BROOKLINE, Mass. – So here’s a (highly unconfirmed) story they like to tell out here. It was sometime in the late 1990s, before the introduction of the solid core golf ball and golf’s subsequent distance spike. Jack Nicklaus was in town, visiting The Country Club for a round. He was being considered by TCC officials as a candidate to re-work the course in preparation for the 1999 Ryder Cup and was there surveying the property. How’s this for a weighty moment? Here was unmistakably (at the time) the greatest player to ever live, out there strolling around a hyper-exclusive club that proudly counts itself among the five founding members of the United States Golf Association, trying to decide what needed to change.
For a place with a deep history, Nicklaus’ personal lore was (and is) oddly limited at The Country Club. Decades earlier, as a 17-year-old, he traveled to Boston and reached the fourth round of the US Amateur here. But as a pro, he missed cuts in both the 1963 and 1988 US Opens. Those tournaments were played out on the club’s championship course routing.
OK, try to follow along here. The Country Club, often simply referred to as Brookline, for the sake of clarity, or TCC, for the sake of brevity, is made up of three nines – the Clyde, the Squirrel and the Primrose. The Clyde and the Squirrel nines comprise the club’s main course, the one holding lofty spots in all the annual course rankings. The championship course, meanwhile, is the routing regularly used to host major championship golf. It’s a composite of mix-and-match of holes, using both the Clyde and the Squirrel, plus three full holes from the Primrose nine.
Nicklaus, on this visit, one that followed his bid a decade earlier to possibly renovate the course for the 1988 US Open, explored the entirety of the layout. He made his way around the main course, the one typically played by members, made the turn, and arrived at the 12th hole. He climbed a few steps to a crown of higher ground, a tee box at one of the highest points on the property. Today, following the removal of hundreds of trees over the past decade, you can see a lot from there.
And you can also overlook what’s right front of you – a quirky little 130-yard par-3.
The green down there? It feels big, like a pad upon which to genuflect, but the hole itself is small, almost cramped. Four bunkers crowd the green. A big ol ‘trash can in front, stretching all the way from left to right, and three dotting the left side. The green looks huge, right there in front of you, barely 100 yards to carry the front bunker, and it’s downhill. At least, it looks downhill. You tell yourself, it has to be downhill. From the tee, you think a good overhand throw might be enough to get on in one.
Nicklaus surveyed the 12th and asked for a number. His caddy, a local looper, responded: “125, middle.” What Nicklaus heard, though, or thought he heard, was 125 to the stick.
Nicklaus pulled his 9-iron. He drew the club back and struck one pure, high and true. It dropped in the dead center of the green, about 15 or 20 feet short of the pin – a pin that was, in fact, in the back of the green, probably closer to 135, maybe 140.
Nicklaus turned, eyes screwed deeply into his head, and stared at the caddy.
“That,” he snarled, “was my hundred-and-twenty-five-yard club.”
There are a few lessons here.
First, if you should find yourself giving yardage to Jack Nicklaus, be sure to repeat yourself.
Second, in the lore of The Country Club, Nicklaus’ 9-iron may stand as a testament that the 12th is perhaps – despite all five senses telling you otherwise – not downhill. This is despite a topography that is clearly downhill and that, according to Hanse Golf Course Design, measures as a 30-foot drop. But, hey, if it was 125 to the middle, and Jack Nicklaus hit his 125 club to the middle, then, guess what, it’s 125 to the middle. This is why, to this day, the local caddies tell you to play it level.
Lastly, and most importantly, isn’t it wonderful how a wee little par-3 can make even the most powerful players feel so utterly small?
For both of them and for us, there’s such an emotional tangle that comes with lining up over what seems like the simplest shot into a short par-3. The green is right there. So close you can touch it. The number on the card sounds so attainable, so comically simple. 110? 120? It’s maybe the only full shot in golf that both the pro and the high-handicapper anticipates with a degree of glee. The mind wanders. Man, an ace would be cool. Just an easy swing, that’s all it takes. But then you’re over the ball, you glance upon that green, and something changes, like a pitcher trying to hit a shrinking strike zone. Wait, was that a gust of wind?
Not so easy anymore, is it?
Inevitably you pull one left or fan one right; pound one long or leave it short. You’re left with an annoying chip or some long, winding lag. Maybe you scramble for a par or leave with a bogey. Maybe worse. You stuff your putter back in the bag. How the hell did that happen? Now you’re onto the next tee with the empty feeling of a missed opportunity. You were goaded into over-thinking, over-aiming and under-performing.
Members of the media were invited to play Brookline on Monday and, clearly, I made my way to Boston to do so. (Folks, that’s not a summons you ignore.) My group arrived at this dainty little par-3 around mid-afternoon, under a canopy of heavy clouds. This – what seemsingly worth to a pitch-and-putt – was a welcomed relief after being kicked around by long par-4s and guarded par-5s. The pin sat nestled front left. “One-twelve to the hole. Into it, ”my caddy said of the yardage and the wind. In my bag, that’s a 52-degree wedge. I addressed the ball, leaned my weight into my heels, straightened my back. No problem, I thought. Smooth swing, man.
Something about those short par-3s, though, you know? There’s no reason to swing hard or swing fast. None. None at all. Yet, somewhere between my back swing and my down swing, I decided, “Shit, not enough club,” and torqued things a notch. A little harder, a little stronger. Of course, I jacked it long, landing back-left, a pace or two off the green, into the thick stuff that bunts up against the dance floor. I looked at the club, as if it deceived me. A chip and two putts later, I left with a bogey, feeling like an asshole.
That’s why these holes are great. There’s something wonderful about the mental rope-a-dope of a short par-3. Proof that nothing is as easy as it looks.
The problem is, for the last century, the 12th at Brookline was one of three holes from The Country Club’s main course excluded in the championship routing. The general public didn’t even know it was there. Players would take an extended walk from the eighth green to the ninth tee, having no clue what was beside them, asking to play.
The 12th was not used for Lawson Little’s US Amateur win in 1934 or in Julius Boros’ playoff win in the 1963 US Open. It was bypassed during Curtis Strange’s playoff win over Nick Faldo in the ’88 Open. It was in the shadows for the immortal Ryder Cup in 1999 and when the likes of Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele played in the 2013 Amateur. It was last used in major championship play when Francis Ouimet won the 1913 US Open, when there were only 18 holes on the property.
Now, though, comes a correction in history. At next month’s 122nd US Open, the 12th on Brookline’s main course will morph into the 11th hole of the composite course, replacing the traditional fourth hole in the old routing, and will play as long as 140 yards or as short as 105. It will be, in a sport so focused on defending against distance, a bow to the importance of a soft grip and a firm wedge.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
Why the change? For one, to utilize this gem, but also for logistics. According to USGA’s Jeff Hall, the re-routing makes for better movement around the course, eliminating long, meandering walks for the player, and allowing for an easier transition to the two-tee start on Nos. 1 and 10 now used at the US Open, instead of the single-tee start of yesteryear.
It is not, though, as if adding the short par-3 came as some passing decision. This was the plan as part of golf architect Gil Hanse’s recent wide-scale restoration at The Country Club. While the 12th was nearly used for the 2013 Amateur, Hanse and the USGA ultimately decided to hold off on incorporating it into the championship routing. Once post-amateur renovations began, the USGA, Hanse and club officials all agreed to move forward with the idea.
Prior to the restoration, the green had been hemmed in on all sides, shrinking over time to well under 3,000 square feet. Hanse pulled the green back on all sides, covering those corners like saran wrap, stretching it back out to 4,500 square feet. Now the putting surface goes beyond the edges of the elevated green, creating run-offs all around the green and expanding the space for some potentially gnarly pin placements in a major championship setting.
It remains to be seen just how short the USGA will set up the hole come tournament time. (If it were up to me, I’d get nuts and go to the forward tees in one round, watch these guys try to flip half-lob wedges in there, but, alas, I don’t see it happening.) likely, it’ll fall somewhere in the 110-135 range, joining no. 7 at Pebble Beach and No. 13 at Merion as the shortest holes in US Open golf over the past decade.
Last year, at Torrey Pines, the shortest par-3 of the week came when the 195-yard third hole was pushed up to 135 during the third round. In 2020, the 162-yard seventh at Winged Foot played at 148 in the second round.
But where’s the fun in that?
At Brookline, the 11th will be a short, simple hole played by strong men with otherworldly talent. They will arrive on that tee box seeing an opportunity, envisioning a circled 2 on the scorecard, maybe a 1 (!), Thinking of the million perfect wedges they’ve hit in their lives. Then they’ll draw their clubs back and golf’s forces will take over and nothing will be as simple as it seems. Sometimes down is up in this game, right? We can all relate. Even Jack.
He never did get the gig, by the way.
(Top photo: Courtesy Russell Kirk / USGA)