BY BILL BROTHERTON
We all know that Salem Country Club is one of Donald Ross’ greatest achievements and one of the finest golf courses in the world. So when hall of fame golfer-turned NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller opined during the 2001 Senior Open broadcast that all of Salem’s greens had become copycat circles, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
When the 38th U.S. Senior Open returns to Salem CC June 26-July 2, it’ll be evident that the greens have been reshaped and expanded to Ross’ original design. In fact, the entire course has been restored to its 1925 layout.
Ron Forse, the experienced Pennsylvania golf designer who has restored more than 50 Ross courses during his extensive career, spearheaded Salem Country Club’s 1994 bunker restoration prior to its hosting the 2001 U.S. Senior Open.
“Over time, most of the greens had shrunk in size, so the greens were expanded significantly,” Forse said, during the Open Media Day in May. “The benefits, aside from the obvious desire to honor the vision of Donald Ross, are we now have the opportunities for great new pin placements, as there are more flat places for hole location. This was something the members really wanted, and it was not just because the Senior Open was coming.”
Thanks to Tom Standring, the longtime Salem CC member who has been archiving the club’s history for several years, Forse and Salem greens superintendent Kip Tyler had access to drawings and photos dating back to the 1920s, plus Ross’ original plan designs.
“Everything Ross wanted is back,” Forse added. “Johnny Miller made the comments on television that all the greens are circles. Well, now we have gone from circles without corners to trapezoids, squares and oblong as envisioned by the original designer.”
All of the sod for the new portions of the greens came from the existing greens. The aerification plugs from the spring of 2015 were used to created an abundant nursery of new sod, which was used in the renovation that began in October 2015 and was completed at the end of November.
One of the most drastic changes was on the course’s signature 13th hole, a hellacious par 4 that tops out at about 350 yards.
The fairway is bowl shaped with a landing area that is squeezed on the left by deep fescue and on the right by trees and out of bounds. While the approach requires only a short iron, it must be strategically placed on the tricky undulating three-level green depending on the hole location. . Ross, at the time the most famous architect in the world, was rumored to have said that the green on the 13th was “the finest green I have ever designed.”
Eddie Carbone, executive director of the Senior Open, has local ties and is a Francis Ouimet Scholar. His enthusiasm about the tournament and Salem CC knows no bounds, especially after the ambitious $550,000 renovation, which included cutting down some 500 trees, opening up the course and restoring original sight lines.
“The entire New England golf community views this as their event,” said Carbone. “We are selling lots and lots of tickets in New Hampshire. Abenakee and Augusta golf clubs in Maine have groups of folks coming down to serve as marshals.” He said more than 125,000 golf fans are expected.
“Salem Country Club is a major championship course. This will be a challenge for the world’s best golfers age 50 and older,” Carbone said.
The club was founded in 1895 as Salem Golf Club. The first course was located on the former Gardner Farm in North Salem, but following the closing of Salem Country Club, a separate golf club in 1910, Salem Golf Club was flooded with new members and quickly outgrew its location.
The club moved to Margin Street in Peabody where a new course was constructed on what is now Bishop Fenwick High School. The club continued to expand, necessitating another move, this time to the West Peabody site of the former Sanders Farm – a 350-acre parcel of woodland between Lowell and Forest streets. The club changed its name to Salem Country Club and hired Ross to design and construct an 18-hole course.
Salem has hosted five national championships, the most recent of which was the 2001 Senior Open won by Bruce Fleisher. One of the greatest sporting events in history occurred at Salem in 1954 when the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias captured her third Women’s U.S. Open Championship just weeks after a surgery that doctors said would prevent her from ever playing competitive golf. The course has five sets of tees on every hole, allowing players a more enjoyable experience by finding a length that best suits their talents. The course maxes out at 6,916 yards and plays to a members par of 72.
For tickets, volunteer opportunities and more information about the 2017 U.S. Senior Open, please go to 2017ussenioropen.com.
Photos: Spenser Hasak