Monday, July 25

Pelham Country Club: Playing Well and Blooming (Conclusion)

Following is the conclusion of a two-part series on Pelham Country Club. Read Part 1.

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.


MOST GOLF ARCHITECTS KNOW GOD designs the greatest courses; the planners' job is to uncover the divine handiwork, not interfere with it. 

That's what happened when the Pelham Country Club was designed. Its architect, Devereux Emmet, looked at Mount Tom, the highest spot in Pelham Manor, and recognized that he could not improve on God's work. He created two holes where Mount Tom comes into play, and I don't exaggerate when I say that playing them is pretty close to a religious experience.

But before I talk about Mount Tom, let me give you some local Westchester golf-course history. There are courses more famous than Pelham—Winged Foot, Westchester and Wykagyl, for instance. These private country clubs host PGA Tour and LPGA events, and members can dine out on the big names that have played their courses. 

Pelham's only claim is that their club is "family oriented" with a "congenial atmosphere," though Pelham did host the 1923 PGA Championship won by Gene Sarazen in a match against Walter Hagen—a match that many experts consider to be the greatest in golf history.

I don't belong to any private club, but I do appreciate old courses and their history. And while Pelham may be small and unpretentious, there are many who love it. And for good reason.

Pelham's Golf History

Golf in Pelham goes back to a Dr. Charles R. Gillett and his brother, Will, who, in 1900, started to play the game in a makeshift way on Prospect Hill in Pelham Manor. In 1908, a Pelham Country Club (PCC) was formed with a few tennis courts and five golf holes carved out of a cow pasture. Then, in the summer of 1921 two influential members, Mont Rogers and Edmund E. Sinclair, formed a company—200 members paying $2,000 each—to buy a stretch of virgin woodland in the rolling, low-lying hills below the village of Pelham Manor. 

Searching for a designer, Rogers and Sinclair discovered a genius of golf architecture, Devereux Emmet of Long Island, and asked the man to create a championship course. A descendant of a founder of New York's Tammany Hall, Devereux Emmet was listed in Ward McAllister's First Forty Families in America. He was a golfer and a hunter, but, most of all, he loved nature, and envisioned a course of tall oak trees and groves of beeches, much like an ancient English woodland he'd visited, Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, west of London. 

Emmet's vision of the Pelham course endured until 1955, when the government, in its wisdom, cut through the front nine with I-95. Today, only six of the original 18 holes are still in play, including the two on Mount Tom.

The Pelham course covers only 119 acres and, even from the more difficult back tees, plays to just 6,358 yards. Too short for touring pros, but to those who play for fun, it's a lovely course that demands strategic golf if one wants to score.

Three Architectural Schools of Golf

Golf design has taken a different architectural approach since its beginning in 1414 on the dune-links of Scotland. Those were the days of what came to be called the Natural School, where existing sand dunes determined the location of the holes, and little was done to change the natural wild topography.  
By the mid-17th century, this first school of golf-course design evolved into the Penal School, which moved bunkers and other hazards off the fairways and good players were rewarded for driving straight down the fairways and avoiding trouble.

Then, in the 1920s came the architects of the Strategic School. These men linked the natural course with one that discarded the straight-down-the-middle Penal approach in favor of a design that created interesting challenges. Devereux Emmet was such an architect. The net result was the kind of course we are familiar with today—one that calls upon the player to consider his or her options, based on ability and courage, to match par in a rural setting that usually resembles a pleasant English countryside. 

Among Strategic School architects, Emmet is noted for building courses with severe side-hill lies, blind shots, plenty of water and craftily designed bunkers. He gave Pelham narrow, tree-lined fairways, small greens, and water hazards on 11 of the holes.

Emmet's original Strategic School design is most evident in two holes on Mount Tom, a famous glacier rock at the epicenter of the Pelham Country Club. The holes are the 402-yard No. 9, and its companion, the 400-yard par-4 No. 15. Both holes are stamped into the terrain much like the index and middle finger of God's own right hand. They are perfect examples of how a Strategic School architect would use the natural setting to create a challenging course.

Standing on the tee boxes of either hole, a golfer can't see over the high ridge of Mount Tom 200 yards away. The player also can't see the landing area in the fairway, or see the green, or pin placement. 

Of these two historic holes, No. 9 is the most demanding, for beyond the high protruding outcropping of Mount Tom is a narrow fairway that falls precipitously to the left. No. 15 (God's middle finger), which is to the right of the outcropping, has a level landing area, and is more forgiving of a badly hit drive, since its fairway stretches smoothly to an inviting green.

No. 9, however, is another story: a blind tee shot into its sloping fairway funnels dramatically to the left-side rough and into trouble. As Ben Hogan once said, in golf it is the tee shot that matters most. Hogan, who lived by his famous fade, would play the Mount Tom hole by moving his ball left-to-right so it landed on the high right side of the fairway, leaving a short iron to a large green nestled in a grove of shading oak trees. 

These two holes, plus No. 10 and No. 14, are clustered around Mount Tom and, on any given round, a player is spending 25 percent of the game near this ancient outcropping that Devereux Emmet was smart enough to leave alone. The Mount Tom holes are Pelham's version of the famously difficult Master's "Amen Corner."

Mount Tom and Devereux Emmet gave Pelham Manor one more benefit. After a heavy winter snowfall, No. 9 is full of kids sledding downhill. One player's summer headache becomes a child's winter joy. In all these ways, the fairway of the Mount Tom No. 9 is a scene for all seasons.

That's God and Devereux Emmet's way. So, Pelham Country Club members will have to weight that fact before tinkering with this golf course masterpiece.

They best remember, don't mess with God's work!

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the MastersLearn more at John Coyne Books.

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