When you pull in the driveway to Essex County Club (ECC) it belies what you will quickly see when you arrive at the 1st tee. I have always been a firm believer that the land a course is situated is no less than 60% of the total equation for any assessment that follows. There are exceptions, quite naturally, but they are far more the exception. The likes of The Old Course at St. Andrews and Winged Foot / West, come quickly to mind, as layouts that are not blessed with superior terrain.
ECC is the handiwork of the legendary Donald Ross and while his other more celebrated designs such as Pinehurst #2 and Seminole get plenty of rightful attention it is no less fair to say that ECC is worthy of high praise and clearly among the best Ross ever designed.
Ross was the head professional at ECC from 1909-1913 and lived right off the property near the 15th tee before his design career blossomed. He was able to monitor the course quite closely and you can clearly see the fingerprints of total detail as the round unfolds. ECC was already a golf course that was tweaked substantially through his involvement.
Interestingly, ECC is the sixth club to have joined the United States Golf Association (USGA) and was incorporated in 1893. And the club was the home for Margaret and Harriott Curtis -- the namesakes for the amateur competition played bi-annually between the USA and GB&I and hosted at ECC in 2010.
Much is talked about ECC's famed back nine and I do concur but the opening nine is far more than just filler.
The 1st hole provides a scenic panorama as you see the majestic property from all angles. The opener is the perfect blend of getting the golf muscles stretched but not being overly draconian -- although the hapless play is never sent a life jacket. The 440-yard par-4 features a tapered fairway -- the longer one hits the ball the straighter the tee shot must be. The green is rather generous in overall size but possesses an array of subtle twists and turns and is not pedestrian by any definition.
At the 2nd you have a solid change of pace hole -- 335 yards in length. At first glance it appears rather docile -- but heaven help the wayward driver who attempted to go for the green and pushes the ball near enough to growing fescue mounds that intrude rather emphatically. The putting surface is a high caliber Ross touch -- a crown target with appropriate fall-offs for the less-than-sure approach.
Generally, during the high season months the first two holes play downwind but at the superb par-5 3rd -- playing 623 yards and often into a headwind for its entire length. At the tee the hole doesn't convey much but more than anything else it is essential to find the fairway -- otherwise the wherewithal to reach the green in the regulation stroke will be severely tested. The 2nd shot is where the magical qualities of the 3rd take center stage. There is a slight rise in the terrain and it takes two blows equally 540 yards to ascend the rise in order to see wherever the pin is located. Keep in mind, the fairway, like the 1st, tapers in considerably and a menacing fairway bunker lurks on the right and must be avoided at all costs. The brilliance of the hole is that failure to take on the rise for the 2nd shot will likely result in a blind 3rd. To add to the demands the green is wonderfully contoured with an internal bowl located on the left side. This is one par-5 where walking off the green with a par may truly feel like a birdie. Interestingly, the club states that the 3rd green is the oldest continuous putting surface in usage -- dating back to 1893.
ECC continues to keep the pedal pushed down when one reaches the long par-3 4th at 233 yards. You commence from an elevated tee and the green has a right shoulder area which can be used to propel one's approach onto the green. The surface slopes from right-to-left and heaven help anyone who misses to the right as the options for success become quite limited.
For a course that plays under 6,600 yards -- the first four holes at ECC mandate that players be ready to play as soon as they hit the 1st tee.
The par-5 5th is risk/reward hole which includes a fronting creek that takes two blows equally 460 yards to clear. Often playing downwind the 5th is the final par-5 so getting something back can often put pressure on players to succeed here.
The 6th and 7th also provide scoring opportunities but never allow haphazard execution to benefit the player. At the 6th the short par-4 is smartly influenced by a creek that is well angled. Players can go over the creek but the further left you go the longer the carry -- about 210 yards -- is needed. Not only is the carry greater but the left side is fraught with rough, trees and if one pulls it badly even out-of-bounds can happen. Shorter players can lay-up but the second shot becomes much longer. The fairway also tapers in considerably the longer you attempt to gain from the tee. So much strategy in such a short hole and the green brings no less in terms of contours and subtle movements. The short par-3 7th can be a rather simple hole but when the pin is pushed to the far right a pesky stream can insert itself rather well.
The par-4 8th is, in my mind, one of the real gems that Ross ever created. The hole starts with a blind shot -- automatically causing a sense of "unknown" for any player as you have to display confidence on your line of attack. The 8th possesses three distinct levels of fairway -- one can stay to the far right and be assured of safety but at the expense of a better angle to a green that slopes pronouncedly from right-to-left. The left side is a slightly different level but provides a better angle albeit with a fairly lengthy approach. For the adventurous player capable in marrying length and placement -- it takes roughly a 250-yard carry to carry a drop-off on the same left side and with it the player receives a "turbo boost" which will propel one's tee shot even further down the fairway. The catch? Out-of-bounds hugs the left side like a toddler clutching his Mom on the first day of school. The slightest tug / pull to that side can mean a quick reload from the tee. As I mentioned, the green is simply grand stuff. There are numerous strategies involved and so much can happen for all types of players. Aspiring architects should see what can be done to add elasticity and versatility.
The closing par-4 9th is rather tame than its predecessor but only because the land is fairly straightforward. The slight turn in the fairway left provides for a long fairway bunker on that side. The green is well done -- sitting slightly higher than the fairway with drop-offs to the various sides awaiting the poorly played approach.
As I said, little is mentioned about the outward nine at ECC but the combination of holes and the magnificent routing and varied challenges provided are no doubt top tier for what is provided. However, as much as the first nine holes provide -- the back nine hits an even higher target of greatness.
The inward set of holes at ECC is blessed with wonderful terrain and a stellar routing that maxes out all the inherent components. The short 10th is a good hole. Played to a fairway turning left -- the key decision is how close to the left side can you attain? The best angle to the flag is from that side.
The uphill par-3 11th is a tour de force hole and among the finest par-3 holes Ross ever created. The scorecard distance is 177 yards but the "effective" yardage is a good bit longer. The green presents a modified "Redan" appearance with three step bunkers tugging tight to the left side. Sadly, uphill par-3's have been phased out of much of modern design. Often, modern architecture tries to include a predictable drop-shot par-3 because of the visuals and the relative ease in getting to the target. The 11th at ECC is great contrast to the earlier par-3 holes played. The green is appropriately contoured so leaving the green with a par is something you won't ever forget.
The 12th and 13th are quality two-shot holes. The former starts with a blind tee shot and then sweeps downhill to a solid green complex. The latter is a mid-length par-4 that tightens up considerably as you attempt to go deeper down the fairway. Miss either right or left and the penalties will be severe. The elevated putting surface is especially well done and can easily prompt a three-putt for the indifferent approach.
The par-3 14th has been changed somewhat as the original green was too near a road and missed shots often could reach a private residence located there. The new green was done by architect Tom Doak and is beautifully contoured fitting nicely with the presentation seen from the others played.
After playing holes around a major hillside -- Ross then routes the next two par-4's back into the meadowlands area you played on the front side. The par-4 15th plays usually into the prevailing wind and while the overall yardage is not long -- the demands are enhanced considerably when the wind is blowing hard. The green features an elevated target and is expertly angled so that the approach must be well played to reap any reward. The long par-4 16th has been extended in recent times. At 458 yards the hole commences from an elevated tee and even when the wind is with the player the tee shot must be well-placed to secure the best approach angle. Given that both the 15th and 16th are located on relatively flat land they are designed well and show the genius of Ross.
The par-4 17th plays completely uphill and is longer than the listed 361 yards. Clearly a hole type modern construction would likely eschew in creating. The tee shot take you to a top level followed by an approach completely blind to a green that is well crafted. Truly a captivating hole.
The finishing hole at ECC -- par-4 of 417 yards -- starts from a tee box roughly 100 feet above the fairway. You can see the clubhouse in the distance and the hole features an "S" shape design. Strong players will think seriously in cutting the right hand corner but the tee shot is usually into the prevailing wind and even with the elevation will need to be well struck to avoid clutching fescue grasses on the right for the wayward hit. Even in hitting the fairway the green is protected by a creek which awaits those who fail to hit the appropriate yardage on the approach. The 18th is a top tier closer to a layout that offers so much variety in terms of hole differentiation and shot requirements.
ECC will never be able to host a major championship for a host of logistical reasons so its wherewithal to be noticed will not come from that direction. The layout is clearly one of the very best in the Commonwealth and for those able to secure an invitation the time spent there will be nothing short of exhilaration.
by M. James Ward
Date: July 02, 2017