Mansfield, Ohio was once home to one of the most diverse manufacturing scenes in the United States — ranging from home appliances to merry-go-rounds — so it is only appropriate the city’s premiere golf course came from Donald Ross, who himself was rather diverse in style.
The Ross who arrived at Westbrook Country Club eagerly defended his undulating putting surfaces with ample and — in many cases — deep greenside bunkers. Holes nos. 13, 14, and 15 have Ross featuring bunkers both alongside his greens and in the landing areas leading up, with strategy shifting accordingly depending on whether the hole is a par four or par five. As with many classic clubs of the era, the clubhouse at Westbrook sits upon the highest point on the property, allowing both some extra distance off of the first tee, and an especially long-seeming 400 yard closer.
Although the fortune of Mansfield has shifted along with many industrial belt cities in northern Ohio, Westbrook has managed to maintain its status as it approaches its centenary during 2022. Here’s looking forward to the next 100.
My playing partner at Westbrook Country Club frequently hinted that I should mind the “steel mill effect” and the ball’s tendency to break toward the industrial facility to the east. Perhaps he meant “effect” in the most literal of scientific senses, some sort of magnetism pulling the ball against what the putting surface would read, or perhaps he and the membership were just so in rapture of this cult belief that they managed to convince I, a skeptical visitor, into putting against the physics my eyes perceived. A more likely conclusion, based on any number of rounds at well-maintained Ross courses: The architect preferred frustrating subtlety to his designs over overblown curvature.
A more interesting observation, based on any number of rounds at less-maintained Ross courses: What greens they were! Unlike larger cities around Ohio, this club had little competition for the money of the industrial age. Mansfield, however, did not recover when that money disappeared. The AK Steel mill remains the bastion of its glory days, as its neighbors in lighting, appliance manufacturing, and other fields moved away or shut down. I have played many Ross courses that have frayed as the money moved. Westbrook seems to have defied this trend through a generous national member program, drawing young blood interested in playing a classic course at affordable rates from Columbus and Cleveland.
No one will mistake Westbrook for Ross restorations at Inverness, Brookside, or Scioto-soon-to-be. At first glance, even the recently restored Columbus Country Club looks much more upper crust than this course. But the pieces are there. The club’s ability and willingness to maintain the bunkers and greens — which ran at, and felt like, a reported 12 Stimp — is music to the ears of those who fear for the future of off-the-path routes such as Westbrook.
I say “maintain” in the sense that the turf is well-groomed and the bunkers did not pool up water during recent rainfall. Are the greens as large as Ross left them? Do the bunkers present as naturally as they once did? Are the fairways as wide? I would hazard to guess no...they are not. But, having just played Kevin Hargrave’s touched-up Columbus Country Club, I believe that if he were to give Westbrook the same attention, the results would pack a far bigger payout at this upstate club. I won’t try to say it poetically: This land is better. The routing? Perhaps not.
Golf Course Architecture 101 presentations will feature Ross as one of the foremost routers in the game’s history. Westbrook will not be one of the examples featured during that seminar’s slideshow. A full 14 holes play north or south. Of those, every par five plays southbound, uphill (and, in this case, into the wind). Add the awkward, final par four — a 400-yarder that ascends some 75 feet (an estimate) — that travels in this same direction, and you’ve got four longs playing with zero variation in terms of gravity or wind. Disappointing, Donald!
An interesting quirk to the routing is that it features just three par fives and three par threes. Although I appreciate its place among Ross’s more curious scorecards, a few more shorts may have spruced the round up, as the ones presented here are top-notch. No. 6 features a long grass cross bunker perhaps 30 yards out, and a green sloping down from front to back. It seems the best strategy (were the back of the bunker mound cut to fairway height) would be to challenge the bunker and roll a ball down to the green, rather than attack the flag. No. 9 is a classic uphill Ross par three, playing to a lengthy green below the clubhouse, asking you to trust your yardage to the flagstick.
Westbrook brought warm feelings on multiple fronts. The golf, obviously, but also what this modest success could symbolize for areas like Mansfield. The bulk of my in-laws remains in Mansfield, even commuting an hour to work in larger cities. I’ve always reckoned them foolish for not following my father-in-law to verdant Columbus. The cost of this reckoning is that I reflect a callousness toward the collapse of “Rust Belt” cities and the cultures they fostered. Maybe there’s a future yet to be had. Wish I knew. Chock full of ideas on how to redeem classic golf courses, but empty on meaningful societal reinvention.
So on the former front: Booking Hargrave or a similar name for meaningful restoration would take the already engaging Westbrook at least half-a-ball higher. The new pool being installed as we speak, and the money that funded it, suggests this is more than a pipe dream.