National Treasure

The 10th at Baltimore Country Club (East). Par 4 - 457 yards

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“A natural lake is regarded as a gift of the gods, and any sort of running stream meets with approval.”

A.W. Tillinghast, 1919

By Tillinghast’s lofty standards for dual water hazards, the 10th hole at Baltimore Country Club’s East Course should qualify as a national treasure. The United States Golf Association’s Green Section agrees: It has used an image of the par 4 on the award it’s been giving annually since 1961 for distinguished service to the agronomic side of golf.

On first glance, the fact that a professional association of grass growers thought so highly of the place might not be all that awe-inspiring. But ask anyone who’s played the restored hole and they’ll likely tell you it deserves every accolade. The 10th is a true piece of golden age architectural genius.

Golf’s Gatsby

You can thank course designer A.W. Tillinghast (1874-1942) for that. Old World layouts like BCC’s East Course derive their identity from those with a bold vision and the panache not to compromise. Tillinghast was a flamboyant, Gatsby-like figure who drank and spent his money with manic-depressive intensity; he seemingly embodied all the virtues and excesses of Roaring 20s-era golf. The creator of Winged Foot, San Francisco Golf Club, Quaker Ridge and Baltusrol ended up lonely and broke. But he left a staggering legacy as not only a brilliant course designer, but also an influential golf writer and devotee of turfgrass research. 

Baltimore CC was founded in 1898. The club was originally located in the planned garden suburb of Roland Park, six miles north of downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was among the first 100 country clubs founded in the U.S., with a golf course good enough to hold the 1899 U.S. Open, won by Willie Smith. 

Tillinghast
A.W. Tillinghast, 1926.

Remnants of that first course are still visible today. While the original clubhouse serves as a satellite facility to the members for social events and indoor sports, the club’s outdoor sports amenities today are located eight miles further north of Roland Park in Lutherville, Md. That site was assembled in 1924 from a handful of farm parcels. There, Tillinghast laid out a 36-hole design, but the club built only half of it, the East Course. A West Course did not open until 1961, though by then the club abandoned Tillinghast’s original plans and settled for a very different layout.

The East—better known today as Five Farms—became legendary for its deep, low-lying bunkers, its dramatically contoured greens and outlandish hazards, like the Hell’s Half-Acre bunker on the par-4 14th. It is famous for its indigenous elements, like an old barn that players attempt to drive over on the inside dogleg of the par-5 sixth hole.

The routing has remained the same layout since it opened, good enough for the 1928 PGA Championship (won by Leo Diegel), the 1932 U.S. Amateur (C. Ross Somerville), the 1965 Walker Cup (the U.S & G.B. tied), the 1988 U.S. Women’s Open (Liselotte Neumann) and Senior Players Championships in 2007 (Loren Roberts), 2008 (D.A. Weibring) and 2009 (Jay Haas).

Hazardous creation

Everyone who has played the East Course has had to deal with the seductive charms of the par-4 10th hole, which can stretch from 337 to 457 yards long, with a stream down the left side that leads into a greenside pond. The entirety of the hole tips from right to left. There’s the look of a Japanese lily pond to the greenside water, created when Tillinghast dammed up a stream called Roland Run that coursed through the property. Then he put the green astride the newly created pond. The putting surface, peaked at the back, inclines towards the water hazard. The safe, smart play is up the right side, with an approach coming in just below a mid-right bunker on the green. 

Over the years the hole became overgrown with trees, particularly with a line of weeping willows planted down the left side that obscured the creek and crowded the pond. Those trees effectively overtook about a third of the aerial corridor and the playing space for which the hole was designed. The club knew it needed a change.

The restoration

Back in 2002, the club made two decisive hires. Architect Keith Foster was called in for a modest restoration program, and superintendent Tim Kennelly, CGCS, was brought in to oversee day-to-day maintenance. They’ve been working hand-in-hand ever since. What started as light tree work and fairway expansion has since morphed into a more ambitiously scaled effort that included bunker renovation and, in 2014, a rebuild from the ground up of all the putting surfaces. 

The proverbial “bones” of the place were always sound, but the greens had lost their perimeters and got rounded off. The bunkers showed signs of erosion and no longer sported the vast scale, and their steep-faced, flat-bottom quality that Tillinghast had originally intended. Trees had grown out everywhere. A creek that laced through half the holes, providing a strategic hazard as well as drainage for run-off, had been occluded with tree roots and overhanging canopies.

It helped Foster’s planning that the club had exceptionally good records of its early incarnation, preserved through original design plans as well as hole-by-hole green images and photographs of all the holes from the 1932 U.S. Amateur. 

Back in the 1920s, when mowing heights on greens were between 1/8th and 3/16th of an inch, Stimpmeter speeds on greens would have likely run around 4 to 5. But those are estimates, seeing as it would be a more than a decade before the Stimpmeter was invented. Back then, more extreme surface slopes helped shed water and provide interesting putting, but such contours eventually became unmanageable in the modern era. Thanks to the USGA Green Section, we know that as late as 1977, green speeds at Baltimore CC measured 7.7. Nowadays, mowing heights have come down as expectations have gone up. Greens have to be able to withstand speeds of 11-13 on the Stimpmeter—for which mowing heights down to 1/10th of an inch are standard. 

To achieve that, Foster and the course construction team from McDonald & Sons, Inc. had to micro-engineer a careful “deflating” of the greens, so to speak: keeping the same relative contours of a green while simultaneously toning the whole thing down. Modern GPS technology allows for that. Thanks to multiple readings taken per green—think of it as “a thousand points of light”—the existing contours could be captured, digitized, and then put into a contour map that guided the reconstruction. 

Along the way, the greens got expanded to recapture their original perimeters that had been lost over years of maintenance. The results are bigger greens, with more pinnable hole locations and more varied strategic interest day to day.

Let’s make birdie

Today, golfers at the 10th hole face a fairway that runs 25 feet downhill from the main tees to the green. The fairway tilts considerably, 4 to 5 feet from right to left. But now players have the option of a left-to-right fade off the tee to avoid having to hit a hard draw that could run into the creek. And the green has been “softened,” meaning that what used to be slopes of 4-6 percent are now in the 2-4 percent range. 

The result is that players get to deal with the sensibility of the classical contours, though on surfaces attuned to modern technical specifications achieved by Kennelly and his crew that yield firm, fast playing conditions. 

And if evidence were needed as to the craftsmanship of such restoration work, passage from the 10th green to the 11th tee provides final proof. The last touch of bringing the hole back was recreating a vintage 1920s bridge crossing—all of 20 feet—over Roland Run. Kennelly had an old photo of the original wooden bridge replete with cross-hatching. It was eventually replaced by a generic, store-bought version, with its 4×4 posts painted green. For the new one, Kennelly located a local woodworker, an Amish craftsman, who suggested using Eastern red cedar to rebuild it. He completed the work in his woodshop, shipped it to Baltimore CC, and now it serves as the walk off from the 10th green. 

Like the hole and the rest of the East Course-Five Farms, that bridge is a reminder of the value and little pleasures of golden age craftsmanship. Tillinghast would have merrily approved.