By Dean Inouye
Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were in the prime of their careers in 1962, when they visited the South Shore Country Club in Hingham for an exhibition. Just for the occasion, the club created a tee that added about 40 yards to the 17th hole.
“They built this tee, (shown above) and then they let it go, until I rebuilt it last year,’’ said Jay McGrail, superintendent and director of operations at the town-owned course.
McGrail last year also cleared out about 20 trees that protected the left side of the green. That opens up the approach, but still leaves a 210-yard, slightly uphill poke, often into the wind, that challenges even a modern golfer armed with Pro V1s.
Like any golf course, the South Shore Country Club, which opened as a private club in 1922, is constantly evolving. But when a course is the work of an important architect, it becomes an historical artifact where any alterations raise questions about how the designer’s original intent should mesh with the practices of the course’s golfers and groundskeepers over the years.
South Shore was designed by Wayne Stiles, part of the first wave of golf course architects in the 1920s. Though not as famous as such contemporaries as Donald Ross or A.W. Tillinghast, Stiles and his partner, John Van Kleek, produced about 30 courses, including the Marshfield Country Club, the Cranwell Resort in Lenox, and Putterham Meadows in Brookline.
Perhaps their best-known work is Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, which is being renovated under the guidance of Pennsylvania-based golf course architect Gil Hanse, who also designed the private Boston Golf Club in Hingham.
While not changing the “artistic” complexes of greens and bunkers, Hanse said there were several reasons to “take a fresh look” at Taconic, which was built in 1927.
Some of the issues are practical, such as clearing overgrown trees. Others are an attempt to help the course keep up with high-tech clubs and balls that produce much longer shots. “You could have a bunker on the left at 180 yards and a bunker on the right at 200, and today you have to add about 30 yards to make it the same shot it used to be,’’ said Hanse.
Hanse cites fellow golf architect Brian Silva, who coined the term “sympathetic restoration” when reworking historic golf courses. In the case of Taconic, Hanse has the advantage of seeing the original plans.
“Whenever you’re dealing with work of a notable architect, you can’t go wrong by referring to the original design,’’ said Hanse.
At South Shore, the original plans have been lost, but McGrail received some guidance last year, when he discovered several yellowed photos of the club from the 1920s.
The overall track, built over a rolling terrain of bedrock, hasn’t changed much. “Nowadays, who knows what they would have done with all this rock? They would have blasted through it,’’ McGrail said. “But back then, they said, 'All right, this is the land we’ve got, and let’s use it.' ’’
Still, the old photos revealed some significant differences, notably the original bunkers with steep turf faces, much like those on some courses in Scotland or Ireland. Sometime in the last few decades, South Shore’s turf faces were replaced by equally steep sand faces.
McGrail calls the current bunkers “kind of a nightmare for maintenance” because the sand easily washes away in heavy rains. “But there aren’t a lot of courses around here that have these sand-flashed bunkers anymore. So when they’re designed well and maintained, they add to the character.’’
He’s less fond of some of the trees that have been planted on what had been a barren landscape. At times, the placement of trees changes the character of the hole; more often, they create maintenance problems. A bank of trees behind the Par 3 11th, for example, blocked the sun from the green and made it difficult for grass to grow. The trees were cut down last year.
“It’s a battle every time I cut a tree down, because people get attached to it, whether it makes sense to have the tree there or not,’’ McGrail said. “They’ve been playing the hole that way forever; they get emotional.’’
Bob King, president of the club’s Men’s Association, said most members don’t have any real problem with cutting down trees. “But it depends on where the trees are....If they’re strategically placed, removing them can affect how the course is played,’’ said King, who added that this has happened only in a couple of cases.
Since McGrail began at South Shore three years ago, he has lengthened three holes -- 4, 11, and 17. Because the average size of the greens is only about 7,000 square feet, there’s a limit to how much he can extend the course and keep it fair for most golfers.
As it is, there’s plenty of punishment provided by Stiles’s elevated greens (Hole #3 shown above), which often are connected to a narrow neck that runs between two bunkers and drops off sharply toward the fairway. The rough around the greens used to be two inches high, which would hold shots that landed short. Now the neck areas are closely mown, so hit the ball short and watch it roll down the hill, leaving a 40- or 50-yard pitch.
The biggest change, however, was simply the course’s overall condition. “There was dirt everywhere. Dirt on the greens. Dirt on the fairways,’’ McGrail said. “If you had played here 5 years ago, I can very much imagine that you’d say, ‘I’m never going back there again.’ ”
Today, dirt still shows through in small patches around the course, but drives that end up on the fairway will almost always get a decent lie on thick turf.
King, who has played at South Shore since the late 1950s, recalls that after the town purchased the course in the mid-1980s, it was closed for a few years and reopened in 1989 in “D-minus minus” condition. That rating had improved to about a C when McGrail took over, King said, and now is “a solid B-plus, if not an A-minus.’’
‘’We can’t say enough about Jay,’’ said King, “he’s a magician.’’
McGrail says he’s still a couple of years away from getting the course to where he wants it. He has proposed a five-year plan that includes renovating the cart paths, and possibly building new tees for holes 7 and 13.
And then there’s the big pine tree to the right of the 18th green (above), where tree roots are starting to reach the surface.
“I’d rather cut down the tree and rebuild the bunkers to protect that side of the green, and then have fescue on that entire hill,’’ said McGrail. “It’s gonna take some convincing because the members absolutely love that tree.”