Essex County Club
MA, USA

Tenth hole, 365 yards; As we will see, the diversity of the holes on the back nine is astonishing, ranging from holes in a field to holes that change more than seventy feet in elevation. Yet, they all tie in wonderfully well with each other based on Ross’s inspired routing and how he used the natural features. As a harbinger of exciting things to come, the back starts with a tee ball across the shoulder of a hill that captures the essence of New England’s rugged landscape.

While Pinehurst No.2 enjoys great greens, Essex County enjoys great topography and Ross capitalized on it off the tenth tee where the golfer idealy needs to carry these bunkers that Ross cut into the landform.

While Pinehurst No.2 enjoys great greens, Essex County enjoys great topography and Ross capitalized on it off the tenth tee where the golfer ideally carries the two bunkers that Ross cut into a natural landform.

Eleventh hole, 175 yards; A superlative uphill one shotter and an obvious for inclusion in Michael Fay’s eclectic Ross eighteen hole course in his book Golf, As It Was Meant to be Played. It is hard to build uphill par threes that are fun to play. The fifteenth at Kingston Heath comes to mind but few if any are in this class.  In fact, of the approximately one thousand (!) one shotters that Ross designed after this hole, none are clearly better.  

Can you imagine a finer golf hole?! Pictured is the uphill one shot eleventh at Essex County.

Can you imagine a finer golf hole?! Pictured is the uphill one shot eleventh from the tee.

Short left is no place to miss on the eleventh...

Short left is no place to miss...

...nor is right, where these massive 5,000 square foot bunkers guard the green.

...nor is right, where these massive 5,000 square foot bunkers guard the high side of the green. Note the Redan type kick board that Ross built along the right of the putting surface.

Twelfth hole, 415 yards; This hole plays equally well for all players despite being over rugged ground. From the back markers, a tee ball of 180 yards carries Sheep Hill and safely reaches the tumbling fairway below. This is Ross’s tee and it lends the hole a sense of adventure when playing from there. However, since such a carry is beyond some, a new set of tees a full 120 yards away, this time to the left of the eleventh green, were built in the 1980s. From there, it is a straightforward shot that any player can successfully tackle. The two tee shots meet in roughly the same area in the fairway, despite being hit from tees on opposite sides of the prior hole’s green.

Up and over the golfer goes with his tee ball at the twelfth. Most modern architects would have flattened/reduced the landform, which is but one of a host of reasons so few modern courses compare favorably to Essex County.

Up and over the golfer goes with his tee ball at the twelfth. Most modern architects would have flattened/reduced the landform, which is but one of a host of reasons so few modern courses compare favorably to Essex County.

Variety is the key to great architecture and Essex possess it like few other courses. In terms of approach shots, some play dramatically uphill to well defended greens (e.g. the last hole for instance!) and then there are greens like this one that are open and beg for a running approach shot.

Variety is the key to great architecture and Essex possess it like few other courses. In terms of approach shots, some play dramatically uphill to well defended greens (e.g. the last hole for instance!) and then there are greens like this one that are open and beg for a running approach shot.

Thirteenth hole, 375 yards; A perfect golf hole. Though set through dense trees on both sides, the corridor is plenty wide and the golfer soaks in the view from the tee. The green has perhaps the finest interior contours on the course (which is saying something) as the putting surface falls away from the golfer in the middle and the sides. The approach needs to get beyond certain front hole locations, for only in such a manner does the golfer obtain a favorable uphill putt.

Though set through trees, the thirteenth still exudes New England charm thanks to the wide playing corridor and the grassing schemes.

Though set through trees, the thirteenth still exudes a New England charm thanks to the wide playing corridor and grassing schemes.

In this view back down the thirteenth, look at the how the green is high in front that gives way to a low middle section that feeds balls into the right greenside bunker. Approach shots hit with just a little fad that land in the shadows can easily feed into the bunker.

In this view back down the thirteenth, look at the how the green is high in front before giving way to a low middle section that feeds balls into the right greenside bunker. Approach shots hit with just a little fade that land in the shadows on the green are easily funneled into the bunker.

Fifteenth hole, 350 yards; The fifteenth returns the golfer into the open section of the property and shares nearly nine acres with the second, third and sixteenth holes. Not wanting the golfer to feel any sense of a letdown, Ross built the hazards at fifteen on a grand scale. First, the tee ball must clear the largest expanse of sand on the course while in turn the pitch approach is over the largest greenside bunker. Successfully avoiding such imposing hazards gives every golfer a sense of accomplishment and helps the fifteenth hold its head high with the other holes. 

As seen from the tee, the fifteenth is yet another quality sub-400 yard hole.

As seen from the tee, the fifteenth is yet another quality sub-400 yard hole.

Bruce Hepner helped the Club expand the right greenside bunker another fifteen yards to the right.

Bruce Hepner helped the club expand the right greenside bunker another fifteen yards to the right.

Sixteenth hole, 410 yards; This hole also is a clear indication of what Ross thought of trees on a golf course: keep them out of play. A hole originally ran in this general direction and the fairway was bordered by trees immediately on the left. Ross accepted the basic hole routing but quickly cut the trees. This starts a thrilling finish with it hard to conceive of three more diverse par fours in a row: here, the open sixteenth green accepts running approach shots while the seventeenth plays sharply uphill and requires at least a club or two more for one’s approach than the yardage indicates. Finally, the heroic eighteenth seemingly falls from the sky, tumbling downhill past thrilling, one-of-a-kind landforms.

What if trees still crowded in from the left instead of the fescue grass? The sixteenth hole would be less appealing.

What if trees still crowded in from the left instead of the fescue grass? The sixteenth hole would be less appealing.

Seventeenth hole, 330 yards; Essex County is a private club so not but so many people get the pleasure of playing it. For many, their idea of Ross as a designer is limited to their perception of his work around Pinehurst where his courses are open to the public. The landforms in the sand hills of North Carolina are nowhere near as dramatic as the ones found here and thus the courses are more straightforward in nature. Hence, Ross as a designer sometimes isn’t given his proper due for building exciting golf holes. Having the vision and courage to route this hole up the 200 foot (!) plus steep hill tells you something about his willingness to take chances for the sake of creating bold, memorable golf.

Though not a long hole, the eighty foot climb from tee to green is yet another example as to how a 6,400 yard course can demand great ball striking.

Though not a long hole, the eighty foot climb from tee to green is yet another example as to how a 6,400 yard course can demand great ball striking.

Hard as it is to believe, Ross’s original green was actually twenty yards back and to the left from today’s one pictured above. It was certainly a bear to play to especially with hickory clubs but it proved too difficult to maintain as it sat atop a rock ledge.

Hard as it is to believe, Ross’s original green was actually twenty yards back and to the left from today’s one pictured above. It was certainly a bear to play to especially with hickory clubs but it proved too difficult to maintain as it sat atop a rock ledge.

Eighteenth hole, 410 yards; The perfect closing hole for such a unique course, and yet, interestingly enough, Ross always had this as the fourth hole (his routing went hole one, sixteen, seventeen, then here). Not until his departure was the sequencing altered to how the course plays today. Though the tee ball is dramatic, the approach shot offers its own subtle difficulties. The fairway is uneven and the approach is often from an awkward lie, usually slightly downhill. The stream that meanders ten yards in front of the green is the logical resting place for a golf ball from a poorly struck iron.

The ideal line off the eighteenth tee is over the fescue-covered hill on the left.

The ideal line off the eighteenth tee is over the fescue-covered hill on the left.

Having holed out, many a golfer might look back up the eighteenth hole to the tee (which is evident thanks to some recent prudent tree) and reflects back in wonderment as to the joy of the course that he just played.

Having holed out, many a golfer looks back up the eighteenth hole to the tee (which is evident thanks to some recent prudent tree clearing) and reflects back in wonderment as to the joy of the course that he just played.

The club has been such a good steward to this gem of a design. Even better, they are now sharing it with the rest of the world when they host the Curtis Cup in 2010, adding another chapter to its storied past. Speaking of which, there was one regrettable moment in the past few years. A litigious neighbor complained about balls coming into his yard and the club ultimately decided to shift the green thirty yards to the right of Ross’s one. Yet, such is the quality of the work done by Renaissance Design that few if any visitors would realize that today’s fourteenth green isn’t a Ross original. In fact, during the Curtis Cup, one of the day’s hole location will likely be on the new green’s back ledge and you can judge for yourself just how happy Ross would be with this fair but devilish hole location.

Beyond that one unfortunate neighbor, what would Ross think of the evolution of this supremely natural design? Of seeing the fairways brown and the course buffeted by the wind from the nearby ocean? He would be delighted, of course. In fact, time has been kinder to this course than almost all his others and one can only imagine that he would head here first for a game before many of his more famous courses that have been bastardized for the sake of hosting championship events. Unlike all but a very few courses in the world, Essex County obtains the perfect balance between fun and challenge. As such, it stands as one of the ultimate benchmarks as to how any course should be judged.

For more information and tickets on the 2010 Curtis Cup, please visit www.2010curtiscup.com

The End