Ekwanok Country Club
Opened in 1900, Ekwanok Golf Club was the first eighteen hole golf course in the United States that stood favorable comparison with some of the famous courses in the United Kingdom. Up until then, golf course architecture in the United States consisted of the architect merely staking out the placement for tees, greens and bunkers. The ‘architect’ was on-site a whopping day or two and rarely stayed to see his completed work. The bunker construction and placement of hazards was therefore basic and cross bunkers were more likely to trap the weaker player than they were to dictate strategy for the better golfer. Furthermore, greens built pre-1900 in the United States were generally flat and dull. Tom Bendelow’s early work (and Bendelow was the busiest architect at the time) could be characterized in this manner before he developed more thought-provoking designs later in his career.
Despite the primitive nature of such designs at the turn of the last century, course construction was booming in the United States. In fact, the Scot Willie Dunn (son of the Willie Dunn from Musselburgh) was so busy in the last decade of the 19th century in the U.S. staking out such rudimentary courses that he sent for his nephew John Duncan Dunn to assist him. In turn, John Duncan Dunn formed a relationship with Walter J. Travis, who at the time had yet to win any of his three U.S. Amateur titles. As carefully chronicled by Bob Labbance in his book The Old Man, Travis was an intriguing character full of strong – and different – ideas on golf ranging from equipment to various swing techniques to handicapping to maintenance practices. He later founded the influential The American Golfer magazine and used it to voice his opinions.
Ekwanok was Travis’s first involvement in golf course architecture and the subject immediately fascinated him. Rather than being on site for a day or two as was typical of architects of the day, Travis frequented Ekwanok throughout the construction period and continually refined its design for many years thereafter. The on-site attention that Ekwanok received during construction helped it to stand above the vast majority of other courses being built at the time in three key aspects. First, the bunkering is placed so that the tiger golfer has to continually make smart decisions and execute for the entire length of the hole while the weaker player still has a chance. Because of his liberal use of bunkers, Travis has been accused of being a penal architect. The authors would disagree and such bunkering schemes as the one below looking down the 10th fairway is clearly more strategic than penal in nature. Travis, who was a short hitter relative to his peers, placed a premium in keeping the ball in play.
Second, Ekwanok’s original greens were full of contour (e.g. the 14th green) or pitch (e.g. the 2nd green) or both. Small, tilted greens such as the right to left one found at the 2nd offer only a few hole locations to this day, given its pitch. (Note: H.C. Leeds shared this same philosophy with Travis and was building similarly pitched greens at the same time at the Myopia Hunt Club (e.g. the 4th, 6th, and 8th greens) on Boston’s North Shore).
Third, the routing was more imaginative than the typical out and back kind found overseas. Never do more than two holes head in the same direction. Instead, the routing at Ekwanok forms a ‘T’ with six holes making the stem and the balance of the holes beautifully laid across more rugged New England terrain. From the day it opened in 1900, Travis held Ekwanok in the highest esteem and was vocal in his praise. The United States Golf Association evidently agreed with his assessment and in 1914, the US. Amateur was held at Ekwanok with Francis Ouimet emerging as the popular victor.
Holes to Note
First hole, 420 yards; Ekwanok was always meant to be a serious test and it measured over 6,000 yards long the day it opened, which was a full 500 yards longer than many courses being built at the time. And the first is a quick introduction to the fact that Ekwanok is more than just a holiday course with Dunn and Travis beautifully incorporated a ditch as a diagonal hazard down the right side of the fairway.
Fifth hole, 380 yards; The low profile green complex at the top of a gradual incline makes the hole with a left hand bunker ten yards shy of the green creating genuine depth perception problems. Rarely does an approach shot carry past the hole, which is a shame as such putts are often the easier ones on the green.
Sixth hole, 190 yards; Dunn and Travis originally created a punchbowl green thirty yards to the left of today’s green. In the 1960s, Geoffrey Cornish relocated the green to the knob where it presently sits. Whether this was done for drainage/agronomic reasons or not is unclear but there is no denying that today’s present green location in a pocket of white birch trees is most attractive. The authors have seen little of Cornish’s work but it is hard to imagine that he has created better green contours than here as the green cascades down from its high back right corner to the lower left one, affording numerous interesting hole locations. More than one golfer has appeared foolish as he watches his first putt roll off the left side of the green.