The Country Club, 1999 vs. 2022: Course changes bring back old Brookline magic
In the annals of golf history, one could argue that The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., holds a unique place at the bookends of 20th century American golf.
One of the five clubs that co-founded the United States Golf Association in 1894, it's been there since the very beginning: 1913, when Francis Ouimet captivated his home city and country’s sports fans with a thrilling underdog U.S. Open victory over titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Unlikely would become a common adjective in the club's footnotes, it seemed.
Many years later in September of 1999, just months shy of a new millennia and the Y2K madness it brought with it's arrival, Justin Leonard sunk a seagoer of a putt up the tiered 17th green, setting off an earthquake through the golf world and paving the way for one of the most improbable comebacks in Ryder Cup history.
It's been a quiet couple of decades since that putt heard round the world, but for the first time this century, the pro golf world is back in Brookline. Back to reckon with the quirky, capricious terrain and antique features of a course that has changed somewhat in recent time, but only with the goal of staying much the same as it’s been for nearly 130 years prior.
That may sound contradictory, but in golf course terms, it takes effort to avoid change. Trees grow and propagate, fairway lines meander and greens shrink over time as mowers miss a quarter-inch of perimeter here, a half-inch there. Thousands of bunker shots cause sand to build up on edges of greens, altering their intended contours. And such is the battle The Country Club has waged over the last quarter-century; head-to-head, with the creeping changes time brings.
On the front lines of that fight? Golf course architect Gil Hanse, who since 2009 has been advising the club on how best to preserve the Old World charm of its course for the membership, while also preparing to host elite tournaments like the 2013 U.S. Amateur and 2022 U.S. Open.
Along with his longtime associate Jim Wagner, Hanse has become the go-to guy for classic courses across the country who are looking to either refurbish their historic layouts or unwind changes made by other modern architects that have ultimately masked some of that Golden Age patina, or grassed it over completely. Hanse has taken the mantel of “Open Doctor” from Rees Jones, as he is responsible for the latest updates at both Brookline and 2023 U.S. Open host, Los Angeles Country Club, as well as Southern Hills Country Club, which earned rave reviews as 2022 PGA Championship host.
The routing's changed quite a bit since we were there for the Ryder Cup in 1999. I was going through a yardage book last week, not one from '99.
Thanks in large part to Jones’ own restoration work at The Country Club prior to the 1988 U.S. Open held there (a project seen as well ahead of its time in the context of the restoration boom of the last 15 years), Hanse and his team have been able to focus on lighter-touch (but still crucial) improvements to keep the course its best self. Chief among these: restoration of The Country Club’s greens, which, at an average of just 4,400 square feet, are the second-smallest in championship golf behind those at Pebble Beach. The smaller a green, the more precious every extra reintroduced foot of perimeter can be, both as a way to coax more diverse hole locations out of it and as a way to make it fit aesthetically with surrounding contours and bunkering.
Few greens transformed more than the short par 3 that will play as the 11th hole in the 2022 U.S. Open. What had been a tiny oval shrouded in rough is now a more irregular shape, practically dripping off the pedestal of land it occupies, with the four bunkers that guard its front and left sides tighter to the green edge than ever before. It might be natural to assume that this makes the hole easier, but actually the opposite is true. By expanding the putting surface, Hanse and Wagner have given the USGA the opportunity to use some daring perimeter hole locations, where short-side misses long and/or right will bound down into terrifying lies, rather than hanging up in longer grass at equal elevation to the cup.
The 11th is also worth citing for a completely different reason, as an example of rejuvenating change at The Country Club. This year will see it return to the championship routing of the course, which uses 18 holes cherry-picked from the club’s 27, for the first time since Ouimet’s landmark 1913 victory. As a result, the former fourth hole, a short-ish par 4 that required some awkward walking and crowd-flow, will instead serve as the site of the media center. At just 130 yards, the newly reintroduced one-shotter will add some valuable variety to the layout, sandwiched as it is between two of the course’s most demanding long par 4s.
Hanse and Wagner have also presided over the removal of hundreds of trees at The Country Club, mainly from the interior of the property. While trees may not always be a direct architectural feature, they do have a significant effect on the feel of a golf course. In recent decades, many classic designs have been robbed of their ambiance by well-meaning but underqualified member committees who have planted unnecessary trees between holes, unnaturally enclosing them and keeping golfers from feeling the inspiring wholeness of a property.
At The Country Club, tree removal has opened up vistas across the terrain that would have made the roars of the 1999 Ryder Cup even louder and farther-reaching. This year, if something big happens, the entire property will know about it, just as they would have more than a century ago.