When you ask golfers to name their favorite architect, you’ll likely get several common answers. Many will say, Mackenzie, Ross, or Tillinghast, Some will say Macdonald, Raynor, Banks or some combination of all three. Others may choose the progeny of those great classic designers, such as Doak, Hanse, Coore, and Crenshaw, or Mike Strantz. And still, others might choose the Joneses or Pete Dye.
Sadly, too few people know of Devereux Emmet, an important name among the Pantheon of Golden Age architects who created the iconic designs of that era. Instantly identifiable by his trademark planter’s hat and bushy mustache, Emmet was more than just a contemporary of Macdonald, Ross, Tillinghast, and Mackenzie, they were all friendly, perhaps even friends. Meanwhile, architecturally, they would all trade ideas and riff off of each other, expanding upon or otherwise spinning ideas they gleaned from each other’s work or writings. Emmet even traveled to England and helped Macdonald chart many of the great British courses in preparation for the latter’s building National Golf Links of America.
Emmet’s most famous designs include perennial top-20 ranked Garden City Golf Club, (which we profiled here in January 2018. https://www.golfcoursetrades.com/green-and-gothic-garden-city-still-shines-118-years-later/) Congressional Country Club Blue Course, host of three U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship, (but where much of Emmet’s work has been erased by intervening architects), and Leatherstocking Golf Club in Cooperstown, New York, home course to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Glimmerglass Opera, and the historic Otesaga Hotel. But perhaps nowhere else will you find a more perfectly preserved Emmet design than Long Island’s St. George’s Golf and Country Club.
Now don’t get confused. The original St. George’s, host of 13 Open Championships since 1894, is in England, on the coast of Dover, within pitching distance of the famous white cliffs. According to author Ian Fleming, James Bond was a member there. (He played to a nine handicap.)
But America’s St. George’s is every bit as beguiling, enchanting, and fascinating as its twin across the sea. Like the U.K. links whose style it emulates, it’s an asymmetric out-and-back routing. When Emmet was designing, golf architects were not handcuffed by the hackneyed “Doctrine of Symmetry” (where you MUST have two par-3s and two par-5s on each loop of nine). Rather than force a routing upon the land, Emmet let the terrain dictate the routing, providing an accurate reflection – not interpretation, but reflection – of what the land gave him. There are no par-3s in the first six holes (4-5-4-4-4-5) then four in the next nine holes (3-4-3-4-3-4-4-4-3) before the magnificent 4-3-5 finish.
The 6,230 yards course plays about 350 yards longer because it’s a par-70, not 72, but never feels overly long. Instead, the golf must carefully think his way around the course to avoid cunning cross-hazards, fierce false fronts at several greens, and deep bunkers everywhere. The greens are tiny but sharply contoured and canted. There are few trees, so the wind screams across the landscape, making a mockery of the yardages on the card.
“People always say two things in common about the course,” said Head Superintendent Adam Jessie. “First they say it’s the hardest 6,200-yard golf course they ever played. And second, they say the course looks timeless like you’ve been magically transported 100 years in the past.”
That’s the best compliment both a Golden Age course and a superintendent of a Golden Age Course could ask for. Jessie earned it. His pedigree in the industry is sterling; he’s worked several major championships and USGA events as part of the grounds crew, including the 1995 U.S. Open. Born a humble farm boy from rural Colorado, his homespun knowledge of how to care for the land coupled with his open-hearted good nature brought him into the orbits of Brian Schneider and Mark Michaud, the former now a design associate with Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, the latter being one of the pre-eminent superintendents in the history of the craft. Schneider helped Jessie secure an internship at Augusta National while also pursuing a degree in turfgrass management from Colorado State’s superb program.
“Following working at Augusta I returned to school to finish my last year and was able to secure a job at Shinnecock Hills. The opportunity to be part of the U.S. Open preparation was exciting,” Jessie said gratefully, recalling fondly the five-and-a-half years he spent there before coming to St. George’s in 2006. “The reclamation that we implemented at Shinnecock included extensive tree removal, bunker reconstruction, and greens restoration, [and] the program that we implemented there was nearly the same as what we did at St. George’s.”
Enter Gil Hanse, right now perhaps the world’s most in-demand architect. Together, Hanse’s design team and Jessie’s maintenance crew did extensive tree removal, rebuilt and repositioned the deep and whimsically-shaped bunkers, and corrected grassing lines. Best of all, they were able to complete nearly all the work in house and a greatly reduced price to the club.
“St. George’s was extremely fortunate to have nearly everything in place. It just needed to be cleaned up,” Jessie explained. “I equate it to finding a Monet in the attic and getting it dusted off and polished.”
Best of all, the club has been able to accomplish everything on a modest budget, setting a sterling example for small clubs all across America: a template for how to move forward with sustainability while also increasing conditioning.
“One of the things that I am most proud with regard to the work we have accomplished on the course is that…we do not have the latest and greatest equipment on the market; actually we have several pieces of equipment that we purchased in the early 1980s,” noted Jessie. “We have a modest budget and equipment fleet, [but] we have everything we need to provide good conditions for the membership. I would say that our fleet rivals that of Shinnecock in the late 1990s….I view it as an old school approach to maintenance, but with the tools to do our job properly.”
Architecturally, St. George’s says more in 6,230 yards then most courses can say in 7,500. Whether it’s the strategic par-5s with their randomly peppered bunkers, or the fearsome spectacles bunkers at te short but treacherous par-3 17th (a nod perhaps to the iconic par-3 16th at St. George’s in the U.K. where Thomas Bjorn dropped a Claret Jug on the ground for Ben Curtis), or breathtaking downhill approaches to the third and 10th greens, Hanse and Jessie’s work has been hailed as a runaway success and the course’s name has re-entered the conversation of the greatest Golden Age courses in America. The restoration is so authentic and the course so perfectly preserved, that one irreverent wag of a guest once described the course as “if National Golf Links and Garden City had a one night stand”.
“If National Golf Links of America is Macdonald’s tribute to the game of golf, then St. George’s is Emmet’s,” Jessie declared proudly, and rightfully so. After all, he and his team are stewarding a club that’s an important mile marker in golf design history and a club that should be studied by every serious architect and student of golf design.
“Emmet may not have a long major championship resume, but his importance and impact on golf design still resonate strongly to this day and will continue because his work was so brilliant.”
When not reporting live from major sports championships or researching golf courses for design, value, and excitement, multiple award-winning sportswriters Jay Flemma is an entertainment, Internet, trademark, and banking lawyer from New York. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Twitter @JayGolfUSA