Devereux Emmet: The Naturalist

Devereux Emmet: The Naturalist
By Mark Chalfant

Devereux Emmet was born in 1861 in Pelham, New York, to a wealthy family that was socially prominent both in New York and in Ireland. These circumstances gave him the freedom to enjoy a life devoted to overseas travel, sporting activities and intellectual pursuits. He first became deeply enamoured with golf during a visit to North Berwick in 1884. For many decades Emmet played excellent golf and went on fox hunts with equal enthusiasm. He raised hunting dogs down in the American South in the winter and sold them the following spring in Ireland. Emmet’s wife Bessie joined him on most of these trips, which included extended stays in Italy and Nile River adventures in Egypt. Two of Emmet’s sisters were artists and Rosina Emmet Sherwood’s paintings were exhibited in American galleries and museums.

Emmet was CB Macdonald’s principal partner during the design of the National Golf Links of America. About a decade earlier Emmet had designed a nine holer for the Island Golf Links that included featured cross bunkers and two quarry holes. That effort was the forerunner of today’s Garden City Golf Club. During his thirty year career, Emmet laid out over 170 golf courses. Despite the loss of several excellent layouts, his rarely-discussed remaining courses are usually extremely well designed.

When it came to bold landforms, Emmet practiced the credo ‘integrate, don’t decimate’. So in Emmet’s fairways, sight lines are often diminished because natural contours rule the day. In addition, greens often flow from their natural grade so that front-to-back tilt fools the unwary. Garden City is a prime example where ground movement was embraced by Emmet. Although he was the architect of courses in Cuba and Bermuda, Emmet’s geographic reach was mostly within a 150-mile radius of Wall Street. The architect’s surviving work is located primarily in three regions: Long Island, Westchester County and upstate New York.

Despite his close connection with Macdonald, Emmet rejected his mentor’s philosophy of template holes.

“There were several hundred acres of ideal terrain, so a concerted effort was made to get eighteen ideal holes of various make up,” he wrote of one project in Golf Illustrated in 1921. “We firmly chose to avoid classic holes like Redan and Eden because they have been overdone in the United States. There are probably over twenty Redan holes south of the Canadian border.”

He was, again in stark comparison to Macdonald, a firm naturalist. Of his project in Saratoga Springs, New York, he wrote: “The owners and club legislators are now allowing architects to have putting greens conform to nature as much as possible and not built up artificially. The result is that greens at McGregor are more in conformity with the ground, and in concert with the more haphazard shape intended by nature.”

The rolling farmland in Nassau County, Long Island, that Emmet massaged to create Wheatley Hills and Women’s National was better suited for the game than the plots he started out with at either Garden City or Rockville Links. The land and much of the routing from the 1913 edition of Wheatley Hills remains intact. Of the original holes number two, three and eighteen are especially noteworthy. The approach shot at the 375 yard second is striking because of the superb green site, a plateau which rises forty feet above the typical approach spot. Four deep bunkers – three left and one right – defend the green and complicate depth perception. The long green rests 25 feet beyond the top bunker on the left; its pitch is akin to a shallow bowl.

The vista from atop the second green provides a panoramic view of the dramatic terrain of the back nine at Wheatley Hills. In 1932 the course was reconfigured due to a land swap in response to a highway intrusion. That project, handled by Alfred Tull, included two demanding par fives and some lovely greens that were skilfully shaped by Tull.

The northward drive from Wheatley Hills in East Williston up to Women’s National in Glen Head usually takes twenty minutes. The 155 acre site of this women’s country club in Glen Head was one of the most attractive landscapes of Emmet’s career. The course’s conception was very much a collaborative effort. Some of the key participants were Marion Hollins, Alexa Stirling and Seth Raynor, though Emmet had the final word during construction. Hollins and Stirling’s inputs were crucial; the former wrote: “I travelled to England and Scotland last spring to see what ideas I could see as a framework for our course. Miss Cecil Leitch was very helpful to me as were several other prominent professional and amateur golfers. At Walton Heath I had the pleasure of playing both courses with James Braid. During this trip I made many sketches and wrote down pertinent data. Upon my return I turned over this information to Mr Emmet for his study and consideration.”

The fairways at Women’s National have wonderful ground movement and most greens are open in front. As at Wheatley Hills, elevation changes are prevalent, though the topography is less steep at Women’s National. Fairway corridors are wide and welcoming. Moreover, the scale of undulation in both fairways and greens is refined so the layout is both pleasing to the eye and fun to play. Holes number two, five and eight, all dynamic par fours, are each worthy of study.

Although Pomonok Country Club has been gone for over sixty years it is still interesting to discuss. The golf course, built in 1921, was located on the site of a nineteenth century school house, notable because the poet Walt Whitman taught there for many years. The club in Flushing, Queens, was also notable for its progressive working environment. For many decades, dozens of young women caddied on this layout of 6,449 yards. Two factors made the Pomonok Country Club golf course so memorable. First, like Emmet’s layouts at Rockville and McGregor, the bunkering program was highly artistic. Second, he used idiosyncratic sequences as he routed the individual holes over the undulating terrain.

Since 1960, few Emmet-designed golf courses have hosted professional golf tournaments. Prior to that time two of his (now lost) courses did have their moment in the sun. One was the sternly-bunkered Meadow Brook Hunt Club (1916-1957) where Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret both won in the early 1950s. But perhaps the most memorable was the 1939 PGA contested at Pomonok, where Henry Picard defeated Byron Nelson in a playoff. Ben Hogan, a young pro from Fort Worth, played well in stroke play to qualify for match play; it was his first PGA. Sam Snead failed to make the cut there but he outlived Pomonok, which perished in 1949.

When, in 1931, financier Kent Fulton called upon Emmet and Alfred Tull to design a golf course for him near a mountain ridge in Salisbury, Connecticut, Emmet already had 172 courses on his resume. The course, named Hob Nob Hill, traversed 290 acres. Emmet’s bunkering hits full stride on the monumental 545-yard sixth. The first hazard that golfers must contend with is a ravine that slashes across the fairway; up ahead two sets of bunkers arranged in an echelon formation force the golfer to choose one of three possible pathways. This stratagem represents Emmet’s very personal take on the ‘bottle’ hole.

The last two holes at Hob Nob Hill combine for a total of only 485 yards and exemplify his ‘less is more’ finishing motif. The 345-yard seventeenth had a wide rather welcoming fairway that gradually narrowed beginning at eighty yards from the plateau green. The pint-sized closer was more aloof. Only 137 yards, it required a precise shot over a pond to a sand-engulfed green. Bailout options were non-existent. Flirting with the greens left flank was perilous because a golf ball struck with a misgauged trajectory could disappear over the pronounced fall-off.

When it came to routing, Emmet marched to a different drummer. At Bonnie Briar, he opened the course with a formidable par five and then chose to close it with a humble par four measuring only 317 yards; in fact he often closed his courses with consecutive short par fours. He also strung together quirky combinations in the middle of an eighteen hole journey. An aerial photograph from 1934 shows that Emmet took such a risk when putting together Wee Burn’s routing at the splendid site on Hollow Tree Ridge Road in Darien. This 1925 sequence from number six to ten was comprised of three par fives and two par threes. However sometime in the 1940s the interesting par five eighth, with a prominent creek crossing and the uphill 209 yard ninth were separated from each other. The end result was two routine par fours.

Other changes have occurred at Wee Burn, such as the elimination of centreline bunkers which once affected driving tactics on two holes. Emmet was brilliant with hazardous materials and concepts. He never went out of his way to dig ponds or lakes to bring water into play, yet he used natural brooks with great sensitivity at many courses including Schuyler Meadows near Albany, as well as at Wee Burn.

Mark Chalfant is principal of The Alps Golf Consulting and founder of the Devereux Emmet Society

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