Five Farms' greens are due for a new old look which will make putters cry

John Steadman

September 18, 1991|By John Steadman

Bent on uncovering the past with a set of plans that hadn't been examined in decades has led to an important rediscovery for the Baltimore Country Club's famed Five Farms East course. It's an intriguing development and a revealing insight into a long-forgotten aspect of the original concept that was created and nurtured by the noted architect, Albert Tillinghast.

The size and shape of the greens, which is an important characteristic in measuring the difficulty of play-ability, were inadvertently altered with the passing of time. Now Five Farms is restoring the exact dimensions that were in vogue when the facility opened in 1924. It's a demanding layout as is, but the putting part of the game figures to be increased in severity.

Golfers are going to be dealing with additional space on virtually every green, which will present increased problems in estimating the degree of break and the sensitive touch of the putter blade. Paul Spellman, the club's general manager, explained how it all evolved.

He was talking with Jack Emich, a longtime member and a USGA official, about conditions at Five Farms and what improvements and corrections, if any, might be instituted. Emich told Spellman he remembered seeing a blueprint of what Tillinghast, highly revered in his field, had designed and wondered what the passing of time may have physically altered.

"We have a walk-in vault at the club," said Spellman. "Jack went in there and in the back found what he was looking for, the actual drawings Tillinghast had utilized. And we also had aerial photos of the 1932 PGA Championship played here. It was quickly obvious the surfaces of the greens, for some reason, had decreased in size over the years."

Meanwhile, Five Farms had formed a search committee, headed by Paul Obrecht, to investigate and interview potential superintendents for a vacancy that existed at Five Farms. Doug Petersan, an acclaimed agronomist and chief superintendent for the last 12 years at the prestigious Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., was selected for the position.

While Petersan was visiting the course for a walk-through, he became interested in the "digs" around the 18th hole. He, too, wanted to see how far the greens extended before nature began its unrelenting effort to assert itself and take away some of the contour.

There was so much enthusiasm expressed among the membership for what was going on that Spellman says this was another reason for Petersan deciding to leave Prairie Dunes and come to Baltimore. Of course, salary, personal benefits and the exalted standing of the Five Farms layout, ranked 47th among the leading U.S. courses and 74th world-wide, also helped influence his decision.

But, historically, the find by Emich in the vault of the Tillinghast papers touched off a wave of curiosity and has become an item of conversation but not consternation. Not yet anyhow. "With the larger greens," remarked Spellman, "it will make for even tougher pin placements. It will just take a different club to reach the target, especially if the flags are in the back."

How could this reduction of the putting surface have occurred? The grass just didn't grow in overnight. Spellman offers two theories and both have validity. He says some veteran Five Farms golfers point out the club was closed for two years during World War II.

It was during this span, perhaps, that the fairway grasses eroded the greens and, when play resumed, the earlier dimensions were lost in the process of reopening the course. He also believes that constant mowing, seven times a week, 42 weeks a golf year, could have compounded the situation and added to the "mystery."

Spellman estimates the greens are going to be 30 percent larger when the East course is ready for activity next spring, which will change the contours, meaning the "peaks" and "valleys", while adding to the ordeal of getting putts to fall. "Hole No. 9 [acknowledged to be one of the toughest to read] will have even more dramatic possibilities for pin placements than ever before. And holes No. 1, 7 and 18 are going to be different," he advised.

Soil probes have absolutely established what the Tillinghast schematic drawings show -- that the greens were larger when Five Farms was built and the passing of time brought on a contraction. For the purists, who revel in tradition, the mistake is being corrected -- even if more three-putt greens are going to increase the pain and add to the frustration of coping with a classic test of golf.

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