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Improving Their Lot

The cars parked on this Brookline muni’s fairways for the U.S. Open will provide an avenue for the course’s renaissance
Brookline

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When the blimps, drones and giraffe-necked camera trucks return to Brookline for the 122nd U.S. Open, the pictures they’ll beam out to the golf-watching world will look different. Just like seemingly every classic club set to host a major these days, The Country Club recently enlisted Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner’s team to stretch shrunken greens, deepen greenside bunkers, and generally stiffen the test. But when the lens widens and the players, fans and officials look like ants scurrying across a mottled green picnic blanket, sharp-eyed viewers will be drawn to the margin of the picture. 

There, separated from The Country Club’s pristine fairways only by a thin treeline and a rotting chain-link fence, sits another engaging and historic 18-hole golf course. One designed by golden-age architects, with enough character and intrigue to slake any purist’s thirst. A course so near and dear to the area’s heart that the statue of its preeminent sporting hero, Francis Ouimet, graces the front entrance here, rather than the site of Ouimet’s greatest triumph next door. A course shouldering a massive and destructive burden during the Open, but one primed to rise to a place of prominence in the years to come.

Welcome to Putterham Meadows: Brookline’s municipal golf course, and the greatest parking lot in the game.

Putterham’s sixth, eighth, and 10th greens, with Brookline and Boston beyond

“Right now, we’ve got approximately 800 parking spots [on the golf course],” says Justin Lawson, the course’s third-year general manager, whose first internship out of Florida State took him inside the gates of his glitzier neighbor.

“I worked with a lot of the folks that are running the day-to-day operations over there,” Lawson says, “And our proximity to The Country Club made it a natural fit to help them with whatever they need. Obviously, the modern Open is totally different than the Open that was here in ’88, and even the Ryder Cup in ’99. [This US Open] is much bigger than anything Brookline has experienced before, so their needs are greater.”

In an online letter in January, he detailed the full scope of the course’s service to TCC: “…parking on holes 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, and 11; public safety headquarters in the clubhouse; and media parking and logistics on holes 14 and 15.” In the famously haphazard and high-stress Boston parking environment, Putterham represents an easy-to-access oasis—as long as you can shake your car loose of the mud. 

Improving Their Lot - Brookline Muni
Playing at Putterham is a constant search for higher ground

Rain battered the Boston area on September 19, 1913, as a TCC caddie who lived across from the 17th hole stormed from the middle of the pack to tie for the lead. Umbrellas lined the fairways on the final day of the U.S. Open, and the tournament instated a one-day local rule “to the effect that a ball that came down heavily on the green and got stuck might be loosened by the referee.” Ouimet completed his Cinderella victory the following day, by which time, most of that water had slouched its way off the golf course and into lower, wetter confines.

The marshy, wooded area that now houses the course served as a tree farm during those years—some of its hemlocks still dot the fairways today. Some 20 years after Ouimet’s historic win, Brookline called in the vaunted New England golf architecture team of Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek to lay out a community course in the shadow of The Country Club. Opened in 1932 as Brookline Municipal Golf Club, today the club’s officially called the Robert T. Lynch Municipal Golf Course, but locals refer to the course as Putterham Meadows, the name of an adjoining neighborhood. Name aside, players have always enjoyed its clever routing, delicately perched greens and one of the only public driving ranges close to the city. 

The architects made phenomenal use of the property’s undulations, designing standout holes like the drive-and-pitch fourth hole; the back-to-back left-bending 6th and 7th holes (both of which hug TCC’s boundary fence); the stretch of Nos. 10-12 which plays over, back up, and down the rear slope of a treacherous ridge; and the 13th and 16th, near carbon copies whose adjoining tabletop greens adorn the crown of Putterham’s southernmost rise. 

The raised greens allowed these crucial areas to drain better, and also left the course with a number of sensational approach shots. But as Kevin Mendik reports in his book The Life and Work of Wayne Stiles, the site simply did not cater to golf: “…the soil over much of the area was primarily rich black peat up to 30 feet deep—prime habitat for mosquitoes. Attempts were made to drain the area, but because of the deep peat, the water table was lowered somewhat, but it was by no means a lasting solution. The area was practically devoid of soil, strewn with ledge outcroppings, myriad size boulders, decaying stumps and thick underbrush.” 

The town spared no expense in the building process, bringing in truckloads of dirt and lime, but the battle to stay dry at Putterham will likely always be a losing one. Enter Lawson with a sobering fact: “We have a watershed around the golf course of almost a square mile, and all that stormwater comes into our golf course and exits at only one point: into a big creek on the left of the first hole.” 

Culverts, creeks, and underground channels in various states of disrepair crisscross the muni, engaged in a Sisyphean effort to carry water from the myriad low areas to somewhere even lower. It all adds up to a squelchy situation underfoot, and the knowledge on a handful of holes that as soon as your tee shot leaves Earth, it hasn’t the faintest prayer of escaping its pitchmark. 

Lawson reports that TCC sits “about 15 feet” above the elevation of his course, and as the saying goes: shit runs downhill.

Improving Their Lot - Brookline Muni
Taking aim at Putterham’s floating 16th green

On the first page of Rick Reilly’s 1996 novel Missing Links, his protagonist Raymond Lee Hart reports that the Ponkaquogue Municipal Golf Links and Deli was “named by Golf Illustrated as ‘possibly the worst golf course in America.’” It’s a mildly amusing trope he hammers home on page three, on which Hart complains: “To us, Ponky was unquestionably the worst golf course in America, and if you didn’t believe it, you should’ve come and tried to break 90 on our Astroturf tees and tractor-pull fairways and greens about as soft and puttable as Boylston Street.”

Reilly’s novel borrows liberally from the culture and characters at Ponkapoag Golf Course in the nearby town of Canton, but his plot inspiration is pure Brookline: a gang of “Chops” engage in “The Bet,” a hijinks-filled contest to become the first to play golf at the neighboring Mayflower Club, “only the finest, snootiest, private, white, sperm-dollar country club on the eastern seaboard.” 

In the book, Mayflower and Ponky are separated by a brick wall and a hedge, not a chain-link fence, and the attempts to cross this barrier in his book are met with much less success than the numerous real-life sorties made by Putterham teens into the emerald world of TCC. Simply head straight into the woods beyond Putterham’s sixth green, engage in a bit of acrobatics, and you’ll find yourself in Narnia. Just don’t tell them we sent you; uninvited guests are a no-no over there.

Whether it’s Ponky or Putterham, Reilly’s protagonist sums up the neighborhood relationship neatly: “It was like living next to Howard Hughes. You knew he was there. Everyone told you he was there. You sensed he was there. But he never came over to borrow sugar.”

As for the description of the Mayflower Club’s annual gala, the Mayflower Carousel? “There would be so many guests it would overwhelm the Mayflower’s small parking lot. No problem. For those four days, they would park on our golf course…That’s what Ponky was to the Mayflower. Emergency parking.”

Improving Their Lot - Brookline Muni
The drop-shot 12th plays into a natural stone amphitheater.

Lawson freely admits that with Putterham’s drainage issues and years of neglect, many have saddled it with the tag of “worst golf course in Boston.” But in a twist Reilly would love, the widespread damage wrought by the Open will represent the first step on the road to recovery: the USGA is paying for its parking lot.

“They are parking in areas that are relatively close to TCC, and those are also holes that could use some restoration efforts,” Lawson says. “I think this is a win-win situation: we’re able to help the USGA, help our friends at the Country Club, but we’re also helping ourselves at the same time. The U.S. Open is the large drop of water in our bucket, and anytime there’s a drop, there’s a ripple pattern.”

The largest ripple will be the recently unveiled master plan, developed by Lawson and his team along with celebrated area architect Mark Mungeam. The USGA’s stipend will go a long way toward offsetting the architect fees and construction costs of the multi-year project, by far the most ambitious effort that the course has seen since it opened. 

The plan is an architecture wonk’s dream, with detailed notes on each new bunker, fescue mound and additional tee. Key to Putterham’s future success, however, are two major initiatives: a thorough attempt to fix the course’s drainage, and a wholesale re-routing of the layout. The only holes to remain in their current order are Nos. 16, 17, and 18. Notes like “Develop wetland storage” abound. A short-game area will complement Putterham’s popular range. They’re adding an honest-to-goodness collection and irrigation pond beside the swamp masquerading as the ninth fairway. In the world of Boston municipal golf, this is Earth-shaking news.

While the blue bloods next door will be largely unaffected, Putterham’s revitalization will benefit the entire Boston golf community. Despite its location in tony Brookline, Putterham is every bit a true everyman muni. Unlike other public courses in town where weekend tee times can be harder to find than a parking spot during a snowstorm in Southie, the course has no preferred tee times or members.

“Somebody in my first year caught me off guard with a question,” says Lawson. “A staffer called me on the radio and he goes, ‘What’s the dress code? We have somebody calling.’ I said, ‘Just have them wear clothes. It’s all good. Just come have fun.’

Lawson extends that ethos to the driving range, which serves thousands of golf-hungry Bostonians: “When you come to hit balls on the range, everybody’s like, ‘Can we rent clubs?’ No, we have so many lost and found clubs. We’re going to give you clubs. You take these clubs home so when you come back, you have clubs to play.”

Teams from Brookline High School to Harvard practice on the course, while the young, old, well-heeled and working class all take aim at its tilted greens, then commune on the patio of the stately clubhouse to enjoy chef Alex Saenz’s locally famous fried chicken sandwiches. Residents like New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and NHL hall-of-famer Jarome Iginla count among the regulars, and are given the same treatment as the 30-year lifers grinding through their Tuesday morning games.

“People come here just to be ordinary,” Lawson says. “I think sometimes people go to private clubs to be extraordinary. I look at the opportunity that we have. The Country Club can provide the greatest private club experience out of any club in America. My goal is to provide the best possible public experience in our area. We have a well-appointed property, we have the only range in town. We have a beautiful, historic, cool clubhouse with an amazing food and beverage operation. We have this golf course, and if we can fix this golf course, man, we can be that muni that’s available to everybody.”

It’s a tall order, and after hundreds of tire tracks carve channels through the soggy fairways, it might look downright impossible. But if you were handicapping the field at the 1913 U.S. Open, you wouldn’t have given the scrappy local kid a whisper of a chance, and we all know how that turned out.