I’m slowly becoming a sampler of classic golf courses. I write slowly because you need a certain pedigree to devour the entire buffet. If you’re born to the manner, chances are you did play a number of the inaccessible greats by the time you turned twenty. When you rise up from the non-golfing middle class, as I did, you need some momentous occasion, some cathartic revelation, to light the fire.
I grew up on a course that hosted a US Open, whose fairways were shaped by Walter Travis, Donald Ross and countless well-meaning, poorly-informed groundskeepers and politicians. I had no idea, mind you, that Grover Cleveland (nee the Country Club of Buffalo) was possessed of all this until later in life. It had, however, that something in its green sites and surrounds that differed from other munis in the area. It was more like those clubs to which I had access only during the school golf season.
My reason for this prologue is to pad the trepidation I display when someone tells me “Oh, this is a Donald Ross course” or “I heard that Tillinghast did some work here.” Sometimes it is, sometimes he did, most of the time it was undone by committees bent on prettying-up a course with trees, flowers, thick rough, thick fairways, thick greens. I anticipated the same when I arrived at the Bass River golf course this morning, fresh from a fitted night of sleep at the local truck stop (yep, I’ll write a post on that one, too.) Lord knows how wrong I was.
There are countless stories about Bass River. One is who did all the designing, another is what the original order of the holes was, and a third is how Jim Hallet, PGA Tour professional, came to be a man-of-all-tradesman at Bass River. I don’t have the necessary information to tell you any of those, so I’ll tell you of my experience this morning. When Hallet tells you that the first hole is a 200-yahd par three, you nod and ask yourself “how many courses start with a par three?” When he continues “it didn’t used to be the first hole,” you wonder, “which one was?” By the time you play over those 200 yahds and putt that wrinkled green that shouldn’t be that awesome, you suspect that you might be on to something here in South Yahmouth.
Bass River blows your mind for 11 holes. It begins up high on a plateau, with three holes across the flatlands showing you just how easily a fine golf architect creates holes of interest. It’s called bunkering, rolling greens with sliding breaks or crimped turf and a pushed-up putting target that calls for a soft approach. You glide away from safety on the fourth hole, a left-swinger that crosses the broken ground for the first of many adventures. Small greens with interest await, often getting smaller until the final holes, when there’s hardly a green to hit (yet you don’t mind!)
The fifth and sixth feature consecutive, punch-bowl greens. You see the flag in the breeze but you don’t know where your ball lands until you tumble down to the green surface. Nothing like a blind approach to test your mettle…unless it’s a blind tee shot. You have two in a row on the back nine, at ten and eleven. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The folks at Bass River can’t wait to mention the ninth, calling it the course’s signature hole. I’m not a big fan of that moniker, as it takes away from the other 17 on the course. The ninth is a fine par three with all-world views of the Bass River and the town of Dennis, across the water. You’ll love it, just as you will love the remaining challenges. Nine plays over a marsh, just as nine did yesterday at Whitinsville. Cool stuff.
After the blind tee ball (I fortunately played with the pro’s son, who guided me around with aim points and local knowledge) on eleven, I played over some bland terrain for a hole and a half. The second and third shots on eleven are unremarkable and the tee ball and second shot on twelve are forgettable. And then you approach the green on twelve (oh, they are back-to-back par fives, by the way. Back nine plays to a par of 38.) Now that’s a Ross green site. Thirteen is a preciously-small par three, fourteen demands a drive either into (average golfer like me) or over (bomber like some) another section of broken ground. If you are in the fairway dip, your approach is blind. If you reach the top, you have a mere pitch left.
And thus it goes, for three more holes. There is always some feature of the hole to make it memorable at Bass River. They’re not all great from tee to green. If they were, Bass River would understandably charge $250 for 18 and you would pay it or you wouldn’t. Bass River is accessible Donald Ross golf (like Mark Twain golf course in Elmira, NY) and is a wonderful primer on superior golf course architecture.