Essex Country Club
It’s the third week of October and an explosion of brown, green, orange and red leaves are beginning to fall from the trees. It’s a quiet time of the year leading to the revelry that will soon be Halloween. It’s the time of the year when the New England golfer starts to think about putting the clubs away for the winter. The more serious committed types will continue to play and start to lose balls in the middle of the fairway under the torrent of leaves that will be increasing in their descent from the wonderful colors we now see. The air is crisp and clean and devoid of any pollution on this clear day as we approach Gloucester and the surrounding villages. We’re headed to play in an event sponsored by The Golf Journal so the field will be a national contingent of members who subscribe to the publication. These events are very popular and participants are selected by lottery months ahead of the event. Iconic venues are usually chosen and reflect some of the best but perhaps unknown golf clubs in the country as many of the venues are private clubs with very little public play. Frustrated with losing every opportunity in the lottery. I hit the jackpot in July and was selected to play and fly across the country from San Francisco to Boston to participate. You have to really love the game of golf to do this and spend the money and time to get to a special venue to tee it up with a bunch of guys that feel the same way about the game as you do. The flight to Boston was uneventful but problems began with the rental car establishment. Despite being a premier customer with a car waiting for me to drive away, the particular car (Jeep Wrangler-which I never rent) that was assigned to space B-3 refused to start (after storing our golf clubs and bags in the trunk). The upshot was going back to the dreaded office and stand behind a line of 45 people to get to the counter to voice my problem. After an hour in line, the rental car company promptly apologized and served up a Cadillac SUV and we began our journey to the hotel. Thanks to the rental car fiasco, we ended up at the hotel at 9PM just in time for bed for the 7AM tournament sign in the next day at Essex Country Club.
Essex Country Club is old but it is clasic old. If felt like was driving into a private club in England (without the dreaded signage). The club opened in 1893 as a nine hole course and eventually was redesigned by Donald Ross and became an 18 hole layout in 1917. The club was the sixth golf course admitted to the USGA. The course and the clubhouse just reeks with class–there’s not much in the way of modern amenities but it works and exudes comfort and homeyness. The greens were immaculate and putt as true as they look with the distinguished Ross designs. You can immediately surmise that this is not the course of a modern era–it is meant to be walked as the cart paths are simply loose stones and gravel. The course is a wonderful walk especially with greens and tees in proximity of each other. The golf carts seemed to be vintage ancient (perhaps circa 1980’s) as gas fired chariots with clutches and the attendant noise that goes with it. The driving range is a patch of ground that could only tolerate the length of a 150 yard shot. We had a dash of English climate with a couple of morning showers that provided a morning non golfing disruptive spray eventually giving way to sunshine and a gentle wind.
Essex is a course that you can play every day and not tire of it. The fairway turf is luscious and yields wonderfully to a well struck iron. The course has a number of different and interesting holes. The key to scoring on this course is thinking your way around it as the big hitter’s advantage that persists in most modern courses is dissipated here. The greens are tricky (Ross) but fair and pins that are placed on crowns can punish misses and trail away off the green for a potential multiple putt minimum.
The par 3, 4th is over 200 yards and demands a draw into a large green slightly downhill. There is a pond that covers the entire left side of the green that will receive an overcooked shot. There is no bargain approaching the hole from the right with two large menacing bunkers guarding the green and any mishit to the right of those bunkers will put the ball in some horrible fescue perhaps never to be found. The 5th hole is a par 5 where it’s very important to get the tee shot in the fairway. Depending on the length of that tee shot, you’ll decide whether to go from the green but that green is protected by a burn, which adds to the risk of those eagle seekers. For me, it was a 5 iron second shot to the front of the burn and a gap wedge to the green where the pin was crowned so the shot had to be close to secure par. A unique hole is the short par 4, 10th, which seems as if it might have been dropped out of the sky from Ireland. The tee shot on the 10th has to cover the huge mound on the right and plop in the fairway avoiding an awaiting fairway bunker. The fescue on the left creates a deterrent such that a straight tee shot has only about 5 yards of fairway to get through the fescue on the left and the mound on the right. If you can navigate through this thicket, approach shots to the green will be wedges or less to make par or birdie.
Ipswitch Country Club
Following the glorious day at Essex, we descended on to Ipswitch Country Club. I had chosen Ipswitch as another private club venue reasonably close to Essex. Ipswitch is as new a golf venue as Essex is old. The golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., sits inside a private gate of well appointed luxury homes and resembles any number of exclusive properties. The facility has every modern amenity you could think of including a workout facility. The driving range is well situated to the left of the entrance of the club and was one of the more impressive ranges I have seen. There is nothing Old World about Ipswitch. You won’t be walking the course as the distance between the holes is significant and I suspect it might be a 7 to 8 mile track as compared to probably 4+ at Essex. Ipswitch is a fine golf course and well designed with a good variety of holes shaped nicely with receptive greens that putted well. The fairways are in wonderful condition and were almost as good as Essex.
The feel of Ipswitch is somewhat similar to Essex as the course presents a wide variety of challenges. Unlike many New England venues, the fairways are wide enough such that the tree lined fairways outline the course rather than become a conscious threat to the player. There’s enough width in the fairways to enable the player to focus on positions for approach shots to the greens. The first par 3 is the 5th hole of 191 yards over a pond. The tee shot has to carry the entire yardage to land on a medium sized green so a utility or hybrid club is probably the best weapon for the average player. Any shot short or missed to the left will find the pond, and the right side of the hole is protected by two bunkers, where the bunker shot will be facing the pond. I managed to avoid the bunkers on the right and scrambled a par out of an up and down from the right. The signature hole is the finishing hole, which is a long par 4 of over 400 yards to a severely three tiered green. It’s a tough but fair finishing hole. I had a skins game victory in my grasp as my competitors were having difficulty on the short par 17th hole. I managed to skull an easy 48 degree wedge shot over the green only to make bogey and lose the skin that would have clinched the match–such is golf.