GREENWICH, CONNECTICUT | The first course at Greenwich Country Club in this tony suburb of New York City was a nine-holer that members fashioned shortly after the club’s founding in 1892. Then in 1908, Lawrence Van Etten, a civil engineer from nearby New Rochelle, New York, who built sewer systems and the occasional golf course, expanded the track to 18 holes.
In the decades after that, Greenwich members looked to upgrade and improve their layout, which was routed across rolling hills that featured grassy meadows, stone walls and groves of maples, pines and beeches. So, they engaged the services of a succession of “name” architects, beginning with Seth Raynor and later including Donald Ross and Geoffrey Cornish. Club leaders made tweaks of their own through the years. The result was a good but not great golf course that possessed something of a hodgepodge feel.
“There had been so many guys here that you couldn’t really tell who had been here,” said club president Doug Trepp.
While members loved their course, their eyes opened to its shortcomings, including green complexes that lacked size and variety, and putting surfaces that were flat in most cases and much too uniform in shape. The greens also drained poorly and were grassed with poa annua, a strain that struggles in humid summer weather and is considered a weed throughout much of the country. Those things compromised conditioning and so did the aged irrigation system, which broke down more often than it should.
Eventually, the club, which is one of the oldest in America and one of the places where golf first took hold in the New World, decided to address those flaws by hiring architect Beau Welling. A longtime associate of Tom Fazio who now runs his own firm while also serving as the senior design consultant for Tiger Woods, Welling recently completed an extensive overhaul of Greenwich that has improved playability, enhanced conditioning and given the course a more interesting and consistent feel. It has also pleased club members of all skill levels.
“The greatest compliment I received for our work came from Charlie Tusa, who was the club’s golf and green chairman for a spell,” said Welling, who has a physics degree from Brown University and an international business degree from the University of South Carolina. “He said, ‘We have a brand new course and brand new golf experience and everyone loves it, which is unusual because we never agree on anything here.’ ”
Now 50 years old, Welling first stepped onto the property at Greenwich in 2012. “Initially, we were brought in to rebuild the range,” he said. “Then, it was redoing a bunker here and taking down a tree there. Eventually we created a strategic assessment for the entire course that left the routing as it was but looked at rebuilding all the greens, installing a new irrigation system and taking out some bunkers while also constructing a few new ones.”
Welling sought to build buy-in amongst the membership during a town hall-style meeting in the stately, Georgian-Colonial clubhouse that boasts distant views of Long Island Sound. He asked those in attendance to identify their four favorite holes as well as the four they liked the least. “It was remarkable how many members named the same holes as their least favorite,” he said. “So, I asked them why they would want to keep golf holes that they didn’t like.”
Head golf professional Andrew Gruss was impressed with Welling’s approach. “Beau knew how to communicate his rationale for the work he was proposing,” he said. “He talked about the sameness of the green complexes for example and then went through the golf course, hole by hole: ‘At No. 1, we have a flattish, oval green with a bunker left and a bunker right. Same with No 2.’ It turned out that something like 15 of the greens had basically that same configuration, and he made people see just how mundane the design was.”
Over time, Welling’s words sunk in, and in late 2017, the club voted to proceed with the restoration project, which boasted a not-insignificant price tag of $9 million. The following fall, he and his crew fired up the Toros, completing their work on the golf course in time for a proper unveiling on Memorial Day 2019.
What greeted members was a course on which all 18 greens had been converted to bent grass and rebuilt to USGA specifications so they drained properly and could be easily maintained. “We also tried to create different sizes and shapes and add some internal green contouring to give them character,” said Welling, who also studied landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and drama at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. “We worked on the bunker shapes and positionings in several cases, again to provide variety. And we low-cut areas around a lot of the greens to make them more playable for the higher-handicap golfers, so they could chip and even putt from those spots instead of having to blast out of bunkers or hit from high, thick rough.
“We cut down trees that needed to come out, to improve air circulation and turf conditioning,” he added. “We took out some fairway bunkers that seemed only to penalize what I call the low-spin golfer who does not hit the ball very far and gave him or her zero chance to have fun, as we also added some to test the long hitters, and repositioned others.
“By giving the putting surfaces some size and more interesting shapes and contours, birdie was suddenly less automatic for the better players, while the low-spin golfer had a better chance to get on the green in regulation, and at two-putting for a par.” – Andrew Gruss
“All told, we ended up with four fewer bunkers than when we started. As for distance, we added length to some holes through the addition of tees or the expansion of greens while also taking some away from others. So, the total yardage remained about the same, which is just more than 6,700 yards for a par-71 from the backs, and just under 6,400 from the markers most men play.”
The idea, the architect concluded, was to give Greenwich members and their guests the best possible golf experience.
Gruss applauds Welling for doing just that and for making that experience good for a wide range of golfers.
“The old greens were so small that it made it easier for the better players to make birdies because they rarely had more than, say, a 15-foot first putt if they hit the greens with their approaches,” Gruss said. “But those same greens made it hard for the high handicapper to make par because they were harder to hit. By giving the putting surfaces some size and more interesting shapes and contours, birdie was suddenly less automatic for the better players, while the low-spin golfer had a better chance to get on the green in regulation, and at two-putting for a par.”
Tom O’Connor, the current golf and green chair at Greenwich, is delighted with those improvements. “But what really stands out is the overall conditioning of the golf course, especially on the greens,” he said. “Our superintendent, Fred Doheny, really had to battle to keep them in decent shape through July and August. But thanks to their being re-built and re-grassed, they roll beautifully.”
O’Connor is right about the conditioning, and there is a lovely rhythm to a round at Greenwich as well as the chance to hit a variety of shots with most every club in the bag. Like the drive on No. 3, which requires golfers to hit a slight draw (if they are right-handed) over a hogback to the fairway beyond. The punchbowl-style green on the par-4 seventh is a delight, especially if you enjoy the uncertainty of what happens to second shots as they carom off the slopes that surround it. Even though I shamefully muffed my approach on the next hole after hitting a near-perfect drive, I loved the look it gave to me to a green set in a hollow on the other side of a creek. And the 14th is a gem, with a green complex that evokes the sixth at Riviera thanks to a gaping bunker left of that putting surface and closely cropped grass that runs all the way to the 15th tee. It looks and feels like the infamous doughnut hole, which makes the 100-yard wedge I have to hit to it among the most fun shots of the day.
As I walked up the 18th fairway during a recent round there, I looked over to the practice facility on my left. That is where it all began here for Beau Welling, when he regraded the tees in 2012 so he could double their square footage. It is also where his project work at Greenwich ended earlier this year when he installed a series of targets on the range to give golfers something to shoot at, and to help keep them from hitting balls onto the 16th and 18th fairways.
As anyone and everyone at Greenwich will tell you, his was a job well done.
Top photo: No. 8 at Greenwich Country Club
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