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.
Date: July 13, 2021