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Holding next week's National Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. certainly serves the cause of golf history. It was there, exactly 50 years ago, that Amateur Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old former caddie who was raised across the street from the club, won the Open title from the two big men of British golf, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a playoff. It was a case of little David knocking down two Goliaths, and his victory, to put it mildly, was an extremely popular one. It ignited an enthusiasm for golf in great numbers of people across the country whose previous notions about the game had been largely in terms of white flannels and blue blood.
In a sense, The Country Club has remained something of a monument to the history of golf. A new locker room and a pro shop have been constructed since Ouimet's great day, but the yellow clubhouse with its green-and-white canopy is the same. Even the old half-mile racetrack, where, I am told, club members held race meetings up until 1935, is still there, circling both the first and 18th fairways. The ancient elm trees are there also, including the one that droops over the 18th green like a defending dragon. (Before this year's Open is over, that tree is going to cause many a golfer to contemplate the virtues of Dutch elm disease.) The Open course itself—it is a selection of the best 18 of the club's 27 holes—is a bit antiquated, too. It hasn't changed appreciably in 50 years. But the design and standards of Open courses have, and there may be some criticism that The Country Club is not modern enough. Yet no one would suggest the Open should not be held there on the 50th anniversary of Ouimet's memorable win. It is a fitting setting.
The selection of an Open course is always a difficult job. Even the greatest courses have their weaknesses, yet the Open site must be able to maintain the prestige of a tournament that stands as one of the two most important in the golfing world. (The other, I feel, is the Masters.) I, for example, certainly hope to win another Open before I put away my clubs, but even if I do not, just having won it once is an accomplishment that will carry meaning and satisfaction for me the rest of my life. The importance of the event dictates, therefore, that the golf course it is played upon be one that minimizes the influence of luck and gives maximum value not only to good shots, but to nerve, planning and judgment as well.
Ideally, an Open course should have several positive characteristics. It should have fast greens, because these demand the greatest putting skill. The greens should also be firm, but not hard. This permits a good shot to hold when it hits, but a shot that is missed slightly will run over the green and a par can then be saved only by good chipping. The course should also require long hitting and, like Oakmont, accurate tee shots. But when a shot is hit into the rough the player should not be forced just to pitch back on the fairway and thus lose a stroke. He should at least have a chance to reach the green. Above all, when the round is over, the player should have had to hit every variety of tee shot and approach shot more than once: draws, fades, low shots and high shots.
The Country Club—which will play at 6,870 yards and par 71 for the Open—certainly contains some of these elements. But the primary problems it is going to pose are not exactly those I have just mentioned. Here are the course's three main areas of difficulty: the rough is deep and strategically planned, the greens are tiny and there is a succession of six long, tough holes capable of exhausting a golfer's resolution to win, especially during Saturday's 36 holes of play.
By tradition, Open committees are as proud of their thick rough as Bostonians are of their thick clam chowder. This year the rough may be worse than usual—and I mean "worse" from my point of view, not the committee's. The deep grass flanking the fairways has been heavily fertilized and watered. It is likely to be especially lush and clinging, unless somebody who commands a mower gets unexpectedly sympathetic. The rough will be used not only to tighten some of the very short holes (such as the 340-yard 4th and the 300-yard 6th), but also to force a little caution off the tees of other holes where caution would not otherwise be necessary. The deep rough will demand extreme straightness.
The size of the greens is going to cause two problems, only one of them for the players. Greens are the habitual nesting place of tournament spectators, but Brookline's will be able to accommodate only a very limited number of people around their circumference. The crowding this is likely to cause, unless the ropes are kept well away from the putting surfaces, will actually tend to lessen the penalty for inaccurate approach shots. Many such shots will be stopped by the gallery before they can bounce into serious trouble. The small target the greens present, however, is a problem that will outweigh this slight advantage. The approach shot to many of the greens will require a slight left-to-right fade, because this type of shot increases the chance of the ball stopping quickly on the putting surface.
Once reached, the greens will be difficult to putt, but not nearly so difficult as they were at Oakmont last year. A very cold winter and a very dry spring have slowed their preparation considerably and some have been reseeded, but they should all be ready by the Open. The Country Club's greens undulate gently. They will offer few straight putts, but no putt is going to be very long. The good putters will hole a great many more putts here than they did at Oakmont. The trouble is going to be getting to the putting surface.
So much for two of The Country Club's testing features. The third is that stretch of six holes I mentioned, and any detailed analysis of the course should start with them. The trouble area in question starts at the 9th (505 yards, par 5) and ends at the 14th (530 yards, par 5). Here, along with the heavy rough and small greens, are trees, sand, water, steep hills and a lot of distance to be covered.
The tee of the 9th hole is placed high above a fairway that flows down around a steep mound into a long, flat valley. The green sits behind three traps at the top of a crest at the other end of the valley. With a favoring wind the long hitters will be able to reach this green in two shots, but the short hitters never will. They will have to play their second shots safely below the green, so as to avoid the tight trapping, and hope to catch their birdie by pitching up close, a tough task if the pin is tucked near the front edge of the green.