Host to the US Women’s Amateur in 2011, the course at Rhode Island Country Club is routed across a diverse landscape of parkland, woodland and wetlands, culminating in a closing stretch that lies beside the marshes of Narragansett Bay.
Since 1999, the club has been home to the annual Charity Classic, an event where eighteen professionals from the PGA, LPGA and Champions Tours join co-hosts Brad Faxon and Billy Andrade in raising funds for a number of good causes in southeastern New England.Many of the fairways at Rhode Island are routed close to Echo Lake, where a large creek and ancillary wetland areas encroach at a number of the holes, but it’s the windswept closing quartet of holes on the south side of Nyatt Road that live longest in the memory.
I was appalled to find the rodent at the top of the Rhode Island Country Club shield was a muskrat. “That’s no muskrat,” I told my host. With that slight, sleek body? An otter maybe. Muskrats are shaped much more like beavers...pleasantly plump, with a tail to justify their “rat” misclassification. The logo’s designer had Barbie-fied the animal, presenting a physique simply unattainable...body-shaming a proud species.
Likewise, those playing Rhode Island Country Club for the first time may claim “that’s no Donald Ross” but, unlike a dozen or so Florida courses, they would be wrong. The bayside course displays a number of unique characteristics that reflect a master designer in the development stage, weighing experimental tactics against concepts he would carry for the rest of his career (RICC was one of Ross’s earliest projects).
The result is a course that, for where it occasionally vies away from Ross’s signature strengths, also engages experienced golfers who think they have seen everything in the Scot’s book.
The most dramatic example comes right off the first tee. Er, technically “left” off the first tee, where a pulled shot may find its way into a rare “inverted” bunker. Those well-studied in course architecture will recognize these as the signature hazard at Garden City Golf Club, offering players a less predictable lie with sand mounding than conventional pits. This hazard (which also makes an appearance coming back on No. 2) was part of a Bruce Hepner reno/resto project, but the concept is wholly Ross. It’s likely the amateur architect took the page directly from Travis’s book.
That may have been a relatively new-world inspiration for the young Ross, but a possible old-world inspiration comes at the par five No. 7, where an enormous bunker lurks deep in a mid-fairway valley, waiting to punish those who attempt to carry it after a poor tee shot. Although it would be easy to cite Tillinghast’s “Great Hazard,” Ross’s edition predates it and may draw inspiration from Prestwick’s Cardinal.
That’s not to say you won’t recognize expected Ross-isms throughout the round; the toughest hole on the course comes at No. 3 (my opinion) based strictly on the uphill approach shot to a signature turtle-back green...I’ve dubbed the hole “John of Bohemia” for its combination of blindness and crown (and spunk).
Few architects embraced uphill approaches like Ross, and other glorious examples remain. The closing hole politely defies No. 3’s tack, with a punchbowl green welcoming returning golfers back into the fold. No. 14 takes the crown (metaphorical, not literal), as golfers follow their approaches up to an infinity green and see Narragansett Bay for the first time on the other side.
There are trip-ups as well from the young architect. Although photos of the waterside hole are seen most often, the stretch from Nos. 15 through 17 are surely the most boring and even problematic of the layout. Part of the problem lies in this being much flatter than the rest of the property, but part also lies in the design, both then and now. “Then,” Ross could have incorporated more thoughtful bunkering (i.e. the inverted, which also pop up — literally — at No. 9, the flattest hole on the front 14). “Now” members would be wise to cut the two trees off the tee at No. 15; in a world where 85% of golfers “fade” (read: slice), leaving no leftward place to aim is an insurance disaster waiting to happen when the immediate right is Nayatt Road (believe it or not, the local population drives nicer cars than I do). It seems that Ross’s pearl-necklace par three at No. 17 was once surrounded, Kittansett-style, by a wide swathe of waste. It wouldn’t hurt to return to this approach, aesthetically if nothing else.
Such a change cannot be ruled out, as the club continues to take progressive moves with the intent of improving its distinct chapter from the Book of Ross. Aside from just continued tree removals, a new line of merchandise has appeared in the pro shop, featuring a beautiful, realist, body-positive take on the muskrat...an alternate logo for the club. I purchased a ballcap and shed a tear, recognizing the wave of hope that the 21st Century has brought to both Golden Age golf courses and aquatic rodents.
Reading Ryan’s Reviews are like bunking off school to do something more fun - yet you end up getting schooled anyway.
Rhode Island sounds at the very least like a useful historical document. Aside from the upturned greens at Pinehurst, what are usually considered Ross’s signature strengths that you might see elsewhere?
Muskrats are are actually an introduced/invasive species in Europe. We gave you golf and you gave us the Muskrat.
BB, trying to define the "standard" Donald Ross is difficult, even having read his "Golf Has Never Failed Me." No one breaks his own "rules" more than Ross! If I had to choose three things definitively Ross I might go with:
1) Routing: Ross was particularly gifted at fitting 18 in tight parcels. Wannamoissett and Warwick are two other Rhode Islands to Google.
2) Cross Bunkering: Long cross bunkers that run diagonal to the tee are fairly ubiquitous at his courses, including RICC.
3) Switchbacks: Ross designs are often best executed with two different shots...the first going left-to-right and the second going right-to-left, or vice-versa.
Many overemphasize the domed/turtle-back greens...a popular Ross feature to be sure, but rarely did he do it more than once or twice a course. Some think the current iteration of Pinehurst No. 2 is an exaggeration of Ross's intent, so I'm wary of saying a domed green is a definitive Ross habit. An occasional one, to be sure.
As for muskrats, I know they were popular in the fur trade, so I'm liable to blame the French for bringing them back to the old world.
Cheers Ryan - Mind boggles at having to hit a draw followed by a fade (intentionally). Love a healthy dollop of cross bunkering though. Cap doffed yet again (mainly for blaming the French)
I had a “Three Bridge” day for my most recent round at Rhode Island Country Club. That’s what the locals call a clear day on the club as the view from the clubhouse includes all three bridges that cross Narragansett Bay. Two of them—the Newport and the Jamestown span the Bay’s East and West Passages respectively, while the oldest—the Mount Hope—crosses the eponymous body of water, another arm of Narragansett Bay.
The course’s visual aspect reaches a crescendo on the final four holes, which share the clubhouse’s three bridge view. But the inland holes are just as strong. RICC is one of the first half dozen courses Donald Ross built in the U.S. and represents one of the finest of his pre-World War I efforts. It’s been lovingly restored and all the usual Ross features are here: challenging bunkers, contoured greens and a routing that has holes running in all directions. The only parallel holes are those last four, but they are different enough to be as memorable as their predecessors.
The restoration would have been better had it been less of a rote effort. There are a number of fairway bunkers (e.g. on 8, 9, 11, 150 that just don’t come into play anymore. But I’m picking at a tiny nit here. Shelter Harbor is the only course in Rhode Island I’d rather play then this one.