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Fenwick: An Unknown Gem

by  Anthony Pioppi

A version of the following first appeared in Golfweek's Superintendent News

Here is what the residents of the Borough of Fenwick, Connecticut, want golfers to know about their nine-hole, municipal golf course: nothing.

Publicly, nobody will utter a word about the gem; not the borough warden, not Peter Bulkeley -- who recently published a history of golf in the tiny community and is slated to be the next president of the Connecticut State Golf Association -- not the players who frequent the layout by driving their golf carts from the doorsteps of their large summer homes to the first tee.

On-the-record inquiries are met with terse refusals to speak.

Here is what you should know about Fenwick: it is one of the oldest layouts in Connecticut, dating back to the late 1890s when the first four holes were put in place. It is one of the quirkiest and most charming golf courses in the state with its ocean views, tiny greens, chocolate-drop mounds, a chapel in play and dastardly bunkers. In 1900 Fenwick hosted the Connecticut Open, won by 1898 U.S. Amateur Champion Findlay Douglas, a Connecticut resident. Fenwick is open year-round, but is easier to get on before Memorial Day and after Labor Day than during the summer months.

Borough residents are automatically members. There are an additional 175 members who live in Old Saybrook - the town of which the borough is a part - but not in Fenwick proper. The borough and the course are nestled on the Connecticut coastline at the junctions of Interstate 95 and Route 9. Old Saybrook is a popular summer destination that is home to upscale shops, quaint bed and breakfasts, cozy restaurants, and one charming, well-hidden, nine-hole golf course. Every summer the town is inundated with obnoxious New York tourists (is that redundant?) who drive through the streets at four miles per hour with continuously blinking directionals. Residents of Fenwick say publicity of the golf course will bring more unwanted visitors to the borough's tiny streets and they fear for the safety of the 75 children who inhabit many of the summer-only homes. That is possible, but it is also unlikely. Non-resident golfers have no chance at all of getting a tee time during the summer months when the children are about.

Protecting the next generation of Connecticut bluebloods may be the stated reason for not wanting publicity; the real reason is that the residents disdain outsiders and want to be left alone. There is an abundance of very old, very big money in the borough. Summer homes in this part of the state have 15-plus rooms and the residents arrive by helicopter. The names of the occupants, like Brainard, Morgan and Bulkeley, count politicians, bankers and founders of insurance companies in their family trees.

While residents of Fenwick will not bring attention to their course, when asked to talk privately they downright gush about the layout. They will enlighten visitors to the course's intricacies and spout off information such as how the original section of the sixth green, nearly perfectly round, is rumored to be the oldest green in the state. 'It's 13 paces across and 13 paces from top to bottom,' one resident who asked not to be identified said. 'I've measured it many times.' And so he has. It is, in fact, 13 paces, no matter what tack you take across the surface.

The green was doubled in size a few years ago when the superintendent merely lowered the mowing heights on an area in front of the original section, creating a wonderful two-tiered putting surface. A four-foot high berm fronts the green which, according to Marion Hepburn Grant's book, The Fenwick Story, is actually a stone wall from the old Lunde Farm, which dates back to the early 1700s. The section was covered over with dirt and seeded. A bunker running nearly the length of the berm was part of the original design. That was removed in the last 10 years.

There are no typical conditions at Fenwick. The prevailing winds in the summer are a sharp contrast to those of spring and fall. They can rise and subside in a matter of minutes whipping off the nearby ocean. During the winter the Connecticut shore gets little snow compared to the rest of the state thanks to a sea breeze. Tee markers are moved to temporary positions, but the greens remain open.

During the coldest months Fenwick becomes a haven for many of Connecticut's die-hard golfers. If the thermometer is over 30 degrees and the wind-chill factor is low, there are golfers. If the temperature rises to 40, the place is packed. Fenwick is very much a links style golf course. Built on sandy soil at the mouth of the Connecticut River, it has no fairway irrigation. Only tees and greens get watered regularly. That means unless there has been a recent soaking rain, the course plays firm. Greens are tiny and flow with the contour of the land. The eighth hole, a 246-yard, dogleg par-4 has the only elevated green and the only bunker fronting a putting surface. All other holes encourage the run-up shot. When the course is baked in summer, or hardened by winter's chill, flying shot to the greens will always result in a ball sailing long.

The golf course can trace its roots back to 1896. In Grant's book, she quotes from the writings of Newton Brainard, whose book on the borough was printed early in the early 1900s. 'The first course was laid out by Minnie Houghton and Miss Luc M. Brainard who made the first flags themselves and, I'm sure, secured the tomato cans for the holes,' Newton Brainard wrote.

A non-denominational chapel that is still in use, St. Mary's By-The-Sea, comes into play on the 429-yard first hole. It was originally built in 1880 and moved to its present site in 1886, according to Grant's book, when the bell tower and more pews were added. A tee ball into the right rough requires the player to negotiate the structure.

A 300-yard walk along one of the borough's quaint little streets is required to play the second, a 202-yard doozy. While the fairway bunker appears to be woefully out of place from the current teeing ground, notice the overgrown tee on the back left corner of the property. Then look to the right of the bunker and you will see the former green site, and that bunker placement suddenly makes sense. All in all, five present or former teeing grounds can be found on the long three-shotter.

It is the next pair of holes, to many, that make the golf course. The 157-yard third hole ends at a three-tiered green that is just over 2,500 square feet. The top level is 46 feet at its widest, while the bottom section can see a flag placed in an area that is about 30 feet wide. The length of the narrow green is about 70 feet.

The putting surface is guarded on the left by a deep, wide bunker. On the right is a series of chocolate-drop mounds that hide a tiny pot bunker. Hitting it long results in the ball coming to rest in tangled rough or sends the player down 15 stairs to and area that is nearly 20 feet below the green level. While it is the second shortest hole on the course, it may just be the toughest tee shot since for much of the year it plays directly into the wind coming off South Cove.

From there it is off to the par 4/5 fourth hole. From the front tees it is an innocuous 370-yard par-4. Take the 80-yard walk to the tiny back tee that juts out into the ocean. From there the hole becomes a 443-yard par-5 with a Cape Hole-like tee shot over a corner of South Cove. While the green is clearly in view, the landing area can be obscured by bushes and trees. Hook the ball and you could find yourself at the back of the third green. A good tee shot can bring eagle into play, but the green is the most severely sloped on the course. Par, even on a calm day, is a good score.

Three short par-4s, and one par-3 are negotiated before arriving at the home hole, a 506-yard, straight-away par 5, once replete with a series of penal fairway pot bunkers that were removed in the late 1980s after residents kept driving golf carts into them.

The ninth fairway has, according to local legend, served as a landing strip for the airplane of Howard Hughes when he came to pick up his date, Fenwick resident Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn frequented the layout for many years, even recording a hole-in-one. A photo of her in Grant's book not only shows Hepburn's trademark grace and style but also shows the setup of an adept player. Fenwick is not a place where Hepburn came to hide from fame as so many celebrities do in Connecticut's tiny upscale towns. Fenwick has been, for more than a hundred years, home to the Hepburn clan. Katherine, an avid golfer, won the Fenwick Ladies Chipping and Putting Contest in 1942 and '49. Her parents also golfed.

It is not just the golf course that is quirky, but also Fenwick itself. One of only four recognized boroughs in the state, Fenwick residents pay taxes, to Old Saybrook, and the borough. The head greenkeeper for the golf course is also in charge of collecting trash and plowing snow for Fenwick's residents. The borough provides her with a home near the course.

So here's the deal. Go play Fenwick. Don't drive around the neighborhood. Don't ask were Katherine Hepburn lives. Don't ask for directions to Johnny Ads (which serves the best fried clams anywhere) until you've exited the course.

Just golf and enjoy one of the state's hidden gems. Oh yeah, and don't tell them I sent you.

 

Anthony Pioppi is a senior writer for Golfweek's Superintendent News.

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