Fred Waterman, the historian at The Country Club, asserts that the club’s 17th hole is the most important hole in the history of American golf.
It played a pivotal role in all three U.S. Opens at the club, including what many consider the most influential result in championship history: Francis Ouimet’s astounding 1913 playoff victory over British stalwarts Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Add the dramatic swings in fortune that played out there in the 1963 and 1988 U.S. Opens, and Justin Leonard’s across-the-green birdie putt that sealed the USA’s stunning Ryder Cup rally in 1999, and there’s a strong case to be made.
A little-known fact about the hole, nicknamed “Elbow” for its sharp dogleg-left configuration, is that each of the three U.S. Open champions putted on entirely different green complexes.
The hole that Ouimet birdied in 1913 to tie Vardon and Ray in Round 4 – and which he birdied again in the 18-hole playoff while Vardon’s hopes sank after a tee shot into the bunker that bears his name – featured a putting surface that sat well to the left and short of the current green. That green was abandoned by necessity when the road that abuts the property, Clyde Street, was widened in the 1950s.
A new green was built in 1958 by longtime New England course architect Geoffrey Cornish, and that green was rebuilt and reshaped in 1985 by Rees Jones as part of his remodeling of the course ahead of the 1988 U.S. Open.
In fact, according to Stephen Pellegrino, the club’s vice chairman for the U.S. Open, the hole that is now the 17th originated as a par 3 on the six-hole layout that was the club’s first foray into golf in the early 1890s.
“When the course was expanded to nine holes [by its first professional, Willie Campbell] in about 1900, the tee was moved back and it became a dogleg par 4,” said Pellegrino. “That hole resembled what you see now, basically the same routing.”
Another aspect of No. 17 that adds to its notoriety is its proximity to the childhood home of Ouimet, which sits a few hundred yards from the present-day green. Ouimet could see the hole from his second-floor bedroom window, and he cut through it on his way to elementary school before he became a caddie at the club. His upset win that was chronicled in the Mark Frost book “The Greatest Game Ever Played” helped make golf popular among the masses in the U.S. for the first time.
“The original green had an opening on the right side, and due to the contour of the land, you could try to play a running shot onto the green rather than attempting to fly the bunkers in front,” said Pellegrino, who worked with architect Gil Hanse and Dave Johnson, TCC’s director of grounds, on a recent course restoration.
As the story goes, the 15-foot birdie putt that Ouimet made in Round 4 on the original green was witnessed by Vardon and Ray, who had finished earlier and came out to watch him complete his round. The British legends perhaps got their first inkling there that the young amateur would be no pushover in the next day’s 18-hole playoff. By the time they arrived at the hole in the playoff, Ray was well behind, and Vardon trailed by one. His gamble to skirt the dogleg and gain a shorter approach failed, and Ouimet birdied again to Vardon’s bogey to clinch the upset.
To add to Hole 17 lore, Arnold Palmer lipped out a 2-foot putt to make bogey in the final round in 1963, while Julius Boros birdied. Jacky Cupit, who came to the hole with a two-stroke lead but didn’t know it, hit his tee shot into an awkward lie and went on to make a three-putt double bogey. Boros birdied the hole again in his playoff victory, as Palmer suffered the second of what would become three U.S. Open playoff losses in five years.
“The Cornish green was farther to the right and farther down-range of the original green,” said Pellegrino. “It featured something of a hogback and a cloverleaf bunker in front. Of note is that Cornish placed a bunker to the right of the green that eliminated the ground-game option of the original green.”
The configurations of the greens varied as well, with the original featuring a circular shape, the Cornish green more of an oval shape – wider than it was deep – and the current green created by Jones is much deeper than it is wide, with a small second tier in the back.
That second tier nearly cost Curtis Strange the first of his back-to-back Open titles, as he held a one-stroke lead coming to this hole in the final round in 1988. He had a slippery 15-foot birdie putt from above the hole and knocked it 6 feet by. When he missed the comebacker, he was tied with Faldo, although he prevailed in the 18-hole playoff the next day.
When Hanse, Johnson and Pellegrino came to No. 17 during the recent course restoration, they reworked some of the green contours and made the bunkers more visually prominent, but some options were not viable.
“We couldn’t recreate the original green here, because of all the earth-moving that would be required,” said Pellegrino. “Also, the Justin Leonard putt added its own history, so we wanted to keep the two-tiered green. We still wanted to give a nod to the past, though, so we added a bunker at the back right, along with some mounds that evoke the mounding from the original green. No one is ever again going to putt on the green that Francis Ouimet putted on, but we were still able to shine a light on it and introduce a piece of it that was lost.”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.