A teary-eyed Ben Crenshaw knelt and kissed the grass on The Country Club’s 17th green. A long birdie putt by Jose Maria Olazabal had just missed wide left giving the hole to Justin Leonard and clinching the half point the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team needed to seal a most improbable come-from-behind victory. All around him fans screamed and players celebrated, but the team captain was at peace.
“That’s because I knew what it meant,” Crenshaw said. “I knew the history.”
He was referring to the 17th hole, where sudden swings of fate always seem to occur. The short, 370-yard par 4 had been pivotal in three previous U.S. Opens played at the Brookline, Mass., club, and now it was the scene of another moment for the ages, the home team lit in the glow of providence.
In 1913, Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur who grew up across the street from The Country Club, ran in a long birdie putt on 17 in the final round of the U.S. Open to put himself in a playoff with dominant British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The next day, leading Vardon by one (Ray was four behind Vardon), Ouimet sank another sizable birdie putt at the 17th (Vardon made 5) to secure the win that shot lightning into the slumbering imagination of American golf.
Julius Boros was two strokes off the lead with two holes to play in the final round of the 1963 Open when he made a 20-foot birdie putt at 17. That brought him even with Tony Lema, who bogeyed the hole (and the 18th), and Arnold Palmer, who followed Lema’s 5 with one of his own. Leader Jacky Cupit then took a double-bogey 6 on 17 to fall into a three-way playoff with Palmer and Boros, which Boros won the next day when he once again birdied 17.
In 1988, Curtis Strange had a one-stroke lead over Nick Faldo. His approach shot on the 71st hole left him with a slick 15-foot downhiller that resulted in a three-putt bogey. The misfortune was a test of character dialed up by the gods, and Strange passed it, getting up and down out of a bunker on 18 for a saving par and then rolling past Faldo in the next day’s playoff (yes, all three Opens at The Country Club have gone to extra holes).
These foreshadowing precedents set the stage for the 1999 Ryder Cup heroics. Just before Olazabal’s miss, the spirits of 17 had taken possession of Leonard’s ball, smothering the birdie putt after it slammed the back of the cup and nearly popped out. Crenshaw expected something like it to happen. One way or another, the 17th always renders judgment.
If tales of The Country Club and the 17th dabble on the border of the mysterious, it’s because the entire property resonates an ancestral premonition. Ghosts might not linger in the course’s glades and craggy nooks to blow on drives and rabbit-hole putts, but a historical presence is tangible in every corner. When the U.S. Open returns to The Country Club this June, players will find a course that is distinct from almost any other they play, one that speaks a language of old-time golf on grounds chiseled and austere. Although other U.S. Open venues like Shinnecock Hills (1891) and Oakmont (1904) have similar turn-of-the-century origins, The Country Club is the one that has changed the least in the 120 years since it expanded to its current 18 holes around 1905.
THE 499-YARD, PAR-4 10TH (Photo by Brian Oar)
Nevertheless, few of the contestants will know the course aside from the handful who played in the 2013 U.S. Amateur, won by Matthew Fitzpatrick. These include Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas and Corey Conners among the favorites. Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will remember it from the Ryder Cup. The rest will encounter a style of architecture common to golf in a prior epoch but one that exists in only a few remaining places and at no other active major-championship sites.
“It’s going to be an interesting mental test because many of these guys are going to see holes they’ve never seen in their lives,” says architect Gil Hanse, who with design partner Jim Wagner has consulted with The Country Club since 2009. “They’re going to have to play some shots that aren’t going to register on their fairness meter.”
As with any U.S. Open, success at The Country Club will be as dependent on patience as on ball-striking. How players embrace the course’s uncharacteristic architectural features could determine who contends. Unique is a word that aptly describes The Country Club, but even that doesn’t complete the picture.
Scotsman Willie Campbell, the club’s first professional, expanded The Country Club’s original six holes to nine in 1894, a year after they first were played. During the next decade the course continued to grow and change shape as the club acquired new parcels of land. Each purchase introduced different terroirs, some wildly rugged and raw, full of fields of boulders, ridges and abrupt up-and-downs.
The Country Club’s layout engages this land with vigor as the holes barrel through the exotic natural landforms. Most were laid out not by an experienced designer but by a trio of club members primarily with the assistance of the second club professional, Alex (Nipper) Campbell, who joined the club in 1896. (The only remaining hole from the first nine-hole course is the par-3 sixth.) The inspired amateur influence helps explain The Country Club’s eccentricity.
“It’s a golf course that plays over the terrain,” Hanse says. “There are so many golf courses that are designed to play through the terrain, but The Country Club takes it head on and goes right over the top of whatever was put in its way.”
The golfer first encounters this at the long par-4 third, drifting from a hilltop tee to a slender landing area that snakes between fescue-covered embankments that block views of the green from most positions in the fairway. The most striking hole is the 499-yard 10th (left) called “Himalayas.” The tee shot flies over a road and an exposed shoulder of indigenous Roxbury puddingstone on the left, and aggressive hitters can try to fly another steep puddingstone outcropping further down on the right. A creek crosses the fairway 150 yards short of a small green that’s notched atop another rocky bench over five stepped bunkers.
A final, 55-acre section of land annexed in 1923 became a third nine called Primrose, designed by William Flynn. Four holes from the course are part of a composite routing the club has used for major tournaments since 1957. This includes the 625-yard 14th. The fairway ends at the base of a steep, 15-foot rise covered in dense grass, then resumes for the final 155 yards on a plateau bending left around trees and scattered bunkers. Drives that don’t find the fairway will have little chance of getting to the high ground out of the U.S. Open rough, leaving long, blind third shots into a tiny tucked green.
THE 131-YARD, PAR-3 11TH (Photo by Brian Oar)
“One of the great things about The Country Club is the smallness of the greens and the difficulty of the long grass around the greens,” says Bill Spence, the club’s superintendent from 1985 until 2018. “Creating a shot out of that cabbage onto those little putting surfaces is an extreme challenge.”
The Country Club’s greens are second only to Pebble Beach’s among the most petite in major-championship golf. When Spence began his tenure, they averaged just 3,200 square feet, though they were not consistent. Spence worked with architect Rees Jones before the 1988 Open to return the greens to something close to their original dimensions based on photos from the 1940s and the recollections of a mechanic who had been at The Country Club for more than 40 years.
“Through a series of scientific and artistic endeavors we were able to come up with a restoration plan,” Spence says, “though in today’s world it was absolutely a prehistoric process.”
Jones and Spence slightly enlarged 10 greens and reduced the size and shape of three others that Geoffrey Cornish had modernized after the 1963 Open (the first, fourth and 17th). In preparation for this year’s U.S. Open, Hanse expanded the area of the greens again by roughly 20 percent, adding one or two perimeter hole locations on each. Though still miniscule, they now average just less than 4,400 square feet (Pebble Beach’s average around 3,900 square feet). Although some tilt back to front, the majority possess cross-slope movements, sliding forward with various degrees of left or right break. If the weather is dry and the greens are firm, they will be The Country Club’s most demanding component—saving par after missing them in the wrong place, above the hole or pin high in the rough, will require judgment and execution—and maybe luck. If the wind blows at all, the scores will be high.
THE 370-YARD, PAR-4 17TH (Photo by Brian Oar)
The name of The Country Club is apt: It was the first “country club” in the United States, an out-of-town base camp where the Boston elite retreated for recreation. As much as anything it was an equestrian club, with paddocks, a polo field and racetrack on the flattest section of land to the southeast of the clubhouse. The out-and-back first and 18th holes played mostly within the racetrack with the backstretch and homestretch bordering the right edges of each fairway and the dirt turns cutting in front of each green. The track was abandoned decades ago, but the depression in front of the first green is still evident, and as late as the 1960s the raised outer bank hid portions of the putting surface.
The most significant alterations Hanse and Wagner encouraged were the removal of hundreds of trees, particularly the fast-growing, non-deciduous white pines that shadowed greens and crowded holes to the point the course looked, as Hanse says, “tired.” Viewers who haven’t seen The Country Club since the Ryder Cup will notice more open playing spaces with vistas connecting the holes, particularly on the first nine. Peeling back the trees also highlights another antique feature: clusters of hillocks and chocolate drop mounds, like those right of the sixth and 10th greens, beyond and to the right of the 14th green and in the left rough past the inside fairway bunkers on the 17th that can snare players trying to cut the corner. Covered in traditional rough or clumpy fescue, the mounds serve the purpose of placing the architecture in the early-American period and fostering awkward and unpredictable recoveries.
The tree clearing achieved agronomic and aesthetic goals, but it also brings into play the fescue boundary areas. During recent U.S. Opens at Winged Foot and Torrey Pines, drives blasted offline usually found maintained rough, often trampled and not much of a bother to players as strong and long as Bryson DeChambeau and defending champion Jon Rahm. Deep, wayward drives at The Country Club are likely to end up in wispy fescue or stubborn bluestem grasses, perhaps on a sidehill or downhill lie, making hitting precision shots into the diminutive greens a hit-and-hope proposition. Welcome back to old-time golf.
THE 490-YARD, PAR-4 THIRD (Photo by Brian Oar)
Potential blind shots like that at the 14th are common at The Country Club. Although course-mapping technology, range finders and precise distance control now take much of the guesswork out of blind shots, courses that relentlessly hide the targets from players are rare and can exact a cumulative psychological toll.
Discomfort over blind shots was one of the reasons—along with blustery winds—that the scores in the 1963 U.S. Open were the highest they had been in 28 years—nine over par made it into a playoff. Tony Lema, who missed the playoff by two shots after closing with a pair of bogeys, quipped in his book Golfers Gold that “The Country Club . . . will always be memorable. We’ll probably have nightmares about it for the rest of our lives.
“Occasionally a glimpse of the flag itself is visible, flapping like a yellow handkerchief in the strong breeze,” he wrote, “but there were at least 12 holes that could be called blind or partially blind. This meant that when you tee off, or when you hit your approach shot, you could not be exactly sure where you should be hitting the ball.”
Of note was the second shot at the par-4 third, where the fairway pinches down between outcroppings to a wasp-waist gap of just 10 yards. “It was very hard . . . to drive your ball anywhere except directly behind this mound, and so you were firing your second shot at blue sky, not an actual target,” Lema remembered.
The drive at the par-4 fourth hole, off the high embankment next to the third, is entirely blind, as is the par-4 15th. Only the top of the flag will be visible after most drives are hit at the short, uphill par-4 fifth and the 10th, and the same is true for the par-4 seventh unless players can carry drives almost 300 yards to the upper rise of the fairway. All told, there are still at least 12 holes on which players cannot see their drives or approaches land.
• • •
NEVER THE SAME COURSE TWICE
During its formative years, The Country Club expanded from six to nine to 18 holes. By the early 1900s, the golf course had taken the form, with only minor changes, of today’s Main Course, ranked 17th on our list of America’s 100 Greatest Courses and the layout members typically play. In 1927, the club opened a third nine, Primrose, designed by William Flynn, giving The Country Club three nines and the flexibility to use the strongest combination of holes when major tournaments come to Brookline. The original layout played in 1913 was different than in tournaments played after 1957 when several Primrose holes were included. This year the club debuts, for the first time in a major, a new Open Course arrangement and sequencing of holes.
Hover over the graphic interactive below to learn which holes have been used in the past, which are being used this year and more eclectic history about The Country Club.
Top photo by Brian Oar