Old Sandwich Golf Club: A Yankee Original by a Pair of Texans

On a private estate in Plymouth, Mass. a few miles north of the Cape Cod Canal, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have crafted a retro course that would have made the pilgrims feel right at home were it around when they came ashore in 1620.

The design duo assessed the land, a former hunting preserve, for what it was: a glacier-scraped, sand-based site with a 60-foot elevation change, its hills and valleys covered in scrub oak and pitch pine. Their job, as they saw it, was to tiptoe as lightly as possible around this Yankee realm, tease holes from its natural contours, and devise a walker-friendly routing that would put dyed-in-the-wool purists in mind of Bay State layouts that hark back to another century.

“We had never worked in the greater Boston area,” says Coore, “and this was our chance to design a course in New England. The sandy, gravelly site and its ground contours were very appealing to us. All the holes reflect what was already there. There was very little alteration to the land. We exposed sandy areas, but basically we let the contours dictate the flow and shape of the holes.” It shows. The hand of man is barely apparent at Old Sandwich Golf Club. Rather, the holes appear to have been extruded from the landscape by an unseen force of nature.

More rugged and less formal than most Boston-area courses, the hills at Old Sandwich are more sweeping and not as choppy as those of a typical Beantown layout. And while there are no majestic hardwoods on site, the Old World landforms yielded exceptional golf holes.

In Sean McCormick, the club’s Keeper of the Greens, Coore and Crenshaw found a willing accomplice. “I’ve known Bill and Ben since the time they were trying to build a course in southern California in the early 1990s,” he says. McCormick at the time was employed at the Valley Club of Montecito in Santa Barbara. Previously, McCormick had put in time at The Country Club in Brookline outside Boston and was looking for a good reason to return East. When Coore called him about the Old Sandwich project, he jumped at the chance to work with a pair of designers who have set themselves apart for their humble approach to their craft, their meticulous attention to detail and their willingness to leave well enough alone. For Bill and Ben, it’s all about the land, which is why they accept so few design commissions.

According to Old Sandwich club president and operating partner Andy Neher, “They (Coore and Crenshaw) are just so extraordinarily picky about the land. They hate to move dirt if they don’t have to. They actually spent time on their stomachs during course construction assessing fairway contours.” Very few designers choose to prostrate themselves in such a fashion.

Old Sandwich has a Pine Valley look in places

An organic creation, Old Sandwich, named for the nation’s oldest road (it skirts the club’s entrance), was built entirely from on-site materials save the gravel imported for the sump drains. The sand base for the greens, for example, was excavated and later screened from a huge pit opposite the first hole. Green construction was basic: The crew cored through a thin layer of silt and an old forest floor until they hit sand. A column of pure sand was then placed on top of this cored-out green site, enabling Coore, who “floated” the greens, to create bold slopes and intricate contours. There is no perched water table or drain tile beneath the greens–the putting surfaces were not built to USGA specifications. That is by design. With their humps, dips, shelves and false fronts, each green is a highly individual putting surface with more thrills per square foot than any course west of Ireland. And while consistent and true, they vary slightly one to the next. Rigid uniformity is not on the menu at Old Sandwich.

McCormick, for his part, seeded the greens with six varieties of bentgrass to avoid a monochromatic stand of turf and make them appear antique. The greens at Old Sandwich, as at most vintage clubs in the Northeast, are mottled in appearance, the shades of green ranging from light pea to deep emerald. They’re also sizable. A few measure up to 50 yards from back to front. At the height of summer, they can be very firm and exceedingly fast. How fast? McCormick can’t say for sure. “I don’t have a Stimpmeter,” he chuckles. “When I find a flat spot on one of the greens, I’ll get one.”

The layout’s distinctive rough-edged bunkers, which appear gouged from the landscape, are complemented in places by perimeter “spoil mounds” designed to frame the holes. “There were old piles left out in the woods from long ago that we used as models for our mounds,” says Coore. “We did what they did in the old days—gather up rocks and stumps in piles and cover them with soil.” These spoil mounds took shape no further than a horse could conceivably drag the materials. Clumps of native blueberry and bracken were then dumped on top of the mounds, and “whatever grew up, fine,” McCormick says of the team’s unstudied approach. The effect is one of naturalism that would warm the hackles of Henry David Thoreau, who spent time in these parts. The subtle created features at Old Sandwich blend into the land, the sweet fern and bluestem fescue and stunted trees comprising a classic, tumbling Cape Cod landscape dotted with “float rock,” or glacial erratics left over from the last Ice Age.

McCormick points out that irrigation off the fairways is absent. The club makes no attempt to counter-effect Nature or compensate for any perceived shortcomings. Aside from the playing surfaces, which are very keen, the condition of the course is a direct reflection of the prevailing weather.

McCormick is parsimonious in his use of fertilizer and water. “I’m a low fertility guy,” he says. “I use maybe a pound of nitrogen a year on the fairways,” a blend of colonial bentgrass and fescue. “I like to keep ‘em lean and hungry to keep out poa annua (a meadow grass that thrives in moist conditions) and other invasive grasses.” He adds, “We do a lot of hand-watering—on the fairways. Where the water doesn’t hit, the grass goes thin and wispy.” Amazingly, given the width of the fairways, only 55 acres of turf is maintained at Old Sandwich.

The club, opened in 2004, also has a very effective phosphorus management program in place that prevents this nonmetallic element in the nitrogen family from leaching into the Eel River watershed on which the club sits. A low stone wall built near the first hole effectively catches and properly directs surface run-off. In addition, a large waste bunker up the right side of the first fairway filters water before it reaches the watershed.

There’s wildlife, too. White-tailed deer, eastern coyote, red-tailed hawks and barn owls are frequently sighted, though the most common species at Old Sandwich is wild turkey. Flocks of these birds, forever associated with the pilgrims and Thanksgiving, routinely peck away at the fringes of the course, especially early and late in the day.

True to form, there are no tee signs, ball washers or benches at Old Sandwich. Placed on nearly every tee is a wooden chest filled with bottled water on ice; and a wooden waste receptacle. That’s it. Aside from low rustic fences built to direct cart traffic, there are no reminders of civilization and nothing to distract players from the task at hand, a plus given the racy conditions and brisk southeast breeze off Cape Cod Bay (the sea is a mile and a half away as the crow flies). Abroad on the links, it’s hard to imagine that Boston is a mere hour’s drive away, so transporting is a round of golf here.

“This is a thinking man’s golf course,” McCormick explains. “It’s player-friendly, but the tight canted lies in the fairways and the subtle rolls and slopes around the greens must be factored into every shot.” Undulation is the soul of the game at Old Sandwich. Expertly strategized, with more nuances than could ever be discovered in a lifetime, the course has three sets of tees: Back (6,908 yards), Middle (6,415 yards) and Forward (5,400 yards). Par is 71.

While the course is all of one piece, there are a few holes that define the Old Sandwich experience.

A typical roly-poly green site

Most first-timers gasp at the sight of the 336-yard fifth, a stunning par four that looks transplanted from the Scottish Highlands. The tee shot must carry a deep ravine and find a hogbacked fairway defended by three gnarly, irregular bunkers cut into the side of a hill. A Cape-style hole that swings sharply to the left, players can bite off as much as they dare on the drive. The approach, assuming the drive hasn’t found the putting surface, is played to a heavily contoured, open-entry green on the downhill side of the mounded fairway. The fifth at Old Sandwich can stake a claim as one of the finest short par fours in America.

The par-four seventh, while not long at 391 yards from the tips, calls for an unerring approach to a long, slim green nearly encased in sand. The target is strongly reminiscent of the famed par-three 10th hole at Pine Valley, and in fact many visitors have remarked on the similarity of Old Sandwich to the epic New Jersey firebreather, minus the terrible penalties for a missed shot. Old Sandwich also calls to mind the rugged heathland courses outside London—Sunningdale, Walton Heath, St. George’s Hill.

While the golf course is pared down to the barest essentials and has all the virtues of a 19th-century course, the Craftsman-style, shingled clubhouse, overlooking a small pond and designed to fit in with the property’s pre-existing buildings, is exceedingly comfortable. So are the handful of cottages that were built in the pines for out-of-town members and their guests.

In typical fashion, Coore, whose pencil sketches of the holes illustrate the yardage book, says he and Crenshaw “feel so fortunate to have worked there. Everyone at the club was so incredibly supportive of us during the time the course was being roughed in.” Only a designer who reveres the land and works close to the ground (literally) would issue such a statement.

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