The course at Charles River Country Club is a Donald Ross design that dates back to 1921. Playing to a par of 72 for regular member play over its modest length of 6,683 yards, the layout reverts to a par of 70 for competitive events, with par fives at the 7th and 10th holes becoming par fours.
Hosting stroke play qualifying rounds for the 2013 US Amateur Championship at nearby Brookline, Charles River was Francis Ouimet’s home club for a number of years and the former US Open champion eventually became the first honorary member of the club, a position he held until he died at the age of 74 in 1967.
The 399-yard 5th is a potential card wrecker on the front nine. Routed uphill to the highest point on the property, the hole plays to a green that tilts right to left, with over a four-foot drop in elevation from back to front. Another fine hole is encountered at the 409-yard 8th, where the fairway crosses some seriously mounded terrain on its way to a steeply raised green.
On the inward half, the short par four 12th is the first of only three two-shot holes to be found on the back nine. Here, a blind drive is followed by a short iron from a tricky side hill position towards a green that’s severely canted from back to front. The final par four at the 18th is a beauty – all of 445-yards from the back tee – and it sweeps majestically left to a home green that’s protected by sand on either side of the putting surface.Ron Pritchard is the person largely responsible for the current condition of the course. Called in by the club in the mid-1990s to restore its original playing characteristics, he removed a significant number of trees, enlarged the greens to their intended sizes and reworked all the bunkers to adhere to the specifications found in old photographs.
Charles River Country Club is an old throwback club. Almost 100 years old it is a fantastic Donald Ross design that has passed the test of time. There is a lot of history herse as well. Francis Ouimet was a bond holding member in the 1920s and an honorary member up until his death. Not to be outdone, Eddie Lowery, Ouimet’s caddy in the iconic photo also became a member. Eddie won the Massachusetts State Amateur and was also a two time club champion. Ross was also a member.
My perspective is a little bit unique in that I caddied there as a kid in several tournaments. Playing it as an adult almost 40 years later was enlightening. Not a long course, it is a par 72 for members but when there is a high caliber tournament par is adjusted to 70. Also, Ross did what many architects talk about, but so few do. If holes designed themselves, why is the modern golf course formula, par 72, 10 par 4s, 4 par 5s and 4 par 3s?
The first hole is not welcoming. A long par with from an elevated green with a water hazard right and a massive green. When I say massive to put this in context, one of my earlier reviews of Kittansett referenced a green less than 3k SF. The first hole at Charles River is 8k SF. The 2nd is a good birdie oppty. It is also one of the flattest holes on the course. I am not sure why this is rated the #7 handicap hole, three average shots will have you putting for birdie. Big hitters can get home in two, however there are deep bunkers on either side of the fairway that are punitive. The 4th is the first par 3 with a carry over water. The 5th is the number one handicap hole a long uphill par 4. When I say long from the tips, it is just under 400 yards. When I caddied there in the early 1970s, I only saw one player get home in two. As a player I was motivated to get home in two and in my excitement, I overcooked it left. It did not have to be said when I was caddying, this is not a green to be long on. The 6th is a dogleg right and a good birdie oppty. You can cut the corner but Ross strategically placed a string of bunkers on the inside elbow. I can only recall one or two rounds where I did not have to rake a bunker on this hole. I guess it was only fair that I ended up in one as well. The green is well protected with a bunker short left and a deep grass faced bunker right. The shortest par 5 is a big swinger right and definitely reachable in two. The 8th is the longest par 4 and uphill. While it is relatively straight it follows a serpentine path tee to green as rock mounds have been grassed over and the natural depressions became logical bunkers. On your approach I would suggest taking an extra club due to the false front. The 9th is an uphill par 3 with bunkers front left and right. If you miss this green par is an accomplishment. As a caddy, there were too many times players would miss the green and end up in the bunkers. More often than not the sand shot would end up rolling back down to them in the bunker. The good news is the green is pretty big, my advice, hit it.
The back starts off with a short par five, definitely reachable, favor the right. Tough green. The 11th is a paradox. A par 3 that is more than half the distance of the proceeding par 5! A 246 yard par 3, what I would call a slight dogleg right. When I was caddying, I would hope my player would birdie the par 5 and bogey the par 3. The11th leans right and is protected by willow trees on the right. Best to land about 20 yards short left of the green and the ball should scoot right on. Francis Ouimet was quoted as saying, “the hardest approach at Charles River is the second on 11”. There are only 3 par 4s on the back at Charles River. The 12th is a dogleg right and a birdie oppty. Blind tee shot but a decent drive will leave you with a downhill wedge in. Pay attention to the pin location, long is not good on this back to front green. The key to the 13th is a decent drive, not long but the green is perched on a ledge. Take an extra club. The par 3 14th is allegedly the easiest hole on the course. The 15th and 16th are back to back par 5s. The 15th is shorter and easier. Big hitters can get home in two, however, the fairway does abruptly end about 100 yards out. The 16th is the longest par five. Pretty darn straight, I would still play it as a 3 shotter. The last par 3 is one of the more protected greens with bunkers. Frankly, the terrain offers enough protection throughout the course. The 18th is a super finishing hole. The longest par 4 is a dogleg left with the approach downhill. This gives us shorter knockers the false hope that we can get home in two. If you start with a par and finish with a par that is awesome.
Sadly, as a kid, I could not appreciate Charles River. Having said that, the course today has changed significantly. In the mid-1990s Ron Prichard was brought in to bring back the original design. He certainly appears to have done so. The greens and bunkers are much tougher than they were in the 1970s. I also noticed a huge difference in distance technology. What was huge drive when I caddied is now a miss. Additionally, the greens are much faster. Lastly, the fairways are much tighter, trees are bigger, but there fewer of them. Charles River is an unheralded treasure.