MANCHESTER, Mass. – Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in the Curtis Day golf tournament at Essex County Club, a top-100 golf course located north of Boston in Manchester, Massachusetts.
Curtis Day is hosted in celebration of Margaret and Harriot Curtis, golfing sisters who performed at golf’s highest level and exemplified what it meant to give back to women’s golf and their community. Essex County Club was their home club in the first half of the 20th century.
In 1932, the Curtis sisters established the Curtis Cup, an international event open to the very best female amateurs in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States. Essex County Club had the privilege of hosting this great event in 2010 with the United States retaining the Cup.
Essex County Club, established in 1893, is one of the earliest golf clubs to open as Americans were becoming more and more intrigued by this great activity and sport. The club was a popular summer social club for those summering in Manchester-By-The-Sea and whose members also consisted of many from The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Essex County Club is also known for its close ties with golf course designer and architect, Donald Ross.
Donald Ross designed hundreds of golf courses around the United States at the turn of the century. He was so prolific and well regarded that there are still fans, admirers and even a Donald Ross Society. Though he designed many courses over his career and lifetime, Essex CC was special. According to the book, ‘Discovering Donald Ross‘ by Bradley S. Klein, Donald Ross was tasked with redesigning the original course as head golf professional. Being on site, teaching golf, running the operations from 1911-1913, he was able to personally oversee and direct the redesign. Even after leaving for Pinehurst, North Carolina, he returned routinely to help guide the completion in 1917, well after his departure.
One can even see the home he lived in as head golf professional from some of the holes on the back 9. Just look for the beautiful yellow house sitting at the 15th hole tee box.
The 35 mph winds on this particular day reminded me of what it would be like playing a links course in Scotland. I felt like this was what Donald Ross, the Scottsman from Dornoch, had envisioned over 125 years ago.
His love for the game and his passion for course design was apparent in the winding fairways, natural elements of the land, the layout, and subtle way trouble finds you without realizing it.
Even the first hole, where I hit a beautiful approach shot 10 yards in front of the green, I watched in amazement as the ball rolled and kept rolling right off the back into a small narrow bunker. Too narrow for me to have a backswing without hitting the sand on the back. A player from my group ended up hitting from a scraggy lie on the hillside behind the green. It gave me a wakeup call for how this course would play this day. I knew I would need to be more careful and think strategically. Hit the ball straight, layup more times than not, and stay out of trouble. If you hit the ball well, you may be rewarded but not always because there is unseen trouble in spots you least expect it. If you hit it poorly, you will most definitely be punished.
The rest of the round did not disappoint, nor did it become any easier. In fact, it was challenging all the way around. Sometimes the danger right there in front of you, and sometimes so unnoticeable that it hits you afterward as you are trying to scramble to make a bogey or save a double bogey.
Views of the clubhouse could be seen along the first few holes and were fairly flat and open. Maybe easier on a non-windy day. However with the wind as a factor, and the length of the first several holes made for an interesting front 9. From the red tees, we had four par 5’s on the front. From the back tees, a monster par 5 3rd hole was 623 yards long and the following par 3 4th hole was 220 yards..
Once you make the turn however, the course changes in topography. The 10th hole and 11th holes are daunting, luring you to hit where the mind’s eye thinks is a good spot only to be surprised at where the ball actually ends up. When winding fairways with huge hillside obstacles, and bunkers in the most perfect spots abound, you try to calculate and dissect where you want to hit the ball. You must use strategy and it helps to have knowledge of the course. It is not a course that will ever get boring as there are many ways to play it.
The 14th hole built into the hillside with scattered boulders behind the green.
The last few holes on the course were amazingly unique and ended with a stunning view of the clubhouse.
Hole No. 17 offers a daunting steep uphill fairway with 2 levels. When you get up to the first crest, there is yet another steeper hill to a lovely majestic hole sitting atop the lands and the golf course looking down at Donald Ross’s yellow house and the holes along it.
The 18th hole is a magnificent downhill finishing hole with hillsides flanking both sides of the winding fairway that leads back to the clubhouse and a protected green.
I came away playing Essex CC with even more respect for Donald Ross. As I play more of his courses, I realize his effect on the game and how so many architects after him have used his courses as guidance and inspiration.
My team came in second place net so we were happy. However, Essex County Club is steeped in history, charm and beauty and I made a promise to return soon!