. It’s a tight window, however. I’d commit to a shot that will get close to the pin and if the ball ends up in a bunker or long grass around it, so be it. The bunker on the right actually gives you a lot of room to work with. Regardless, this is a challenge.
The Fifth is a 503 yard par 5. The tee shot heads back over Sawmill Brook and most of the fairway is blind because of the rise and fall of the contours. The fairway is wider than it appear from the tee, which the golfer learns as soon as he heads up the rise. Running right between an eleventh and twelve o’clock angle from the right bunker seen from the tee, this wide fairway moves towards Causeway Brook, at which point it must be carried to reach the green, which is into the corner of the property. The green is wide and there’s not a lot of hazards guarding it, but any shot too far long or right will find trouble. As a par 5, the second shot will become interesting for many who will need to decide whether they’d like a go at the green or will set up a reliable approach.
The Sixth is a 335 yard par 4. The tee is nestled within that corner next to the Fifth green, the Causeway running alongside us off to the right until it crosses the fairway altogether. Driver is not needed here but those who feel the need to beat their chests and try to carry the Causeway from the tee for a wedge in may do so. A nice mid iron to the fat of the fairway still leaves a shorter iron in, which makes the risk of driver here seem unnecessary. The green is uphill, above the fairway, a large swirling bunker on the entire right side and a long one running with the hole on the left. The bunkering about the course in general is indeed varied, impressive and notable for some of the larger ones. The green appears simple in presentation, yet is deceptive in movement.
The Seventh is a 142 yard par 3. Ross always ensured there was a short par 3 and this is it (along with a long par 5, which was the Third). The tee is elevated and again, Sawmill Brook says hello just before the green. Speaking of bunkers, they are thin, shallow and almost interlaced within the terrain, far from the brawny giants we saw the last few holes. Much more opportunity for them to find an awkward stance or lie. Sawmill brook moves off to the right as well, which should be noted for those hitting out of the bunkers on the left. Otherwise, it’s an inviting green, just waiting to greet you. Only when you start to look off to its side does one recognize the dangers lurking beneath.
The Eighth is a 422 yard par 4. The tee shot is blind as the hill ramps up immediately before us. The tree line on the left remains rigid throughout while the fairway expands after the hill. Longer hitters should note the fairway contours and how it eventually falls downhill left and towards the green. It’s a pretty cool feature, as the fairway uses the converging hills to merge the path to the green. Most of us won’t encounter it in play, as the tee shot will end up short of it and the approach carries to the green, but it’s certainly notable and useful for those trying to get back into position from a bad tee shot. The path to the green narrows, a couple of bunkers off to the right short of it, staggered. A right to left cant is moderate yet effective and much more prevalent at the green. The green also has multiple tiers and wants very much to cast all balls off the lower left side. It’s a great hole for how it uses the terrain so well.
The Ninth is a 432 yard par 4. A calmer finish to the front as the tee shot heads straight with a mild smattering of smaller bunkers on either side. The green is where the interest resides, with the fairway dipping down to it before slightly rising back up again at the apron. The green is a sufficient size but the bunkers off to either side still seem to come into play more often than one would think. Set into the hillsides, the bunker on the right especially ramp up the challenge as the further the golfer is off to the right, the more downhill they are and the more hillside and sand they must carry to recover to the green. Those trying too hard to stay out of those right bunkers may find themselves on the putting green next to the First tee. It becomes apparent that the mild tee shot is an opportunity for the golfer to set up this approach in the right way, sorely needed to close out the front nine in preferred fashion.
The front nine is stays among the lower meadows of the property, striking a harmonious balance of the width and freedom such terrain provides with the focus and demands the meandering brooks and contours instill. I would rank them 3, 8, 6, 4, 1, 2, 7, 5, 9.
The back nine starts with the 363 yard par 4 Tenth. Our dance with the hills starts right away as the hillside obscures the view of the fairway from the tee. Past the hillside, the fairway opens up on the right to nice width before a couple diagonal bunkers inject themselves ahead, with most shots needing to carry them. The bunkers also probably give the longer hitters pause based on where they are. It’s all short grass after the bunkers leading up to the green, with bunkers at the rear and a smaller one at the left. There’s a good amount of room for both the tee shot and approach while demanding a modicum of precision for a respectable score.
The Eleventh is a 178 yard par 3. The green sits above us on a hillside, merging into its contours. Off of its ledge on the left are bunkers well below and further left of those lies Cat Brook. A couple large expansive bunkers are off to the right. A small path of fairway careens its way to the green between the bunkers on each side. The green swirls in impressive disorder. It’s an all world par 3. The group ahead of us cheered when my tee shot rattled the pin close, immediately making it one of the more memorable shots of the trip.
The Twelfth is a 420 yard par 4. Climbing into the hills just a little, the tee shot is blind and needs to carry a ramped up ridge straight ahead. The fairway moves at about a 10:00 angle downhill after the ridge. Another fairway moves in from the left of the ridge, possibly where a forward tee is located. Essentially, going right off the tee is the only direction that’s not ideal. Of course, that’s where I hit it. Leading downhill to the green, there are bunkers and mounds on each side of the green and the golfer should play for the ball succumbing to the downslope to some degree or the approach will likely skirt off the green to the rear.
The Thirteenth is a 379 yard par 4. We now go around the hills and the familiar meadow feel of the front nine returns. Wetlands must be carried from the tee while tree lines on both sides tighten the corridor a bit for one of the narrower fairways we’ve encountered. The fairway gently climbs to the green where a small bunker guard the front right. There are a couple bunkers off to the left short of the green but only terribly hooked approaches would see them. The green is large and moves from back to right with some internal contouring to deal with as well.
The Fourteenth is a 172 yard par 3. The green is slightly below the tee with a well placed bunker at the front right, with others at the rear corners and a couple others off to the left. The green has nice size and movement. Considering the holes prior and what’s to come, it’s a nice reprieve within the routing to gather oneself for the remaining battle ahead. I ended up rattling this pin from the tee as well, as I began to resist a fading swing.
The Fifteenth is a 347 yard par 4. Off to the left of this tee is where Ross lived while he was professional here, as pictured towards the beginning of this review above. The tees are placed off to the right of the fairway, the angle of which makes the enormous bunkers even more prominent off in the distance. That bunker will make most every approach into the uphill green aerial while narrower bunkers are left and rear of the green. The front of the green moves towards that giant bunker as well, so be sure your approach is healthily to the meat of the green. It’s a great example of how a single hazard can affect play in so many different ways and indeed, the approach is more harrowing than most others on the course.
The Sixteenth is a 453 yard par 4. Turning back to face the former Ross residence, the elevated tee shot is to a fairway that spills out to the right past the hill on which the Fifteenth green rests. The further right the tee shot, however, the more in play the Sahara-esque bunker that’s further up, closer to the green. The bunker takes up a lot of room and yes, of course I went in it. A hillside is between the bunker and the green on the other side, making the recovery blind. The bunker encroaches to the center the fairway for the most part, so most shots will address that desert to some degree. The green follows suit in scale, with its expanse and surrounding short grass area. Those who are bold off the tee and stay left can mostly avoid the sordid bunker affair altogether, with plenty of room to work with. It’s a wonderful par 4 with its angles and hazard placement and green configuration, setting up an extremely strong closing sequence that arguably even starts on the hole prior.
The Seventeenth is a 361 yard par 4. The round has resulted in completely encircling the biggest hill on the property, so the only thing left to do is climb straight to its heart. This starts with the tee shot, which is uphill to a wide portion of the hillside. The rocky ridge on the right obscures how much fairway is off to that side, but it’s more than can be seen. The approach is completely blind as our climb uphill continues. The green is up there, towards the top of the hill, short grass front and back, bunkers along the side. I thought my approach was way too long but my caddie assured me it should be pretty good, which it was. Some times blind shots help in unexpected ways. After a couple holes of toil, the tide turned with that shot for a bombastic ending. This penultimate hole is memorable for how it confronts the most severe of the terrain and makes it play a bit more sophisticated than it looks.
The Eighteenth is a 417 yard par 4. Just as abrupt as we climb the hill do we scale down it, the tee shot straight off its edge to the fairway below, which snakes around and between the smaller rock hills we encountered at the First (left) and Tenth (right). The turns of the fairway give the golfer pause at the tee in deciding exactly where to aim so that the shot lands and stays on the fairway. Those who opt for a shorter set more visible shot to the front half of the fairway will be left with a long, blind approach to the green. Those who have enough length and are able to carry the turns altogether will be left with a much more manageable and visible approach. The green is just over the other side of Sawmill Brook, which bisects the fairway at an angle, running up the right side.
Determination took hold here. My tee shot went left and was in the hillside you can see in the photo below. The good news was I had cleared all the twists and turns of the fairway and the green was straight ahead. I found my ball and was able to hit it out into the fairway and watch it run for a bit, closer to the fairway. A shorter iron in for the approach, I decided it was time to stop fooling around as I had been doing most of the back and hit a decent shot. I did, getting it to a few feet and making the putt for par.
The closing hole is remarkable for blending into the surrounds and creating that strategy and interest. The character of the course seems to culminate here and as great courses are wont to do, made me want to walk right back to the First tee post haste and do it all over again.
The back nine includes the more severe terrain on the property in remarkable fashion while also utilizing some boisterous, grand scale hazards that instill even more strategy than the setting provides. I would rank them 18, 17, 16, 11, 10, 15, 12, 13, 14.
Generally, Essex County exceeded expectations and enthralled in how Ross used the spectacular terrain for variety, strategy and interest. The severity of the natural surrounds lends itself to perhaps a much more intolerant course design if left in the hands of others but Ross was able to harness the character of the land while ensuring the playing structure remained multi-dimensional. The bunkering stood out as some of the finest among his courses as well, with a broad range of size, shape and impressive placement.
One of my favorite aspects of Ross’ design profile is the interaction he orchestrated between man and nature throughout the round. While practical in how he went about it, there’s a certain harmony where the golfer must consider the “naturality” of his shots; how the hillside and branching slopes move off of it; the crooks of the fickle stream that meanders close to the green; the nearby ridges in how they continue into the green, stealthily. The golfer has no choice but to embrace the nature upon which the course is set, ponder it at each shot. Ross does this beautifully and at Essex, his brilliant style is interwoven with the terrain of a wild stallion that only a chosen few could properly manage. It’s a treasure of American golf.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A stately exterior yet charming interior, the clubhouse is large with several different rooms serving several different purposes, yet sufficient space to relax and take in the terrain which surrounds it. The pro shop is well done with one of the better logos I came across that season.
Practice Area: The range is close to the Ninth and limited in distance while there’s a putting green near the First tee. Like Philadelphia, a lot of the classic courses in New England improvise with the practice area since the land has already been staked and reserved for the course. Only one course I played during the trip had a full size range.