When it comes to competitive golf pedigrees, few places possess a stronger one than Inverness Club. Most impressive are the four U.S. Opens it has hosted, as well as a pair of PGA Championships. The club, which is located in Toledo, Ohio, on the western shores of Lake Erie, also has been the site of two U.S. Senior Opens, a U.S. Amateur and a U.S. Junior Amateur.
The list of winners there is a Who’s Who of golf history. Ted Ray won the first major championship contested at Inverness, the 1920 U.S. Open. Forty-three years old at the time, the Bailiwick of Jersey native wore a felt fedora and puffed on a briar pipe as he played. Craig Stadler won his U.S. Am at Inverness in 1973. Hale Irwin took the second of his three U.S. Open victories there in 1979, the last time the national championship came to town. In addition, Bob Tway and Paul Azinger captured their only majors at Inverness when they prevailed in the 1986 and 1993 PGAs, respectively.
Collectively, those tournaments brought the best players in the world to the club on a fairly regular basis, from Walter Hagen to Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan to Gary Player. Greg Norman, too, who ironically finished runner-up in both PGA Championships played at Inverness. Their presence further enriched the club’s history. So did the milestones that were marked during those competitions, with Inverness being where Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus all made their U.S. Open debuts.
Oh, and Byron Nelson was the club’s head professional from 1940 to 1944, having beaten out Hogan for the job. Nelson often referred to Inverness as his home course and said that playing it so often had a lot to do with his winning 18 events on the PGA Tour the year after he left Toledo, including 11 in a row. His game was that strong after his time there.
Then, there is the golf course. Donald Ross revamped the club’s original 18-hole design in 1916. A.W. Tillinghast initiated some tweaks before the ’31 U.S. Open, and Dick Wilson did the same as the club prepared for the 1957 national championship. George and Tom Fazio made what many architecture critics believe to have been ill-conceived alterations in advance of Irwin’s Open, including the elimination of four original Ross holes and the construction of four new ones. A few years ago, club leaders engaged designer Andrew Green to address those abominations and restore the overall feel of the original Ross course while modernizing the layout.
That work, which was completed in time for the start of the 2018 golf season, has been praised universally by club members. And this week, tour professionals will get their first taste of the revamped course when it hosts the LPGA Drive On Championship. Next year, the club will serve as the site of the Solheim Cup.
With those events, the tournament legacy at Inverness only grows.
No one could have imagined Inverness becoming such an important place for golf when a group of Toledo sportsmen founded the club in 1903. Their first course was a rudimentary nine-holer, and in time members expanded it to 18 holes. Then, club leaders hired Ross to construct “a championship course.”
“Ross was on the property on three different occasions during construction, which was a lot for one of his jobs,” said Mike McCullough, the Inverness club historian. “In addition, our course is one of only seven he mentions in his memoirs out of the hundreds he designed in his career. Obviously, he thought very highly of his work here.”
The distance advances that followed the introduction of steel shafts prompted the club to bring in Tillinghast before the 1931 U.S. Open. In addition to lengthening the layout by some 300 yards and lowering par by a stroke to 71, the architect also designed four new greens and added several bunkers.
The idea was to toughen it up, and the scores indicate that Tillinghast succeeded. Billy Burke, who won 13 times on the PGA Tour in his career and played on two Ryder Cup teams, finished tied at the end of regulation play with former U.S. Amateur champion George Von Elm, at 8 over. They came back to Inverness on Sunday for a 36-hole playoff. But that settled nothing, as the golfers both finished 7 over. So, they returned on Monday for another 36-hole playoff, with Burke finally prevailing by a shot. That remains the longest playoff in major championship history, and the joke afterward was that Burke had to play a pair of U.S. Opens to win one.
It was not until 1957 that Inverness hosted another U.S. Open, and once again it brought in an architect to tune up the course. Wilson was the designer this time around, and he rebuilt 10 tees, added several bunkers, changed the par-5 ninth to a 4-par and tacked on more than 400 yards to the overall layout.
Once again, the USGA needed a playoff to decide the winner, with Dr. Cary Middlecoff and Dick Mayer deadlocked after 72 holes. By this time, it had changed the format of its tiebreakers to 18 holes, and Mayer needed only one round to beat the former dentist, firing 72 to Middlecoff’s 79.
True to form, and surely with the USGA’s encouragement, Inverness tasked the Fazio design team with getting the course ready for the 1979 championship. Their pre-tournament primping included replacing four Ross holes – including the short, par-4 seventh that Ray had birdied in all four of his rounds in 1920 – with four new ones. Critics decried the move for breaking up a deft and graceful routing. But the changes didn’t seem to bother Irwin, and he ended winning the championship by two shots ahead of Player and Jerry Pate.
Quite unexpectedly, the USGA initiated yet another infamous course change during the actual tournament. It came after Lon Hinkle took a shortcut when playing one of the new Fazio holes – the par-5, dogleg-left eighth – the first day of play. Rather than driving a ball down the fairway in front of him, Hinkle hit a 1-iron between a pair of oaks to the left of the tee onto the 17th fairway. He then feathered a 3-iron onto the eighth green, after which he two-putted for birdie. That approach shaved some 75 yards off the hole, and later prompted five other contestants to take the same route. By the start of the second round, however, the greens crew had planted a spruce in the gap between the oaks, forcing golfers to play the hole as the Fazios had intended. The new “Hinkle Tree,” which remained a fixture at Inverness until it was cut down this past spring due to storm damage, gave golfers no other choice.
In the decades after that U.S. Open, Toledo native Arthur Hills made a number of modifications to the course. The most significant were carried out in a 2013 renovation that involved re-grassing of the fairways and greens and reconfiguring of the conjoined first and 10th holes so they played longer. The idea was to attract other championships of note, and soon after the club secured the U.S. Junior Am, which was held in 2019, and next year’s Solheim Cup.
But still, there was a sense among the more architecturally astute that something was missing. As is so often the case with layouts that have undergone multiple nips and tucks, Inverness possessed anything but a singular feel. Some old timers even averred that it long ago had stopped being a true Donald Ross course.
Enter Andrew Green, one of the bright young talents in golf course architecture today. Initially hired in 2016 to oversee a bunker renovation program, he then developed a plan to get rid of three of the Fazio holes and create versions of the Ross holes that had been lost in that process – but in other parts of the property and without having to close down the course during construction.
“The new third hole was a long par-3 that was inspired by the design of the original eighth,” said Green, who developed his plan after poring over historic photographs and original drawings of the Ross holes. “I built a new fourth hole, with the idea of the green for that par-4 coming from the old seventh. And the par-3 fifth was styled after the 13th Ross had created a century ago.
“We also added a new eighth green that very much mirrored the design and strategy of the old sixth,” added Green, who is working now on a restoration of another Ross gem, at Oak Hill in Rochester, New York. “And we moved the green on No. 2, which was an original hole, back a bit to make it longer and also to take advantage of a natural high point. But when we did that, we used lasered survey information to replicate the original design and feel of the green. We also kept the old putting surface as we built the new one, so we could refer to it throughout construction and make sure we had it right.”
At the same time, Green and the club’s new course superintendent, John Zimmers, initiated a thoughtful tree program that opened up the course, restoring some of the linksy feel it once had and improving turf conditions.
As far as club members are concerned, Green got it exactly right. “Andrew did a magnificent job,” said Alan Fadel, a former tour and teaching professional who won 11 club championships at Inverness and several state amateur titles in Ohio after being reinstated. “I well remember the old course, with the narrow fairways, the small greens and the premiums it put on accuracy. Andrew has recaptured those and other Ross design features beautifully.”
McCullough agrees. “Inverness today looks like the one in those black-and-white photos from the 1920s and ’30s hanging in the halls of our clubhouse,” said the club historian. “We have fescue growing throughout, and the course plays firm and fast, just as Ross hoped it would, with greens of varying sizes and shapes that are for the most part receptive to run-up shots.”
The women are in for a treat when they play Inverness this week. And the course will no doubt dazzle competitors in next year’s Solheim Cup. As for the possibility of getting another U.S. Open, the club has certainly worked its way into that conservation as well, especially now that the course can be stretched out to 7,600 yards – or more.
Here’s hoping that championship returns to Inverness before too long.
Top: No. 10 green at Inverness. All photos courtesy Inverness
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