MARION, MASSACHUSETTS | Competitors in last week’s Massachusetts Amateur had the pleasure of playing one of the Bay State’s best golf courses at the Kittansett Club. Located in this sleepy sailing village on Buzzards Bay just west of Cape Cod, it is a Golden Age classic, routed across an exposed, often windswept spit of land and through more sheltered swathes of New England woods.
The course demands both power and precision, and the mix of lengths and angles compels golfers to execute a variety of shots if they have any hope of scoring. Kittansett can be a brute, but those who can control their distances and work their golf balls in the wind can certainly score.
Par is 71, measuring some 6,800 yards from the tips but a little more than 6,400 yards from the markers used by most male members. Its most celebrated hole is the par-3 third, where a well-contoured, slightly elevated green is surrounded entirely by sand and bordered on the right by the bay. But there are so many other holes of note. Like the short 4-par at No. 10, with a diagonal row of grassy mounds on the left side of the landing area and a pair of bunkers on the right, both of which force golfers to consider distance and direction on their drives. As for the largely blind, uphill green, it is protected by bunkers left and right.
Another beauty is the 12th, a longer par-4 that doglegs slightly to the left. A cross bunker comes into play from the left on tee shots, and the best move is taking on that hazard with one’s drive, keeping the ball on that side of the fairway for a more open approach to the green. But if a golfer decides instead on the less perilous route down the right, he must then clear a gnarly bunker complex and more grassy mounds to land his second shot onto the putting surface.
Perhaps the best hole on the course is No. 17, which features cross rough and a wee burn in a depression some 250 yards from the tee. Once again, golfers must determine just how far they want to hit their tee shots – and whether they lay up before that obstacle or try to fly it. Then, they are left with an uphill approach to a slick green backed by the bay, again with bunkers right and left. Most days, the approach plays dead into a southwest wind, making the most sensible play a punch shot that bores its way to the putting surface.
The fact that Kittansett was the site of the Mass Am last week for the sixth time in its history speaks to the high regard in which the course is held. So does the USGA’s decision to stage the U.S. Senior Amateur here in autumn 2022, the year of the club’s centennial. And the golfers playing in that event will be every bit as enthralled with the layout – which also played host to the 1953 Walker Cup match – as those who just teed it up there in the Mass Am.
Kittansett is a pure golf club, and its centerpiece from the very beginning has been its course. For decades, the layout was regarded as the creation of one of the club’s charter members, a local rubber company magnate named Frederic C. Hood. The keen golfer was said to be very knowledgeable about course architecture, thanks largely to trips he had taken with his sticks to the British Isles. But the discovery of a trove of documents in a Pennsylvania barn in the early 2000s revealed that the actual designer was William Flynn, one of the masters of the so-called Philadelphia school of architecture and a man whose credits include Pine Valley and Shinnecock Hills. As for Hood, he turned out to be more project manager than anything else, overseeing construction of the golf course while adding his own small touches.
… with Hanse continuing to act as the club’s architectural consultant, one can be sure that the course at Kittansett will keep getting better.
Club records indicate that construction on the course commenced in summer 1922. Nine holes were ready to go by the following August, and the full 18 two months later. Among the first groups to play the new track included 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet, who joined Kittansett soon after as an honorary member. The course at that time measured 6,374 yards from the back of the regular tees, with the stands of pines and hardwoods combined with stretches of marshland and wispy field grass to give it a very New England feel. The layout, however, also evoked the Old Course in golf’s ancestral home of St. Andrews, Scotland, thanks to an out-and-back routing and opening and closing holes that ran parallel to each other. Flattish and easy to walk, the ground across which the course was routed nonetheless possessed character, with Flynn making terrific use of the subtle hills and hollows. He also made sure that consecutive golf holes rarely played in the same direction.
The build-in at Kittansett was an arduous process, especially for the 13-hole stretch from No. 4 through No. 16 that was fashioned in the thickly forested land that made up the interior part of the track. To prepare that area for shaping and seeding, workers felled vast numbers of trees and dug up their stumps. The soil was quite rocky, and that presented Hood and his construction crew with a couple of problems. One involved pulling stones from the ground, and the other determining what to do with them once they were unearthed. Rather than allocating more time and money to removing the rocks from the property, they used them to create mounds that in time were grassed over and employed as strategic hazards, much like the famed “chocolate drops” at Myopia Hunt Club north of Boston. Some of the mounds at Kittansett ran down the edges of holes and others diagonally across them.
Flynn also broke up several fairways into sections, with cross bunkers protruding into landing areas from different sides of holes and gnarly stretches of rough and sandy waste areas stretching across some of them entirely. Those elements made Kittansett very much a “placement course.” They also reinforced the belief that it was indeed a creation of Flynn’s and a precursor to some of his most celebrated work, for in later years, he included very similar features in his collaboration at Pine Valley with George Crump (think of the fourth, seventh and 13th holes there) and Shinnecock.
Then, there were the angles with which Flynn endowed so many of the holes. Off the tee, to be sure, and on approach shots. Sometimes, the slants were quite subtle, like those on the par-5 seventh, and No. 13. And on other occasions, Flynn made them more pronounced, as on the fourth, which doglegs sharply to the right.
The Kittansett course design held up nicely through the years. But some 70 years after the club’s founding, in the mid-1990s, its leaders hired Gil Hanse.
“The course needed a facelift,” said Jim Osborne, who was green chairman at the time. “It was showing its age, and as good Yankees who were not inclined to spend very much, we waited awhile before doing something about it.”
According to Hanse, his initial mission was to restore the unique architecture of the layout while also enhancing its look, conditioning and playability.
“The first thing I noticed was that the golf course had become overgrown and had suffered from what can best be described as benign neglect,” said Hanse. “Thankfully, nobody had messed with the design or routings of the original holes. But work still needed to be done. So, we formulated a master plan with a slow implementation of five or six years, so we could open up the course again and restore many of its original features and feels.”
That scheme called for culling significant numbers of trees and underbrush, largely to bring back panoramas of the bay from different parts of the course and to improve turf conditions by enhancing air flow. By the time Hanse was done with that part of the program, 11 of Kittansett’s 18 holes boasted water views, giving golfers the pleasure between shots of watching ketches cut across the waters in full sail and fishermen trolling for bluefish and striped bass in their MasterCrafts.
But taking out the chain saws was not only about bringing back the vistas.
“Trees had grown up around several of the mounds and made them all but invisible,” said Hanse, who credits the Kittansett job as a breakthrough for his young firm as its first top-100 golf course. “So, we cut them back and planted native grasses on and around the mounds instead. Many of the bunkers had also shrunk in size over the years and lost what had initially been a rugged, almost windswept appearance. That prompted us to restore them to their original sizes. We also raised some of the sand faces so they were easier to see and more impressive visually. And we restored a handful of bunkers that had been filled in as we reclaimed parts of several greens that had become smaller as well.”
The Master Plan has been updated on a couple of occasions since Hanse and his longtime design associate, Jim Wagner, first started working at Kittansett. One of those revisions came shortly after the discovery of the Flynn drawings in that Pennsylvania barn. That served to reinforce the wisdom of the work Hanse had already completed – with help first from Kittansett golf course superintendent, Lenny Blodgett, and then his successor, John Kelly – as it also acted as a guide for future work.
The latest version of the Master Plan was released in 2013, and it involved the moving of mounds on Nos. 6, 10 and 13 a bit further from the tees. That brought the hazards back into play for better golfers while removing them as a concern for higher handicap players who did not hit the ball so far. Hanse also called for the relocation of a pair of fairway bunkers farther down the fifth hole, for similar reasons, and restored the sandy waste area between the parallel first and 18th holes. In addition, he constructed a new, L-shaped back tee on Nos. 12 and 13.
The collective result of those changes has been nothing short of spectacular. And with Hanse continuing to act as the club’s architectural consultant, one can be sure that the course at Kittansett will keep getting better.
The senior amateurs are in for a treat in 2022.
Top: The Kittansett course starts and finishes on Butler’s Point, which juts into Buzzards Bay.
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