Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rediscovering Tekoa Country Club's Original 9th Green

Wednesday, I took an hour drive north from Middletown up to Westfield, Mass. for some golf course archeology at Tekoa Country Club.

Sean Donnelly, an assistant superintendent at Clinton (Conn.) Country Club, joined me for the excursion along with E.J Altobello, who has the duel role of head golf professional and superintendent at Tekoa. E.J. Altobello has done some superb work uncovering the history of the golf course that dates back to the late 1890s on a different site from it's current location.

A nine-hole Donald Ross design was opened in 1923 and five of the original holes, 4-8, still exist on the current 18-hole layout. (The Ross plans are on the right.) Holes 1-3 and 9 on the original course were lost when the State of Massachusetts took the land for the creation of Westfield State College.

E.J. determined that holes 1 and 2 were eradicated during the construction of a school building. He did locate the third, a 140-yard drop-shot par-3, that is entirely intact, but covered in about 50 years of overgrowth and trees.

He had also found what appears to be the ninth tee but had yet to find the 9th green before we arrived, which was at the end of a 310-yard hole, some 25 feet about the fairway, according to the Ross plan.

The lost holes were located on the west side of Rt. 20. After the state took the land for the college, it purchased acreage on the east side of Route 20, that bordered holes 4-8 of the Ross course, to create the existing layout.

The new course is essentially a Geoffrey Cornish design but according to Cornish, he was never paid for his work even though the original owners built the course very much to his specifications. The new holes do not match the Ross work.

Using the Ross map, we were able to track down the ninth green, but only because it is winter and leaves are off the trees and vines. The area is all but impassible at any other time of the year.

The first photo, above, is taken from on the ridge to the right front of the green and shows what would have been the putting surface. The second photo is taken from below the front of the green near the stream, which is not as well-defined as on the drawing. Sean is standing on the front edge of the green and you can see the severity of the slope. It would have been one tough final approach shot.

According to E.J., one of his members was employed by the Tekoa in the late 1950s when it was a still a Ross course. As a teenager, his job was to sit in a station wagon on the road above the ninth green. When a group finished, they loaded their clubs into the car and he drove approximately 75 yards up the steep hill, dropping them off near the clubhouse where he received nickle tips. When the bags were unloaded, he backed down the hill and waited for the next group.

During our search for the green, and after its discovery, we came across a number of drain pipes running down the steep hill, including this strange combination pictured here with E.J. removing debris. Located halfway between the tee and green of the third hole, we found a pipe, probably six inches in diameter, that ran into a much larger pipe, perhaps two feet in length, that was set perpendicular into the ground. At the bottom of the large section, is another six-inch pipe that moved the water down the hill into the stream. Our best guest is that the large pipe -- coincidentally, made by the Ross company of Ulrichsville, Ohio -- may have held water for drinking.

After our discoveries, we took a tour of Tekoa. It is very obvious that the best holes are Ross creations, now holes 2-4, 14-15. They are very much the way they appear on the drawing, except for a ridiculous amount of trees -- mostly white pine -- that were planted over the years. E.J. has been doing a great job removing them and his work on the 14th will restore the original intent of the 331-yard hole that ends with a delightful three-level putting surface, which is guarded by bunkers to the left and drainage gully in front.

Most of the remaining original greens have wonderful contouring, except for what is now the second hole, originally the fourth. The Ross plans show two ridges running parallel to the line of play but they are not there now and appear to have been removed on the advice of famed architect A.W. Tillinghast, who visited the course in 1936 while in his role as a traveling consultant for the PGA of America.

Well beyond the prime of his career when he worked for the PGA, Tillinghast advised nearly every club to fill in bunkers and remove bold green features that he thought only made the game too difficult for the high handicap players. As a result of his recommendation, literally thousands of bunkers were removed and strategy lost on hundreds of course. His advice to Tekoa, as reported in his letter to the PGA, reads: "My principal recommendation was for the blending of of nearly all the greens, which they anticipated rearranging." There was no explanation as to what blending meant. He went on to say he advised, "the raising of the left-rear and recontouring of the Fourth Green (now the second) ... the entire remaking of the Seventh Green (moving it to a new site on the left) and the remaking of the Eighth Green (existing 15th), removing objectionable undulations."

E.J. is unsure if the recontouring of the fourth and relocating of the seventh took place but it appears very likely that the club did smooth out the existing second green. It is the most placid of the remaining Ross work. Fortunately, the club appeared to have ignored Tillinghast's other suggestions.

Update 12-12: Here is a current Google Earth view of the site. The building at left is where the first and second holes would have been. The first hole went from below the building, slightly doglegging right to near the start of the driveway. The second dog-legged left beyond the parking lot. The third tee was behind the that area with the green near the road next to the existing course.

The existing hole running parallel to the road is the current second and the original fourth. Next to that tee is the green for the original eighth hole, now the 15th. The par-3, at the bottom of the screen, running parallel to the road, is the original fifth.


  1. Great post Anthony, loving the "golf course archeology".

  2. It was a blast Scott, but also a downer in a way. You realized that a very, very good golf course the original 9 must have been at one point. From the tee of the third hole you would have looked across open fields to the Westfield River.

  3. Nice article Anthony
    Can you post some overlays - old vs. new?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Mike: I've posted a Google Earth view of the site.