[Ed. This integrated piece appeared as a course feature and Walker Cup sidebar in LINKS Magazine during the summer of 2006. With the U.S. Senior Amateur visiting Butler Point this week, it seemed a fine time to place this story “above the fold”.]
Rolling down Point Road toward The Kittansett Club, past Sippican Harbor and passing before an ever more stately line of summer “cottages” (all in gray shingle), the ancient course comes into view through the driver’s side window — initially a hole or two bounded by Cape-style miniature pine, but then a striking, open expanse punctuated by golden fescues, lines of bracken hedgerows and chocolate-drop mounding. From this vantage, at this introductory stage, it’s perhaps too easy to lump Kittansett in with the dozens of quirky, antique but ultimately docile, wind-dependent tracks that dot the Northeastern coastline.
But Kittansett is seldom what it appears to be, especially at first glance.
Members here bleed the right color and the course itself, perched on Butler Point and surrounded on three sides by Buzzards Bay, is surely transformed by a stiff wind. But the layout is so much more: a steely, uncommon test on the calmest of days. When I visited in late June, a wind-killing fog (thick enough to cancel the first day of the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open down the coast at Newport) had settled over the place. Yet Kittansett’s length (6,814 yards, par 70), its smallish, steeply pitched greens, its overall strategic mettle were undiminished. They are, in fact, enough to humble and beguile just about anyone in any sort of weather.
“I’m not sure people realize just how difficult this golf course really is,” says Steve Demmer, the head pro here since 1994 [departed in 2014]. “Not even the members, who are used to the carries, the obstacles and the speed of the greens. When the rough and wind are up [and they usually are], this is a lot of golf course.”
Opened for play in 1923, Kittansett and its various attributes should surprise visitors. It’s a seaside course — peninsular for heaven’s sake; the Aboriginal American name means near (sett) the sea (kittan) — but there isn’t a proper dune in sight. By all geographical rights the course should be links-like, but trees line two thirds of the routing and the soil isn’t sandy at all, meaning it seldom plays hard and fast outside the dog days of summer.
The course feels quite natural but was in fact designed to within an inch of its life by one Frederic Hood, who had consulted with Donald Ross and worked from some drawings provided by William Flynn. But he built the course himself with local crews of similarly inexperienced folk. Kittansett is the only golf course on Hood’s resume; he never designed nor built another.
Indeed, on a largely tree-lined golf course, it’s hard to imagine a seasoned architect would have placed such a proliferation of fairway-impeding obstacles. Thirteen holes at Kittansett feature some sort of deep cross bunker or bank of mounding perpendicular to play. The corridors are naturally ample. Yet hardy stands of white pine, oak, cedar and tupelo frame the inland holes, creating a extremely stout test when it comes to driving the ball — between the trees, over and around these myriad crossing features, and amid a random collection of chocolate drops.
Here and there these oversized Kisses (more like chocolate-covered cherries really) reside on a hole’s periphery, seemingly without purposes. Other times they come off quite strategically. The two that stand sentinel on either side of the somewhat lunar 16th fairway appear to frame the target but are actually 50 yards short of the green, seriously messing with a visiting’s depth perception. “They had to put the rocks somewhere,” Demmer says with a smile and a shrug.
Because of the ever-present winds perhaps, Hood’s design rarely calls for forced carries into the greens themselves. The oft-photographed 3rd, a pitch across an ocean inlet to a green surrounded by beach sand, is the notable exception. More often the cross hazards come earlier in the golf hole. At 16, for example. On the 424-yard 6th, three staggered lines of cross-mounding jut in from the left (the last sits 220 yards from the back tee). A similar trio is reprised at the wonderful, short par-4 10th, where the hazards are reasonably cleared with a long-iron or fairway wood — mind games notwithstanding.
The 11th with its massive cross bunker gaping in from the left is perhaps the most brutish poser on a course replete with them. The eye-catching hazard sits well short of a flamboyant green cleaved by a deep swale — but all this is obscured by the bunker’s 7 foot lip. From the back tee, 241 yards away, the tiny exposed portion of the putting surface appears to sit precariously (and inaccessibly) at the edge of the world, 15 feet above a bunker bounded by ball-sucking bogs. The prudent play is left of center, directly over the bunker’s highest point; this allows the contour to shape the ball onto the green. But it’s a leap of faith even for members familiar with the gambit, and a thrilling leap at that.
The Walker Cup, international golf’s most prestigious amateur team competition, has been staged in New England on three separate occasions, twice (1932 and 1973) at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where so many prestigious events have been held, USGA championships and otherwise, they’ve begun to bunch. The 1953 Walker Cup, on the other hand, is easily the biggest thing ever to hit The Kittansett Club, one of New England’s most revrered if serially under-exposed golf venues.
In retrospect, the 1953 Walker Cup was a thoroughly fascinating event, but not necessarily because it served as the coming-out party for Kittansett, for a pair of promising young Californians, Ken Venturi and Gene Littler – or because E. Harvie Ward managed in the course of the competition, to avenge his 1952 British Amateur loss to the talented Irishman Joe Carr. Truth be told, there was little overarching drama to the competition itself; the U.S. squad won easily, 9-3, securing its 13th victory in 14 tries.
Looking back, the interest and intrigue are found in the details. This was another golfing era. A time when the British played one ball (1.62 inches in diameter) and the Americans another (1.68), when all matches were contested over 36 holes, a time when players were ultimately judged by the skill with which they deflected adulation — when a point might well be refused if it hadn’t been earned in the spirit of fair play.
George Herbert Walker, great-grandfather to President Bush and founding patron of the international cup series, embodied the spirit of these times. Back in 1922, when he got things rolling by donating the Cup, Walker had fully intended for the competition to be called by its official name, “The United States Golf Association International Challenge Trophy”. This eponymous business irked him somewhat in later years; he periodically protested, publicly, that these or any amateur matches had become so closely associated with a particular person.
G.H. Walker died just prior to the Kittansett Matches, in June of 1953, and his death did little to buttress his longstanding efforts to keep a low profile. Indeed, his passing had the opposite effect. When golf’s luminaries gathered in September on this lovely seaside ground just south of the Cape Cod Canal, the prize at stake had become “The Walker Cup”, forever and always.
Many of the game’s greats were indeed on hand for the event. Bobby Jones, who hadn’t attended a Walker Cup in 21 years, was there at Kittansett along with Francis Ouimet, fellow Cup veteran Fred Wright and the estimable Mrs. Edwin S. Vare, Jr., better known as Glenna Collett. There were some 2,500 others in the gallery and Golf World reported that a large majority “besieged” Jones for autographs. Already ailing and confined to an “electric golfmobile”, Jones accommodated everyone with that gracious smile of his, turning aside compliments with praise for Mrs. Vare. “Now there was a great player,” he said.
The Kittansett Club layout elicited similar praise from competitors and spectators alike. Designed by William Flynn and Frederic Hood in 1922 (it was restored by architect Gil Hanse in 1998), Kittansett was not particularly well known prior to the ’53 Walker Cup. However, the course “performed” admirably, conceding not a single sub-par round during the weekend’s play, even though the wind – a Kittansett trademark — blew hardly at all.
The conditions were surprisingly calm and beastly hot that Labor Day weekend 53 years ago. American weather, if you will. The underdog British might have hoped for a some of “their” weather to level the playing field. But they enjoyed no such luck – with the wind or their opponents.
The American team was, in a word, loaded. Ward and Charlie Coe were the top international amateurs of their day, and Sam Urzetta, a ’51 Walker Cupper, was the 1950 U.S. Amateur champion. William Campbell was yet another veteran of the 1951 team, while Kittansett Club member Richard Chapman held the distinction of having won the amateur championships of the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France – the only man to achieve this feat. Donald Cherry was a Cup newcomer but didn’t look particularly green in winning his singles match 9 and 7 over Norman Drew.
American Jack Westland, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, making his third Walker Cup appearance, was the senior member of his team and proved the weekend’s leading light. The 47 year old from Washington state — the sitting U.S. Congressman from its Second District — went 2-0, winning his foursomes match with Ward, 9 and 8, and clinching the Cup with another landslide victory in singles, 7 and 5 over Roy MacGregor.
Littler, then 23, was obliged to arrange leave from the Army to attend the Kittansett matches. This was his first Walker Cup and he showed the promise he would later fulfill, going unbeaten on the weekend. Venturi, 22, was the baby in the group but his form was perhaps the best of all. He and Urzetta easily won their foursomes match and the San Franciscan breezed past a beleaguered James Wilson in singles, 9 and 8; Venturi’s outward round of level-par 70 was the competition’s lowest.
Most seaside courses of this vintage started out treeless only to experience rampant forestation in succeeding years. Kittansett differs from vintage fare in this respect as well. The trees were here first and the thicket has been reduced, in fits and starts, over time. Out by the 7th tee box there’s a 9-foot signpost that shows the high-water marks of the major hurricanes that have blown through here over the years: 1938, 1944, 1954 (Carol), 1991 (Bob). Events like these culled a few tupelos, to be sure. More recently, concerted clearing efforts have rendered portions of the routing, especially those holes furthest out on Butler Point, darned links-like — surely more open and scenic today than they were when the Hood finished his life’s work.
Some of that credit goes to Hanse who recommended some serious tree clearing when he first refurbished the bunkers in 1995 (adding fescued eyelashes to each one, a perfect fit). The club has followed through by continuing to fell trees, opening up never-before-seen vistas on the point holes — 1, 2, 16, 17 and 18.
In an age when clubs pay architects millions of dollars to return their courses to some original, classic ideal (real or imagined), Kittansett has charted a more honest, practical course — ever capitalizing on its superb routing, features and location to make the course incrementally better, more classic and stern than it’s ever been, but never something it has never been.
Which isn’t to say Kittansett hasn’t been well regarded for a very long time. It’s been a fixture on the various top 100 lists for decades. The Walker Cup was the beginning of its wider reputation and it’s significant to reiterate that no one — not Gene Littler, Ken Venturi, Charlie Coe, Harvie Ward nor Joe Carr — managed to better par that scorching Labor Day weekend 53 years ago when, reportedly, the wind never rose above the wafting level. Kittansett hosted U.S. Amateur qualifying in 1996: 36 holes, 101 players playing off 1.4 or better, pins set near the middle, 80 degrees and not a scrape of wind. The low score was 71.
Kittansett members have the good sense to know that big tournaments and their attendant crowds would overwhelm their little slice of heaven, even if the competitors most assuredly would not. Kittansett seems tailor-made for a national mid-amateur championship, and while Demmer hinted that the subject has been broached — presumably with the folks who famously value par — there are no plans.
And so Kittansett remains a bit of a mystery guest, even to Bay State golfers. Tucked away in a sort of nether region between Cape Cod and the Rhode Island coast, it’s widely acknowledged as the second best course in Massachusetts (behind TCC in Brookline) though few have actually played it. Four times the State Amateur has been held here; each time it set a record for the number of entries.
That should tell you something about its allure. The high scores tell you something else. The rest, to be believed, must be experienced first-hand.
American James Jackson was another type of newcomer in 1953, playing his first Walker Cup foursomes match on the Friday when he unwittingly instigated the event’s most poignant moment. After he and Littler dropped the first hole to Wilson and MacGregor (dubbed “the sporting goods team” by one press wag,) Jackson discovered he was carrying 16 clubs, having failed to remove his brassie and an extra wedge after warming up. He reported the matter to the referee, USGA Treasurer Charles Pierson, who in turn consulted with USGA Vice President Ike Grainger.
The penalty for this infraction is disqualification, of course, and Grainger invoked it without hesitation.
It was here that Wilson and MacGregor proved they were very good sports indeed. The two Brits urged Pierson not to impose the penalty stipulated by the rules. The British non-playing captain, Lieut. Col. Anthony Duncan, supported his players and informed Totton Heffelfinger — perhaps the most fittingly named USGA President in history — that his team “could not accept victory if it should depend on disqualification.”
With further input from R&A Captain Lord Brabazon of Tara, the British managed to persuade USGA Committee members to modify the punishment. Littler and Jackson were eventually penalized two holes, placing them three down on the fourth tee. The Americans were still three down after nine but they came home in 33, the best nine posted by any foursome pairing during the competition. Littler and Jackson went to lunch 2-up and closed out Wilson and MacGregor 3 and 2 – proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.
The visitors would salvage a measure of self respect when Ronnie White, 3-down after 30 holes, stormed back to post a thrilling 1-up victory over Chapman — on the American’s home course.
“The British are supposed to be good losers,” Duncan said at Saturday night’s trophy presentation ceremony, “since they’ve had plenty of practice at it. But the fact is, we hate losing. That finish of Ronnie White’s made us all proud to be British.”