Winnapaug bears the hallmarks of legendary golf-course designer

Winnapaug bears the hallmarks of legendary golf-course designer


Course architect Donald J. Ross has been called the Michelangelo of golf, and in the 1920s he practiced his art on a large expanse of Westerly.

Golfers today can clearly see classic elements of Ross’ designs at the Winnapaug Country Club, which officially opened with nine holes on the drizzly Fourth of July of 1922. As Maria Luzzi, one of the new owners, said, the course “is a unique landmark within the Westerly community.”

A 1998 members handbook prepared by the previous owners, the Buck family, noted that typical golf course tracts of 100 to 150 acres required architects to lay out parallel, overlapping fairways, creating the potential for congested play and crisscrossing shots.

However, at Winnapaug, “With a 500-acre tract, largely wooded hill land to select from, they chose a layout which in most instances followed the valleys, leaving the hills between for development purposes, yet at various points the course climbs up into the hilltops, from which wonderful forest and marine views are to be had.”

There are only a couple places on the course where players might encounter an oncoming “Fore!”, and the borders of the property are indeed lined with many well-built homes. The whole layout combines Ross’ naturalistic approach with challenging greens and green-side slopes that put a premium on accuracy. A hole-by-hole description in The Sun published on July 5, 1922, shows that the course operated on both sides of Shore Road from the very beginning, with informal play starting in 1921. Today’s wide-open No. 10, “across the meadows to the edge of the pond,” was originally No. 6.

In 1926, the second nine holes opened, and in 1931 the course first opened to public play — “Fee $1.00.”

In 1944, the handbook says, the course was closed and became an aircraft spotter station. It reopened in 1945.

Twenty years later, George A. Buck, then 17, “became the youngest course superintendent in the U.S.” He went on to become the owner in 1969.

Golf Director Chris Jurgasik said that Buck had “moved a lot of rock and shrubs and dirt — a tremendous amount of work to make it what it is today.”

The course has weathered some storms, including Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when one of the signature holes, No. 12, was covered by floodwater from Winnapaug Pond. Jurgasik said the ground turned black nearly all the way up to the nearest home, about 200 yards to the north. But two months later, he said, the resilient green came back.

Ross had a strong connection with Rhode Island. From 1911 to 1930, his company, which had a branch office in Little Compton, built seven courses in the state and remodeled four others, according to the Donald Ross Society and the Tufts Archives at Pinehurst, N.C. They are all private courses, with the exception of Winnapaug and Triggs Memorial in Providence. The Misquamicut Country Club is listed as one of Ross’ remodeling jobs (1923).

Ross, who died in 1948, laid the foundation for the American golf industry. In 2011, the archives listed 440 projects in the U.S. (with multiple jobs at some courses), plus 14 in Canada and two in Havana, Cuba. More than 60 of the courses were said to no longer be in existence.

Meanwhile, an effort to license its trademark of “Donald Ross” is underway by a company called The Donald J. Ross LLC, headquartered in Little Compton. “We are the guardians of a great golfing legacy,” the firm’s website says.

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