My journey to the Essex County Club was a long and arduous one. The journey started in the summer of 2012 when a former work colleague, Gerald and I were at a friend’s house for dinner. Gerald told me about a golf tournament that he played in on Kiawah Island each year with a group of African American golfers who were leaders in business and in the government. He then introduced me to the group by way of email. I was invited to play in the tournament in November of 2012. There was just one criterion for me to play in the tournament and it wasn’t my handicap. It was my willingness to host three other golfers at my home in Kiawah.
One of the three golfers was an improved version of “the round mound of sound.” He even had a better nickname. This gregarious loveable always in motion character was the indomitable “Billy from Philly.” Billy was unapologetically loud and hilarious. He had a joke for every occasion. You couldn’t help but love the guy. He was a guy who in an instant of meeting him, you knew he would always have your back. The bonds of friend grew out of many discussions over the years between Billy, me and the two other guys who annually stay at my house during the tournament, Kenny and Monte.
Once I started the planning for my one year quest to play the 2017-18 Golf Digest Top 100 Courses in America, Billy reached out to me to provide help. Since Billy was from Philly, actually in full disclosure, he lives near Wilmington, Delaware, but “Billy from Willy” just doesn’t have the same ring, one of the courses he said he could help with was Merion. Billy introduced me to Pastor Herb Lusk, a former Philadelphia Eagles football player who retired from the game while still in his prime so that he could start a ministry to help underprivileged youth in the Philly area.
Pastor Lusk invited me to play golf in a tournament that he hosts annually in Philly to raise money for his charity, People for People. While playing in the tournament, he introduced me to the friend that he’d asked to host me at Merion. This friend Malcolmn and I were paired together in the tournament. Over the course of 18 holes together at the Union League Golf Club at Torresdale, Malcolmn and I got to know each other very well. The next day we played together at Merion.
Over the months following our round together at Merion, Malcolmn and I kept in touch. When a former work colleague and friend, Nancy, agreed to host me at Congressional Country Club, I asked her if Malcolmn could join us. Malcolmn had family in the DC/Virginia area. Nancy graciously said, of course he could.”
On the morning we were to play at Congressional, Malcolmn called while he was in route to tell me his cousin was driving him to the club. He said his cousin was an excellent golfer and asked if we needed a fourth for our round. I told him that Nancy’s brother would be joining us as our fourth. Over breakfast that morning Nancy mentioned that her brother would not be able to join us. I told her that Malcolmn’s cousin, Powell, who was driving him to the club was a golfer. Before I could even ask her if he could join us, Nancy asked me if I thought he would want to play. This is just the type of person Nancy is, someone who is always thinking about others.
During the round Powell mentioned to me that his good friend and college roommate, Jeff was a member at the Essex County Club. He asked if I had a host for the club. I told him that prior to starting my quest, I had never heard of the Essex County Club. He told me that he was sure Jeff would be happy to host me there. This is the long and arduous road I traveled to be at the Essex County Club on a chilly but beautiful Spring morning in the month of May.
This beautiful Friday morning started with breakfast at Billy’s, a restaurant in the South End of Boston. It’s one of those downhome places I love where the food is simple, and the people are down to earth. John, who sponsored me at the Kittansett club, and I had agreed to meet there before I left the city to head to Manchester-by-the-Sea. It was over breakfast at Billy’s that John presented me with a Francis Ouimet head cover for my driver and told me about Ben, my host from Old Sandwich. So, there I was having breakfast with John who was introduced to me by one Ben, but also knew the other Ben. Both Ben’s were introduced to me by my caddie at my home club. If all of this sounds confusing to you, think of how difficult it has been for me to keep track of it and recall it all. It’s made a little easier by all the fond memories of the people and experiences that have made this quest such an amazing journey.
The Essex County Club is located on a beautiful but sprawling piece of property northeast of Boston and just west of the Atlantic Ocean in a town made famous by a movie that bearing its name, Manchester-by-the-Sea. It is a historic club that was founded in 1893. While it wasn’t one of the original clubs that founded the USGA, it was the first additional club to join. It was host to the 2010 Curtis Cup. This international women’s golf competition is named in honor of the Curtis sisters who learned to play the game of golf at the course at the Essex County Club.
The men’s locker room is located on the second floor of the historic clubhouse. Like Merion, Essex Country has preserved much of the original character of the clubhouse and locker room. I changed my shoes and headed to the practice range where Powell introduced me to Jeff. After our warmup, we headed to the first tee with our caddie, Steve who had spent 30 years playing on the amateur circuit. Although there were three of us, we needed just one caddie since Powell wanted to carry his own clubs.
We decided to play from the gold tees. The par 70 course measures 6195 yards from these tees with a 71.0 rating and a 132 slope. This classic Donald Ross course was designed by him when he was the club’s head pro. It opens with a 408 yard wide par four with a fairway that starts very wide but gets increasingly narrower as it approaches the green. There are several bunkers off both sides of the fairway including a rather large and deep one on the right at about 220 yards off the tee. I hit my first drive into a strong cross wind that was hurting more than it was helping. The ball landed in the middle of the fairway.
The pin on the first green was positioned 225 yards away in the middle left portion of the green. With the strong cross wind, a clear fairway, and all those yards to the flag, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to hit my driver off the deck. I caught the ball so cleanly and squarely that it didn’t fade. The ball landed and got caught up in the left rough and stopped 105 yards from the pin.
I took aim at the middle of the green with my gap wedge and drew the ball against the wind and back to the flag. The ball landed 3 feet left of the flag.
I hit the three-foot inside right putt with conviction. The ball dropped into the cup to open my round with a par.
The short par four second hole is squeezed in between the fifteenth hole off to the left and the third hole off to the right. The hole measures just 335 yards. The short fairway is one of the widest ones on the course. There is a cross bunker in the fairway at 170 yards off the tee. There is also a fairway bunker on the right at 220 yards off the tee. I topped my drive and pushed it to the left. The ball landed in the rough short of the fairway.
The second green was 225 yards away and protected by bunkers off the left and right sides and off the back. I hit my second shot to the right rough well right of the green putting the right green side bunker in play.
My third shot landed in the right green side bunker. I hit my bunker shot to the green and two-putted for a double bogey to nullify my opening par.
Essex County has just two par fives, both are on the front nine. The third hole is first of the two and at 556 yards is the longest hole on the course. The fairway is right there in front of you. There are trees along the left from the tee box to the green. Off the right side of the fairway there are moguls followed by bunkers. The fairway is interrupted by the crossing of the cart path at about 300 yards off the tee. I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway.
With 350 yards remaining to the middle of the green, trees along the left and no trouble on the right for 200 yards, I hit a three hybrid to the middle of the fairway on my second shot.
The flag was positioned on the back right of the green, 185 yards out. The fairway narrows significantly at about 150 yards out from the green. There are bunkers on the right side just as the fairway narrows at 80 yards short of the green. The green is protected by small bunkers off the front left and right and one along the right side. The front of the green is wide open. I hit my approach shot right at the flag. The ball landed just short of the green.
I putted from off the green to six feet below and to the left of the flag.
I missed my par putt and tapped in for a bogey.
The fourth hole is the longest and the most challenging of the par threes on the course. The hole measures 223 yards with a carry across a pond to a green that is offset to the right of the tee box and protected by bunkers along the left and right sides. The one on the left is frighteningly large and deep. The flag was positioned on the back middle portion of the green. I hit a solid five wood over the water and right at the flag. The ball landed just short of the front of the green.
I hit an excellent putt from off the green to a foot right of the flag.
That first par three is sandwiched on the scorecard between the two par fives on the course. The 458 yard par five fifth hole took us to the southwest corner of the course which is nestled amongst the trees. The tee box is elevated slightly above a fairway that starts aligned with the tee box but shifts immediately to the right before bending back to the left just before it stops at a creek that separates it from the green. There is one bunker each off the left and right sides of the fairway opposite each other at 270 yards off the tee. I finally hit a nice drive down the middle of the fairway leaving 240 yards to the pin.
With 205 yards to clear the creek that runs between the end of the fairway and the front of the green, I decided to lay up to sand wedge distance. I hit an 8 iron to 100 yards out. I then hit my sand wedge to 15 feet below the flag.
My birdie putt looked good all the way but broke right at the hole. I tapped in for an easy par.
The 335 yard par four sixth hole is the second of the three holes nestled in the southwest corner of the course. The fairway has essentially a dogleg right turn but it is done in a not so straightforward way. The creek that crosses the fifth fairway runs almost parallel along the right side of the sixth fairway and separates it from the part of the fairway that makes a dogleg turn to the right. I hit a three wood off the tee to the right rough just short of the creek. A drive a little more to the left or a little shorter would have landed in the fairway.
On the other side of the creek, the fairway bends 90 degrees to the right toward the green. The space on both sides of the fairway after the bend is filled with bunkers that continue along the left and right sides of the green. My attempt at a fade that should have started out along the left edge of the bunker failed miserably. The rough grabbed the club face and closed it. I pulled the ball left of the left green side bunker.
The ball came to rest in a patch of deep rough. I should have learned from my approach shot and aimed well right of the flag. Instead I aimed directly at the flag. I again pulled the ball well left of the target line. The ball landed to the left of the flag which put it off the back of the green.
I chipped on to five feet and made the putt to save bogey.
The final hole of the three nestled in the trees in the southwest corner of the course is a 172 yard par three. The seventh hole has an almost perfectly round green framed by trees off both sides of the tee box and with the clubhouse in the backdrop. The green is protected on the front by the ever-present creek that crosses the fairway of so many holes before it and by bunkers along the full length of both sides. I hit my tee shot into the wind and right at a back pin that was just to the right of the spine running down the middle of the green. The ball stopped 30 feet below the flag.
I committed the cardinal sin of birdie putts. I fell in love with the line and left my putt five feet short of the hole. The one and only constant that I have found in the game of golf after 14 years is that not one single putt left short of the hole, hits the bottom of the cup. I made the five-footer for a disappointing par.
The eighth and ninth holes are in a section of the course still south of the clubhouse but more to the east than the previous three holes. The par four eighth hole plays much longer than the 422 linear yards that it measures. The hole has a fairway that is at a much higher elevation then the tee box. From the tee box all you see is an intimidating slope. The tee box is aligned along the left side of the fairway along with a thick tree line. Not seen from the tee box but lurking up above is a fairway with several bunkers off the right side. My low drive caught the top of the upslope on the fairway.
I hit my driver off the deck to 70 yards from the pin.
I then hit a low pitch shot with my 8 iron to five feet and made the putt for a par.
The front nine finishes with a 389 yard par four. It is a straight forward hole with a fairway that bends ever so slightly at the start and has several bunkers in the rough on the right with the last one being about 215 yards off the tee box. There are also bunkers off the left side along with some pine trees. The first bunker off the left is at about 180 yards from the tee and the next one is at 240 yards off the tee. I sliced my drive to the right rough just to the right of the last bunker off the right side of the fairway.
I hit my second shot back to the fairway to about 95 yards out from a back right pin on a green with a couple of bunkers off the left front and side and a few large ones off the right side.
I hit my third shot to the front of the green and two-putted to finish the front nine with a bogey and a 41.
The back nine takes us back to the north side of the course. It opens with a short par four. The hole measures 342 yards with a right to left sloping fairway that starts out with a very narrow strip that widens as it carves its way through the creek and trees on the left and a sloping rock covered hill on the right. There are bunkers at the base of the hill off to the right just short of the beginning of the fairway. I sliced my drive to the top of the hill leaving 185 yards to the middle of the green.
From my perch on the top of the hill the bunker about 50 yards short of the green is in plain sight along with the bunkers off the front right of the green, the left side of the green and off the back of the green. My second shot didn’t get as much help from the downhill location of the green as I thought. The ball landed in the rough short of the green and to the left.
I pitched on to the front of the green and two-putted for a bogey to start the back nine.
The eleventh hole is a challenging well-designed par three. The green is uphill and hidden from view from the tee box. There is sand on the left and right, short of the green. There is a small bunker just off the left front of the green and a very large sandy area off the right side of the green. I attempted a fade off the right edge of the green. The ball flew straight and hit the slope off the left front of the green before kicking into the bunker.
I hit my bunker shot to the fringe and two putted for another bogey.
The 382 yard par four twelfth hole has a very interesting looking fairway. The fairway is relatively straight but is at a 30-degree angle with an appendage sticking out to the left. The two fairway bunkers on the hole don’t come into play off the tee. I hit my drive to the fairway.
The remaining 190 yards to the pin were playing more like 215 yards. The slightly uphill green has a wide-open front with bunkers well short of it and off each side. I hit a five wood straight but on the wrong line. Steve told me that I hit the ball right on the line where I was aimed. Unfortunately, I was aimed well right of the green. The ball landed short and in the right rough putting the right greenside bunker between my ball and the flag on the left side of the green. My pitch shot hit the face of the bunker and kicked back in.
I hit my sand shot onto the green past the hole and two-putt again, but this time for only the second double bogey of my round.
After making a mess of the 12th hole, I commenced to making a mess of the thirteenth hole. I was starting to notice a familiar pattern. On the last several courses after a strong front nine, my energy and concentration level would start to wane. I needed a second wind. I didn’t get on this 379 yard straightforward par four. The fairway is bound by trees on the left and the right. I hit my drive to the left rough about eight feet off the edge off the fairway. It might as well had been a lot farther off the fairway because it was just as punishing as the ball settled down in the rough with no way to get the club face on the ball with hitting dead weeds.
I hit a seven iron in an attempt just to get to the fairway and set up an easy third shot to the green. That didn’t work. With the clump of grass behind the ball I pulled it and it stayed in the left rough.
I was about 100 yards out and pulled my third shot to the left of the green. I chipped on and followed by routine of two putting to make my second double bogey in a row.
The 14th hole is rated as the easiest hole on the course. It is a 172 yard par three with a green that is partially hidden behind the slope of a hill on the right. The green has bunkers short of it on the left, off the right front and off the back left and right. The pin was tucked in the lower right corner of the green. I hit my tee shot to just above the face of the bunker off the right front of the green. I chipped on to eight feet.
When my concentration wanes, putting is one of the first things to go. I miss the easy eight-footer and tapped in for yet another bogey. I guess I could take solace in having jumped off the double bogey try
At this point I remarked to Jeff that I had broken 90 on each of the courses that I’d played during the week starting with Fishers Island which seemed like a lifetime ago. I needed to avoid double bogeys to keep my score below 90. I’d had a reasonably good score on the front nine but was blowing it on the back nine.
The fifteenth hole is a nice short part four with a wide fairway and no fairway bunkers. The hole is wide open with just a 150 yard carry over rough and bunkers to reach that generous fairway. The hole is bounded by the second hole on the right and the sixteenth hole on the left. I pushed my drive to the right and into the left side of the fairway on the second hole.
While I was in the wrong fairway, I had a clean lie and was only 125 yards from the pin. The issue was that I had a massive right front bunker between me and the green. I took a little extra club to make sure I clean the bunker. I hit the ball across the front of the green to the rough on the left side.
My chip land on the green but didn’t release. I two-putted for yet another bogey.
With the two par threes on the back nine now behind me and no par fives, I needed to find a way to par a couple of the last nine holes to try to get my score to an 85. I was no longer worried about breaking ninety. That now seemed well in hand thanks to my 41 on the front nine and only the two double bogeys so far on the back nine. It would take three additional double bogeys or a blow up hole to exceed 89. While I all too often have double bogeys, I rarely make worse than a double.
The first of the last three par fours is the most difficult of the three. The sixteenth hole is rated as the fourth most difficult hole on the course. It is a treacherous hole. It measures 406 yards, has bunkers short of the fairway and off the left side of the fairway at 215 yards off the tee. The fairway makes a big shift from right to left at 100 yards out from the green. The area to the left just after the shift is a very large sandy area. There is a hill to the left of the fairway. I hit my drive to the deep rough on the lower part of the slope on the left.
My second shot traveled about half as far as I wanted it to. The ball landed on the edge of the left side of the fairway at 85 yards out.
I hit my third shot to 15 feet past the flag and followed my tradition of two-putting. With another bogey I was farther way from worrying about not breaking 90, but also farther way from getting to an 85.
The 17th hole is supposed to be an easy hole. It measures just 327 yards but plays to an uphill fairway that takes up only about 80 yards of the hole. There is a 175 yard carry plus the uphill to get to the fairway. It ends 80 yards later at the base of another upslope. This one leaves a blind shot to the green. My drive didn’t make it all the way up the hill to the fairway. The ball landed in the rough short.
I laid up to 85 yards out from the middle of the green with my second shot. The green is elevated leaving a blind shot from the base of the slope that leads up to it. The front of the green is open but there are two bunkers off each side. I hit a sand wedge to just off the front of the green and to the right of the flag.
I again two-putted for another bogey. I had now gone 10 straight holes without a par. I now needed to par the 18th hole to shoot an 85.
Donald Ross didn’t design the 18th hole so that golfers who didn’t make par on the previous ten holes could make one now. The hole is rated as the eighth most difficult hole on the course. The “S” shaped fairway is downhill from the tee box and winds through sloping hills on the left and the right. There is a fairway bunker off the left at 160 yards off the tee and one off the right at 190 yards off the tee. The creek that was ever present on the front nine also rears its head just short of the green. I hit my drive straight but with the curvature of the fairway, straight was not good. The ball landed on the slope of the hill to the right of the fairway.
With 170 yards to the middle of the green, the ball in the rough and above my feet, and a creek crossing in front of the green, I discussed with Steve the shot I needed to hit to get the ball to the green.
With a pull lie, against all traditional golf wisdom we settled on a fade because I wanted to avoid the creek and there was more room to do that on the right, and the fact that I told Steve that I could hit a fade from any lie. And boy did I do that. I over cut the ball but didn’t hit it far enough. The ball landed just short of the creek.
I pitched over the creek to just short of the green with my third shot. I putted from off the green to short of the flag and then missed the bogey putt to end my round with a double bogey and a 46 on the back nine for a total score of 87.
After some smiles, handshakes, and photographs, Jeff took me to the Pro Shop to meet the Head Pro Jack Davis. Jack is a well credentialed professional. He has worked at Shinnecock Hills, Plainfield Country Club and Spyglass Hill. I told him that I didn’t get the opportunity to meet the Head Pro at Plainfield when I played there, but that I did meet and talk with Jin Park when I played at Spyglass Hill and hoped to meet Jack Druga when I played Shinnecock Hills which I was still working to get a confirmed tee time for.
Jack Davis is quite the golf historian. He and I talked about the courses I’d played on my quest and the courses he’d played that are in the top 100. It was a great discussion on courses, course designers, and course architecture. One of the many pleasures of my quest has been the opportunity to meet and talk with the golf professional staff at the clubs I visited. Most know each other and many have worked together and have developed strong relationships. It’s a great network of men and women who love the game of golf.
Essex County Club was the penultimate course of my two week Northeast Swing. I started with the East and West Courses at Winged Foot. I then played at Sebonack, Friars Head, National Golf Links of America, and Maidstone in the Hamptons. As a result of fate and destiny intersecting in Scarsdale, New York I ended my first week in the Northeast with a round at Quaker Ridge.
After a day of rest, I started my second week with a great experience at the Fishers Island Club followed by rounds at the Kittansett Club, The Country Club, Old Sandwich, and now Essex County Club. My Northeast Swing finishes with a round on Saturday at The Boston Golf Club. The weather forecast is the worst that it’s been for the entire three weeks. To avoid a trip back to Boston for just one course, I will need the rain to hold off at least through the morning although my host George has committed to playing coming rain or sunshine.