At 125 years old, New Haven is a walk in the Park

At 125 years old, New Haven is a walk in the Park

New Haven Country Club’s original clubhouse, the clubhouse as it looks today and an aerial view of the toughest hole on the course – the par-4 11th – offer a multi-era glimpse at a Connecticut institution.

In 1898, New Haven Country Club was founded in Connecticut and Harry Vardon won the British Open at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland by one stroke over Willie Park Jr. The bond between NHCC, Scottish links golf and Park would be established later to the pride of its members and others whose golfing prowess has been tried on the course.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of New Haven C.C., one of the 12 charter members of the Connecticut League of Golf Clubs, the predecessor to the Connecticut State Golf Association. The club has been the site of 14 Connecticut Amateur Championships, six Connecticut Opens (the most recent in 2022), U.S. Open local qualifiers and countless Boros Challenge Cups (in honor of Connecticut native Julius Boros, a three-time major winner). Another significant achievement is the club’s continuation of conducting its women’s championship, which began 100 years ago.

“With its rich history, I feel like I’m walking on sacred golf ground there.” – Rick Dowling III

Head professional Bill Wallis hails the par-70, 6,560-yard course’s beauty with its trees, elevated terrain and rolling fairways. “It feels getable,” Wallis said. “But it can and often does beat you up. You must drive it to the right spots, but it’s the greens that are so deceiving and demanding.”

CSGA executive director Mike Moraghan said as soon as you approach the clubhouse, modeled after those in Scotland at the turn of the 20th century, you’re excited. “A few steps out of the clubhouse and you’re on a unique, so-expansive practice putting green, and the course is a showcase,” he said.

Some notables from NHCC’s all-time membership list include: Walter Camp, the founder of American football; President William Howard Taft; Eli Whitney III, grandson to the inventor of the cotton gin; and Brett Stegmaier, a PGA Tour player from 2016-18 who won the Connecticut Open last week.

“With its rich history, I feel like I’m walking on sacred golf ground there,” said Rick Dowling III, winner of the 2017, ’19 and ’23 Connecticut Amateur titles.

On the patio overlooking the 18th green, about 300 NHCC members and others celebrated the club’s past on May 26 as part of its official anniversary celebration.

The par-3 ninth at NHCC

Though the club is actually situated in Hamden a few miles up the road, its roots are in New Haven. In 1895, Robert Pryde, a cabinet maker from Scotland, joined with Yale professor Theodore Woolsey and businessman Henry Hotchkiss, to design and build the New Haven Golf Course, which was located near the current Albertus Magnus College.

Woosley disapproved of the increasing number of Yale students on the course. Thus, he and others purchased land near Lake Whitney and established NHCC on March 24, 1898. Pryde, who had been an apprentice and golf club maker at Scotscraig Golf Club in Scotland, was the course builder and designer.

Construction of the clubhouse started in 1899. Attendees of the anniversary celebration gathered outside the red-tiled roof clubhouse, which has been fully modernized through the decades.

During the anniversary program, the club’s second pro, Robert “Bobby” Andrew, was honored.  He was a celebrated golfer at Prestwick St. Nicholas Golf Club in Scotland. He left his family to go to Glasgow and to board a ship to America.

Traditions chairman Michael Deakin speaks at New Haven Country Club’s 125th anniversary celebration.

NHCC traditions chairman Michael Deakin said Andrew listed his occupation as a plumber when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1911. He then had to fill out an official customs form to where he was going to reside. “Andrew wrote, ‘With a friend, RD Pryde at the Country Golf Club in New Haven, Connecticut,’ ” Deakin said.

During the anniversary program, Deakin said Andrew “enriched the lives of members like us who once walked in the exact same place that you now stand. In this way, Bobby’s story is the story of New Haven; it’s really the story of America.”

Andrew brought his family – wife, Susan, daughter, Nellie, and son, Pat – to Connecticut in 1912. Club membership and participation in golf flourished during Andrew’s NHCC tenure.

But he died suddenly in 1929. There was, however, no gravestone for him at Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven. Deakin said the most likely reasons were the unexpectedness of Andrew’s death and the approaching Great Depression.

There is a gravestone today after it was presented to members of Andrew’s family who attended the club’s anniversary celebration.

Andrew was a vital Scottish bridge between Pryde and Park for NHCC. Around 1920 the club’s board of governors decided a complete course redesign was needed. Additional land was purchased, and Park Jr. – a two-time British Open champion, accomplished course architect and future member of the World Golf Hall of Fame – oversaw the New Haven redesign in 1922.

Among his 170 blueprint courses are Olympia Fields in Illinois and Sunningdale in England.

Wallis said the overall objective is “to be true to Park’s original design.”

NHCC, which has 443 active memberships across all classes, looks, in part, to its future in its 125th year by recognizing and honoring such a rich history.

Pedigree putting remains a Park requirement for lower scores at his courses. “A man who can putt is a match for anyone,” is one quote attributed to him.

Evan Beirne displayed such skill in 2010 when he set the NHCC course record with a 58. He had 13 birdies and five pars when the course was a par 71. His scorecard is displayed in the club’s archives.

So too is Park’s course routing map. Wallis, who has been New Haven’s head pro since 2008, had searched for the original map through countless documents and other pieces of paper in the clubhouse and at various members’ homes for more than a decade. His pursuit ended in 2019 when a member discovered it and presented it to him.

Two goals are adding a multi-purpose indoor exercise and practice facility as well as pickleball courts. The club’s board of governors also announced a plan to work with Brian Schneider of Renaissance Golf Design of Traverse City, Michigan, to make the course “the single most authentic and well-preserved Willie Park Jr. course in the United States.” Two such restoration examples could be enlarging some greens and altering some fairway bunkers.

Wallis said the overall objective is “to be true to Park’s original design.”

That is laudable today and will be tomorrow, as it was in the past.

Photos: Courtesy Ben Herms; original clubhouse photo courtesy New Haven Country Club
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