Course doctors proclaim Lancaster Country Club in spectacular health

Posted: April 25, 2015 6:53 pm


It’s late April, and Lancaster Country Club is thawed and lush and green enough to spark a golf-course geek’s imagination.

We’re standing on the green at the seventh, a par-5 that will be reachable in two shots by almost all the the field in July’s U.S. Women’s Open.

The hole location faced by the few members playing on this cold, windy Friday is back-middle, no more than 8-10 feet from the back edge of the green. It’s easy to picture, say, Michelle Wie bashing a 270-yard drive and then attacking with a hybrid or long iron. It’s a 195-yard shot and her ball takes a hard bounce and goes 197.

She’d be no more than 15 feet from the hole, but in grass four inches deep, the green sloping away from her. Does she hold on to the hybrid and play a standard, if very delicate, chip-and-run? Does she take the rough out of play with an even more delicate wedge? Is the putter an option?

United States Golf Association officials Ben Kimball and Shannon Rouillard aren’t even looking at today’s pin. They’re on the other side of green, near the tributary of the Conestoga Creek that adds a risk/reward element to the seventh.

They look around and point, talking quietly, occasionally dropping into a catcher’s crouch, imagining what might happen if the hole were cut here or here or there. Come July, they’ll actually get to decide those things. (See video of their visit.)

Kimball is a tournament director who manages course setup for the women’s open and the U.S. Men’s Amateur. Rouillard has had the same job for the women’s amateur and the Curtis Cup amateur team competition between America and Great Britain/Ireland.

They’ll work together on course setup at L.C.C., deciding on pin positions and tee positions and green speed and rough length. During tournament week, Rouillard will manage the front nine, Kimball the back.

They both work at Golf House, the Far Hills, N.J. headquarters of the U.S.G.A. Kimball says they’re here, “just to get out of the office for a day.”

There’s more to it then that. He’s carrying around a rangefinder and two folders in which he scribbles notes.

“We started on this process 3-4 years ago,” Kimball said. “With two or three months to go, we’re just kind of curious how the course came out of the winter and how it’s doing in the spring. Being in the northeast, with the snow and harsh winters that you get, the grass doesn’t always respond like you would like it to.”

It’s a little bit like college football coaches watching spring-practice film.

“I see it as a huge advantage for myself, trying to execute what Ben is trying to do for this championship,” said Rouillard, a former University of Oregon golf coach who played in the 1999 Women’s Open. This is her first shot at this job for an event this big.

“It will be nice to go back and have conversations with Ben about what we saw.”

Golf courses as works of art and strategic game boards are an acquired taste. For the uninitiated, consider if Fenway Park or Wimbledon or Cameron Indoor Stadium had thousands of nuances that impacted the challenge of the game and the players’ approach to it and those nuances could be endlessly managed and tweaked.

L.C.C. is a five-square-mile stadium. “Thousands,” of nuances is not an overstatement.

And there are purely logistical considerations. The seventh, for example, has three teeing areas: 1. a straightforward one; 2. a small, baseball-diamond-shaped one on the other side of the creek from the fairway very near the sixth green; and 3. a newer box built into a steep hill.

From 1., the entire field will be able to reach the green in two. 2. requires a left-to-right tee shot or one fit into a narrow space in a diagonal-running fairway. 3. looks cool, and calls for a right-to-left tee shot that flirts with the creek.

But to get to 3. the players would have to traverse a foot bridge open to spectators, climb stairs and, after hitting, trudge down a steep, natural hill, presumably with caddies hauling 40-pound golf bags.

Tee no. 3 is out, Kimball decides. No. 2 will be used, even though its proximity to six green could slow play. No. 1 will also be used at least one day.

“Let’s let ’em make an eagle,” Kimball says.

Now Kimball and Rouillard are standing on the tee at the eighth, a superb par-3 that will play from 177 yards to 195 during the championship. The hole location appears extreme right, behind a bunker, the dictionary illustration of the term, “sucker pin.”

Up at the green, there’s more room than was evident from the tee. The green slopes back-to-front and left-to-right.

“If I was a caddie,” Kimball said. “I’d have my player aim it about there (pointing at the middle of the green) all four days, no matter where the hole is.”

There may be practical reasons why Kimball is taking the back nine and Rouillard the front. On the other hand, maybe Kimball is calling dibs on what he calls, “maybe have the best collection of par-4s I’ve seen for a Women’s Open.”

As we stand on the tee at 11 it’s clear what he’s talking about. It’s a plateau from which can be seen most of 10, 11, 14 and 18, long, sweeping big-boy (or big-girl) holes that flow dramatically down and then back up to severely sloping greens.

L.C.C.’s front nine is a work of art. The back nine is why it’s a U.S. Open venue.